A Sermon by Rev. David C. Roth
It seems at times impossible to change our lives. We get caught up in an addiction, a fear, or a destructive attitude like prejudice, and no matter what efforts we make to change, we still seem to fall back into our old patterns. What is wrong with us? The Lord promises us we will change if we follow His Word – if we learn His truths. Yes, learning truth is a big part of following the Lord, but you’ll notice He never says, “Just learn the truth and you will be fine.” It is easy to take the quote “The truth shall make you free” and assume that it will do just that. Dead wrong. We are missing the whole teaching which is, “If you abide in My Word, you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” If we abide in the truth then we will know it. It is as if the Lord is saying, “If you don’t live according to My teachings you really will not know what they mean”; they will not be truth to us.
The Lord has taught us in His Word by means of stories, often parables, but many times through historical narratives that teach a hidden message about the Lord’s heavenly kingdom. The story of the ark of the covenant being stolen by the Philistines and finally returned is a most graphic story which shows us what happens when we depend on faith alone or truth and knowledge alone to change our lives.
In the Word, whenever the Philistines are mentioned it is talking about faith alone, or a life devoid of charity and good works. In our story the Philistines were warring with the Children of Israel. In this case the Philistines were winning. In fact, they won a battle against Israel and then the warring parties returned to their respective camps. Israel represents the church, so at this point the church was losing to faith alone. In other words, people were turning their backs on a life of good, and thinking that a life of religion depended only on faith alone, or knowledge of the Word without applying it to their lives. When this happens, the church slowly gets destroyed.
To redeem themselves the Children of Israel brought the ark of the covenant which contained the ten commandments from Shiloh to their camp, thinking that this would make Jehovah’s influence stronger and so defeat the Philistines. Did it work? You would expect that having the Lord present would give the Israelites the power to conquer any enemies. This did actually cause the Philistines to be afraid, but they said among themselves, “Be strong and conduct yourselves like men that you do not becomes servants of the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Conduct yourselves like men and fight!” (I Samuel 4:9) When they did as they said, they defeated Israel and captured the ark.
It is interesting as we look at this as a metaphor for our spiritual lives. Israel, which represents the church in us or the good and truth within us based on how we receive the Lord, is defeated by the Philistines, which is that facade that faith alone or knowledge and intelligence without putting them to use will save us. When we turn from the Lord, as Israel did, then this belief has the ability to defeat us. It is easy to think that faith alone will change our lives. It is a real danger in the New Church to think that simply reading and meditating on the Word of the Lord in both the Sacred Scriptures and the Writings is a life of religion. But as the Writings say, “Religion is of life, and the life of religion is to do good.”
When we find that we are losing control of our lives, as the army of Israel was experiencing in their battles, then we immediately grab the nearest copy of the Writings and start to read, which is like thinking that bringing the ark into the camp will change everything. This means we think the solution is learning some more truth rather than living what we know. By doing this we are not breaking the bonds of faith alone; we lose the battle over our lives anyway, and eventually lose the Word itself, because truth that is not applied is dead and will be taken away from us, either on this earth or after death. This is what is represented by the armies of the Philistines defeating Israel and capturing the ark. We can have all the truth in the world, but unless we live it, it is of no power, just as Israel was powerless over the Philistines.
When the Philistines had possession of the ark, they set it in the house of Dagon, a Philistine idol. When they came to the house the next day the idol of Dagon had fallen on its face before the ark of God. So they set it on its feet again. The next morning when they had come in, Dagon was again fallen on its face before the ark, this time with its head and the palms of its hands broken off. This particular incident is very illustrative of the kind of power that faith alone really has – none. Dagon in this instance represents the religion of the Philistines, or the religion of a person in faith alone, that is, someone who places everything of religion in knowledge and facts.
Their idol Dagon was part man and part fish, kind of like a merman. The part like a man stands for intelligence, and the fish part below stands for knowledge. As is clear from what happens, intelligence and knowledge alone cannot stand up to a religion that is based on a life of good and charity. It is powerless. Before the ark of God the idol falls to its face. The second time it falls is even more significant. The head and the hands break off, which signifies the lack of real intelligence and power with faith alone. The head signifies intelligence and the hands, power. If we think that knowing a lot of things without putting them to use is going to help us, we are sadly mistaken. This illustrates that in reality we have no strength and no intelligence.
These incidents with Dagon make the Philistines realize that something is wrong with their having the ark in Ashdod, so they send it on to another city. Cities in the Word represent doctrine – in this case, false doctrines or false ideas which we possess: like the idea that lying helps our relationships with other people, or that drinking helps us to communicate more openly, so drinking is good. Just like the Philistines not giving the ark back to Israel but sending the ark to another city, we don’t give up on the faith-alone idea; we just try it out on new ideas we have (send the ark to new cities) rather than return the ark to Israel, which in effect would be starting to live a life of charity and good.
This only causes more problems for the Philistines, which to us means that we find ourselves beating our heads against the wall. When we refuse to actually change our lives and instead just try out more false ideas, or even fall back into the same destructive thought patterns, then the results become clear. In the story all the people of the cities which received the ark broke out with hemorrhoids or with the bubonic plague and the land was ravished by mice. When we don’t shun evils as sins, which a belief in faith alone doesn’t allow, then all of our evil inclinations run rampant and take control of our lives because we don’t do anything to stop them. Knowledge or intelligence alone will not do it. What are represented by these hemorrhoids which afflicted the people are the filthy loves, or natural loves which are separate from spiritual loves, which makes them unclean. They become like sores or boils on our spiritual persons. An obvious example would be the love for having sex. This is a beautiful love if it is coupled with a spiritual love that goes with marriage called conjugial love. But if this love is separate from the spiritual origin, then it becomes a filthy love and manifests itself as fornication and adultery instead of pure marriage love.
The mice which ravished the land of the Philistines represent the devastation or destruction of the church by falsification of truth. Fields and land usually represent truth, and mice have the ability to destroy a field of its crop; that is why the mice represent the falsification or wiping away of truth. This is what faith without charity or truth without good does. If truth has no foundation in good, then our false ideas can take it and twist it into what is false, which destroys the essence of truth.
This sounds like a pretty dismal picture for the Philistines. It makes you wonder why they didn’t send the ark back right away if every time they sent it to a city the people there would break out with painful sores and their land and fields would become ravished. But we know how difficult it is to let go of a false idea if it serves our purposes. We are basically stubborn when we latch onto false ideas. Why should we have to actually work on our lives by shunning evils and turning to good? That is hard work. Why not just believe in the Lord and declare our faith in Him and be saved, as so many millions of people in the world around us have done? Because we eventually see that our spiritual lives are not in peace; our bodies are covered with sores spiritually and we are in pain. And what we relied on for strength – the truth we know – is losing its power; it is literally being eaten away. It took the Philistines seven months to realize that they had better send the ark back to Israel. If we are lucky it will take us only seven months, but usually it takes many years of pain and struggle before we realize that a change is in order.
Actually the number seven here is very important. Seven represents what is full or complete. We often hear that an alcoholic, for example, must hit bottom before he or she realizes that there must be change. The signification of seven months is to point out that it does often take a complete or full state of despair or destruction to make us wake up and make an effort to change our lives – in this case, to realize that the only true path of religion is to shun evils as sins and to do good. This is a most important duality.
If we want to stop the pain and devastation in our lives we are going to have to make a change; this is what is represented by the Philistines sending the ark back to Israel. The Word of the Lord must be coupled with a life of good. Faith without charity is an empty, lifeless, and even painful existence. What the Philistines do next represents this change we must make.
The Philistines sent the ark back to Israel, but they did not send it alone. They built a new cart out of wood and placed the ark in it and hitched it up to two milk cows which had never been yoked. In the cart with the ark they placed five golden tumors and five golden mice. These were a trespass offering to the Lord. How did they know to send these articles in the cart? Because the lords of the Philistines knew about correspondences, they knew to send the ark back in order to appease Jehovah. All of the things they did were very significant, as you will see, especially for New Church faith aloners.
The new cart which they built represents the kind of doctrine that must be used to begin our change. It represents doctrinal things of memory-knowledge, which are doctrinal things from the literal sense of the Word. But since it is a new cart it signifies new doctrine that is untainted by our previous false beliefs or our own interpretation of the Word. The reason the ark was to be set in this cart was that “The ark represents heaven, which stands and rests upon the doctrinal things of memory-knowledges” (AC 5945). Genuine truths and stories from the literal sense of the Word must be our foundation for spiritual life, for as said, all of heaven rests upon it. This is a strong message for us in the church: if we do not study the Old and New Testaments but put all of our time into the Writings, we are missing our foundation. The whole of the Word teaches from start to finish that the Lord is to be acknowledged and that man must shun evils and live well. This is what is contained in the ark; this is the doctrine we see represented by the ark in the new cart.
The five golden tumors which are to go in the ark represent our natural loves purified and made good. Why are they in the cart with the ark? Because the only way to purify these loves is through living the truths of the decalogue, that which is represented by the cart and the ark in it. The same holds true for the golden mice. Also put into the ark, they represent the end of the devastation and destruction of the church with us, or the end of the falsification of truth, which ends only by means of doing good. Gold signifies good. It may seem odd that they made golden tumors and mice rather than something beautiful to appease the Lord. But gold is gold and good is good no matter what form or shape it takes. Externals don’t make the difference; internals do. It is our motive and reason for doing good, not how wonderful the act of good was. We read, “The external is estimated from the internal, and not the reverse” TCR 595).
What is it that is going to get this offering and the ark back to Israel? In other words, where are we going to get the power to move this heavy cart of good intentions on the road to a life of good? By remains, of course. The cows in this story represent good natural affections. They have never been yoked because to be yoked would have meant that they were defiled by falsities. But we know that the Lord stores up within us, free from defilement by our natural heredity, remains which are affections for what is good and true. It is in times like these that the Lord stirs our remains and empowers us to move that cart, or to get going on our new life.
To me the most interesting and true part of this whole picture is the lowing of the cows on the way up the road. The path to regeneration and change is not without pain. It is not easy to leave our old habits and our love for doing what we know is wrong, no matter how well we know what’s right. It is our love, our very life, but if we want to live to eternity, that old life must be given up. The old man must die before the new man can be born. The cows’ lowing on the way up the road represents “the difficult conversion of the lusts of evil of the natural man into good affections” (DP 326). We can imagine ourselves on the path to recovery or change and whining and complaining about giving up our old ways, but the remains which the Lord has given us will pull us through. You will note in the story that the cows headed straight for the road to Beth Shemesh, and once on the road they did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.
Once we get on the path of life the Lord will hold us there. We may whine and complain along the way, but we know we have to give up what we used to consider happiness and joy in exchange for the true joy and peace that awaits us when we follow the Lord. As Divine Providence states, “Man is admitted interiorly into the truths of faith only so far as he can be kept in them right up to the end of his life.”
This is a very illustrative and graphic story of the danger of faith alone, but it also paints a beautiful picture giving hope that we can change our lives; we can depart from destructive habits and attitudes, but it will take work. We will have some pain, and probably complain, as illustrated by the lowing of the cows, but the Lord will guide our path until we have made it back to Israel where we can find some peace and happiness from a new life – a life of charity and good will to each other, the life of heaven.