the Crown and the Ark

I’ll admit it: I’m hooked on the Netflix original, The Crown. My wife is a big fan of the royal family and started watching it while I was in the room. One thing led to another and, well, I got sucked in. I found myself Googling all the people and places to get the history behind it all and I was fascinated.

In case you are unfamiliar with the story, Queen Elizabeth’s uncle was set to become king, but fell in love with a woman who was twice divorced. You may be thinking, “so what?”, but in 1936 London, this was viewed as a major scandal. Since the Monarch of England is also the head of the Church of England, marriage between the two was not possible. Before King Edward VIII even reached his coronation, he abdicated his throne and his brother, Elizabeth’s father, begrudgingly succeeded him as king.

King George VI reigned for just over 15 years (including WWII) and ended up dying at age 56 of lung cancer in 1952, leaving his relatively ill-prepared daughter, Elizabeth, as England’s new Monarch.

In one episode, it seems that no one around Queen Elizabeth approves much of the way she is handling her duties. While she is away on a tour of the English colonies, her sister, Margaret, hosts a banquet at Buckingham Palace and goes “off script” and dazzles the crowd. Her husband, who is on the tour with her, thinks the whole trip is a circus and they are the dancing bears. Her uncle, the former King Edward VIII, seems to be longing for the crown and what might have been. Members of Parliament and the Church of England are at odds with many of her personal decisions and it seems that everyone is either against her, misunderstands her, or simply thinks they could do it better.

I don’t envy her position.

Last month I attended a Men’s Conference at my church and one of the speakers mentioned, almost in passing, something about King Saul that had never occurred to me before. He said that for the entire duration of King Saul’s reign as Israel’s first king, the Ark of the Covenant was missing from the Temple. It wasn’t that anyone had misplaced it (hmm, where did I leave that Ark of the Covenant???), rather it was tucked quietly away in someone’s home.

Before Israel was even interested in a king, God was providing judges to lead them. Eli the Priest was the last judge before Samuel came onto the scene and served as a transitional figure between the Period of the Judges and the Monarchy. Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phineas.

They were morons.

Eli’s sons had no regard of the Lord whatsoever. You can read about them in 1 Samuel 2:12-26. Basically, they were selfish and used their position as the sons of Israel’s leader for their own personal gain.

Tempers began to flare up once again between the Israelites and their thorn-in-the-side neighbors to the West, the Philistines. Hophni and Phineas went with the army to Ebenezer to meet the Philistines in battle.

The first day of the battle didn’t go so well; Israel lost about four thousand men. Later, as the army was regrouping at camp, gearing up for round two the following morning, the elders of Israel couldn’t figure out why the LORD allowed them to lose. They decided it would be a good idea to gather some reinforcements; specifically, God Himself. They wanted to bring the Ark of the Covenant of the LORD Almighty to the battlefield (1 Sam 4:3).

Probably not the best idea.

It’s one thing for God to volunteer and instruct the Israelites to bring the Ark forward, but I don’t see any evidence that the elders consulted God at all. They seem to be making decisions on their own accord, which is right in line with a major theme throughout the book of Judges of doing what is right in your own eyes as opposed to following God’s lead.

Hophni and Phineas, the so-called priests, were right there and yet failed to prevent this misuse of the Ark of the Covenant. But then again, we already know that they “were wicked men” having “no regard for the LORD” (1 Sam 2:12). I’m sure they agreed with the elders in that they could wield the Ark as a weapon for battle. Surely no army who carried the Ark before them could be defeated!

You know who else believed that? The Nazis… (at least according to George Lucas). And we all know how that turned out for Hitler and his cronies. Apparently, Hophni and Phineas had never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark. (If you haven’t either, watch this clip…it will melt your face off.)

For better or worse (spoiler alert: it’s the latter) they summon for the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark’s arrival on the scene brought great jubilation in the Israelite camp and great trepidation among the Philistines. Both would be short-lived.

By the end of the battle, the Philistines had claimed victory, Israel was routed, Hophni and Phineas were counted among the thirty thousand Israelite casualties, and the Ark of the Covenant was captured.

Oops…

There’s so much more to this story, but I’m going to bring us back to King Saul. Still, if you’re interested, read 1 Samuel 5 to see what God does while in the Philistines’ possession to free the Ark from captivity without any outside help.

The Ark ended up in the house of Abinadab under the care of his son, Eleazar, and remained there approximately 62 years until King David brought it back to Jerusalem.

For the first 20 of those years, Samuel was the leader in Israel. Eli the priest, after having received the news that both his moron sons died in battle and, worse yet, the Ark had been taken captive, fell over backwards out of his chair and broke his neck thereby leaving Samuel, the next priest in line, in charge.

During those 20 years, Samuel’s two sons grew to become men and priests. They were not priests like their father, however, but rather turned out to be Hophni and Phineas 2.0. The Israelites – understandably – grew tired of the same old story and decided they wanted change; they wanted a king.

Samuel knew this was a horrible idea since they were trading the uppercase King for a lowercase king, but after talking to the LORD about it, the LORD said, “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their King” (1 Sam 8:6-7).

Enter King Saul (finally).

Saul started off as a decent king. He looks the part, tall and handsome (1 Sam 9:2), was even handpicked by God Himself to be the king (1 Sam 9:15-16) and he led Israel in a quick military victory over Nahash the Ammonite who had besieged Jabesh Gilead (1 Sam 11:1-11). But just as quickly as the victory came, things began to take a turn for the worse.

I think his troubles all boil down to this: Saul believed God was the lowercase god of Israel, but he himself was Israel’s King. He exalted himself higher than he should have. He didn’t have an accurate understanding of his role. He believed the crown bestowed upon him sovereignty rather than stewardship. God gave the crown not that Saul would be served, but that he would serve. Saul did not reign in God’s presence and the absence of the Ark throughout his rule is evidence to that.

Conversely, one of the first things David did after taking over as Israel’s king was to take thirty thousand men (does that number sound familiar?) to the house of Abinadab and began the 3-month process (there were some hiccups along the way) of bringing the Ark of the Covenant, the presence of God, back to Jerusalem and the monarchy. And I think we can all agree that David, faults and all, did a much better job as king than Saul.

Here’s something else to consider. The Bible doesn’t give us specifics on what happened to Eleazar and the house of Abinadab while the Ark took up residence there, but I think it’s safe to make a few conclusions based on other textual evidence.

First, the Philistines had no idea how to treat the Ark correctly and that caused calamity in their cities and the inevitable decision to return the Ark to Israel. The Ark made its way back to Beth Shemesh where the priests started off right by burning the cart which carried the Ark and sacrificing the cows that pulled it.

So far so good.

But then seventy of the people mistreated the Ark by opening it up to look inside and disaster struck. Needless to say, they decided to send the Ark on its way again as soon as possible.

The people of Kiriath Jearim came to take the Ark and they entrusted it in the care of Eleazar of the house of Abinadab and it stayed there for about 62 years. I think it’s safe to assume that Eleazar treated the Ark with reverence and respect since he kept it so long. And if his experience was anything like Obed Edom’s, who housed the Ark for three months in the middle of David’s attempt to bring the Ark back to Jerusalem, the LORD blessed him and his entire household.

What would have Saul’s reign been like if he had understood his role within God’s reign?

Back on the tour of the English colonies, Prince Philip, the Queen and her tour manager find themselves going over details for an upcoming stop in Gibraltar where they face some death threats and security concerns. Prince Philip voices his hesitation and says they should skip it. The Queen considers the suggestion and decides that should they skip it, it would not only make them look weak, but also be a big disappointment to the people.

“I say we go,” she concludes.

“I say we don’t,” asserts Prince Philip, clearly overstepping his bounds. A very uncomfortable tension fills the air. Finally, the Queen breaks the silence.

“I am aware that I am surrounded by people who feel they could do the job better. Strong people with powerful characters, more natural leaders – perhaps better suited to leading from the front, making a mark. But for better or worse, the crown has landed on my head…And I say we go.”

The weight of the crown measures far beyond ounces and pounds. It’s a very heavy burden to bear. The truth is, the Crown and the Ark were never meant to be separated. Without the presence of God, guiding, comforting, protecting, providing and empowering, the king or queen haven’t a prayer. BUT, when connected with God, experiencing intimate relationship with Him, spending time in His presence, a king like David or a commoner like Obed Edom can both live a blessed life and leave a legacy for generations to come.

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