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The Sovereignty of God

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The Sovereignty of God

1 Samuel 4:1-6:15

December 4, 2005

Focus: Chance does nothing because it is nothing. God supremely controls everything in the universe.


Normally I would read you the entire passage the message is based on, but today’s passage is much too long for that. So instead, I will retell the story in a condensed manner, but I urge you to read the entire passage for yourselves. As with any exposition of Scripture, you should always verify that the speaker has correctly interpreted God’s Word. I would like to be able to claim that I’m infallible, but you already know better.

If you turn to 1 Samuel chapter 4 and verses 19 to 22, I will try to guide you quickly thru this part of today’s passage. I will be jumping around in these three chapters, but wil try to keep you abreast as we proceed.

A child was born in Israel, and the name of the baby was Ichabod. I’m sure many of you remember that story from the Old Testament of this child who was named Ichabod, for the meaning of the word ichabod is “the glory has departed.” Now think for a moment of the excitement we share whenever the time comes to name our children and we search through books and family genealogies to find the appropriate name. Maybe we will call them Charles, Jr., or Richard, or Kevin, or Shirley, or Nancy, or Sue.

We remember Johnny Cash’s consternation as he sang a ballad of a boy named Sue, and how that young fellow had to defend his honor throughout his life because he’d been given a girl’s name. But imagine a young boy walking into school for the first time, and the teacher says to him, “Son, what is your name?” and the lad says, “ My name is The Glory Has Gone.” What an embarrassment to be labeled with such a name through one’s whole life! Perhaps we would be provoked to ask this question: What would prompt someone to call a child The Glory Has Left? We need to look just a few weeks prior to the birth of this child to get the answer.

Now, jump back to verse 1 and I’ll give you a brief synopsis of verses 1 to 11

Israel had been ruled for forty years by the venerable judge whose name was Eli, and Eli was a godly man. But Eli had two sons whose names were Hophni and Phinehas, and, as the Scriptures tell us, these two sons did not walk in the ways of their father. They were ungodly men, undisciplined men. God had rebuked his servant, Eli, because Eli had failed to discipline these boys.

The military troops of Israel engaged in a battle with their perennial enemy, the Philistines, and in this particular skirmish, the Philistines defeated the Jewish people. Three thousand Jewish soldiers were killed. Not only was that calamitous, given the loss of life to the people of Israel, but remember that the Philistines were their most bitter rival, and they couldn’t understand how God could allow their armies to suffer this ignominious defeat at the hands of the Philistines.

And so the leaders of the army came to the central sanctuary to their judge, Eli, and they said, “Let us go up again against the Philistines. But this time, let us carry into battle the ark of the covenant.” As you will recall, if not from reading the Old Testament at least from seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark, you will know that the ark of the covenant was the most sacred of all of Israel’s holy vessels. The ark of the covenant was the throne of God. We remember how in earlier days in the conquest of Canaan that when Moses and Joshua led the people into battle, when the ark of the covenant was present—God’s throne was in the midst of the conflict—Israel always prevailed. So now the army beseeches the judge to give permission to take the sacred ark and march once more against the Philistines. And so they do, and as the battle rages, this time instead of the Jews being defeated and having three thousand people killed, they are defeated again, only thirty thousand of the Jewish soldiers are killed. And to make matters worse, the Philistines capture the ark of the covenant and take it away in captivity back to their own homeland.

And in verses 11 to 21: So a messenger was dispatched to return and report on the outcome of the battle. The messenger approaches the aged Eli who is waiting patiently for a message on the outcome of this conflict. Eli, we are told, is obese. He is so heavy that he must remain seated all during the day. He’s blind, and even his hearing is growing dim. As he waits now in anxiety for the report, finally the messenger comes in and says to him, “Eli, we have been defeated in battle. Thirty thousand of our soldiers have been slain, among them your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas.” So far, there was no visible reaction from Eli, and then the messenger adds, “And, Eli, the ark of God has been taken away.” When Eli heard these words, the Scriptures tell us he fell over backwards and died on the spot.

Now the messenger goes to the daughter-in-law of Eli, to the wife of Phinehas who had been killed, and the messenger now explains to this woman who is great with child that her husband had just been killed, her brother-in-law had just been killed, her father-in-law had just died, and Israel had suffered this defeat. This woman fell over, gave birth to a baby, and she died. So someone came along and cared for this child and named the child Ichabod: the glory of God has departed.

On to chapter 5: Meanwhile, the Philistines were having a heyday. They took the sacred vessel, the ark of the covenant, and they went back in triumph and celebrated all night. They took the ark of the covenant into their own temple, and in that temple they placed the throne of God at the feet of their pagan deity whose name was Dagon. And so now this trophy is carried into the pagan temple and is placed there on display, while the leaders of the Philistine people celebrate all night.

The next morning they come into their temple, and there they see the statue of their great god Dagon fallen over on its face at the base of the throne of God. Of course, this could not be, and so they propped up the statue once more and again placed the ark of the covenant in front of it and went on again to celebrate their great victory over Israel. The next morning they returned into the temple, and this time the statue of Dagon had not only fallen over on its face, but this time it had smashed itself into a thousand pieces. The guard came into the temple, and I’m not sure what he said, but I’m sure that as soon as he saw it he must have said something like, “Da-gone!” because the statue of the god of the Philistines had disintegrated at the feet of the throne of God.

Then the Scriptures tell us a plague of tumors afflicted the people in the city of the Philistines, and this plague was followed by another plague of rats running loose. There was great suffering and great affliction in this city-state of the Philistines. The king decided maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to have the ark of the covenant in captivity in his town, so he sent it to another town of the Philistines. The Philistine nation was really made up basically of five major city-states, each of which was ruled over by a king, and so for several months what was going on in the Philistine nation was what we might call “musical ark.” The ark of God was transferred from Ekron and to Gath and to Ashkelon, from one city to the next. It would stay there several weeks, and as soon as the ark of God would come into the territory of the Philistines, the plague would follow.

And chapter 6: Finally the people were wailing because of the misery that they were experiencing with this plague of tumors and of rats, and so the five kings decided to hold a summit meeting to see what should be done. They met together, and one of the kings said to the rest, “It’s time for us to take action. We’ve got to get rid of this ark of the covenant. Ever since we captured this Jewish sacred object, we’ve had nothing but calamity. So let’s swallow our pride and send it back to the Jews.”

Another of the kings agreed, and he said, “But it’s not enough simply to return this trophy. We must pay a sin offering as well. When we send it back, let’s send as an offering to Israel and to their God five golden tumors and five golden rats.” And so they decided to do that. But as they were discussing it, a key statement, dear friends, was made by these rulers of the Philistines. It’s that statement I want us to notice in particular. We read this morning in the sixth chapter of First Samuel the instructions that the kings gave for the return of the ark of the covenant to the Jews. They said, “Get a new cart ready with two cows that have calved but have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. Take the ark of the Lord and put it on the cart and in a chest beside it put the gold objects you are sending back to him as a guilt offering. Send it on its way, but keep watching it. [If these cows on their own, without anyone leading them, without any human direction, if these cows move it] up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then [we will know that Yahweh, the God of Israel,] has brought this great disaster upon us. But if it does not, [that is if these cows just wander around aimlessly and go on their own way, perhaps trying to return to their calves,] then we’ll know that it [this whole disaster that we’ve been enduring for all of this time] has happened to us by chance.”

II. Why Belief in Chance Is Atheism

What does this tell us about this ancient people called the Philistines? Several things are revealed to us by these statements. It may seem strange, indeed contradictory and confusing, that the Philistines were at the same time a people who were religious—they had their deities; they had their religious observations; they went to church; they paid their dues—but they were so superstitious in their religious belief. Beneath the trappings of religion and beyond their superstition, what we detect here at the very base of their thinking, dear friends, was a profound commitment, practically speaking, to atheism.

How do we see that the Philistines, though they were theoretically religious, were actually atheists? Here’s how: these people actually believed it was possible in the world in which we live for events to take place by chance. Well, how does that indicate they were atheists?                                                                          

R C Sproul illustrates it well: “At the seminary, one of my responsibilities is to teach the Westminster Confession of Faith, the traditional theological confession of historic Presbyterianism. In the third chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the church fathers were concerned to spell out in some detail our confidence in the sovereignty of God and in his eternal decrees. Now you have to understand that young men and women, when they’re involved in seminary education, tend to enjoy juicy discussions about God’s sovereignty, particularly when subjects like predestination come up. I mean these issues are irresistible to young seminarians, to debate all day and into the night whether God elects certain people and passes over others and so on. The week before we began our study of chapter 3, I said, “Next week we will begin to look at this question of God’s eternal decrees.” We must understand that this class was open to the public, and so the following Monday evening when I entered into my classroom, it was standing room only. The students had gone out into the highways and the byways and into the community and invited all of their Arminian friends to come in and listen to the professor expound on the Reformed doctrines of grace and of God’s sovereignty. And so we began by reading the first line of chapter 3 of the Westminster Confession, that says in words to the effect that “God from all eternity does freely and immutably ordain whatsoever comes to pass—semicolon.” Did you get that, that from all eternity God, freely and unchangeably through his holy counsel, ordains whatsoever comes to pass?

I read that much to the students, and then I said to them, “How many of you believe this statement of faith, that God ordains whatever comes to pass?” This is a Reformed seminary, it’s in the South, it’s very conservative, these students have already been deeply entrenched in Reformed theology, and so on, so it was no surprise to me that at least 70 percent of the class raised their hand to say, “Yes, we believe.” I said, “How many don’t believe it?” and about 30 percent of the people raised their hands. “Okay, I have one more question before we begin to examine this dimension of the creed,” I said. “How many of you would classify yourselves as atheists? No, don’t be embarrassed. Nobody’s going to persecute you or put you in jail or burn you at the stake. If you’re an atheist, feel free to admit it. How many of you would say of yourselves that you’re atheists?” Nobody put a hand up.

So I went into my Lieutenant Columbo routine. I said, “I just don’t understand this. Do you mind if I ask you a personal question? How come it is that a moment ago I said, ‘How many of you believe this statement?’ and 30 percent of you said you didn’t, and then I said, ‘How many are atheists?’ and nobody raised a hand? Don’t you people realize that those of you who said you do not believe this statement are in fact atheists?”

You never saw such a group of outraged students in all your life. They were provoked. They looked at me, part in rage, part in consternation, and I said, “Look, if you don’t believe that God ordains in a certain sense at least everything that comes to pass, then you are an atheist.” They couldn’t put those together at all, and I said, “ Let me spell it out for you.”

 “If there is one molecule running loose in this universe that is outside the authority and the sovereignty and the control of Almighty God, then, dear friends, God is not sovereign.”

And it’s simple, isn’t it, that if God is not sovereign, then God is not God. Think of it. One maverick molecule running loose in this universe outside the sovereignty of God could be the very thing that disrupts every promise God has ever made to his people! It could be the old story of “for want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of the shoe, the horse was lost. For want of the horse, the rider was lost. For want of the rider, the battle was lost, and for want of the battle, a war was lost.” A grain of sand in the kidney of Oliver Cromwell changes the course of western civilization. A ten-cent cotter pin and its failure took the life of Bill Vukovich years ago in the Indianapolis 500. One tiny maverick molecule is all it takes to frustrate the plan of God, if God is not sovereign.

Of course the confession goes on to say after that semicolon that God exercises this sovereignty in such a way as to not violate human choices or secondary causes, and all of that sort of thing, but that above all of those things that we choose freely and do by design stands One who is sovereign.

But of course the Philistines were prescientific. They weren’t sophisticated people. They didn’t have the kind of knowledge we have at our disposal today, so we can excuse them for their superstitious approach to life, can’t we? No educated person today talks about things happening by chance—except a few, do they? Do you?

No too long ago I read about a man who teaches in the graduate school of Harvard University. This professor, whose specialty was the philosophy of the history of science, said in casual conversation that in his judgment, the universe was created by chance. The writer’s response was, “I’m not sure I understand that. How could the universe be created by chance when chance can do nothing?” And now it was his turn to be puzzled. He said, “What do you mean that chance can do nothing?” The writer responded, “Hold it. What is chance? How much power does chance have in the world? We say that if we flip a coin, the chances are 50-50 that it’ll come up heads, or 50-50 that it’ll come up tails, but how much influence is exerted by chance in how that coin turns up? We can’t see with the naked eye all of these things that are taking place when we flip a coin. I don’t know whether it’s starting heads up or tails up. I don’t know the exact amount of force exerted by my thumb as I flip it. I don’t know the density of the atmosphere. I don’t know how many times it turns over while it’s in the air, I don’t know whether it’s caught heads up or tails down. But I can cut through all of that and say, ‘Hey, unless it stands up on its edge, it’s gotta come up heads or tails, so I’ll gamble.’ But how much influence does chance have on it? Not one bit, because chance has no power. It is no thing. Let me say it faster: ‘Chance has no power, because it is no-thing. It is nothing.’ It’s merely a word we use to describe mathematical possibilities. But we’ve come to use the term as if it were some kind of power supply, some source of energy that can influence things, that can change things, that can even create things, and indeed do the supreme act of power—bringing the universe into being!”

My friends, to believe that the universe was created by chance requires that you park your brains in the parking lot. Chance can do nothing, because it is nothing.

But not only professors at Harvard, here are these Philistines saying, “Maybe this all happened by chance.” What are the chances that anything happens by chance? There’s only one answer: Not a chance. For something to happen by chance is to have something come from nothing, and I hope if we know anything in our sophistication, we know the ancient principle ex nihilo nihil fit: out of nothing, nothing comes. But who supplies the answer to the Philistines? Did they go to their philosophers? Did they go to their theologians? Did they go to their universities and say, “We can’t figure out what’s causing this calamity, and so we’re wondering whether it’s all chance”?

Conclusion: A Lesson in Obedience

They couldn’t come up with the answer, and it had to be taught to them by cows. They tried their experiment. They put the vessel back on the oxcart, and they put the treasure in it. They took the calves away from the cows, stepped back, and waited to see what happened. And what do the Scriptures say? ! Samuel Chapter 6 tells us that the cows started to move. Acting against all of their inclinations to go back to their calves, those cows moved in a straight line for Israel. They went straight ahead on the road to Beth Shemesh, and, like Christ the Savior of mankind did centuries later, they set their faces like flint toward their destination. The Scriptures say they went down the street lowing. I don’t know what that means, whether they were moaning or groaning or whether they were singing in cow song. I like to think they were singing. I don’t know the song, probably “Onward Christian Cows.” The cows moved down the road, and the Scriptures tell us they turned neither to the left nor to the right.

Have you ever obeyed God like that—without wavering, without vacillating, but going directly to the task? No wonder the Scripture says that we are to consider the ox and the cow and the birds of the air, who by nature obey their Creator. These cows went to Beth Shemesh, and as they approached the outskirts of the city the Jewish people saw them coming and the ark of the covenant being returned. Now it was now no longer ichabod; it was kabod: glory! The glory of Israel has returned. And they watched the cows move, slowly but directly, right into the middle of the threshing floor of Joshua. There in the midst of the threshing floor was a large, smooth, flat rock, and the cows walked straight to the center of that rock and stood there. They had fulfilled their mission. They had delivered the throne of God to Israel.

The Jewish people received the ark of the covenant. They wanted to make a sacrifice that very moment, and so they chopped up the wood from the cart, stacked that wood around those cows, and ignited it. The cows were consumed on that spot to honor God.

Centuries later a Lamb came to Israel who owned the ark of the covenant, who had an intrinsic right to sit upon that throne, who went to the altar of sacrifice like a lamb. And he opened not his mouth, he turned not to the left or to the right, because the Lamb of God knew nothing of chance but everything of a sovereign Father.

So, where do you stand on this issue? Do you believe in chance? Or do you believe in the sovereignty of God, the One who promises to never leave us or forsake us. He is our help in times of trouble. “ Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16). He is our  help, not chance!

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