There is an interesting book that's been around for several years entitled "Games People Play". It's about the "games" adults play with each other (mostly selfish and manipulative) in their interpersonal relationships. Hopefully, growing Christians at least try to be more honest than this in their relationships--even though we must confess that we are not immune to playing such games. However, an even more serious matter than playing games with people is playing games with God. Nonbelievers habitually play games with God. That is unfortunate, but to be expected. But it is particularly sad and discouraging when believers are not honest in their relationships with the Lord.
In 1 Samuel 4-7 we find some examples of people playing games with God. Let us take a closer look at these games, as well as the results, and learn the lessons God has for us from this portion of His Word. But first we should sketch the historical background and setting for these chapters. At the beginning of chapter 4 we find that Israel went out to fight with their perennial enemies, the Philistines (4:1). The time in history was more than 1000 years before Christ, and Israel still did not have a king. For the previous 300 years or so they had been ruled by judges. (The judges came after Joshua who came after Moses who led the Israelites out of Egypt.) The days of the judges were by no means a spiritual high in the history of Israel. The people were constantly turning away from the Lord to serve other gods. Thus God would purposely allow them to be oppressed by their enemies until they cried out in repentance. Then the Lord would "pick up the pieces" and send them a deliverer (a judge). Through this judge God would defeat the enemy and once again there would be peace and rest in the land--until the people disobeyed again. How often we growing Christians follow this pattern! By the time of Samuel (sometimes called the last judge and first prophet of Israel), the people of Israel had gone through this cycle at least seven times. No wonder this period is called the dark days of the book of Judges. And now (1 Samuel 4), even during the days of Samuel, that great man of God, Israel is about to go downhill again.
The Philistines attacked and Israel was defeated (4:2). Why? The obvious answer is right there between the lines. We don't read that Israel prayed to the Lord for guidance and help before the battle. In fact, it seems that Israel had not consulted the Lord through His prophet Samuel for quite some time. They certainly recognized Samuel as a prophet of the Lord (3:20) and knew that he spoke the Word of the Lord (3:21 and 4:1), but they didn't obey the Word. We don't find Samuel mentioned again until the beginning of chapter 7. Finally, after more than twenty years Israel lamented after the Lord (7:2). Only then did they listen and obey the Word of God spoken by Samuel (7:3-6). Only then did they take advantage of the power of prayer (7:5-9). Only then did the Lord intervene on behalf of Israel (7:10). Only then did Israel defeat the Philistines (7:11-13). And only then was there peace and progress in Israel (7:14-17). What a lot of good lessons for us! If we follow the principles above we too will have victory in the spiritual battles and struggles of Christian living. God did not have these facts recorded in Scripture just for the historical record! They were "written for our learning" (Romans 15:4).
But what about the games we were talking about? Where do they fit in? Well, when Israel was defeated by the Philistines (4:2), they began asking, "Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?" Instead of turning to the Lord for the answer, they decided that if they merely took the ark of the covenant into battle with them, it would save them from the Philistines. Notice carefully in verse 3 that the people were not depending on the Lord for help, but on the ark. They were playing games with God! Let's call it the game of placating God. Israel had the superstitious idea that they could placate or manipulate God by use of the ark. The ark was a wooden box-like structure overlaid with gold. It symbolically represented the presence and power of God in the midst of His people. To be sure, the ark played a significant role in the relationship between God and His people (see Exodus 25:10-22). In fact, God promised that His personal presence would be associated with the ark if the people would obey and follow Him (Exodus 25:22). But God had never confined Himself to a golden box that could be used as a good luck charm! Perhaps the people remembered the story of how their ancestors had seen the walls of Jericho collapse when they marched around the city with the ark (see Joshua 6). Maybe they thought they could pull off the same kind of victory by use of the ark. But what a difference! That former generation had by faith followed direct orders from the Lord (Hebrews 11:30). This new generation was following form without faith. They had the ritual but no reality. The ark had become just a talisman to them.
The game of placating God is played today. Religious ritualism without genuine spiritual relationship is certainly placation. Some people get religious around the Christmas holidays and think they are doing God a favor. Others build nativity scenes almost as a kind of "offering" to God, for which they expect God's blessing on their business or house or lawn! This too is nothing more than placating God--an attempt (maybe unconciously) to please God by outward actions rather than by inward attitudes. Placating God can even be more subtle, and growing Christians should be careful. What about wearing crosses and religious medals? Is this an outward expression of true faith? It can be. But it can also be a form of placating God. If we think that by wearing a religious symbol we are more protected from evil or more likely to get our prayers answered, then obviously we are playing the game. Saying the Lord's Prayer or taking communion or even carrying a Bible all the time may be a subconscious form of placating God. If we think that merely mouthing the Lord's Prayer or routinely taking communion or religiously carrying a Bible all the time will somehow please God, then we are guilty of playing the game of placating God, God is neither appeased nor pleased with religious tokenism.
As we read on in 1 Samuel 4 we see that the ark itself was unable to save Israel from the Philistines. The fact that the wicked priests Hophni and Phineas (see 1 Samuel 2) were directly involved in this futile strategy is a further indication that Israel's heart was far from the Lord. Not only was Israel soundly defeated but the ark was captured as well. In chapter 5 we have the record of the ark of God in Philistine country. Here the Philistines played the game of reducing God. They took the ark and put it in their temple beside their idol Dagon. As far as they were concerned, this was a place of "honor" and the Israeli god connected with the ark deserved to sit beside their own god. After all, this Hebrew god or gods had the power to bring plagues on the Egyptians (see 4:8). The Philistines did not deny that there was a god for Israel, but they reduced Him to the level of Dagon, the Philistine fish or grain god. We saw that it was wrong for Israel to think of the ark as the magical presence of God. It was equally wrong for the Philistines to think of the ark as representing a god who would share the position of God.
God is reduced in much the same way today. In just about every high school and college in this country it is taught and implied that Christianity is just another religion--one way among many! It is also taught that the Bible is just one of many good religious books. These are obvious examples of unbelievers reducing God. Do true Christians ever play the game of reducing God? Anytime our priorities are such that the Lord is not in first place or only "sharing" first place, then God is reduced. He is reduced before our friends and associates because our testimony and lifestyle are inconsistent. He apparently is reduced even in our own minds because otherwise God would be God in every area of our lives. Let us not play the game of reducing God.
In chapter 6 we learn of another game which certain Hebrews played. It was simply the game of disobeying God. At the beginning of the chapter we read of the elaborate plans made by the Philistines for returning the ark to Israel. The fact that the two milk cows left their calves was proof to the Philistines that their problems were not coincidence (6:9). The God of Israel was supreme--over their gods, over their health and lives and over their cattle as well! At the end of chapter 6 we read that certain men of Israel were struck down by the Lord because they dared to look into the ark. Why? Because they disobeyed the express written law of God. God had commanded that only the priests and the Levites were to come near and handle the ark. Laymen were not to come near under penalty of death (Numbers 1:51). God meant what He said--regardless of the circumstances. The men who disobeyed were irreverent and took the law of God lightly. They were happy that the ark had returned--but they disobeyed the Lord. It was not ignorant disobedience either, because the Levites were there to inform them. What a lesson for us! God has given us His Word to follow and obey. There are many instructions in Scripture that we might not fully understand or appreciate right now. For example, the different roles given to men and women in the family and the church is instruction which is not always easy to obey. But to disobey is to play games with God. Playing games with God is not for growing Christians.