When God Departs

One of the saddest set of words one can read in Scripture is when it says that God has departed from a person or a place. Indeed, we even have a term for this. We read about how the glory of the Lord departed from Israel, and the term “Ichabod” is used for this.

We find this theme played out several times in the book of 1 Samuel. First we have the daughter-in-law of Eli giving birth to a boy: “She named the boy Ichabod, saying, ‘The glory has departed from Israel’ – because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband” (1 Sam. 4:21).

In the Hebrew there is a play on words here. We read in v. 18 that when Eli heard about the capture of the ark, he died because he was old and “heavy”. The word here is kabed, the verbal form of the noun kabad, or glory. Thus in one sense the glory of Israel left Israel with the death of Eli.

But this also speaks to a bigger story of God abandoning Israel. The ark of the covenant was the visible sign of God’s presence with his people. And we read later in 1 Samuel about how God departed from her first king, Saul. Because of his disobedience he had abandoned Yahweh, so Yahweh abandoned him (1 Sam 15 – see in particular v. 23). And worse yet, we read about God’s spirit actually departing from Saul (1 Sam 16:14).

Even worse yet, we read about the glory of the Lord departing from Israel altogether in Ezekiel 8-11 (see 10:18 specifically). Thus in these tragic episodes we read about how God can leave an individual or a nation. That is a terrible place to be in of course. But these episodes found in the Old Testament should serve as sober warnings for all of us today.

I write this piece because my daily Bible readings (I am in 1 Samuel at the moment) nicely dovetailed with a news item I just read about. It seems to be a good illustration about how God can be greatly at home in a place one day, and seemingly absent the next.

I refer to Europe in general and Holland in particular. Europe of course for centuries was the home of Christendom. Indeed, to speak of Europe and the West was to speak of Christian civilisation. One thinks of all the great works and moves of God in Europe over the centuries.

Yet one has to sadly lament the fact that today Europe is the most secular and ungodly continent on earth. In many parts of Europe the church is in steep decline, and seems to have disappeared altogether in various places. If the glory of the Lord once seemed to shine in Europe, it almost appears that it has departed today.

Consider this headline found on a BBC news site: “Dutch rethink Christianity for a doubtful world”. The article begins this way: “The Rev Klaas Hendrikse can offer his congregation little hope of life after death, and he’s not the sort of man to sugar the pill. An imposing figure in black robes and white clerical collar, Mr Hendrikse presides over the Sunday service at the Exodus Church in Gorinchem, central Holland.

“It is part of the mainstream Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN), and the service is conventional enough, with hymns, readings from the Bible, and the Lord’s Prayer. But the message from Mr Hendrikse’s sermon seems bleak – ‘Make the most of life on earth, because it will probably be the only one you get. Personally I have no talent for believing in life after death,’ Mr Hendrikse says. ‘No, for me our life, our task, is before death.’

“Nor does Klaas Hendrikse believe that God exists at all as a supernatural thing. ‘When it happens, it happens down to earth, between you and me, between people, that’s where it can happen. God is not a being at all… it’s a word for experience, or human experience.’ Mr Hendrikse describes the Bible’s account of Jesus’s life as a mythological story about a man who may never have existed, even if it is a valuable source of wisdom about how to lead a good life.

“His book Believing in a Non-Existent God led to calls from more traditionalist Christians for him to be removed. However, a special church meeting decided his views were too widely shared among church thinkers for him to be singled out. A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one-in-six clergy in the PKN and six other smaller denominations was either agnostic or atheist.”

What an incredible – and pathetic – story. Here we appear to have “atheists for Jesus” – except they don’t even seem to believe that Jesus actually existed. Perhaps we can call them “atheist Christians”. Either way you slice it, these are oxymorons at best, and pitiful indications at worst of both apostasy and the utter departure of God from some “Christian” churches there.

You really need to read the entire article (see link below) to see just how bad this situation is. These guys have absolutely slaughtered the Christian story, and replaced it with sentimental mumbo-jumbo and humanistic pap. And this is in Holland, once such a stronghold of biblical Christianity.

So if this story is anything to go on, it seems like God has abandoned Europe, since Europe has long ago abandoned God. Europe is certainly a continent awash in new paganism, not unlike things were when Christianity first burst onto the scene there. It needs to be evangelised afresh.

But as I have written elsewhere, even if most Dutchmen and Europeans may be turning their backs on God, God is not yet finished with Europe. He is now bringing Asians, Africans and others to re-Christianise Europe, and thriving churches can even be found in Amsterdam, led by these overseas Christians.

See this encouraging story here for example: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2009/08/25/europe-god-is-not-finished-yet/

So even though perhaps most Europeans have shaken their fists at God, and we have the despicable situation as described in this BBC article, God still will have the last word. Even in the face of rank apostasy and outright rejection of God, he still can accomplish his purposes and get his job done.

And if Christians in Holland – or France, or Germany, etc – will not get the job done, then he is quite happy to bring in believers from the developing world who will get the job done.


[1090 words]