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The error of Henotheism
The religion of the Philistines was polytheistic and they, like their neighbouring pagan nations, had many gods. The Ammonites, Moabites, Syrians, and Egyptians, all believed in more than one God and, in addition to being polytheistic, they were also henotheistic. Henotheists believed that specific gods were strong in certain geographical areas and that each god was strongest in the geographical area where the nation lived that worshipped him. As a consequence many of the artifacts that have been discovered by archaeologists, including paintings on the walls of Assyrian temples, show soldiers carrying the gods of defeated nations into their cities. We learn that a king of Judah, Amaziah, made the same tragic mistake and went into battle with the one true God fighting for him - but then carried the gods of the losing nation back to Jerusalem to worship them (II Chronicles 25:141):
Now it came to pass, after that Amaziah was come from slaughter of the Edomites, that he brought the gods of the children of Seir, and set them up to be his gods, and bowed down himself before them, and burned incense unto them.
God sent a prophet to this king also, asking him the obvious question (v154): "Why have you sought the gods of the people who have not delivered their own people from your hand?" They had not even won the battle for the sons of Seir, yet this foolish king followed the practice of henotheism which led to his downfall too (II Chronicles 25:16,20,27). We learn that the Syrians were also henotheistic because we read later, in I Kings 20:231, that when the Israelites had defeated them in a battle, they said, "Their gods are gods of the hills; therefore they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they." Sadly, they went into battle against Israel believing this henotheistic doctrine and it took another heavy defeat in the plains to give them an indication that their theology was extremely faulty.
Likewise, after the henotheistic Philistines had captured the Ark, they planned to carry it back to their city to strengthen their own collection of gods. But we know that with Jehovah God the situation was quite different, for it was not that He was too weak to prevent them from taking the Ark or from defeating the false gods of the Philistines. We know that He allowed the Ark to be taken and we have the clear testimony in Psalm 78:56-641 of the psalmist recalling the historical events which occurred in I Samuel:
Yet they tempted and provoked the most high God, and kept not his testimonies: but turned back, and dealt unfaithfully like their fathers: they were turned aside like a deceitful bow. For they provoked him to anger with their high places, and moved him to jealousy with their graven images. When God heard this, he was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel. So that he forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he placed among men; And delivered his strength [that is, His Ark] into captivity, and his glory into the enemy's hand. He gave his people over also unto the sword, and was wroth with his inheritance. The fire consumed their young men; and their maidens were not given to marriage. Their priests [Hohni and Phineas] fell by the sword, and their widows made no lamentation.
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