As she was dying, the women attending her said, “Don’t despair; you have given birth to a son.” But she did not respond or pay any attention. 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 Samuel 4.20-21.
The “she” with which this text begins is the wife of Phinehas and the daughter in law of Eli. Eli, Phinehas and his brother Hophni were priests of Israel and for many years they had looked after the sanctuary at Shiloh where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Now, however, following the defeat of Israel by the Philistines and the capture of the Ark, Eli and Phinehas are both dead, and Phinehas’s wife is dying too as she prematurely gives birth to a child.
The Ark – the capture of which has triggered all this heart-stopping shock and horror – was a gold-covered chest about the size of an old seafarer’s trunk which contained, among other things, the stone tablets on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments, and on top of which was a kind of seat placed between two golden angels where, in times past, God himself was said to have met with Moses and talked with him (Exodus 25.22, Numbers 7.89). This is what made the Ark so venerated and such a very sacred object. It marked the point at which heaven touched earth and God met man. So sacred was it that it was known quite simply as “the Glory”.
But now, as Phineas’s widow says, “the glory has departed” – so she calls her new-born son Ichabod because iy-kabod is Hebrew for “no glory”. No glory. Poor kid, growing up with a name like that! “Oi, No-glory! Get up, time for school!” But, hey – it was just a name, not a description.
Yes. But what if it were a description? And what if it were a description of me?
“Glory” is an odd word and very hard to define. In Alice through the Looking Glass, when Alice meets Humpty Dumpty, his first remark is: “There’s glory for you,” and Alice is (understandably) bewildered. “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” she replies. And maybe we’re not sure what it means either. But we have some clues already in my description of the Ark. Its “glory” was that it was the place where God met his people, for whenever those meetings took place God’s “glory” had shone forth (Numbers 16.42). In other words, one way of defining the glory of God is to say that it is what is seen when his presence shines out of something or someone.
So … Does the presence of God shine out from me today? If it does, I am “glory”. If it doesn’t, I am Ichabod – “no glory”.
Paul describes himself and other Christians as “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory” [and] “are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3.18). Or as The Message paraphrases it: “All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.”
As God enters our lives. That’s the point. Glory comes “from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” The fact was that, though those ancient Israelites might have called the Ark of the Covenant “the Glory,” in point of fact it wasn’t – not any more. It had been “the Glory” once – but only when God entered the life of Moses there. That’s when God shone and Moses shone too. So with us. I sometimes used to wonder about Jesus saying in one breath: “I am the light of the world” (John 8.12) and in another: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5.14); but not any more. One light, one glory – the glory of Jesus shining through those who make room for him in their lives. No presence, no glory – Ichabod. But the greater the presence, the greater the glory.