In early 2019 my wife and I were able to spend a couple weeks in the land of Israel. We received some incredible teaching and saw some truly remarkable sights—and sites. We stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee near the location where Jesus told Peter three times, “Feed my sheep”. We walked down into the dungeon—a literal hole in the ground—in Caiphas’ house where Jesus was held after his arrest and just prior to his trial. We gazed at the green fields outside Jerusalem where sheep still graze. We were awestruck to see the massive stones at the base of what had been Herod’s temple. We were in the remains of the synagogue that stood on the original foundation of the synagogue that was near Peter’s house in Capernaum, the very one where Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit in Mark 1.
There was one particular site that was profoundly sad. After the conquest of Canaan, we read these words in Joshua 18.
Then the whole congregation of the people of Israel assembled at Shiloh and set up the tent of meeting there. The land lay subdued before them.Joshua 18:1 ESV
Israel, led by Joshua, defeated all those kings who remained opposed to them. The people began to receive their inheritances as God had promised. Several tribes still remained to receive their allotment, which the next couple chapters of Joshua detail. As part of settling in the land, they erected the tabernacle. The tabernacle was a tent where God caused his presence to be manifested. It was how God would dwell among the people of Israel.
Most had to keep their distance, for God is holy and they were not. Still, what other nation had God dwelling in their midst? What other nation received God’s self-revelation given through the law of Moses? What other nation received a covenant from God? Israel, and Israel alone! Those from the nations surrounding them were free to join them in their worship of YHWH God of Israel, as we see throughout the book of Joshua. Many non-Israelites left Egypt with them and were joined to the people of God at Mount Sinai. Rahab and her family later joined them when they first entered the land, becoming full-fledged Israelites. Rahab even married the son of the most prominent man in the tribe of Judah, which was the most prominent tribe in Israel. In other words, she married Israel’s most eligible bachelor!
As members of the covenant they were able to bring their offerings and sacrifices to God to worship him as he dwelt in their midst. The tabernacle would remain at Shiloh for hundreds of years. Remember that the tabernacle was the goal of the exodus from Egypt. The exodus wasn’t merely about giving the people some land. The promise to Abraham wasn’t about land so much as it was about the tabernacle. God would dwell among his people in his tabernacle, and the land was to be the place where the tabernacle would be.
Not only was this the intended outcome of the exodus from Egypt, it was the purpose of creation in the first place. The world was to be the place where God would dwell with those he created in his image. From the beginning God intended to walk among his people. Because of sin, he kept people at a distance, so that he would not destroy them. The rules regarding purity and holiness in the law of Moses were meant to protect the people from straying too close. God, however, wanted his people close, so to make this possible he gave them the tabernacle.
The tabernacle stood at Shiloh for hundreds of years. For centuries the people of God worshiped him there, offering sacrifices and gifts. God was uniquely present in Shiloh. Think of it! Of all the places on earth one could go to encounter the Creator God, it was Shiloh. There was no other place where God was present like he was present in Shiloh. What a remarkable place!
Earlier I mentioned my wife and I visiting the land of Israel in 2019, and I mentioned one of the incredible sites we visited was also profoundly sad. That site is Shiloh. It is a profoundly sad place. It’s just…rubble. Stones. There is a visitor’s site there and a temporary shelter, but that’s it. The evidence that the God of the universe inhabited the place for hundreds of years is…piles of rubble. There’s nothing particularly holy about it. Other than the intellectual awareness that God once inhabited the place, there’s no sense of awe about it. There’s nothing to signify it held any importance in world history whatsoever. If you were to look at a picture of the place, it’s doubtful you could locate the exact location the tabernacle stood.
So what happened? Well, the people of Israel decided to mess around and find out what would happen! They would later treat the ark of the covenant as a weapon and bring it into a battle with the Philistines. In 1 Samuel 4 they went to Shiloh to remove the ark of the covenant from the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle so they could take it into battle. Understand that God’s throne was between the cherubim on the ark. How could they get the ark if it were God’s throne? God had left Shiloh and they didn’t even know. They brought the ark of the covenant like it was a good-luck charm, and the Philistines took it from them. God punished the Philistines and it was returned, but not to Shiloh. It was kept elsewhere until David had it brought to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6.
Later, when the temple was built in Jerusalem, the ark was placed in the Most Holy Place. Once again it was God’s throne in the midst of the earth, where mere humans could worship him. By the time of Jeremiah the prophet God had once again left the temple, though Israel and Judah continued to claim the physical place as some sort of good-luck charm. As earlier with the Philistines the people of Judah were being threatened and clung to the physicality of the temple as some sort of defensive weapon. Here’s what God said to them through Jeremiah.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’”Jeremiah 7:3–4 ESV
The people were arrogantly believing that God would never abandon his temple, no matter how evil the people had become and no matter how many other gods they worshiped. God then said this to them:
“Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, declares the LORD, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh.”Jeremiah 7:12–14 ESV
The tabernacle was a tent and was made to be portable. The temple was a massive structure made of stone. Even in Jeremiah’s day there was no evidence that God had once spent hundreds of years in Shiloh. All that remained was rubble. So he promises that even his temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed.
I’m reminded of one of the saddest verses in all of Scripture. In Judges we read of Samson and his great strength. Like Israel at the same time, Samson thought he’d mess around and find out, and then the author of Judges tells us, “But he did not know the Lord had left him.” Samson did not know the Lord, the one who gave him his great strength, had left him! How is such a thing possible? For too long Samson had been relying on his own strength but it was only when his own strength were insufficient that he realized his predicament.
On a national scale, though God sent them prophet after prophet, Israel and Judah failed to recognize the Lord had left them, too. He had not, however, left his promises. Through Jeremiah God promised a new covenant, one that would be unlike the covenant given at Sinai, the very covenant Israel broke—repeatedly. This new covenant would be dependent on God and God alone, for his Spirit would cause his people to obey by actually changing them. Thus God’s promises would be dependent on God’s actions, not ours.
It is for this reason God could also promise that he would never leave us nor forsake us, for the new covenant is fulfilled in Christ. His obedience is our obedience, just as his death is our death, his burial is our burial, and his resurrection is our resurrection. This is because through faith his righteousness is our righteousness.
The better promises of the new covenant boil down to this: God will do what he says he will do, for if he wants something done right, he must do it himself. What God wants to do is save his people. This is why God became one of us. If he would save us, he must do it himself.
The truth is we’ve all been to Shiloh. I’ve actually been there twice—once in 2019 and another time prior to planting New City. Shiloh isn’t always a physical location. Often Shiloh is our response to our circumstances. We can feel as though God has left us. We can look around in our lives and see rubble, little more than piles of stone here and there. We can strain to see evidence that God is present but try as we might, we cannot find him. We can remember what it was like to see and hear and feel God’s presence but sometimes it seems as though God has left us.
If you are in Christ, this is not so. No matter how much rubble there is in your life, God will never leave you nor forsake you. Sometimes God leads us through a desert in order to increase our thirst, but he is with us every step of the way, even when we cannot see him. If you find yourself in Shiloh, bewildered and feeling alone and straining to see any evidence that God is at work, know that he is, even when you cannot see him. Know that when Jesus was hanging on the cross he cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” God’s plan was to send his only Son who would taken on human flesh—become what we are—that he might save what we are. To do this the Lord Jesus experienced the fullness of Shiloh, that you and I would never experience it. He did this so that his people would never be forsaken, even when life causes us to think we are. Hang on, dear believer. God is with you.