Read 1 Samuel 4:1-11
Verse 21 in chapter 3 ended saying, “The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word”. Before Samuel met the Lord the prophetic word was scarce in Israel, in fact it has been a long 80 years with no word. But, now we have Samuel who has been anointed as prophet and judge over Israel when the Lord visited him. From that morning on the Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, he was building a relationship with Samuel by establishing his word in him and training him personally to be his prophet.
As Samuel grew in knowledge and understanding of the Lord he began to speak the word of the Lord to all of Israel, and every citizen responded in agreement that he was a prophet.
Contrast this beautiful story with the last half of verse 1 and it’s a stark contrast. Despite Samuel being established as a prophet and Eli still managing the temple neither of them were involved or consulted before making the decision to go to war with the Philistines. Nevertheless, the Israelites went out and camped at Ebenezer. The Philistines deployed their forces against Israel and crushed them, defeating Israel and killing 4k soldiers.
Devastated, the remaining troops returned to their camp and now the Elders are wondering why they suffered such a loss. They could not figure out why the Lord brought this defeat on them, why did the Lord smite them before the Philistines? The elders were correct in realizing that it was by the Lord’s hand that they were smitten, smited, killed. What they didn’t grasp was the fact that it was by their own doing. The elders are alot like many christians today who find themselves beaten down by the world, or they’ve endured hardship after hardship and the first thing they want to do is to invent all sorts of reasons for why bad things are happening to them, coming up with all sorts of excuses and never once owning the truth that the pain is there because they chose to depart from the Lord. Somehow, they betrayed the Lord.
The way the elders chose to solve this conflict gives us more proof that their hearts were not in the right place. Instead of repenting and returning to the Lord, they thought they could bring the Lord to them. Have you ever tried to bring the Lord down to your level? Hear me on this, you cannot infuse Jesus into your sin and expect things to be good. Just because you listen to praise or worship music while doing ungodly things does not make it ok. Just because you prayed and asked God to bless you, before a night on the town, does not mean you are in His will. Stop trying to pull the Lord down to your level.
The elders tried to bring the Lord into their mess by carrying the Ark of the Covenant to the battlefield. What a great idea, they thought. God has been showing up regularly at the temple in the holiest of holies so let’s bring the Ark here and God will work like a magic genie. The elders were remembering the “good ole days” of Moses and even Jericho and how the Ark was present when they won. The Ark was a symbol of God’s power; it was not God.
They had no clue, they thought the symbol, the Ark, carried the power, not unlike the Philistines and their pagan idol worship.
Symbols like crosses, angels, dove figurines don’t carry any power. Power only comes from the Lord. The Isrealites were digging themselves into an even bigger hole. Never once did they think, “Let’s talk with Eli and Samuel to find out what the Lord says”. Nope, they drew their own conclusions and took matters into their own hands by deciding to send men back to Shiloh to get the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts. Lesson here, get godly counsel when making tough decisions.
When they entered the temple, whom did they find there? None other than Hophni and Phineas. Not Samuel or Eli, but Eli’s two worthless scoundrel sons. Samuel and Eli would have reminded them of God’s laws and they certainly would have pointed out their sins, but people don’t like that do they?
The scene in verse 4 is the throne of Israel’s king. “Dwelleth between the cherubim” Not so much where the Lord lives but rather his seat as King. The people were bringing the throne of Jehovah to their camp, as a symbol of their theocratic ruler. Theocratic means: a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God.
They understand how their government functions, they understand an invisible Jehovah as their King. They completely miss the point when it comes to their sin. Verse 4 contrasts the throne of Jehovah with the immorality of the nation. Hophni and Phineas were with the Ark. The two priests who abandoned the Lord, the two priests who stole from the Lord, defiled all the sacrifices are now standing as the guardians of the Ark. They carry the Ark into a battle the Lord didn’t call for.
The Ark is called here The ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts. The Ark represented a covenant. A covenant is between two parties. While covenants promise favour they also contain conditions. God’s promise was to be ever present with the Israelites. The Isrealites were expected to obey His commands and His laws. Turns out they expect God to keep his end of the covenant without keeping their part. I don’t care who you are, it does not work that way. God will not remain present in a place where worship of Him is being defiled, and that still stands today.
When the soldiers looked up and witnessed the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant it was a huge relief. Their confidence was immediately lifted, the whole camp broke out with shouts of joy so loud and thunderous the whole earth rumbled. This very Ark led their ancestors to many victories and they were certain they would now be victorious.
The victory shouts from the Hebrew camp did not go unnoticed by the Philistines. The Philistines knew the Hebrews had no reason to celebrate, they just suffered a defeat so they investigated the reason for their celebrations and found out it was because the Ark had arrived. The second they learned this information they became terrified, saying, “God has come into the camp”.
The Philistines had heard the story of how God struck the Egyptians with plagues, they remember the destruction of the Red Sea and in their generation this has never happened before. They never had to fear the Hebrews before. It appears they really have something to fear now. “Woe to us, it’s all over now. The Philistines fear the God of Abraham yet proceed to oppose him.
They call together their troops, understanding that mindset is half the battle, they give their soldiers a pep talk, a motivational speech, basically telling them to pull up their boot straps and start acting like soldiers who are victorious. Reminding them they do not want to end up being servants to the Israelites. Quit acting like a bunch of babies, start acting like men and fight. I’m paraphrasing of course.
This must have been an awesome pep talk because they defeated the Isrealites with a slaughter of about 30,000 footmen. Not only did they win with a devastating slaughter they captured the Ark of God killing its guardians Hophni and Phineas on the same day just as the prophet predicted.
At this point in history the loss of this battle was the greatest calamity to happen to Israel. Every citizen would now see this as a terrible sign that their King had removed his countenance from them, he has turned his face from them, removing His glory. The Bible tells us to turn from our wicked ways, and when we don’t we in fact agree to judgement from God, that is the agreement. The Hebrews did not turn from sin and seek the Lord, they did what they thought was best and they received God’s judgement for it.
Our American history also shows this to be the case, once abortion was legalized and prayer was removed from schools there was no repentance, this was seemingly ok among the majority of the US. Fast forward and our country experienced a devastating blow during the Vietnam war where almost 41,000 soldiers died on the battlefield. Similar to the Israelites this was America’s first defeat, up until that point God’s glory was with us in battle because up to that point this nation honored the Lord our God.
The Israeli military had the outward appearance of being a godly nation, they had the Ark, they carried the name, the reputation, even the priests were present. On the outside everything looked great. Unfortunately for them it is what is on the inside that matters to God. God looked at the heart, and their heart was far from Him.
Our nation claims to be “one nation under God”, “in God we trust”. At the creation of our nation we were a Christian nation that was understood by every other country in the world. My concern is that we are only a Christian nation by name only, we have the symbols, we have the churches, we even have past victories, but what is it that God sees? Are we like the Israelites, not able to see our own sin, making excuses and blaming God? Trying to convince or force the Lord to bless our sin, to come down to our level. If this is the case it will never work, we are expected to give up our way our old life and become righteous through Jesus Christ.