In 1 Samuel chapter 4, we are going to witness the tragic conclusion of the lives of Eli and his two sons. We’re also going to witness God’s judgment on Israel because of their rebellion against God.
The prophet Samuel has been delivering God’s revelation to Israel, but they haven’t been listening. Their only concern is the Philistine threat. When the Israelites engage the Philistines in battle, they suffer a devastating defeat. Verse 2 reports that they lost four thousand soldiers. But notice their response in verse 3:
The elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”
They recognize their failure has something to do with lacking the power of God. “So, let’s get the ark,” someone suggests. “Let’s take that golden box and get God on our side!”
They are going to take this object, which represents the presence of God, and treat it like a lucky charm. They are not going to repent before the Lord at all.
People today still use religion like a charm, hoping they can get God on their side in order to succeed in life. My friend, that’s just superstition—that has nothing to do with trusting God.
So, what do the Israelites do? Look at verse 4:
The people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant . . . And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
Hophni and Phineas offer no objections. In fact, it appears they carry the ark into the Israelite camp.
We read in verse 5 that “as soon as the ark . . . came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout.” Of course, just because everybody is jumping up and down and shouting “Hallelujah” does not mean God is pleased with what they’re doing. PQ
The Philistines are close enough to hear the noise. We see their response in verse 7: “The Philistines were afraid, for they said, ‘A god has come into the camp.’ And they said, ‘Woe to us!’”
It’s interesting that the Israelites and Philistines have the same view of God. The Philistines would box up their idols and bring them along. Well, now they are fearful because the Israelites evidently brought a box with their God inside!
Israel mistakes the symbol of God’s presence—the ark—for the reality of His presence. This ark is only a symbol; it isn’t a magic wand.
The outcome of this battle is described here in verses 10 and 11:
Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
Meanwhile, Eli is at Shiloh, where verse 13 says he is “sitting on his seat by the road,” waiting for news of the battle. We are told that “his heart trembled for the ark of God,” knowing it was being misused.
A soldier who has fled from the battle delivers a fourfold message to Eli: Israel has lost the battle; many Israelites have died; Eli’s two sons are dead; and the ark has been taken by the Philistines.
Verse 18 records:
As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died.
He is shocked by his personal loss, but it is the nation’s loss of the ark that is too much for Eli. He knows what it means: it’s as if God is saying, “My presence has been absent for years. Now I am taking away the symbol of My presence as well.”
The tragedy doesn’t end there. Verse 19:
Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth.
Her husband was a wicked priest, but she is a godly woman. This is evident from her deep concern over the loss of the ark and the name she gives her son, even as she is dying in childbirth. Verse 21 says, “She named the child Ichabod, saying, ‘The glory has departed from Israel!’” With her last breath she just puts it all together for the nation. The meaning of her son’s name will remind everyone of this day: “The glory of God is gone!”
God judged Israel because they had abandoned Him and treated the ark like a good-luck charm. But the Philistines also will experience God’s judgment, for they think that because of their victory and the capture of the ark, their gods are superior to the true God.
So, here in chapter 5, the Philistines place the ark in the temple of their chief god, Dagon, in the city of Ashdod. But notice what happens:
“The next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place.” (verse 3)
The following day, they find their idol again on his face. This time his head and hands have been cut off.
After that, it just gets worse for the Philistines. Verse 6 says, “The hand of the Lord was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors.” This is accompanied by a plague of mice, or rats, according to chapter 6 (verses 4-5), perhaps indicating an outbreak of the bubonic plague.
The ark is not a lucky charm at all; in fact, it becomes a hot potato. It’s taken to the city of Gath, (5:8), but the same things happen; so, they take it away to the city of Ekron, and the plague comes to that Philistine city.
After seven months of this, the Philistines get their magicians together to figure out what to do. Evidently nobody suggests they should fall down in repentance and worship the God of Israel.
Instead, we learn in chapter 6 that they yoke two cows together to pull a cart with the ark on it. And verse 4 says they also put on the cart some golden replicas of mice. This is what’s called “sympathetic magic”; they are hoping that when this ark rolls out of Philistine territory, the real mice will leave too.
Now verse 12 tells us, “The cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh.” In other words, they weren’t driven there—this is the work of God.
Tragically, some of the men of Beth-shemesh are just as pagan as the Philistines, and they treat the ark with disrespect. God puts some of them to death (verse 19), and just like the Philistines, the people want the ark taken away.
Chapter 7 tells us they take the ark to Kiriath-jearim, where it is finally treated with some reverence. In verse 2, we are told the ark remained there “some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.”
God’s acts of judgment have made an impression on the people. They sense something is deeply wrong. The ark has returned, but it’s not in use. Beloved, God is setting the stage for Israel’s national repentance, but that won’t happen for another twenty years.
Sometimes God’s work is accomplished slowly, and sometimes He moves quickly. The important thing is that we keep pace with Him as we walk with Him in obedience and trust.