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The First Book of Samuel (12)

J Riddle, Cheshunt

Chapter 4 – THE CAPTURE OF THE ARK (cont)

4. The disaster for Israel (vv.10-11)

What a disaster! "And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen. And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain."

The army was smitten

"There fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen." The survivors "fled every man into his tent". It was a total rout. Israel was now defenceless. Psalm 78 gives more details. "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" (vv.62-63). Bearing in mind that this defeat was attributable, amongst other things, to "the high places" and "graven images" in Israel (v.58), we learn that disobedience will rob us of victory, and destroy our power to fight. The lesson of the first defeat is repeated, and it needs constant repetition. God was true to his word to Eli through "the man of God". "Thou shalt see an enemy in my habitation, in all the wealth which God shall give Israel" (2.32).

The ark was captured

"The ark of God was taken." See, again, Psalm 78. "He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which he placed among men; and delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy’s hand" (vv.60-61; see also Jer 7.12-15). It was this, above everything else, that would make "both the ears of every one that heareth it to tingle". The ark taken by the Philistines! It so appalled a dying mother that she called her new-born son "Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken" (1 Sam 4.22). God forbid that we should permit anything in our lives that could rob us of the presence of Christ, the true Ark. We must not think, however, that the capture of the ark meant that God was now subject to Philistine power! Events in the next two chapters prove that God is perfectly able to look after His own interests without the help of His people!

The priests were slain

"The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain." See, yet again, Psalm 78. "Their priests fell by the sword; and their widows made no lamentation" (v.64). We will defer comment on the "widows" until later. Whilst Hophni and Phinehas were "sons of Belial", we must always remember that disobedience will rob us of effective priesthood. God fulfilled His intention to slay Hophni and Phinehas (1 Sam 2.25), and their death was the promised sign to Eli that his descendants would be stricken by untimely death, and ultimately be replaced by another priestly family (2.33-36). The death of Hophni and Phinehas emphasises that God will judge sin, and every promise to do so will be completely and exactly fulfilled.

Though the mills of God grind slowly,
Yet they grind exceeding small.
Though with patience He stands waiting,
With exactness grinds He all.

5. The death of Eli (vv.12-18)

This paragraph needs little comment. It is quite self-explanatory. Above everything else, it does emphasise Eli’s deep concern about the ark of the covenant. We find him "upon a seat by the wayside watching: for his heart trembled for the ark of God". Whilst his two sons had evidently complied without protest with the wishes of the people, led by "the elders of Israel", and carried the ark from Shiloh to Eben-ezer (see v.4), their father was quite different. He was certainly weak, especially when it came to disciplining his own family, but he was deeply concerned for the glory of God. Hophni and Phinehas were "sons of Belial, they knew not the Lord". Eli’s grave concern is emphasised by the way in which he reacted to the awful news from the battlefield. (a) "Israel is fled before the Philistines." That was bad enough. (b) "There hath been also a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead." That was even worse. (c) "And the ark of God is taken." That was the final straw. "And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died: for he was an old man and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years." It is often said that Eli’s heart broke before his neck.

Eli died in utter disgrace. His failure to implement and maintain the claims of God over Israel resulted in national humiliation and the capture of the ark of the covenant. A. McShane captures the torment of Eli. "How could he live, and the Ark not in its place, and what future was there for the Tabernacle if its greatest treasure was missing?" The death of Eli reminds us that "If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy" (1 Cor 3.17). It had already happened at Corinth (1 Cor 11.28-30).

6. The departure of the glory (vv.19-22)

Eli’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, evidently shared his concern for the ark. Notice the order in which she heard the news. "And his daughter in law, Phinehas’ wife, was with child, near to be delivered: and when she heard the tidings (a) that the ark of God was taken, and (b) that her father in law and (c) her husband were dead, she bowed herself and travailed; for her pains came upon her." As she died, she referred to the same three events in the same order. "And about the time of her death the women that stood by her said unto her, Fear not; for thou hast born a son. But she answered not, neither did she regard it. And she named the child Ichabod [meaning, "no glory", or "alas, the glory"], saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because (a) the ark of God was taken, and (b) because of her father in law and (c) her husband. And she said, The glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken." The capture of the ark took precedence over the death of her father-in-law and her husband. In fact, her husband is mentioned last!

Her last words, twice uttered, reveal that her deepest distress was caused by the capture of the ark and its implications. "And she named the child Ichabod (he is mentioned again in 14.3), saying, The glory is departed from Israel...And she said, The glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken." As Keil & Delitzsch observe, "The repetition of these words shows how deeply the wife of the godless Phinehas had taken to heart the carrying off of the ark, and how in her estimation the glory of Israel had departed with it". There can be little doubt that she valued the ark, and all that it represented, more than she did her husband. In great weakness, and faced with imminent death (v.20), she thought only of the ark. Let us remember that spirituality is not the prerogative of the brothers!

How much do we value the Lord Jesus, of whom the ark is such a beautiful picture, and how much to do we value the testimony that each assembly should bear for Him. Both Ephesus and Laodicea, the first and last of the seven churches addressed by the Lord Jesus in Revelation 2-3, faced the possibility of extinction, because they had lost their passion for Christ. The Lord Jesus warned Ephesus that he would "remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent", and Laodicea that He would "spue thee out of my mouth." It would be tragic if it had to be said of our assembly, "The glory is departed".

To be continued.


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