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1 Samuel 4:1b-7:1
Key Verse: 4:22

In the last lesson we could think of the importance of the invisible spiritual environment and the meaning of God’s call to Samuel. Though the visible environment was so bad, Samuel grew up in the presence of the LORD when the invisible spiritual environment was made. The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli and was called to be a prophet of the LORD, a servant of the word of God. The LORD revealed himself to Samuel through his word and Samuel’s word came to all Israel. Today’s passage is about the Israel’s spiritual condition before Samuel’s actual public reign (7:2). In this passage the phrase “the ark of God” and its equivalent are written 29 times (30 times in 1 Samuel, with 3:3). In the history of Israel the ark of God was the symbol of the divine Presence and the tablets of Ten Commandments was there. The ark of God was captured, stayed in Philistine territory and was returned to Israel. Let’s think about the meaning of this.

First, the ark of God captured (4:1b-22). Look 4:1b-2. “Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield. When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, ‘Why did the LORD bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines?’” Here the elders of Israel was blaming God for their defeat. They were not truly thinking of why they were defeated. They had no mind to repent and turn to God. Then they became insincere and superficial. The elders of Israel said continually, “Let us bring the ark of the LORD’s covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.” When they were unrepentant, they became even superstitious. They were people with God’s covenant, but they were degraded into people with superstition losing sincerity and truthfulness. It was not faith but a superstitious delusion to think that the ark of the LORD could save them from the hand of their enemies.

In such a delusion what did they do? Look at verse 4. “So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim.” Their act was presumptuous and contemptuous toward God. In such an act, they were actually despising the LORD Almighty, misusing the name of God. They had no fear of the LORD at all. Verse 4b says, “And Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.” They were soon to be dead, although they were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

Their presumptuous act continued. Look at verse 5. “When the ark of the LORD’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook.” The Israelites became just like a shouting mob for riot. As Paul preached the gospel in Ephesus, the people of the city responded this way. When they felt that that their business was being ruined and their goddess Artemis was discredited because of Paul’s gospel preaching, they shouted: “Great is Artemis (Diana) of the Ephesians!” for two hours when they felt that (Acts 19:28-34). The LORD’s covenant people were just like the pagan thoughtless and frantic crowd. They had false sense of victory and false security. They were full of false courage. God’s covenant people should not be like that.

Actually, to the Israelites the ark of God served as the symbol of the divine Presence guiding his people. As they traveled in the desert the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them (Num 10:33). When the Israelites were before the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant of the LORD went ahead and as their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. Then the people who followed the priest keeping a distance of about 900 meters, crossed the Jordan on dry ground (Joshua 3:1-17). At that time the people had true fear of God in their obedience to God’s direction; so the ark of the LORD’s covenant indeed represented the presence of God. Then, the power of God was displayed. Yet, in this case the people were quite opposite. They misused the ark of the LORD’s covenant. They had no fear of God, no obedience and no true faith, even with no sound human reason.

Then how did the Philistines respond at this? In verse 6, “Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, ‘What’s all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?’ When they learned that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp, the Philistines were afraid. ‘A god has come into the camp,’ they said. ‘We’re in trouble! Nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the god who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the desert.” Ironically, the Philistines had the fear of the god of Israel and also had the sense of history, and prepared themselves with their best for the fight. They said, “Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!” Humanly speaking, they were great. Then what was the result? Verse 10 says, “So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost their thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.” The Israelites were miserably and shamefully defeated. It was likely that human courage won over superstition. Even they had the ark of God which they relied on captured. And Eli’s two sons died on that same day as God had said to Eli through a man of God (2:34).

In verses 12-21 the meaning of this defeat is written with the death of Eli. When Eli heard of the news, especially, the ark of the God being captured, he fell backward off his chair. His neck was broken and he died. He was ninety-eight years old and the last old man in his family line, just as God had pronounced judgment upon his family line that all his descendants would die in their prime time. (2:32). And his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, pregnant and near the time of delivery, at the tragic news went into labour and gave birth to a son, but was overcome by her labour pains. At the moment of her death, 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. Ichabod meaning “no glory”, what a sorrowful name! Again the author wrote in verse 22, “She said, ‘The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.’”

The Israelites were the people with the ark of the LORD’s covenant. God’s power and glory were supposed to be with them as the LORD’s covenant people. But when they were just superstitious at the very time to be repentant and prayerful, they were miserably defeated, even let the ark of God being captured and thus the glory departed from them. Their lives were that of the woman, the wife of Phinehas, who was overcome by her labour pains and died giving birth at the news of the deaths of her father-in-the law and her husband and the capture of the ark of God. The Israelites were full of sorrow and misery as the glory departed from them.

We have become God’s covenant people through his Son Christ Jesus who died for our sins and rose again from the dead. The LORD Almighty is our God and Father through Jesus our Savour and Lord. And we have the words of God clearly written in the Bible. It is unthinkable for the glory to depart from God’s covenant people. But it is easy for Christians to become shamanistic believers and so Christianity to be degraded into mere a superstitious religion just for a good fortune and happy life in this world, especially when people lost gospel faith. Some wear cross-necklaces just for a good luck charm. As we studied, God cannot be mocked. We need to live a life of faith all the more holding to the gospel and repenting before his words and truly believing in his words of promise and his mighty power so that indeed God’s glory be revealed in our lives. May God’s glory be revealed through Ian and Jammie’s wedding. May we see God’s glory as we welcome coming freshmen and serve them with the words of God. Truly God’s glory be revealed through our U of T campus pioneering work as we have the words of God in our hearts and live by them and serve the ministry of God’s words.

Second, the living God (5:1-12). This part shows that though the ark of God was captured, God could not be captured. Let’s see what happened. Here is a very interesting event in verses 1-5. “After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon.” Why did they do that? When we read the story of Samson in the book of Judges, the Philistines offered a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and praised Dagon (Judg. 16:23-24) after capturing Samson. Here by placing the ark of God in the temple of Dagon and setting it beside Dagon, probably they wanted to make sure that their god Dagon was superior to the god of Israel. It could be a visible representation that the god of Philistines was victorious over the god of Hebrews. But what took place? “When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the LORD! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the LORD! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained.” What a surprising notable event! This was quite opposite to what the Philistines had expected. At the first display Dagon was fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the LORD. At the second display even his head and hands were broken off, which was a common sign that the enemy was dead (17:54; 31:9; Judg. 7:25; 8:6; 2 Sam. 4:12). With his head and hands broken off and with only his body remained, headless and handless Dagon was totally helpless and powerless like a dead man. This was none other than the display of the power of the LORD Almighty. He is the only living God judging all other false gods. This is a consistent and very significant teaching of the whole Bible. He is the living and all powerful God. This is as Hannah confessed, “There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God” (2:2) When the Israelites did not put their faith in this God, they were defeated and glory departed from them. Jesus said, “He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Lk 20:38).

In verses 6-12 is written the LORD’s judgment upon the Philistines. While the hand of Dagon was cut off, the LORD’s hand was heavy upon the people of Ashdod and its vicinity. He brought devastation upon them and afflicted them with tumors. When the men of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand was heavy upon us and upon Dagon our god.” Then the ark of the god of Israel was moved to Gath, and this time the LORD’s hand was against that city, throwing it into a great panic. Then the ark was moved to Ekron. As the ark of God was entering Ekron, the people of Ekon cried out, “They have brought the ark of the god of Israel around to us to kill us and our people.” For death had filled the city with panic; God’s hand was very heavy upon it. And the outcry of the city went up to heaven. In this way the Philistines could not keep the ark of the God of Israel in their territory anymore.

Again, God cannot be mocked. He is not to dishoured and disgraced. He really wants to let his power and glory be revealed so that all false gods be exposed and be judged and all people of the world may recognize him and come to him.

Third, the ark of God returned (6:1-7:1). Look at 6:1-2. “When the ark of the LORD had been in Philistine territory seven months, the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, ‘What shall we do with the ark of the LORD? Tell us how we should send it back to its place.’” They were told to send the ark of the LORD with a guilt offering, five gold tumors and five gold rats, according to the number of the Philistines rulers. And they were to pay honour to Israel’s god. It was so that his hand of judgment would be lifted from them and their god and their land. In that way they were to show their basic respect toward the god of Israel.

In fact, how they sent the ark of the LORD was this: Two cows that had calved and had never been yoked were hitched to a new cart with the ark of the LORD placed on it along with a chest containing the gold objects, while the calves of the two cows were taken away and penned up. It was to test whether the cart dragged by the cows would go up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, or not. Through this test they would figure out whether the disaster that came upon them was indeed the LORD’s hand or by chance. Humanly speaking, the possibility of the cows going up to its own territory would be very low, because the cows’ instinct to take care of their calves and the cows’ no experience of being yoked and going to an unknown designated place. It was removing all human possibilities. But what happened was that the cows went straight up toward Beth Shemesh, keeping on the road and lowing all the way; they did not turn to the right or to the left. This is really surprising to human mind. And in going up straight, the both cows had the same mind. Then the cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock, although there was no “STOP” sign. The rulers of the Philistines followed as far as the border of Beth Shemesh and saw all this. They must have been convinced that the disaster which came upon their land and people was not by chance but by the land of the LORD, the God of Israel. This is an amazing message to the whole world that the LORD, he is in control over all. He is the Sovereign Ruler over all people and all things. He gives conviction those who truly seek God’s will. Verse 18b says, “The large rock on which they set the ark of the LORD, is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh.” And it is notable that the cows were sacrificed as a burnt offering after completing their task (6:14). This reminds us of our Lord Jesus who obeyed God’s will and was sacrificed on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

We believe that the hand of the LORD was lifted from the Philistines. But God struck down some of the men of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they had looked into the ark of the LORD, probably out of ignorance or curiosity. The people mourned because of the heavy blow the LORD had dealt them, and the men of Beth Shemesh asked, “Who can stand in the presence of the LORD, the holy God? To whom will the ark go up from here?” Then the ark of the LORD came to Kiriath Jearim; the men of Kiriath Jearim took the ark to Abinadab’s house on the hill and consecrated Eleazar his son to guard the ark of the LORD. The LORD had to be properly respected and honoured in the way prescribed in the Scriptures.

Thank God for making us his covenant people through his Son Jesus Christ. He is the LORD Almighty, all powerful and all sovereign living God. May we truly honour him guarding the words of the Bible, particularly the gospel in our hearts and living by them very personally so that his glory be displayed in our lives and God’s ministry.

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