Sermon preached on 1 Samuel 4 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/11/2015 in Novato, CA.
1 Samuel 4
Ichabod! We see in verse 21 that this chapter is a story of Ichabod. Ichabod roughly means “no glory!” And that’s what this chapter is about. It’s about the glory of the Lord departing from Israel. These are dark times, very dark times, for the nation of Israel. The Bible says that you reap what you sow, and this is exactly that: Israel reaping all that their sin and wickedness had sown. Israel’s leaders had been greatly sinning; we’ve seen that in the last two chapters. And Israel themselves has been sinning; we’ll see that described in chapter 7 in terms of idolatry. And so here not only do they meet such a horrible defeat by the Philistines, not only do the only two sons of the high priest get killed, but the very Ark of the Covenant is captured by the enemy. So then, today we will consider what went on in this dark time, and then think about its significance for us.
So we begin the story in today’s chapter at war. Verses 1 through 3 describe how Israel was at war with the Philistines. If you recall from the book of Judges, this was the nation that Sampson as judge was battling with too. At this point in the book of Samuel, this would have occurred after that time of Sampson, so we are not surprised to see a continued struggle with this enemy. And so Israel meets the Philistines in battle around the towns of Ebenezer and Aphek, an area west of Shiloh. And the Israelites are defeated in that battle, losing about four thousand men. Now at this point, the elders there ask a great question. Look at verse 4. They ask, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?” I love that question, because they recognize God’s providence here. You see, they don’t say how come the Philistines defeated us, they say how come the LORD defeated us. They give God the credit, not the Philistines, for their defeat. In this case, that seems like a very correct statement. It’s exactly what we saw in the book of Judges that chronicled this era of Israel. The people were sinning, especially by going after false gods and practicing idolatry, and when they did, God would deliver them into the hand of some neighboring enemy nation. Of course, this was one of the many curses God threatened Israel with if they disobeyed the covenant. Deuteronomy 28:25 says this if they break the terms of the covenant, “The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies; you shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them;” And so God said this very clearly: break the laws of the covenant and curses such as military defeat will come upon you.
So, when the elders ask the question of verse 3, there should be a perfectly obvious answer to it. Unfortunately, they don’t get it. It was a great question. It should have sparked some real earnest soul searching and self examination. The result should have been confession of sin, and mourning before God, seeking atonement. In other words they should have repented of their sins and sought forgiveness and reconciliation. That would have been the right response. But instead they do something entirely different. They call for the Ark of the Covenant. They are going to go back to battle, but this time bringing the Ark with them. Now this almost sounds religious. But it actually was a perversion of true religion. Here they go to take the Ark out as if it was some religious power play, but it will actually have the opposite effect for them. God calls for us to worship him in truth, in the ways he tells us to worship him, and that is not what they are doing.
Let me step back and explain a little bit about the Ark here. I want to make sure we all understand the significance here of what they were trying to do. The Ark was a box that contained the Ten Commandments in it; the original ones written on the two stone tablets. It’s normal use was in the worship at the Tabernacle. It was housed in the Holy of Holies, and particularly was featured in the sacrifices offered on the Day of Atonement for the sin of the people. There the sacrifices were sprinkled on the lid of the Ark which was known as the mercy seat. At this point in Israel’s history, that meant that it normally resided at Shiloh, were the Tabernacle was and where Eli and his wicked sons served as priests. It’s especially important to note that the Ark represented God’s presence among the people. As we see in verse 4, the presence of God is said to dwell between the cherubim on the ark; the ark had two golden angels known as cherubim on the top of the mercy seat. And so that is why the Ark was placed in the most holy place within the Tabernacle. In general, the Tabernacle was were God’s presence and glory dwelt among the people, but this was particularly focused at the Ark, between the two cherubim. Similarly, there’s a few places in Scripture that describe the Ark as God’s footstool. That imagery makes you think of God being up in a heavenly throne room, but the Ark in the Tabernacle is where he rests his feet.
So why then are they wanting to bring the Ark into the next battle? Well, maybe they are remembering back during Joshua’s day when Israel first conquered the Promised Land. Maybe they are remembering back specifically to the battle of Jericho. That is when God had the people, with the Ark, march around the city for seven days. On the seventh day, God had the walls of the city fall in on themselves, and Israel had a great victory. It’s possible that this Jericho battle was a precedence in the elders’ mind for bringing the Ark to the battle scene. And yet if they are remembering back to Joshua chapter 6 with the battle of Jericho, they should have also remembered back to the next battle in the next chapter, the battle of Ai recorded in Joshua 7. Because it’s that battle that has more application for the elders here. In Joshua 7, the Israelite people, fresh off of their victory with Jericho go and suffer defeat to the town of Ai, a relatively small and weak people. Joshua perceived that it would be such an easy victory that he only sent a small part of his army to take out Ai. Presumably he didn’t take the Ark into that battle. But when they suffered defeat at Ai, you don’t see Joshua presumptuously trying again, this time with the Ark. No, listen what they do in that situation, and you’ll note the Ark is involved. This is what Joshua and the elders do in Joshua 7 after their military defeat:, “Then Joshua tore his clothes, and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the LORD until evening, he and the elders of Israel; and they put dust on their heads.” So, they humbled themselves before the Ark, before God’s presence. They seek revelation from God over what they had done wrong. They don’t act presumptuously, nor do they try to manipulate or control God through marching out the Ark into battle as if it were some magic talisman or something. They act in great humility, and then God reveals to them how the people were in sin and that they needed to address the sin. That was when Achan took some of the prohibited plunder, by the way. And God tells them explicitly that he won’t be with them anymore until they respond appropriately to this sin, Joshua 7:12. If they had remembered the lesson at Ai, the elders in our passage would have been so better off. But they evidently had not. And we see the disastrous results for Israel.
And so this brings us now to the second battle, which is also our second point for today. This begins in verse 4. They call for the Ark to come with them into battle. Look who brings it. Eli’s wicked sons, Hophni and Phineas, the unrighteous priests of the people, are the ones there attending to the Ark. You’ll notice the silence in this chapter concerning Samuel, by the way. There is no record of the elders calling for the prophet Samuel here to inquire about why they suffered defeat. Remember that last chapter ended with the statement of Samuel’s renown throughout the nation as a prophet. If Samuel was so well known as a prophet, why didn’t the elders inquire of him? No, instead they presumptuously call for the Ark and look who brings it: the evil sons of Eli.
We’ve talked about the elder’s bad logic here, but notice how all the people join in on this. In verse 5 we read of Israel’s exuberance when the Ark arrives into the camp. The Israelites obviously agree with their elders that this is a good thing to bring the Ark into battle. They shout out in excitement so loudly, that it shakes the ground. Here’s where we see how God can work through secondary causes. It seems God used their misplaced exuberance backfires to excite the Philistines into victory. Because they had so rejoiced at the Ark coming, the Philistines learn about what’s going on. This huge roar from the people gets the Philistine camp’s attention, verse 6. It sparks great fear in these pagans. They learn somehow that the Ark had been brought into the camp. And we see in verses 6-9 that the Philistines had already been aware of Israel’s past victories over the Egyptians. In verse 8 these pagan Philistines believe the gods of the Israelites were responsible for the way Israel struck Egypt so mightily. All of this results in the Philistines not only being afraid, but “manning up”. The Philistines tell themselves in verse 9, “Be strong and conduct yourselves like men, you Philistines, that you do not become servants of the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Conduct yourselves like men, and fight!”
And that’s what they do. They fight very well that day. And so it’s as we’ve been saying, Israel’s plan here failed. They thought they would find victory by bringing the Ark. But not only do they find defeat instead of victory, it’s a far worse defeat. Notice how bad their loss is this time. Verse 10 tells us that they lost 30,000 men; that’s 7.5 times as many people lost than in the first battle. Plus Eli’s two wicked sons are killed in the battle. And the worst thing is that the Ark itself is captured. We see God’s hand in this great defeat for Israel by the word choice in verse 10. The word describing Israel’s slaughter in verse 10 is the same word translated in verse 8 when it talked about the plagues God brought upon Egypt before through Israel. See the correlation? The same God who before brought a mighty slaughter on Egypt through Israel, now brings a mighty slaughter to Israel through the Philistines. There is an important lesson to learn here. God’s presence is a great thing if you are in a good standing with God. But God’s presence is a dangerous thing if you are not right with God. God’s presence can bring discipline or judgment when you are not right with him.
And so the irony here in all this is that the elders started out by asking a right question, but them come up with a presumptuous and non-biblical answer. Instead of coming before the God at the Ark in humility and seeking to repent where needed, they presumptuously drag the Ark into battle. And it has the opposite effect, because the Ark actually stands as a witness against them. Remember what was in the Ark. The Ten Commandments were put inside the ark as a witness to the people, Exodus 25:16. These commandments that they are parading around in the Ark speak against the way the people had gone after other gods and had engaged in idolatry. They had been rampantly breaking the very first two commands. So by bringing out the Ark like this, they are only heaping more judgment upon themselves. By bringing the Ark into battle they are not bringing an ally, but an opponent. God himself stands against them and uses the Philistines to be his hand of great discipline against Israel. In last chapter, God prophesied to Samuel about the judgment on Eli’s house. In 3:11, God said that he would do something in Israel at which both ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. We realize here in this chapter that he wasn’t just talking about the killing off of Eli’s sons. But God brings this great military defeat, losing so many lives, and also the unthinkable happens: the Ark itself is captured.
The rest of the chapter then deals with this very fact, with this ear tingling, so to speak. From verse 12 through the end of the chapter, we see the response to this horrible outcome from the people. This brings us now to our third point and to think about the significance of losing the Ark. Let’s begin with the scene with Eli starting in verse 12. A messenger from Benjamin comes running from the battlefield to give a report to Shiloh. Remember, Shiloh is where the Tabernacle was, and it was essentially the capital city for Israel. Eli, as we read here, is the official judge, so as judge and high priest, he would be the highest ruler among the people. So, even in his advanced age, it is fitting that he gets a report of what happened in this great battle. And so as this messenger comes and gives his report, the people start to hear about it, the whole city starts to cry out, verse 13. Then Eli gets the report. Notice how the man tells the bad news in verse 17 in a specific order: from bad to worst. He recounts the slaughter, and then the loss of Eli’s sons, and then finally of the Ark. And it’s the news about the Ark that Eli was most concerned about. In verse 13, Eli is said to be waiting and watching for news, specifically trembling for the Ark. Then, when he hears all the bad news, it’s specifically at the loss of the Ark when he then falls backwards and breaks his neck and dies, verse 18. So, the people of Shiloh recognize how bad this is; Eli recognized how bad this was; and it seems that he had been very concerned that something like this might happen. Eli’s death only further seals the matter, further symbolic of how bad this was to lose the Ark.
The final scene highlights this yet further. Eli’s daughter-in-law, wife of Phinehas, goes into labor, apparently sparked prematurely by this horrible news, verse 19. She dies in the childbirth process, but not before she can name the son born to her, Ichabod. As I said, that roughly translates as “no glory.” She explains the name in verse 21 and 22. She says, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
So, why was the loss of the Ark so important? Why would it be so important that people are more concerned over that, than say even the loss of the lives of loved ones? Well, the Ichabod name begins to explain it. The glory of God has departed from Israel. Well, it seems that the people rightly saw the loss of the Ark as the removal of God’s glory and presence from among them. Think of the several passages in the Bible before this that described God’s Shekinah glory, when God’s Spirit would come over and into the Tabernacle. That was reflective of God’s presence being there with the people. God’s presence was understood to be with the nation as a whole, but particularly at the Tabernacle, and therein particularly at the Ark. But now the Ark was gone. God’s presence had forsaken them. God’s glory had left them. Remember how important God’s presence with the people was — Moses told God back at Mount Sinai that it would be for naught for them to carry on into the Promised Land if God would not be with them. And so how disastrous this was for the nation. Imagine if you received a message today from an angel saying that God was retracting his Holy Spirit from you and that you were on your own from now on. Well, that’s something like what the people were experiencing that day when news came back that the Ark had been captured. This wasn’t just the loss of some national historic treasure. This represented the retracting of God’s glorious presence from among the people.
Psalm 78 offers interesting commentary on this event and the surrounding history. Turn with me there now. In describing these times, and God’s response to the people’s sin, it says this in verses 60-62: “So that He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, The tent He had placed among men, And delivered His strength into captivity, And his glory into the enemy’s hand. He also gave His people over to the sword, And was furious with His inheritance.” But the Psalm goes on to describe the good outcome God would bring in this. Listen to verses 65-72:
Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, Like a mighty man who shouts because of wine. And He beat back His enemies; He put them to a perpetual reproach. Moreover He rejected the tent of Joseph, And did not choose the tribe of Ephraim, But chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion which He loved. And He built His sanctuary like the heights, Like the earth which He has established forever. He also chose David His servant, And took him from the sheepfolds; From following the ewes that had young He brought him, To shepherd Jacob His people, And Israel His inheritance. So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, And guided them by the skillfulness of his hands.
This is where this book of Samuel is headed. By taking the Ark here from the Tabernacle at Shiloh, he forsook Shiloh. The Ark would never return to the Tabernacle there. The Ark would ultimately get returned, and eventually make it to Jerusalem. King David will be the one to bring it there. Psalm 78 tells us something interesting here. This is all about of how God would be rejecting the leadership of the tribe of Joseph, and instead giving it to the tribe of Judah. Remember, Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob, and ever since Joseph rose to power in Egypt, he had a place of rule over the other tribes. Jacob gave Joseph the double blessing of the first born, and that meant Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh each got an allotment in the Promised Land. And Jacob blessed Joseph’s younger son Ephraim above the older. And so all this is seen by the fact that originally the Tabernacle gets set up in Shiloh, which was a town in the territory of Ephraim, the first blessed son of Joseph. But in God’s sovereign election, even in terms of who would rule his people, Psalm 78 helps us to see how these events will serve to transition from the leadership of Joseph’s tribe to the leadership of Judah. David, of the tribe of Judah, would become the King of God’s choice. He would bring religious renewal to the land, including the bringing of the Ark back into the Tabernacle to be in Jerusalem, which was in the territory of Judah. Well not only is this all very interesting to say the least, but realize that this is part of the hope that is here for us at this point in the book of Samuel. At this exceedingly dark chapter in Israel’s history, we know the larger story. Yes, the Ark had been captured, exiled essentially. But in God’s grace, the people had not themselves been captured and exiled out of the Land. Rather, God would use this time to chasten Israel. And his glory would return. And it would come to rest in his chosen King in Jerusalem.
And yet in the mean time, there would be further lessons to learn. The book of Samuel doesn’t move the leadership straight from the tribe of Joseph to the tribe of Judah. No, first, there is another that is given a chance. The tribe of Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin, the only other son of Rachel, would be given a chance to lead. We see hints of that here. It’s a messenger of Benjamin who brings the news to Eli. Interesting, Jewish Rabbinic tradition says that’s Saul, but of course we have no way to verify that, and there’s nothing here that would tell us that. And then you may have noticed that when the daughter-in-law gives birth, it’s written in a way that makes you remember how Benjamin was born, that’s when Rachel dies in child birth, also naming her son before she dies. And as we’ll see in the chapters to come, that before the Ark makes it to Jerusalem, it will first be returned to Israel and end up at Kiriath-Jiriam, which is a city in the territory of Benjamin. And so before we will get King David, King Saul of Benjamin will be given a chance. The tribe of Benjamin will be given a chance to lead, but it will ultimate come instead to the tribe of Judah, and the line of David. And from that line, the leadership will ultimately come to Jesus.
Well, as we consider this horrible chapter of Israel’s history in light of the bigger story in the book of Samuel, we should apply it to us by doing something similar. If we consider all of this in light of the bigger picture of Israel’s history, we can begin to find our connection to this story. You see, Israel will later again lose the glory of God from among them. The book of Ezekiel describes the glory of the Lord leaving the temple. That looked to when Jerusalem itself is destroyed. The people themselves are captured and exiled. The covenant was broken and the full curses came upon the people. At that point, the temple is also destroyed and the Ark of the Covenant has gone missing. Maybe it was destroyed; some extra-biblical records suggest it was hidden. But it’s really of no matter. It is of no matter because the prophets predicted a restoration of Israel after this. A restoration that Ezekiel says involves the glory of the Lord returning. But Jeremiah prophesied in Jeremiah 3 that this would not involve a new Ark of the Covenant. He says that after the restoration of Israel happens that the people won’t talk about the Ark anymore, saying in Jeremiah 3:16 about the Ark, “It shall not come to mind, nor shall they remember it, nor shall they visit it, nor shall it be made anymore.” Jeremiah goes on to say that instead, the whole city of Jerusalem would be the throne of God instead. The point is that the Ark of the Covenant represented God’s presence among the people. It was typological. That’s even why John would see a heavenly version up in heaven in Revelation 11:19. And so in the restoration, the Ark of the Covenant would be replaced by a greater realizing of God’s presence among his people. Jeremiah 3:17 goes on to say this, “At that time Jerusalem shall be called The Throne of the LORD, and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the LORD, to Jerusalem.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is where we find our connection. We are these prophesied nations that have been gathered to the presence of God. All this Old Testament restoration prophesy was predicted to happen through the Messiah. That Messiah has come. He has offered us Gentiles to also be a part of this restored kingdom. It’s a kingdom that has already come in part, but will come in its full at the return of Christ. Already this greater measure of God’s presence is experienced by every true believer. We have the Spirit of Glory within us. We have what was represented by that Ark! The Spirit keeps those words of the new covenant in our hearts and minds. The Spirit of Glory is with us always, even until the end of the age. And then, at the end of the age, finally, Jerusalem will be restored in the full. That’s predicted in Revelation, describing a New Jerusalem that will come down out of heaven. Then we, all who have trusted in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, and only those who have trusted in Christ, we will experience the greatest measure of God’s presence forever, into eternity.
Trust then in the chosen leader of God’s people. Jesus, the Christ, and the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, is the one to bring us to the presence of God’s glory. Repent of your sins. Humble yourself before the Almighty God. Believe in him and in the power of the cross to bring about the forgiveness of your sins. Be lead by the Christ into glory. And so with Christ, there is no Ichabod for God’s people. He drives away the gloom and despair and brings us the greatest joy. We now know his glory, and that forever. And that is possible because of what he did on the cross. On the cross, he became Ichabod essentially. He received the forsaking of God and his glory on the cross. That is what we’ve deserved. He bore that on the cross for us, so we can be instead assured of the opposite: that we will never know the reality of Ichabod as Christian. Rather, God will always be with us.
And yet in coming to Christ, may we understand what this truly means. You see, there is a lesson to be learned from this chapter. Some people treat their relationship with Christ somewhat like the people did here with the Ark. Instead of really repenting of their sins in humility and trusting in Christ by faith, they can instead treat the gospel more like a few magic words that they just need to utter. They go on in life, not really reckoning with their own sin. They know the gospel says we can find forgiveness in Jesus, and so they go on in their sinful ways without any real humility and remorse. They pray the sinners prayer from time to time, almost like how they paraded the Ark around here, and they think by doing that they are saved. But do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for we reap what we sow. Truly then repent of your sins and flee to Christ for forgiveness. And you will indeed be saved. And so then for all of us today who have come to Christ: know that the glory of God is within you! He and his glory will never leave you nor forsake you. Praise the Lord! Amen.
Copyright © 2015 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.