1 Samuel Chapter 4: The Ark Taken, Priesthood Dead

Dec 28th, 2009 | By | Category: 1 & 2 Samuel, Verse by Verse --Studies led by Br. Frank Shallieu (Click on Book name)

1 Samuel Chapter 4: The Ark Taken, Priesthood Dead

1 Sam. 4:1 And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Eben-ezer: and the Philistines pitched in Aphek.

1 Sam. 4:2 And the Philistines put themselves in array against Israel: and when they joined battle, Israel was smitten before the Philistines: and they slew of the army in the field about four thousand men.

Verse 1 starts a historical account of a battle between the Israelites and the Philistines. The Israelites pitched beside a place called Eben-ezer, and the Philistines were in Aphek. It is hard to identify these places today because no one knows their exact location. However, the place names are used in various other places in Scripture, so we can generalize as to where they were located. The battle site was probably not very far north of Jerusalem in the vicinity of Ramah.

Samuel named the place Eben-ezer after the battle; that is, the place was not called Eben-ezer at this time, for Samuel gave it that name later. “Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Eben-ezer, saying, Hitherto hath the LORD helped us” (1 Sam. 7:12). Incidentally, it seems quite likely that Samuel was responsible for writing his own two books, 1 and 2 Samuel. In reviewing his life, he looked back on these places and said the battle took place in the vicinity of Eben-ezer, for the place was known by that name in the latter part of his life.

In the accounts in 1 and 2 Samuel and in 1 and 2 Kings, the number who were slain in battle is characteristically given. The Philistines killed about 4,000 Israelites in this particular battle.

1 Sam. 4:3 And when the people were come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, Wherefore hath the LORD smitten us today before the Philistines? Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies.

Verse 3 starts to tell about another confrontation in the same battle. Realizing they had suffered a defeat, the elders of Israel suggested that the Ark of the Covenant be fetched out of the Tabernacle at Shiloh and taken into battle. They thought that with the presence of the Ark, they would be victorious.

Comment: A Reprint article suggested that the elders might have thought back on, and considered as a precedent, how the Ark was with the Israelites in the Wilderness of Sinai and also when the Jordan River dried up and the nation went over dry-shod, but those situations were different. Now they were in a battle, whereas previously God had directed the Israelites to have the Ark with them. Here they were being presumptuous.

Reply: While the Israelites lost 4,000 men, that number was nothing compared with the losses in some of their other battles.

Q: In this case, the Israelites were ripe for punishment, so they had to lose the battle. However, if they had been obedient yet taken the Ark, wouldn’t the act still be wrong and presumptuous because they did not have God’s permission to move the Ark?

A: Yes, because the Ark was in a place of rest at Shiloh. The matter would have been different if the Israelites had been marching with the Ark and were suddenly confronted by an enemy, that is, if a surprise attack occurred while they were in transit caravan-fashion. To the contrary, there was preparation before regular battles, so that when the enemy began to approach, the Israelites then aligned themselves for a battle.

Comment: The Israelites should have inquired of the Lord before trying to take the Ark into battle.

Q: Would the Israelites also have thought of the Ark of the Covenant as a fetish? The elders of Israel said, “Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies.”

A: It is possible that in addition to knowing the Ark represented God’s presence, the people could have had that thought.

Comment: The Ark had been stationary now for many years, and as stated in 1 Samuel 3:1, there had not been any recent vision.

Reply: Yes, we would concur, but certainly the people did not have real faith, for they said, “It [the Ark] may save us.”

1 Sam. 4:4 So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from thence the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, which dwelleth between the cherubims: and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

“The ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, which dwelleth between the cherubims” is an enlightening expression signifying that the Ark was symbolic of God’s presence. (The two cherubim did not represent God Himself, for based on the suggestion the Pastor made in Tabernacle Shadows, they represent Love and Power, two of God’s attributes, two of the principles upon which His government is founded.) Not only did the Ark represent God’s presence, but it was like a portable throne, a seat. “The LORD reigneth; … he sitteth between the cherubims” (Psa. 99:1). The Shekinah light above actually represented Jehovah’s presence, but symbolically speaking, God was seated on the Ark and carried into battle on a portable chair. Now we can see the blasphemy of the pope’s being carried through the throngs on the Sedia Gestatoria to be worshipped in St. Peter’s square. What a mockery! He is placing himself not only in Christ’s stead but, worse yet, in God’s stead because the throne represents Jehovah. The Ark was Israel’s most sacred emblem.

Q: The word “between” in the phrase “between the cherubims” is italicized both in the Psalms and here in verse 4. Is the word supplied?

A: Yes. The thought is “above [and between]” the cherubim.

The visions in chapters 1 and 10 of Ezekiel are a picture of the cherubim in God’s presence.

There the cherubim support a frozen crystal pavilion upon which is a throne, and on that throne the presence of God Almighty is symbolically represented. The cherubim underneath support the throne, and between them and the throne is a space resembling frozen ice or crystal. The setting is like an enlarged picture of the Ark of the Covenant. Moreover, the cherubim have wheels showing that the Ark is the chariot of God. “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD [Jehovah]” (Ezek. 1:28). In other words, that whole arrangement is representative of God’s presence and His throne, which is not so static that He has to operate from one strategic place. Rather, His throne can move anywhere. In fact, chapter 10 shows God seated upon the Temple. He left the chariot, as it were, and sat on the Temple. His train, or robes, more or less covered the Temple so that the whole structure was representative of His presence in the midst of the people of Israel.

Hophni and Phinehas accompanied the Ark as it was being moved. Their silence indicates they did not remonstrate or urge that the Lord be consulted in prayer. Hence they approved and were in agreement with taking the Ark to the scene of the battle.

1 Sam. 4:5 And when the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again.

1 Sam. 4:6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, What meaneth the noise of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews? And they understood that the ark of the LORD was come into the camp.

1 Sam. 4:7 And the Philistines were afraid, for they said, God is come into the camp. And they said, Woe unto us! for there hath not been such a thing heretofore.

1 Sam. 4:8 Woe unto us! who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty Gods? These are the Gods that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness.

For the Israelites to see the Ark of the Covenant come into the camp must have been quite an encouragement. Arrayed in battle, they gave a “great shout” that was so loud it frightened the Philistines, especially when they realized what the Ark signified. The Philistines began to tremble in fear, crying, “Woe unto us! for there hath not been such a thing heretofore.” It was something new—a new precedent—for the Ark to be taken into battle.

The Philistines recognized that the Ark was emblematic of God’s presence. Not only was Jehovah in the Israelites’ presence, but all the forces, or agencies, in the heavenly realm were at His command. This idea was quite popular not only among the Philistines but also among the Hebrews.

1 Sam. 4:9 Be strong, and quit yourselves like men, O ye Philistines, that ye be not servants unto the Hebrews, as they have been to you: quit yourselves like men, and fight.

The account does not state who gave this message, but the Philistines were ready to surrender when this urgent message came to them. Later, when the fighting resumed, the Philistines were successful against what seemed to be hopeless odds, for they thought the God of Israel, who had visited the plagues upon the Egyptians, would fight for His people.

In another incident, a heathen king was guided of the Lord to speak a true message through his own religion and technique. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had purposed to eventually besiege Jerusalem, but for military reasons, he felt that Ammon was the logical first target. After subjugating Ammon, he would go up through Jericho to Jerusalem. However, when the king instructed his soothsayers to examine the entrails of animals to see if this order of battle should be pursued, the entrails repeatedly indicated he should go first to Jerusalem. He accepted the omen and went to Jerusalem. Thus God directed and overruled the superstitious symbols that were used for judgment to indicate that Nebuchadnezzar should go down and punish Jerusalem. The intention was the same here; namely, God wanted to visit judgment on the Hebrews. However, instead of destroying the Ark, the Philistines took it into captivity, which was like subjugating the Temple of God.

Although the account does not tell the source of the encouraging message of verse 9, which counteracted the great fear of the Philistines, the suggestion is that God originated it.

Ostensibly, the Lord suffered a defeat in the battle because the most sacred emblem of the nation was captured and the Israelites were defeated, but subsequent events were a victory for the Lord.

Comment: The technique will be similar when God puts hooks in the jaws of Gog and brings the forces down to Israel (Ezek. 38:4).

Reply: Yes, several other pictures show a similar principle. For example, in the Micaiah account, God put a lying spirit in the mouth of the false prophets.

Comment: For the expression “quit yourselves like men,” the RSV has, “Acquit yourselves like men.”

Reply: Yes, it means, “Be like men!” Spoken in an imperative sense, the words are forceful.

“Allay your fears! Go forth in strength!”

In summary, then, a message came, telling the Philistines to fight courageously like men lest they be defeated and become Israelite slaves. God wanted to visit judgment on the Hebrews, so He overruled to have this message counteract the fear of the Philistines.

1 Sam. 4:10 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.

1 Sam. 4:11 And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.

Previously 4,000 Israelites were slain. This time 30,000 footmen died—a significantly larger number—so by taking the Ark into battle, the Israelites experienced a much greater loss of life.

Moreover, the Ark was captured, and Eli’s two sons, underpriests Hophni and Phinehas, were slain. At this point, Israel was almost completely demoralized. It was unprecedented that they had taken the Ark into battle, and it was also unprecedented that the Ark was captured. The capture of the Ark gave a great foreboding of evil and judgment with possibly more to come.

Why did God allow the Ark to be taken and Eli’s two sons to be slain? As prophesied earlier, Hophni and Phinehas received a judgment for their past lifestyles of immorality and greed. These two representatives of the priesthood accompanied the Ark into battle. Thus this judgment was on the present priesthood. The point is emphasized that the Ark was captured, not destroyed. While the people had been disturbed and had brought the two sons’ sins to the attention of Eli, they were obligated to put far more pressure on Eli as the evil practices continued. Failing to do this, they incurred responsibility. In other words, since Eli was too weak to remove his sons from the priesthood, the nation had a responsibility to make sure that they were put out and that another arrangement was made. The chief responsibility lay with Eli and his two sons, but the people were somewhat to blame too. The two sons incurred responsibility because they were committing the sins, and Eli was responsible because he was too lenient. In decision making, it is harder to take a stand toward one’s own flesh and blood, but when the Lord’s will is known, the right decision should be carried out quickly, without procrastination. The people suffered in the removal of the Ark because it was their national treasure. They went to the Tabernacle to pray and offer sacrifices because the Ark was there. In short, most of the responsibility lay with the priesthood, but the people were responsible too.

1 Sam. 4:12 And there ran a man of Benjamin out of the army, and came to Shiloh the same day with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head.

A man with his clothes torn and earth upon his head ran from the battle scene to Shiloh, where Eli was. Why does the account state specifically that the messenger was from the tribe of Benjamin? Eben-ezer, mentioned in verse 1, was in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. The Ark had been removed from Shiloh, which was north of Jerusalem, to the locale of Eben-ezer in Benjamin, where the battle was being fought. Then the Ark was taken by the Philistines.

The messenger was in mourning. While we may regard some Old Testament instances of tearing the clothes and wearing sackcloth and ashes as show and as not being as meaningful as the repentance and remorse of the Christian in the New Testament, yet to rend the clothes cost the individual something. Moreover, to either make the head bald or rub ashes or dirt in the hair showed that the individual was humbling himself. This demonstrativeness is a very good picture of repentance, mourning, and remorse. If we spiritualize the forceful literal picture and recognize it as a symbol of repentance, we can see how far-reaching real remorse and repentance should be when a matter is serious and a mere statement is not enough.

1 Sam. 4:13 And when he came, lo, Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching: for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city, and told it, all the city cried out.

The messenger found Eli sitting “upon a seat by the wayside watching.” What was his purpose?

Comment: A Reprint article states that Eli was sitting on a high seat as a judge at the gate.

Reply: At this time in Israel’s history, the priesthood seemed to mingle more with the civil affairs of the people than in Moses’ day, when “church and state” were kept separate, although both were under the Lord. As time went on, God did not communicate with His people as in days of old because of their deflection, so they began to use judgment on their own. With Eli now acting as a judge, as well as being the high priest, the two offices were coming together.

Therefore, it is possible that instead of being seated with the Tabernacle arrangement, he was sitting by the city gate. Since the roads of that day went through the city gates, it was convenient for Eli to be on the outskirts of Shiloh. In other words, the “wayside” was the road.

Meanwhile, Eli’s “heart trembled [with anxiety] for the ark of God” as he watched and waited for news. Apparently, he anticipated bad news from the time the Ark was taken from Shiloh, and he certainly incurred responsibility if he knew about the plan to take the Ark to battle and did not stop its removal. Eli was “watching” even though his eyesight was poor (verse 15).

“All the city cried out.” The people probably saw the messenger running toward their city and surmised that he was bearing sad tidings. When the messenger related the bad news, the people raised a clamor.

1 Sam. 4:14 And when Eli heard the noise of the crying, he said, What meaneth the noise of this tumult? And the man came in hastily, and told Eli.

When Eli heard the cries and the mourning of the people, he inquired as to the meaning. The messenger came in hastily and told Eli what had happened to the Ark and his two sons. The word “hastily” indicates that the urgency of his mission was to inform Eli. Therefore, the implication is that he did not linger to tell the people, but said quickly when some inquired, “The Ark has been taken, and Israel has been defeated.” Then those individuals informed others, and as the word spread, the people picked up the refrain and mourned.

The situation would have been similar in Egypt when the destroying angel went through and the firstborn were slain. In the morning, the Israelites could hear the refrain in the houses of the Egyptians. Even though the destroying angel went through at midnight, we can be sure that during that night, for one reason or another, a parent would find his son dead and start to mourn. Then next door, or two doors down, the same discovery was made, followed by mourning. Eventually all the people woke up and found that in every Egyptian household, figuratively speaking, there was a death. Before long, a refrain of mourning went throughout Egypt. When Pharaoh woke up in the middle of the night, he wanted to get an urgent message through to Moses, even before morning.

Q: If Eli was sitting at the gate, why didn’t the messenger first tell him the news, that is, before telling the people?

A: Eli would have been at the east gate of the city. Going from the battle scene to Shiloh in the north, the messenger would have approached from the south and thus entered a different gate.

1 Sam. 4:15 Now Eli was ninety and eight years old; and his eyes were dim, that he could not see.

1 Sam. 4:16 And the man said unto Eli, I am he that came out of the army, and I fled today out of the army. And he said, What is there done, my son?

1 Sam. 4:17 And the messenger answered and said, Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken.

1 Sam. 4:18 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.

The prophecy was that in one day, Eli and his sons would die (1 Sam. 3:12). Therefore, when Eli heard that both sons were dead, he knew the judgment predicted had come to pass. Even though Eli was 98 years old, his age did not deter judgment. In other words, he did not receive pity because of his old age or his poor eyesight. The judgment was predicated upon years of disobedience. During those years, he was given many reminders that he was weak and failed to take action.

Comment: Throughout his walk, right up to his death, Eli was made aware that he could not make strong decisions. He stood trembling at the gate, knowing he had lacked the courage to stop the removal of the Ark.

Reply: That assumption might very well have been the case. However, since the account is silent on that point, he may not have known about the Ark until after it had been taken.

However, his judgment was irrevocable because it was prophesied twice, once by the appearance of an angel of God and also by a man of God on another occasion.

Verses 16-18 give the order in which the news was revealed to Eli. (1) There was a great slaughter, (2) his two sons were slain, and (3) the Ark of God was taken. The news got increasingly worse, so it was the last item that caused Eli to lose his balance, fall backward, break his neck, and die. The slaughter of the people was a great tragedy, the death of his sons came into his own family, but the capture of the Ark was unbelievable.

Comment: It was to Eli’s credit that the news of the Ark was the greatest shock. Since he represents the Great Company, his reaction shows that he was an overcomer but not a morethan- overcomer.

Reply: Evidently, Eli had a pleasing personality and demeanor, but that was part of his weakness, for he lacked sufficient backbone. For instance, when informed that he and his sons would be removed from the priesthood forever, he replied, “It is the LORD: let him do what seemeth him good” (1 Sam. 3:18). There was a tenderness in the way he addressed Samuel, and when the messenger came from the battle scene, Eli asked, “What is there done, my son?

Those who end up in the Great Company originally ran for the high calling. They were in good standing when first accepted, but they lose out and thus, like Eli, are removed from the priesthood because of not being faithful to the calling. In the final analysis, the Great Company are only messengers, go-betweens, in the Kingdom. They will not even have the jurisdictional or executive authority of the Ancient Worthies. However, they will be overcomers, for in order to get life on any plane, one has to be an overcomer.

Eli’s neck being broken may indicate he realized his shortcoming and lack to the fullest extent. Just as the Great Company will experience the feeling of alienation from God when they go into the wilderness at the end of the age, so Eli felt alienation when the Ark, symbolizing God’s presence, was taken. The most munificent judgment we can attribute to Eli is that he pictures the Great Company. However, he was in a dangerous situation, because he was only one step removed from the sins of his sons. Hophni and Phinehas were the guilty ones, but when a person is that close to gross sin, he can incur the same guilt by too much sympathy and the failure to take a stand.

Comment: For the same reason, Jude was very stern in his epistle. His admonition was to hate “even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 23).

1 Sam. 4:19 And his daughter-in-law, Phinehas’ wife, was with child, near to be delivered: and when she heard the tidings that the ark of God was taken, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed herself and travailed; for her pains came upon her.

1 Sam. 4:20 And about the time of her death the women that stood by her said unto her, Fear not; for thou hast borne a son. But she answered not, neither did she regard it.

1 Sam. 4:21 And she named the child I-chabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father-in-law and her husband.

1 Sam. 4:22 And she said, The glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken.

The incident of the capture of the Ark had far-reaching ramifications in the nation of Israel, especially in the priesthood. The wife of Phinehas gave birth immediately when she heard the news. She gave her son the unfavorable name of Ichabod, which signified, “The glory [of Israel] is departed,” and then she died. From an emotional standpoint as a woman, the news of her husband’s death very much affected her, but in summing up the matter, she realized that the captivity of the Ark was the worst news.

The fact that Samuel is not mentioned in this whole incident probably indicates he was not aware of what was happening.

(1985-1987 Study)

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