1 And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2 The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3 And when the people came to the camp, 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.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. 5 As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.” 10 So the Philistines fought, and 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. 11 And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
(1 Samuel 4:1-11)
Over the past few days we’ve been studying a battle scene between Israel and the Philistines. We’ve seen Israel defeated by the Philistines in two separate battles, losing a combined 34,000 men. But as bad as that was, it wasn’t the worst thing that happened.
After the first battle was lost the Israelites naively brought the ark of the covenant into the second battle. They lost that battle much more decisively than the first. And the ark of God was captured.
The capture of the ark would have been devastating to Israel. The ark was the most sacred object in all the nation and was the place where God met with the high priest once a year on the day of atonement (Yom Kippur) [Leviticus 16:2].
The Israelites saw the ark as a good-luck charm; thinking God would never allow it to be damaged, let alone captured by the enemy. But they were wrong.
God allowed the ark to be captured to teach Israel that there was no power in the ark itself. He wanted them to rely on Him, not on superstition. The ark was not as important to Him as His people were. Israel had been drifting away from God for generations. His main goal was to bring them back to Him even if He had to allow the ark to be captured by the heathen Philistines for that to happen.
God was not interested in things – not even the things He commanded the Israelites to build on His behalf, such as the ark or the tabernacle or even the temple. There is no power in those things. All those things merely pointed Israel – or should have pointed Israel – to Him.
But Israel had a distorted view of God. They thought that they were able to manipulate Him. But God doesn’t allow His arm to be twisted by superstitions and ultimatums. God is not a genie to be summoned by man’s beck and call. God is a person.
This does not mean God is a human being. But it does mean He has His own mind. He has His own thoughts and His own ways, all of which are higher are better than ours [Isaiah 55:8-9]. He is not under obligation to obey us. We are better served by obeying Him.
Notice also that the events of the second battle precisely fulfilled the prophecy God had given Eli years before. God had told Eli that, because of his sin, He would cut of Eli’s descendants from serving Him. This would happen long after Eli died so God gave Eli a sign to prove this would happen. That sign was that his sons, Hophni and Phinehas, would die on the same day [1 Samuel 2:34].
It is not common for two siblings to die on the same day unless they were involved in some common tragedy. As priests, Hophni and Phinehas would not normally be involved in a military campaign. They should have been home in Shiloh working at the tabernacle, out of harm’s way.
But the Jewish leaders made the stupid decision to bring the ark into battle. Hophni and Phinehas decided to go along. They were where they should not have been. And both of them died.
God also promised Eli that He was about to do something so outrageous that everyone in Israel would be shocked. The entire nation would be talking about it [1 Samuel 3:11-12]. I’m sure no one ever imagined that the thing that God would do would be to allow the ark to be captured.
The capturing of the ark was God’s way of reminding Israel that they had distanced themselves from Him and needed to return. It was a shocking event that was meant to get Israel’s attention and open their eyes to how far they had moved away from God.
We must not ever think that God is bluffing. He said Hophni and Phinehas would die on the same day and there should have been no doubt that that would happen. He said that something amazingly tragic was going to happen and it did – the ark was lost.
Likewise, God has told us that there is an eternity. And someday there will be a Judgment Day on which every human being who has ever lived will have the state of their souls evaluated to see if they spend eternity with Him (in heaven) or without Him (in hell). This will happen.
God always means what He says and says what He means. It would not be a wise idea to call His bluff.
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