12 A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with dirt on his head. 13 When he arrived, Eli was sitting on his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out. 14 When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?” Then the man hurried and came and told Eli. 15 Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set so that he could not see. 16 And the man said to Eli, “I am he who has come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” And he said, “How did it go, my son?” 17 He who brought the news answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great defeat among the people. Your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” 18 As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.
(1 Samuel 4:12-18)
Over the past few days we’ve been studying two battles between the Philistines and Israel after the Philistines had invaded Israeli territory. We saw the devastating results suffered by Israel and learned the causes behind those results. In today’s passage the news of Israel’s dramatic defeat reaches Shiloh.
There was no live-streaming back then. News and information were carried from place to place via messengers who traveled on foot. When the news was important, as in this case, they ran.
This messenger also had his clothes torn and dirt on his head. These were signs of mourning. When ancient peoples were in mourning they would tear their clothes and put dirt on their face as an external sign of the internal pain they were feeling. Other people would see these signs and know something was wrong.
When the messenger arrived into town, Eli, the chief priest, was sitting on his seat by the road watching. Eli was concerned for the ark of God. He was so concerned that his heart trembled.
Towns had walls and gates back then for protection. Notice that to bring the news of the battle into the town the messenger would have had to pass right by Eli who was sitting by the side of the gate.
But he was ninety-eight years old at this point and his eyes were set (he was blind; his eyes didn’t move in response to activity as those of a sighted person would) so that he could not see. Eli had actually been losing his sight for some time [1 Samuel 2:2].
When the messenger told the news all the city cried out. The loss of 34,000 men and the capture of the ark was devastating news. Everyone was shocked, just like God predicted they would be [1 Samuel 3:11]. No one could ever have imagined such a thing happening.
Eli heard the sound of the outcry and requested to know what was the matter. Notice how the messenger tells him. He starts off with the least shocking event (Israel fled) and built up to Hophi and Phinehas dying and finally that the ark of God had been captured.
We’ve already seen Eli’s attitude towards God sovereignty [1 Samuel 3:18]. He understood that God will do what God will do and there’s no point in arguing. So he does not react to the first few news items delivered by the messenger, not even the fact that his sons are dead.
Eli knew that his sons would die as he was told this would happen [1 Samuel 2:34]. He probably anticipated it happening on this day once Hophni and Phinehas left Shiloh to go to the battle site. So their death probably comes as no surprise.
But when the messenger mentioned the ark Eli was shocked, falling over backward from his seat, dying from a broken neck. His worst fears were realized.
This was a sad end to a man who had judged Israel for forty years. As the high priest he was the leader of the nation. It was his job to enforce God’s law. But he was too weak of a leader to do that.
As a result, Israel lacked courage and ran away in battle. Tens of thousands of men died. His own sons died. And worst of all, the ark of God was now in the hands of the heathen enemy.
All this tragedy could have been avoided if Eli had just had the wherewithal to do the right thing. Instead he gave in to the demands of the people and the elders who had less knowledge than he.
Today we have a similar situation in the United States. Our leaders are weak. They give in to the demands of the people even when those demands go against God. The people wanted abortion to be legal, so our government legalized it. The people wanted pornography to be legal so our government legalized it. The same with same-sex marriage and other sins.
When leaders don’t lead people according to God’s commands – either because they are too weak to do so or because they don’t even know God’s commands themselves – disaster ensues.
It’s interesting to note that the town of Shiloh never recovered from these events. The ark was returned to Israel a few months after being captured but it was not returned to Shiloh. The city faded away over time and eventually became nothing. This was a deliberate act of God [Psalm 78:60; Jeremiah 7:12].
The United States is on a similar path. Slowly but surely we are declining as an economic and military leader. The reason for this is simple: we have deliberately abandoned God and are losing His blessing and protection as a result.
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