From "God's Emergency Man"
Samuel had no part in the sorrowful doings which culminated in the loss of the ark, but it is quite impossible to pass over the disaster, while meditating upon the life of the prophet. In Darby's Translation, I Samuel 4 opens with the words, "What Samuel had said happened to all Israel." We thus learn that the defeat of the people, the death of the sons of Eli, and the loss of the ark were Jehovah's fulfillment of the heavy message which he gave to the temple child in the midnight revelation.
The people were utterly wrong with God, and the evil of their leaders was glaring, yet they were so insensible to their condition that they ventured upon a war with the Philistines, only to be abandoned by Jehovah to calamity and disgrace. About four thousand men of Israel were slain at a place which afterwards, in happier days, became known as Ebenezer, which means, "Hitherto hath Jehovah helped us" (1 Sam. 7: 12). A faithful and compassionate God is always ready to help those who first judge themselves, and then make their humble appeal to His mercy. But fleshly pride and insensibility of heart He will lay low. Let us not forget, beloved brethren, that "Israel's God is ours," and that "whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning" (Rom. 15: 4).
When the defeated host returned to camp, the elders said, "Wherefore hath Jehovah smitten us today before the Philistines?" "Wherefore," indeed. Was not the reason apparent? Can a holy God sanction evil in His people, and also deliver them from their foes? They acknowledged Him in terms ("Jehovah hath smitten us"), but they had no real sense of having to do with Him at all.
"You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities " (Amos 3:2), is a principle of the greatest importance. To be in special relationship with God, is at once deeply blessed and deeply solemn. "Begin at My sanctuary," said the God of the Old Testament (Ezek. 9:6); "Judgment must begin at the house of God," says the God of the New (I Pet. 4:17). If His people lose sight of what is due to Him, it is ever present to His mind, and He will not fail to judge the dishonor to His holy name.
Israel's leaders had a remedy. "Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of Jehovah out of Shiloh unto us, that when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies." Mark the word "it," twice repeated. It is true that the ark went before them when they crossed the Jordan, and also went with them when they compassed the walls of Jericho, but was it the ark that wrought for them on those occasions, or was it GOD? God was now forgotten, and a mere symbol had taken His place in their wayward minds. The ark was to them a mere charm or mascot.
A terrible evil is before us in this record: God displaced by an outward and visible sign-the very essence of idolatry. Even the light of the Gospel has not preserved Christendom from this folly and sin. Baptism and the Lord's Supper-precious ordinances of divine institution, blessedly suggestive to the spiritual mind, are the very real dependence of multitudes in our day and not these only. "Sacred" images and pictures have been brought forth on many a day of disaster (such as a volcanic eruption or an outbreak of disease), and have been paraded through the streets in order to ward off that which the people feared. Oh, the horror of it to Him Who has made Himself known in the person of His Son, and Who has withal given to men His written word.
Israel added to the evil by bringing among them Hophni and Phinehas. These vile men were in charge of the sacred vessel, an affront which an indignant God was not slow to avenge.
Israel's shout of exultation when the ark arrived, and the dismay of the Philistines when they heard of it, testified that neither the one nor the other had any sense of the reality of having to do with God. The Philistines said, "God is come into the camp." They forthwith reminded themselves how Israel's mighty God had broken the might of the Egyptians, and they nerved themselves to fight as they had never fought before. But upon their own showing they were now going to fight God. In their superstitious ignorance they mistook a symbol for the very Deity itself. Only Israel's frightful condition explains the second victory, when "there was a very great slaughter: for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen." Philistine defiance would have met its just due had not God's own people needed to be taught a terrible lesson. The ark in which they trusted was taken, "and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain." In Asaph's 78th Psalm, it is recorded, He "delivered His strength into captivity, and His glory into the enemy's hand" (verse 61). The disaster was overwhelming. Could Moses and Aaron ever have believed that "the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth" (josh. 3:11) could have become the spoil of a pagan foe?
The news of the capture of the ark caused the death of Eli. But why did he suffer it to be taken to the war? Weakness and irresolution were the ruin of the aged priest. Barnabas, one of the choicest of New Testament saints, resembled Eli in this. May God in His mercy preserve us from this snare, so congenial to ease-loving nature. May He grant us grace to put the foot down firmly where divine interests are at stake.
Yet Eli was at heart a pious man. It was the mention of the ark of God rather than the slaughter of his sons which overcame him. In like manner, it was the loss of the ark which brought premature labor and death upon the wife of Phinehas. Whatever the character of her husband, she formed part of the true hearted remnant of that day. "Ichabod," said she, when her son was born, "the glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken." The bloodstained mercy-seat was in the hands of the enemy; on what ground did Israel now stand with God? Both Eli and the dying woman felt that everything was ruined.
Do we feel dishonor to the name of the Lord, and the condition of God's people, as deeply as these devout souls of old? Let us exercise our hearts and consider.