In our last lesson we saw the message about God needing to receive our honor. This truth is going to be exemplified beautifully in chapters 4-6 of 1 Samuel. So God is going to reveal his glory and teach us about how we are to look at God and approach God.
Failed View (4:1-4)
Chapter 4 opens with Israel preparing for battle against the Philistines. So they begin the battle and Israel was defeated by the Philistines, losing about 4000 soldiers in battle. It is a catastrophic loss. Now, as we have studied through the scriptures, we know what this means. We know that God is not with his people. God promised that he would give Israel victory as long as they remained faithful to him. This was displayed through Samson who showed God’s glory by destroying Philistines with one person. But these are the days of the judges and Israel is unfaithful. Therefore God is not with them. But notice Israel does not understand this. In verse 3 they ask, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?” We know that the answer is Israel’s sins. But the people do not understand this. So what they do is decide to bring out the ark of the covenant so that it will save them from the power of their enemies (4:3).
Think about what Israel is doing. They are thinking of the ark of the covenant like a talisman. They think they will win if they just get the ark of the covenant and bring it into battle. Basically, they think that God will do what they want if they just carry the holy box into battle. There is no consideration of their own sinfulness. They do not look at themselves regarding their loss. No, they think if they have God’s furniture, then they will have God’s power. They are not seeking God. They are trying to control God. They are not submitting to God, but are using God.
We have no coercive power over God. Not even prayer or obedience is a way to control or coerce God. Sometimes we look at prayer and our obedience in this way. We think that because we prayed for something, that means God must answer the way we want. This is a talisman view of God. We think our prayer has the power to control God, rather than prayer being a way to deliver God our requests. In the same way, we can think that God has to do what we want because we are obeying him. We did what he said, so why isn’t he giving me what I want? We do not control God. But this is what Israel thinks they can do. Just get the ark of the covenant out here and God will give us victory. So they get the ark of the covenant, which we are reminded in verse 4, represents the presence of God enthroned on the cherubim. But then we are given a terrible reminder at the end of verse 4. Eli’s sons accompany the ark. Remember that Eli’s sons are an abomination to God and God has already declared that he is going to kill them for their heinous sins.
One final word about this scene. In the days of the judges the people understood that their sin was the reason for their oppression. After many years of oppression they would cry out to God. Notice that the people do not understand this anymore. They do not cry out to God. They do not consider their sins. They do not ask God to defeat their enemies. There is no repentance. Israel is just trying to manipulate the situation.
Captured Ark (4:5-22)
So Israel brings the ark into the battle with a great shout. The Philistines hear the shouting and when they learn that Israel is shouting because of the ark’s arrival, the Philistines become terrified. They believe they are going to be defeated because this is the God who struck the Egyptians (4:8). I think it is amazing that hundreds of years after the exodus, the world still knew about what God had done to the Egyptians. But the Philistines take courage and fight and again Israel is completely defeated. The slaughter was great and about 30,000 soldiers die in battle this time (4:10). Further, the ark of the covenant was captured and Eli’s sons are killed.
So a messenger runs back to Shiloh to report all that happened. When Eli hears that the ark had been captured, he falls backward out of his seat, breaks his neck, and dies. Rather than being Israel’s rescuer as judge, Eli led to Israel’s oppression and defeat. He is pictured as dethroned by falling out of his seat. Eli’s daughter-in-law hears this news, goes into premature labor, and dies. She names the child Ichabod because the glory of the Lord has departed from Israel. God’s word regarding Eli’s household comes to pass as it was predicted in 2:27-35 and 3:13-14. It is the destruction of the priestly family. It is important to also add at this point that, though the text does not tell us this, Psalm 78:60-69 indicates that Shiloh is also destroyed by Philistines in this war. This is the end of the historical record regarding Shiloh. The ark will not return to this town.
God’s Glory Displayed (5:1-12)
The event gets even better. While Israel is mourning over the loss of the ark, God is going to show his power and self-sufficiency. The Philistines take the ark into the house of Dagon and set it up by their idol of Dagon. Dagon was one of the principal deities of the Philistines. But the next day, Dagon has fallen face down toward the ark of the covenant, as if it were bowing down toward. The Philistines put Dagon back in his place. But the next day Dagon has fallen down before the ark again, but its head and both hands are cut off. God is showing that he is greater than all gods. God is teaching the Philistines that their gods are not gods at all. The Lord defeats Dagon in his own temple. The picture is that Dagon has been executed with his head and hands cut off. Now God afflicts the Philistines with plagues in the city and region where the ark resides. This is like what happened in the exodus but now it is happening to the Philistines. So the people of Ashdod say we have to move the ark because it is afflicting us. So they move to various cities among the Philistines but each city is also afflicted by plagues as the ark resides there. It gets to the point that when the ark comes to Ekron the people cry out that they brought the ark there to kill them. So they decide that they need to send the ark back to Israel because all the cities are in a panic because of the death and plagues that God afflicted upon them.
God is showing that he is not a helpless God. God does not need our help. God will show his glory to the Philistines on his own since Israel had discredited God’s glory with their sinfulness. The God we serve is not an idol. He can take care of himself. He does not need us to do anything for him.
The Return of God (6:1-7:2)
So Philistines finally send the ark back to Israel with an offering as they are looking for healing from the plagues. They not only send it back with a guilt offering but also with wealth. The Philistines are hoping that this will stop the plagues in their land. They realize that they should not be like the Egyptians who hardened their hearts in the face of the plagues (6:6). Again, it is amazing that they know what happened in Egypt and are trying to avoid the same outcome that Egypt experienced. So they send the ark back with their offerings. But they want to make sure that this is really God who is doing this and not a coincidence. So they make it difficult for the ark to return just to see for themselves. They put the ark on a cart and yoke two milk cows that have never been yoked and take their calves away from them. Under normal circumstances a never yoked cow is not going to walk away from its calves. But the cows went straight back to Israel, never turning to the left or the right. This is God and not a coincidence.
So the ark comes by itself being pulled by two cows into the outskirts of Israel. The people of Beth-shemesh see the ark and rejoice. They start offering burnt offerings to the Lord in joy. But some of the men decided to look into the ark and they are killed by God. Notice what the people say in verse 20. “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?” Now they do not want the ark in their city just like the Philistines did not want the ark in their towns. So no one knows what to do with the ark. Who is going to take it? So they send the ark away, the very presence of God, to Kiriath-jearim for 20 years. Kiriath-jearim is essentially a Gentile city because it belonged to the Gibeonites (cf. Joshua 9:17). These Gentiles who have been incorporated into Israel are the ones who want the presence of God.
So does this account of God mean for our lives? First, I want us to see that God wants to be with us. God could have had his ark just wander around and leave Israel for good. I am amazed at the patience of God who sends his ark back to his people, even when they do not ultimately want his presence. They are going to treat God like a plague and not want God in their city. This is exactly what happened to Jesus when he walked the earth. Most notably this happens in Mark 5:17 when Jesus casts out a demon and the city tells Jesus to leave. Rather than basking in God’s presence they ask God to leave their presence. Yet Jesus continued to come to the lost sheep of Israel trying to have a relationship with them. Who wants the presence of God in their lives? In the days of the judges no one does. But God is patient and continues to build a relationship with his sinful people.
Second, we do not have a god that we need tote around or support. We do not carry God. God is not a burden. It is too easy to look at God as a burden. Sometimes we think of his commands as something we have to do. Sometimes we can think of worship of God as something that we have to do. But God does not need us. He does not need our worship. He does not need our obedience. He does not need anything from us. We need him. God will carry you. God will help you. We do not carry God. We do not help God. God helps us. We will enjoy true worship and desire to worship him and obey him when we stop looking at him as a requirement and start looking at him as a necessity. We need him. We need his presence. We need to worship him. We need his help. We need him to carry us. We need his blessing. We need him. We cannot live without him. We have a song that says, “I dare not try to take one step alone.” But do we really believe this? We are being tested with this right now. Do we believe that God is our help and we will save us or we will save us with our technology, knowledge, and experience? We do not carry God. God is not being carried on your back. He will carry you if you will have him.
Finally, we cannot put our trust in God’s kindness and love toward us and at the same time ignore God’s demand for holiness. If we are going to allow God to carry us through this life and through our difficulties, then we will give holy lives back to him. The people of Israel were right to ask the question, “Who can stand before the Lord, this holy God?” The answer is that no one can unless you come to him on his terms. We can say this another way, in a New Testament way. You cannot have Jesus as your savior without having him as your master and Lord. Jesus is your savior if Jesus is your master. We cannot have one without the other. God wants to be with us but he must our master. God wants to carry us but he must be our master. Only then can we stand before the Lord, this holy God.