In the books of Samuel, we a king (David) who conquers a city (Jerusalem) and then his son builds the temple where the Ark of the Covenant will be placed. Later on in Jewish history, after the Israelites are scattered across the land and then brought back in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the people rebuild the temple, and then build up the city of Jerusalem and then wait for their king. Then, in the New Testament, we see the true King, Jesus, who makes the temple inside of each of us, and promises that at the end of the earth, the city of New Jerusalem will be brought down from heaven.
So you can see God’s plan at work with a king, a temple and a city. And, of course, the Ark of the Covenant played heavily in this plan during the days of the Old Testament, since the Ark symbolized God’s presence and the relationship between God and His people.
So, in 1 Samuel 4, we pick up what is known as the “Ark Narrative”:
At that time Israel was at war with the Philistines. The Israelite army was camped near Ebenezer, and the Philistines were at Aphek. 2 The Philistines attacked and defeated the army of Israel, killing 4,000 men. 3 After the battle was over, the troops retreated to their camp, and the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the Lord allow us to be defeated by the Philistines?” Then they said, “Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, it will save us from our enemies.”
Now there’s a couple key items here in this paragraph. Firstly, Israel’s key enemy is introduced – the Philistines. They were more technically advanced than the Israelites, they had traveled from the islands off of Greece and migrated all the way to the Near East, conquering people after people along the way.
When the Jews lost against the Philistines, they did the right thing and asked the right question, but they weren’t patient and didn’t wait for God’s answer to why they were defeated.
Instead they gave in to gimmicks and techniques.
They thought that without God acting and directing them, they could simply carry the Ark of the Covenant into battle and be victorious.
Sadly, I think that we do similar things today, ourselves.
After all, this day and age is the era of the quick fix. You can Google the answer to your problem and have your answer in mere seconds right in your palm. Not that this is bad, but it contributes to a culture where we too often seek quick solutions that we think will change our lives instead of patiently waiting and seeing how God brings about solutions in His time.
And just like we find ourselves thinking, “I just don’t have time to wait on God…”, the Israelites did the same thing.
A friend of mine once said, “When good circumstances come, we know we’re obeying God. But when bad circumstances come, we think God is disobeying us.”
In other words, we’re too quick to assume that God isn’t doing things the way we think that He should when tough times roll around.
Just like the Israelites.
Notice that they don’t believe that God (a person) will save them; but that the Ark (a thing) will bring them victory. They rely on things, technology and gimmicks.
At the end of the day, the rules (i.e., the stone tablets with the 10 commandments that were kept in the Ark) won’t be your savior, but the person of God (Jesus) will.
As you can expect, they take the Ark into battle, and the Philistines simply wipe them out. This begins a cycle of moving Samuel into the spotlight of the story and Jewish history:
4 So they sent men to Shiloh to bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, who is enthroned between the cherubim. Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, were also there with the Ark of the Covenant of God. 5 When all the Israelites saw the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord coming into the camp, their shout of joy was so loud it made the ground shake!
6 “What’s going on?” the Philistines asked. “What’s all the shouting about in the Hebrew camp?” When they were told it was because the Ark of the Lord had arrived, 7 they panicked. “The gods have[b] come into their camp!” they cried. “This is a disaster! We have never had to face anything like this before! 8 Help! Who can save us from these mighty gods of Israel? They are the same gods who destroyed the Egyptians with plagues when Israel was in the wilderness. 9 Fight as never before, Philistines! If you don’t, we will become the Hebrews’ slaves just as they have been ours! Stand up like men and fight!”
10 So the Philistines fought desperately, and Israel was defeated again. The slaughter was great; 30,000 Israelite soldiers died that day. The survivors turned and fled to their tents. 11 The Ark of God was captured, and Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were killed.
12 A man from the tribe of Benjamin ran from the battlefield and arrived at Shiloh later that same day. He had torn his clothes and put dust on his head to show his grief. 13 Eli was waiting beside the road to hear the news of the battle, for his heart trembled for the safety of the Ark of God. When the messenger arrived and told what had happened, an outcry resounded throughout the town.
14 “What is all the noise about?” Eli asked.
The messenger rushed over to Eli, 15 who was ninety-eight years old and blind. 16 He said to Eli, “I have just come from the battlefield—I was there this very day.”
“What happened, my son?” Eli demanded.
17 “Israel has been defeated by the Philistines,” the messenger replied. “The people have been slaughtered, and your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were also killed. And the Ark of God has been captured.”
18 When the messenger mentioned what had happened to the Ark of God, Eli fell backward from his seat beside the gate. He broke his neck and died, for he was old and overweight. He had been Israel’s judge for forty years.
Just as Eli was described as “old and overweight”, this also depicts the spiritual state of Israel at the time. They were blind to what God wanted for them, old and set in their ways, and overweight instead of able and ready to seek and serve God.
But, the wonderful thing about all this is that God has plans. While the Israelites are in despair with the loss of the Ark and the death of their priest, keep in mind that God always captivates and is never captured, so in chapter five and six, we will see some really cool things that God does in the midst of the Philistines in order to turn the tide, bring the Ark back to Israel and His people back to Him.
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