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. 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. 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.” 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.
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. 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, 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. 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. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”
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. And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
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. 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. When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?” Then the man hurried and came and told Eli. Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set so that he could not see. 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?” 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.” 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.
Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention. And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
1 Samuel 4:1-22
We all have a worst fear, a greatest nightmare. For Israel, their worst nightmare was the absence of God’s presence. 1 Samuel 4 is a low point in the history of Israel, a time of incomprehensible darkness: 34,000 Israelite soldiers dead. The sound defeat by an arch enemy. Judgment fulfilled on the house of Eli. But all this devastation paled in comparison to the capture of the ark of the covenant, the very symbol of God’s presence and power among Israel.
Is He the living God to Israel or just a good luck charm? The loss of God’s personal presence was of unspeakable horror to Israel. Yet, we can see from the preceding chapters that Israel had a slow deterioration in reverence for God. This brings the loss of the ark into sharper focus. They didn’t treasure God or worship Him. Israel had forgotten God’s majesty and forgone relationship with Him in exchange for expedient results.
After their first defeat by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:2), they did not pray, repent, or seek God’s counsel. Instead they conferred among themselves and came up with a plan that seemed right to them (1 Samuel 4:3-4). Bring the ark! That’ll work! They had reduced the living God to an oversized good luck charm. They almost were saying by their actions, “We don’t want God; we just want His power and victory.” They had lost sense of the reality that they are God’s servants, created to honor, enjoy, and glorify Him. The unimaginable darkness that follows (1 Samuel 4:10-11, 18, 20-22) is God’s just and merciful judgment to wake Israel up from their spiritual slumber and bring them back to covenant faithfulness.
What can we learn? We are also prone to spiritual slumber, lulled to sleep by preoccupations and distractions. We easily forget of our identity, purpose, and who is reigning on the throne. It’s not us! We are not the chief executives of our little worlds; God is not our consultant to advance our comfort and success. He is the living God— holy and awesome, whose greatness is unending (Psalm 145). We would all do well to ask God to search our hearts (Psalm 139: 23-24) to see where we may have grown cold in our affection or where we desire expediency or self-sufficiency over relationship with Him. We may also ask God to train our hearts to trust Him when we face darkness or confusion of any kind.
How do we hope for the dawn when darkness strikes? In 1650, a British preacher and historian wrote, “…It is always darkest just before the day dawneth, so God useth to visit His servants with greatest afflictions when he intendeth their speedy advancement.”1 This is true for Israel. And it is true for us. God never abandons His people. He cannot forsake them. God is always at work. Israel was in a valley of the shadow of death, but even in 1 Samuel 4 there is the lingering hope that the story is not finished. His promises give hope (Lamentations 3:21-24). He strengthens us to keep going. There is promised movement through the dark valley (Psalm 23:4a). Moreover, He is always with us (Psalm 23:4b), even when we fear the darkness will swallow us whole. No matter what you are facing, He is with you. The darkness for those of us in Christ is never permanent or perpetual. The dawn will surely come.
1 Thomas Fuller, A Pisgah Sight of Palestine (1650), Book II, ch. XI.