This morning we’re continuing in our series through 1 Samuel that we have called Collision. There are actually many collisions in this book; so far in the first 3 chapters we’ve seen the collision between Eli’s family and young Samuel, today we’ll see this collision end. And once this first collision ends, we’ll slow begin to see the way being prepared for the second collision in 1 Samuel, the one between Samuel and Saul.
As you know, it’s not my custom to take such a large chunk of text for the sermon but there is good reason for doing so today. 1 Samuel 4, 5, and 6 are all about one thing – the ark of God. To make this sermon manageable to us we’ll take this 3-chapter chunk in 4 sections.
a) 4:1b-11 – Rabbit Foot Theology
In v1-2 we meet an old enemy of Israel’s, the Philistines. These coastal people gave Samson much trouble in his day, and during Samuel’s day they often tried to expand their borders but almost each time the Israelites were in the way. In this particular battle we read here that Israel was defeated, and in the process lost about 4,000 men. In v3 the army comes back into the camp at Ebenezer and the elders posed a question, ‘Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?’ This is a good question, one that should have reminded them of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 where God says, ‘If you will not listen to Me and will not do all these commandments…I will set My face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies…you shall go out against them one way and flee seven ways before them.’ But rather than asking God to answer this question or even waiting to let this question sink in and seeking for repentance, the text seems to imply that they take matters into their own hands right away coming up with their own solution to defeat the Philistines in v3, ‘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.’
This is the famous ark they’re referring to here. You may know it from the 1981 Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. Or better you may know of it from the closing chapters of Exodus where we see it’s intricate details. It was a large rectangular wooden box covered in gold with two long poles on each side used for carrying it. On top of the lid (which is also called the ‘mercy seat’) sat two large golden cherubim with wings spread out and touching. The ark normally sat inside the Most Holy Place inside the tabernacle. Inside it were the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments as well as Aaron’s rod that flowered during a particular incident recorded for us in Numbers 17. The ‘ark of the covenant of the Lord’ is it’s official name, it held a prominent role in both the first Jordan River crossing and in the battle of Jericho, and this is the same ark Samuel was sleeping next to in chapter 3. This is the ark the elders of Israel wanted from Shiloh. Their thinking was that if the ark (which represented the presence, honor, and glory of God) was with them in battle, God wouldn’t let His honor and glory be trampled on by His enemies, which would mean that because the ark would be in the battle God would have to save His people. They thought that to have the ark was to have God’s power.
I’m sure you see what’s happening here right? Israel was trying to twist God’s arm, or use the ark of God as a rabbit’s foot or good luck charm. This is not faith in God, it’s superstition. This is not honoring God, it’s seeking to control Him. This is not obeying God, it’s seeking to use Him.
We see the result of this in v4-11. The ark was brought from Shiloh, and along with it came (guess who?) Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas. The ark came into the camp at Ebenezer and all Israel gave a mighty shout. The Philistines were very afraid after hearing this shout, and concluded that a god had entered the camp. They feared they would end up like the Egyptians did after the plagues. They took courage, fought hard with Israel, and ironically dealt an even more deadly blow to Israel, killing 30,000 men this time. The two most prominent deaths amidst the 30,000 were none other than Hophni and Phinehas. Which is also ironic because the elders of Israel brought the ark up so they’d win the battle, but God used the situation, not to give His people victory, but to bring about the death of Eli’s sons He had formerly pronounced.
Church, beware rabbit-foot theology.
Beware the theology that tells you to seek God not for Himself, but only for His gifts. Think about this: why do you spend time in public and private prayer? Why do you spend time reading your Bible? Why do you love God in the first place? Does it come from a genuine desire to know God and commune with Him? Or are you doing these things to try and use God as a good luck charm or use these forms of obedience in an effort to control God, twisting His arm so that He’ll be obligated to give you what you really want? Perhaps for you it sounds like this: if I obey God He’ll make my problems go away, if I pray He’ll give me what I’ve always wanted, if I read my Bible He’ll think I’m a good person and overlook my sinful habits, or even…if I love God He’ll let me do whatever I want. False. We must take great caution here, because it comes very natural for you and I to try to manipulate God. So learn for the first time or be reminded again that when we come to God seeking something other than God we are merely using God as a rabbit’s foot, and nothing offends God more than being treated like a mere trinket. I’ve called this rabbit-foot theology, but this is identical to the prosperity gospel, where God’s gifts are treasured over God and God Himself is used as a means to get to His gifts. Don’t to be easy on yourself here, this was the sin of the elders in Israel, but it could also very easily be our sin today.
b) 4:12-22 – The Entrance of Ichabod
More despairing results of this event are given to us in v12-22 where we see two more significant deaths take place. A runner from the tribe of Benjamin came from the war to give the news to Shiloh. Eli was sitting by the road near the front gate trying to learn of news, but being blind he couldn’t see anything, v13 says he just sat there trembling for the ark of God. He heard an uproar in the city, assumed that news had come, and eventually the runner got to Eli and told him, ‘We’ve been defeated, Hophni and Phinehas are dead, and the ark of God has been taken.’ v18 then says, ‘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.’ This is a sad end for a sad man. Eli had grown fat from disobeying God by eating more of the sacrifice than he should have, and now once he falls over it was his weight that crushed killed him.
Now, it would be easy for us to be side-tracked by the war or the ark of God being taken, but do you see how God is quietly fulfilling His Word of judgment to Eli and acting in grace for the sake of His people by removing false shepherds from His temple? At that very moment you can be sure that God was being mocked in the Philistine camps, but from this point on God will no longer be mocked in the temple at Shiloh, a new era is about to begin. Eli and his sons are gone, there’s now room for Samuel’s leadership.
In these verses we also learn when Phinehas’ pregnant wife heard the news of the ark being taken, of her husband’s death, and of her father in law’s death she went into premature labor which would kill her also. But she had time to name her child ‘Ichabod’ which means ‘no glory’ or ‘the Glory has departed.’ It’s a bleak scene in chapter 4 isn’t it?
c) 5:1-6:12 – Terror Abroad
The scene cuts back to the Philistines as we enter chapter 5, and immediately we see them take the ark of God to their largest city, Ashdod. In Ashdod there was the great temple of Dagon, the agricultural deity of the Philistines. They placed the ark of God inside this temple, next to the large statue of Dagon. Notice what happens next in 5:3-5, ‘And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him. This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.’
This scene makes me think of movies like ‘The Clash of the Titans’ where ancient mythical gods war against one another in an epic battle. Here in our text we actually have a true battle of the gods, except one them isn’t a god at all, he’s just a statue. In one corner we have the ark of God representing the presence, the glory, and the honor of Yahweh, the God of Israel. In the other corner we have the grand statue of Dagon, the god of the Philistines. What happens? Yahweh defeats Dagon in two days. The first morning temple servants walk in and find Dagon laid out prostrate on the floor before the ark, so the people face an embarrassing task of having to put their god back into the proper place. The second morning they are terrified to see Dagon again on the floor, but this time his head and hands have been cut off. In v6-7 we see God had also been fighting against the people of Ashdod giving them tumors, so the people respond and say ‘The ark of the God of Israel cannot remain with us, for His hand is hard against us and against Dagon our god.’
So they sent the ark away to the city of Gath, and in Gath the Philistines again found God set hard against them bringing more tumors and causing a great panic among them as well. We’ll learn later that the champion Goliath was from the city of Gath, so God has now defeated not only the Philistine god, He’s also brought terror and panic to their greatest warrior. So they send the ark of God away to Ekron, but as soon as the ark arrives there the same things happen: death, disease, tumors, and great panic. The Philistines in Ekron say in v10, ‘They have brought around to us the ark of the God of Israel to kill us and our people…send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place.’
It was a long 7 months from the time the ark of God entered and left the land of the Philistines. Wherever it went it caused panic, disease, and death among the people. The Israelites thought they had suffered a great defeat when the ark was stolen, and the Philistines thought they had won a great victory by stealing the ark. But it turns out that God (as He so often does) had His own agenda for allowing His ark to be taken.
By Himself, with no help from any man, no help from any armies, God went on a plundering tour throughout the lands of the Philistines. Scenes like this in the Bible remind us how foolish our country’s current religious relativism and religious pluralism is. ‘COEXIST’ reads the bumper sticker. ‘We all worship the same god, we just do it in different ways’ says the modern spirituality. This nonsense creeps into the church and creates thinking that says, ‘God is a God of love, He’s not wrathful or jealous’ or ‘God loves people more than anything, He would never hurt anyone.’ Against all of this nonsense stands the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, the true God, the only God…who cuts off heads and chops off hands, who will not allow His glory to trampled on by anyone!
The Philistines learned this well, and in 6:5 we see them recognize this and say, ‘we must give glory to God of Israel…or else we’ll end up like the Egyptians.’ So they called their diviners and made their plans, got a few cows together who had just given birth to young calves, strapped the ark to them, and made a plan. If cows do what normal cows do, they’d go back to their young and feed them, and if that happened the diviners would say all this death and disease was just a coincidence. But if cows do what no cows do and leave their young behind to walk down the road toward Israel, the diviners would know it was God Himself who did all these things. They prepared it, strapped the cows in, and watched as the cows wandered down the road in the direction of Israel. At that moment they suspicion’s were confirmed. They knew which God was real.
d) 6:13-7:1 – Terror at Home
I wish I could say that the terror stopped when the ark of God arrived home in Israel, but it didn’t. In 6:13-16 the Jews living in Beth-shemesh lifted their eyes, saw the ark coming to them, and rejoiced. A great stone was placed there to mark the day, many offerings were made in celebration, but the party wouldn’t last. v19 says ‘God struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh because they looked upon (literally ‘in’) the ark of the Lord’ and the people mourned greatly because God had killed 70 Israelites that day. Rather than following God’s commands concerning His ark, they figured their own wisdom would do and for it they died. God did this to teach His people the lesson that it is no small thing to stand before the Lord. The Israelites in Beth-shemesh then do what the Philistines did, and sent the ark away to another city in Israel, to Kiriath-jearim, and put the ark of God in the charge of Eleazar in the house of Abinadab. Note why the sent the ark of God away. From seeing the terror of God’s holiness, presence, and glory, they sent the ark away asking, ‘Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?’
This question is exactly where these three chapters meet you and I today. Let the question sink into your bones, ‘Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?’ ‘Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?’ Can you? Do you think you are able to stand before Him? If you think you can, you’re gravely mistaken. The answer to this question is clear from the Bible – none can stand before God and live. He is God, and there is no other, there is no one is like Him, He gives His glory to no one. He is God, He’s no trinket, He’s no good luck charm or rabbit’s foot. He is God, we cannot twist His arm. He’s God, He’s no cosmic buddy. Rather, in His holy glory He’s a consuming fire. ‘Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?’ I’ll tell you who can stand before Him.
One Man in history; One Man who became like all men but was unlike all men; the God-Man, Jesus Christ, He alone can stand before His Father. And the only hope for you and the only hope for me is if, by faith, we stand in Christ. This is why the gospel is so precious to us. If we trust in Christ we’ll not only stand before the Father, more, the Father will welcome us into His presence as He welcomes His own Son.