*Good Friday morning! Today we return once again to the Book of I Samuel. As you know we have been following the story of Samuel. Today, we will say little to nothing about Samuel. He seems to take a break. We are not done with him, however. Chapter 4 through chapter 7:17 deal with the travels of the Ark. The story of Samuel is interrupted by the account of the war between Israel and Philistine. The Philistines have surfaced as the main threat to Israel's existence. During the first battle the Philistines killed about 4,000 Israelites.
"Why did the Lord bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the Lord's covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies." (I Samuel 4:3)
After suffering defeat the Israelites fetch the Ark of the Covenant thinking that it would automatically bring them victory. Remember, they believed that the Lord was enthroned between the cherubim above the mercy seat. (or the lid) We are also told that the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, are with the ark. I like to think of these two boys as Phinehas and Herb. My son Zander used to watch a show called Phinehas and Herb on Nickelodeon or Disney. O.K., one would think that since God was physically (according to their belief) with these folks they would be assured victory. Well, they put up a great ruckus.
"When the ark of the Lord's covenant came into the camp all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, 'What's all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?'" (I Samuel 4:5-6)
Perhaps the Israelites are recalling the time that they took the city of Jericho. The city walls fell after a shout. Keep in mind that before they took Jericho God gave them specific instructions. Here, there is no evidence that God has said anything. Well, their noise does cause some concern for the Philistines. But, they don't run. Instead, they fight even harder.
"So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter is very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died." (I Samuel 4:10-11)
O.K! What just happened here? God certainly had nothing to do with this battle. Correct? Well, I'm not so sure. "Well, preacher why would God allow his people to suffer defeat?" Does God sometimes allow bad things to happen to us? I know, not according to certain T.V. preachers (or personalities). But,...guess what! God is teaching us all a lesson in this passage. The story continues and Eli is given the news about his two sons. Eli received that visit or phone call that no parent never wants to receive. His two sons are dead. If you recall this was prophesied earlier. But, Eli is also told that the ark of the Lord has been captured.
"When he (the messenger) mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died." (I Samuel 4:18a)
The NIV tells us that Eli "led Israel forty years." (verse 18b), while the NRSV says that he "judged Israel." Therefore, Eli is incorporated into the list of judges. Now, Eli did not die upon receiving the news of his sons' passing. He fell over upon hearing the news of the ark being captured. Clearly this is devastating news to Israel. So, why did God's presence (the ark of the covenant) not prevent the Philistines from winning? Why did God allow the Israelite's to be defeated and the ark to be captured? Doesn't this mean that God has been captured? Well, for one thing this whole situation fulfills the earlier mentioned judgment prophecy. But, it also demonstrates some things about the power of Israel's God. One, Yahweh refuses to be used. Two, the Israelites had better respect Yahweh, or they will die. The whole situation facing Israel seems bleak. Eli's daughter-in-law gives birth to a son. She names him Ichabod (meaning, "the glory has departed from Israel).
The Philistines soon discover that having the ark in their possession is not a good thing. They may have taken home the prize, but they soon are ready to give the prize back. They had a statue of their god, Dagon, and soon that statue topples over and breaks into pieces. Physical illness becomes an issue and havoc is wreaked upon the people. The Philistines are ready to give the ark back to Israel.
Yahweh is more powerful than the god of the Philistines. But, that is not the only message here. God is trying to send a message that the people need to get in their head. God did not fight the initial battle against the Philistines. Israel is in darkness figuratively. God infiltrates the enemy's camp. God wins his own victory.(Without any help) It is almost as though God is playing the role of the judge. (As in the Book of Judges' judge) God wants the Israelites to understand that Yahweh is mightier than any foreign god and that they are to have no God but Yahweh. Why would they want any other God? Well, surely they have finally learned their lesson. Surely! Oh, boy! Guess what? They ask for a king like all the other nations have.
Monday we will begin a very interesting look at the rise of the kings of Israel. You will not want to miss it. It will be fun, humorous, sad, and always in-depth. Have a great weekend and Happy Father's Day to all the fathers. My Dad has been gone now for 17 years. Father's Day, therefore, is bittersweet. Also, I extend an invitation to join us for worship Sunday morning at 10:50 here at Madison United Methodist Church. -Pastor Rick