1 Samuel 4:1 Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines.
Israel brought the ark of the covenant into battle, hoping it would help, but they were deeply disappointed. Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died (1 Samuel 4:10-11). This was a catastrophe.
The ark of the covenant was the visible sign of God’s power and presence, so for it to be lost was nothing short of disastrous. It was like God himself had been captured by the Philistines. Eli was ninety-eight years old at this time, and was so overwhelmed by the news, that he fell backward off his chair, broke his neck and died (1 Samuel 4:18). Then his daughter-in-law went into labor but did not survive. As she was dying, She named the boy Ichabod, saying, The Glory has departed from Israel (1 Samuel 4:21).
The judgment of God had been coming for years, but came in a single day. Eli, Hophni and Phinehas had decades to repent, but chose not to. They mistook God’s patience for his permission, and brought disaster on themselves, and on the people of God. Samuel learned up close that God should be taken seriously. He would soon provide the leadership that God’s people needed so desperately.
1 Samuel 5:1 After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod.
The ark of the covenant was a trophy of war, so the Philistines brought it into the temple of Dagon, their national deity. But the following morning the statue of Dagon was lying facedown before the ark of God. They put it back in its place, but the following morning the statue was lying before the ark again. This time its hands and head were broken off, and were lying on the threshold of the temple door. God was showing the Philistines that, although they had captured the ark, their god was no match for the God of Israel.
1 Samuel 5:6 The Lord’s hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod and its vicinity.
The Philistines may have hoped the ark would bring them blessing, but the opposite occurred. God afflicted them with tumors and rats. They were not ready to give up the ark, however, so they sent it to Gath, another Philistine town. But God afflicted them as well. Then it was sent to Ekron, but for obvious reasons, they didn’t want it either.
Since the power and presence of God were identified with the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:22), it could be a source of blessing (2 Samuel 6:12). But the power and presence of God are only a blessing to those who are living in obedience. If we are living in disobedience, God’s power and presence can make us sick, or even kill us (1 Corinthians 11:30). It is only good to be close to God if our lives are pleasing to him.
1 Samuel 6:1-2 When the ark of the Lord had been in Philistine territory seven months, the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we should send it back to its place.
The Philistines had enough of the ark, and wanted to send it back to Israel. In the hope of receiving God’s favor, they included an offering of five gold tumors and five gold rats, to symbolize their plagues (1 Samuel 6:5).
They put the ark on a cart pulled by two cows that had never been yoked, and also had calves. Cows that had never been yoked would not know how to pull a cart together. And even if they did, they would want to return to their calves. Nevertheless, the cows proceeded to the Israelite town of Beth Shemesh. Then the Philistines knew that their plagues were from the Lord, and were not a mere coincidence.
1 Samuel 6:13 Now the people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley, and when they looked up and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight.
Israel did not have to rescue the ark, ransom the ark, or negotiate its return. God simply brought it to them. So The people chopped up the wood of the cart and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord (1 Samuel 6:14). Then they put the ark on top of a large rock as a memorial. God was back in town.
1 Samuel 6:19 But God struck down some of the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they looked into the ark of the Lord.
The ark of God was normally kept in the tabernacle, so most people never caught a glimpse of it. Some of the people of Beth Shemesh used this opportunity to look where they had no business looking. Instead of honoring God by averting their gaze, they peered into the ark and were killed. The fault was theirs alone since God had clearly warned that unauthorized people who look at the holy things . . . will die (Numbers 4:20). Again we see that God does not make idle threats.
We would like to have God on our terms, but God insists on his own terms. He wants us to be close to him, but never to be presumptuous. He is not our buddy, pal or chum. He is God Almighty (Genesis 17:1), worthy of all respect. We must worship God acceptably with reverence and awe (Hebrews 12:28), says Hebrews.
Reflection and Review
Why did God allow the ark to be captured?
How did God show his power over Dagon?
Is it safe to be near God?