So, we’ve been reading how the Lord gave Hannah a son in answer to her prayer; and how, when that son was born, Hannah gave him to the Lord to serve him all the days of his life. And we’ve read how her son, Samuel, grew in stature and in favour with the Lord and with men. He served the Lord faithfully in the tabernacle.
But we’ve also been reading about Eli’s two sons who were worthless men. Though they were priests, they stole from the people and they stole from the Lord and they defiled the tabernacle by their immorality. Though they were priests, they served themselves, not the Lord, and they dishonoured the Lord by the things they did. So, Eli’s sons were worthless men. And in time, the Lord sent that mysterious man of God to declare to Eli that his two sons would die; and Eli’s family would be cut short; and the time would come when none of Eli’s descendants would serve as priests; and the Lord would raise up for himself a faithful priest to serve God’s anointed king.
And then, last week, we read how the Lord called Samuel in the night and revealed to Samuel that he was going to carry out everything he said he would do to Eli’s family. And from that time on, the Lord continued to reveal himself to Samuel through his word. God had chosen Samuel to be his prophet; and whatever the Lord revealed through Samuel happened.
Well, the mysterious man of God whom we read about in chapter 2 spoke about a priest who was to come and a king who was to come. While he was speaking on one level about Zadok who would become priest and David who would become king, he was speaking ultimately about Jesus Christ, who is out Great High Priest and our Great King. And Samuel’s call to be a prophet foreshadows the Lord Jesus too, because the Lord Jesus is not only our Great High Priest and King, but he’s also our Great Prophet. As our Priest, he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins and he lives forever to intercede for us at God’s right hand. As our King, he calls us into his kingdom and he promises to keep his people forever. And as our Great Prophet, he declares to us the will of God for our complete salvation. And so, you ought to give thanks to God for providing you with such a perfect and complete Saviour. And you ought to trust in Christ the Lord, because it’s by trusting in him that you receive everlasting salvation.
Chapter 4 begins by telling us that Samuel’s word — which, of course, was God’s word, because Samuel was God’s prophet — Samuel’s word came to all Israel.
Now, that seems like a fitting way to end chapter 3. In chapter 3, we read how God called Samuel to be a prophet; and how God continued to reveal himself to Samuel through his word; and how none of his words fell to the ground. And so, it seems fitting to end chapter 3 with the statement that Samuel’s word came to all Israel. In fact, the NIV assumes that the first part of verse 1 really belongs at the end of chapter 3, because that’s where the translators of the NIV have placed it.
However, it seems to me that it’s better to keep the first part of verse 1 with the rest of chapter 4, and to regard this verse, not as the conclusion of chapter 3, but as the introduction to chapter 4. And the reason I say that is because what we read in chapter 4 is in fact the fulfilment of the message which the Lord revealed to Samuel and which Samuel revealed to Eli. On that night, when God called Samuel, he said that he was going to carry out everything he said he would do to Eli’s family. And in chapter 4, we read about the deaths of Eli’s worthless sons and the death of Eli himself. Samuel said it was going to happen; and so it happened, just as Samuel said.
Verses 1b to 3
So, how did God fulfil his word at that time? Well, we read in the second half of verse 1 that the Israelites went out to fight again the Philistines. This is the first time we hear of the Philistines in this book, though we’re already familiar with them from the book of Judges, because Samson fought against the Philistines. And we’ll hear more about the Philistines in 1 Samuel, because Goliath was a Philistine. So, the Philistines are a thorn in their flesh, a persistent enemy who threatened the Israelites again and again and again. And so, according to verse 1, the Israelites went out to fight against them. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer and the Philistines camped at Aphek. And the two sides fought against one another; and, lo and behold, the Philistines beat the Israelites. It says the Philistines killed four thousand of the Israelites. While the word translated ‘thousand’ can refer to a thousand men, it can also refer to a unit of soldiers. You know, something like a company or battalion of men. In that case, Israel did not lose four thousand men, but four units of men. Whether it was four thousand men or four units of men, the point is that he Philistines defeated the Israelites. And, according to verse 3, whenever the survivors returned to their camp, the elders of Israel asked: ‘Why did the Lord bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines?’ You see, they understood that the Lord is sovereign. He’s the Almighty King who rules over all his creatures and all of their actions. He determines what will be. The elders understood that the only reason the Philistines had been able to defeat them was because the Lord gave the Philistines the victory. All things are in his hands and the Lord alone determines the outcome of every battle. So, the question is not: ‘Why did the Philistines defeat us today?’ The question is: ‘Why did the Lord defeat us today?’
So, why was it? Why did the Lord defeat them that day? Well, they did not know the reason, but we know the reason. The reason the Lord let the Philistines defeat the Israelites is because the Lord wanted to carry out everything he said he would do to Eli and his family. Letting the Philistines defeat the Israelites was all part of God’s plan.
And the next step in the fulfilment of his plan appears at the end of verse 3, because at the end of verse 3, the elders of the Israelites decided to bring out the ark of the Lord so that it would go before them into battle. The ark, of course, was that wooden box, which was covered in gold, which the Lord instructed Moses to make. It was normally kept in the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle; and it represented God’s presence with his people. It was, in a sense, God’s throne. And inside the box was a copy of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments summarised the terms of the covenant which God had made with the people at Mount Sinai. In the covenant, the Lord promised to be their God and to protect them; and the people promised to do all that the Lord commanded. And it made sense for the elders to bring out the ark, because when they were travelling through the wilderness, the ark went before them to symbolise how God was leading them. And in Numbers 10, we read that whenever the ark set out, Moses used to say: Rise up, O Lord! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you. And so, in those days, not only was God leading them through the wilderness, but he was leading them to victory over their enemies. And, of course, when the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and came to Jericho, the Lord told the Israelites that they way to destroy the city walls was by marching round the city with the trumpet-players and the ark leading the way. And so, since the ark used to go before them in the past, whenever they faced their enemies, the elders figured that’s what they needed to do now against the Philistines. And so, they called for the ark.
Verses 4 to 9
According to verse 4, they sent men to Shiloh to fetch the ark. And look how the ark is described: it’s not just the ark of the Lord; it’s ‘the ark of the covenant of the Lord Almighty who is enthroned between the cherubim’. I said on Wednesday night that the name ‘Lord Almighty’ can also be translated ‘Lord of hosts’, because the Lord commands the host of heaven, which is a heavenly army of angels, ready to do God’s will and to fight for God’s people. And the Lord of hosts is a mighty king, because he’s enthroned among the cherubim. In other words, his throne is surrounded by angels in heaven. He’s not an earthly king, but a heavenly king who rules and reigns over the earth. With this God on their side, how can the Israelites possibly lose?
And look now at the end of verse 4, where we’re told that Eli’s two worthless sons — Hophni and Phinehas — were there, with the ark of the Lord. That’s a reminder to us that the Lord was working out his plan; and he was preparing to carry out everything he said he would do to Eli’s family.
Well, when the ark of the covenant came into the camp, the Israelites began to cheer. We’re told they raised such a great shout that the ground shook. They cheered and shouted, because they were sure that the presence of the ark meant victory was a certainty. What did they need to fear, because the Lord their God was with them.
And when the Philistines heard them, and realised what had happened, they were terrified, because they’d heard the stories about what Israel’s God had done in Egypt, when the Lord sent the plagues on the Egyptians. So, the Philistines were afraid. Nevertheless, they encouraged one another to be strong and to fight.
Verses 10 and 11
And so, the Philistines fought. And, lo and behold, who would believe it, the Israelites were defeated once again. Every man, we’re told, fled to his tent. In other words, they gave up the fight. And the slaughter was very great. The last time, they lost four thousand men or four units of men. This time they lost thirty thousand men or thirty units of men. And that’s not all: the ark of the Lord was captured. And that’s not all: Eli’s two worthless sons died.
Of course, this was all part of God’s plan, because hadn’t he revealed through the mysterious man of God in chapter 2 that Eli’s two sons would die on the same day? And hadn’t God revealed through Samuel in chapter 3 that he was going to carry out everything he said he would do to Eli’s family? The Israelites were defeated, but it was all part of God’s plan.
Verses 12 to 18
In verses 12 to 18 we read how a survivor ran from the battlefield to Shiloh to announce the news of defeat. On the way, he passed by Eli, who was sitting by the road. The man entered the town and told the people what had happened. And the whole town sent up a cry. Eli heard the uproar and wanted to know why they were crying like this. It turns out that Eli — who was 98 years old by now — was completely blind. And so, he didn’t see the man run by. And so, the man came up to Eli and told him:
I have just come from the battle line.
Israel fled before the Philistines.
The army suffered heavy losses.
Your two sons are dead.
And the ark of God has been captured.
And whenever Eli heard what had happened, he fell over backwards off his chair and broke his neck and died. He had led Israel for forty years, we’re told. But the Lord had turned against him, because he did not remove his worthless sons from the priesthood. And because he honoured his sons more than he honoured the Lord, the Lord decided to cut short his family and to give the priesthood to another family. And just as he had announced to Samuel, so that Lord had carried out everything he said he would do to Eli’s family.
Verses 19 to 22
But that’s not the end of the story. We’re told in verses 19 to 22 that Eli’s daughter-in-law, Phinehas’s wife, was pregnant. And the shock she received from the news sent her into labour. She was overcome by labour pains, we’re told, and was about to die. Her midwife tried to comfort her with the news that she had given birth to a son. But it made no impression on her. And before she died, she named her son, calling him Ichabod. Ichabod means ‘No Glory’. And we’re told she named her son ‘No Glory’, because the glory had departed from Israel. It seemed to her that the glory had departed from Israel, because on that one day, not only had Eli the priest died, and not only had her husband died, but the ark of the Lord had been captured. The ark signified the presence of the Lord in their midst. And the Lord was their glory. He’s the Great King of Glory, who revealed himself in the days of Moses in the glory-cloud which filled the tabernacle. And the people used to boast in the Lord, and glorify him together, because there was no other god like him, who made all things and who ruled over all things and who had chosen Israel as his own special people. He was their glory. And now — it seemed to this dying woman — now that the ark had departed from their midst, so the King of Glory had departed from their midst.
It’s a terrific story, isn’t it? But what does it mean? And how does it relate to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Well, let me mention two things.
Firstly, I’ve already explained that the reason these things happened is because the Lord wanted to carry out everything he said he would do to Eli’s family. Therefore, this was all part of God’s plan. And here’s the thing: God’s plan included defeat and humiliation.
God’s plan included defeat and humiliation for the Israelites, because they were defeated and humiliated by the Philistines who managed to beat them, not just once, but twice. And the second time, they captured the ark of the covenant, which had never ever been done before. So, the Israelites were humiliated as a nation. And in case we’re tempted to think that this was unfair, we need to remember that the background to 1 Samuel is the book of Judges, which tells us that in those days, Israel had no king and everyone did as he saw fit. So, instead of living to please the Lord, they lived to please themselves. And later, in chapter 7, Samuel calls on them to return to the Lord and to get rid of their foreign gods. So, they were sinners who for a long time had disregarded the word of the Lord. And so, the Lord was not being unfair to them when he let them suffer defeat and humiliation.
However, on this occasion, the Lord shared in their humiliation. After the Philistines took the ark of the Lord, they placed it in the temple of their god, Dagon. By placing it in the temple of their god, they were saying that their god was greater than Israel’s God. So, wasn’t that humiliating for the Lord? He’s the only God, the Maker of the heavens and the earth. He’s the one who rules and reigns over all things. But for a moment, the Philistines were able to boast that their god was greater than Israel’s god.
So, God was working out his plan. But his plan included defeat and humiliation. And isn’t that what we see in the life of the Lord Jesus? The Lord Jesus is God the Eternal Son, equal to his Father in glory and power and honour. And yet he left the glory of heaven and he came to earth as one of us. And when he came, he wasn’t born in a palace, but in a stable. And he grew up in humble circumstances. And when he began his public ministry, many people disregarded him and rejected him and despised him and instead of honouring him as their Lord and King, they doubted him. And then they arrested him and made all kinds of false allegations against him. And then they beat him and they nailed him to the cross and they killed him. He is the Eternal Son of God, and yet — as part of God’s great plan for our salvation — he humbled himself to death on the cross. He suffered humiliation. And on that day when he died, it seemed that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law had triumphed over him; and it seemed that Pilate and the Romans had triumphed over him; and it seemed that the Devil had triumphed over him; and it seemed that death had triumphed over him. God’s Eternal Son suffered death and humiliation. But it was all part of God’s great plan to bring salvation to his people.
In the days of Samuel and Eli, the Lord was working out his plan. And his plan included defeat and humiliation. But, as we’ll see, God was able to bring victory out of that defeat and humiliation. And in the days of the Lord Jesus, God was working out his plan. And his plan included defeat and humiliation. But God was able to bring victory out of that defeat and humiliation, because on the third day, the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead; and in his name forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life is proclaimed to you, so that you might receive forgiveness for all that you have done wrong and the hope of eternal life in the presence of God forever.
But then, let me remind you that the ark of the covenant symbolised God’s presence with his people. It was, in a sense, his throne; and it was a sign that the Lord, the King of Glory, dwelt with them. But now — now that Christ has died and risen — the Lord promises to dwell with his people, not by means of an ark made of wood and gold, but by means of his Spirit. At the end of Ephesians 2, the apostle Paul writes that in Christ, you are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. Paul was referring to the church; and he was saying that God dwells in the church by his Spirit. When we meet together on Sundays to worship God, the Lord is here with us, by his Spirit. And by his Spirit he ministers to us, convicting sinners so that they will repent and believe; and building up believers in the faith. In Old Testament days, the Israelites would go to the tabernacle to meet the Lord, because the ark of the covenant symbolised his presence. But now, we don’t go to the tabernacle, but we come to church, because God has promised to meet with us by his Spirit when we gather in Christ’s name.
And, of course, God not only dwells in the church, but he dwells in every believer. Do you not know — Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 6 — that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit? Well, do you know that? The ark of the covenant once symbolised God’s presence in the tabernacle. But if you’re a believer, God now dwells in you by his Spirit. And so, he’s always with you to help you and to protect you and to give you the strength you need whenever you’re tempted to do wrong.
And while the ark of the covenant was taken away from Israel for a time, the Lord promises never to leave you or to forsake you, but to be with you always by his Spirit.
And so, there you are. The story of 1 Samuel 4 points to Christ who suffered humiliation and defeat as part of God’s great plan to save you from your sins and to give you eternal life in his presence. And so, you ought to praise Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who was prepared to suffer defeat and humiliation in order to save you from your sins and to bring you to glory in heaven above. That’s how great his love is, that he was prepared to suffer like that for you. And the story of 1 Samuel points us to the Holy Spirit who dwells with us always. And so, if you’re a believer, you ought to be comforted by the news that the Lord your God will never leave you or forsake, but he’s with you always by his Spirit to help you.