In today's reading, we begin to see just how far Israel is from God. We know Eli is old, nearly blind and hard of hearing. His blindness isn't just physical, however. He is also growing blind spiritually. His sons are wicked men who do not know the Lord and they will not be following in his footsteps. The Lord has made it clear that Eli is the past for Israel and Samuel is the future. The disciplining nation God uses against Israel here is the Philistines. So, a bit about the Philistines. They were sea people who were Indo-Europeans who migrated from the Aegean Islands and Asia Minor to the eastern Mediterranean costal region in the twelfth century B.C. They were strong and aggressive, and they had iron weapons. The Israelites were none of this. They had five major fortress cities: Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza. They were a significant threat to the Israelites. The battle mentioned here took place between Ebenezer and Aphek, which is about 13 miles northeast of Joppa. This was a strategic border city at the northern limit of Philistine territory.
Israel lost this battle. The elders asked the question why did we lose this battle? And they decided they needed to bring the ark of the covenant into the next battle with them. Here we see their lack of faith. It was the custom of ancient warriors to take symbols of their gods with them into battle so that their gods would deliver them. This was now Israel's plan. They failed to recognize that God would be with them even without the ark. After all, their forefathers had defeated the land of Canaan with God's leading and guiding and never once did they take the ark into battle. Even though they would have the ark, notice their confidence in verse 3. They said we should go get the ark. It MIGHT save us. It was though they viewed the ark of the covenant as a lucky charm of some sort. When the ark was brought into the camp by the two sons of Eli there was great celebration at its presence. It gave the Israelites a false sense of security and the Philistines saw it as some sort of an idol based on Israel's reaction. This would be bad all the way around. Israel and the Philistines fought the next battle and Israel was soundly defeated. The ark of the covenant was captured, and Eli’s two sons were killed...all in one day.
We find Eli sitting on a seat by the roadside, fearful of what might happen to the ark and worried about his two sons. His fear and worry were well founded. A messenger returned to Shiloh with news of the battle. First the news was delivered to the town and they raised up a single loud cry. The young messenger then brought the news to Eli. The sentences are short and to the point. Israel fled from before the Philistines. The army has suffered heavy losses. Can you feel the tension rising here as Eli waits for the rest of the report? Your two sons are dead. And...the ark of the covenant has been captured. The loss of the ark was a crushing blow to Eli and to Israel. In response to all this news Eli fell off his chair and died.
Because the Philistines looked at the ark of the covenant as some sort of an idol, they took it back to Ashdod and put it in the house or temple of their god Dagon. This part of the narrative always makes me smile because of what the Lord does here. Dagon was an idol, made from stone or some other material. Dagon was the Philistine equivalent of the Canaanite god Baal. He was thought to control weather and the fertility of the land. The first morning the Philistines found their man-made god on the ground face down in front of the ark of the covenant. It was as though Dagon was worshiping the Lord. The next morning, they again found Dagon on the ground in front of the ark but this time his hands and head were broken off, a sign that worshiping idols was folly, and idols were powerless against the Lord. But there was more. We read that the Philistines were afraid of the Lord because they had heard what He did to the Egyptians. The Philistines were not afraid of the Israelites. They were afraid of Israel's God. As they should have been. The Lord's hand was heavy against the Philistines and they were affected with tumors which some scholars believe was bubonic plague. Hence the tumors and the rats who likely carried the disease.
After seven months the Philistines could take no more and the leaders met to decide what to do with this ark. It would be returned but they would not just march to the nearest Israelite city and hand it over. The ark would not be returned by itself. The Philistines also made solid gold tumors and solid gold rats, a sign that they knew the Lord had afflicted them. The fact that they used a new cart and cows never before yoked showed special reverence for the Lord. They took the cows and the cart with the ark, plus a chest full of the gold tumors and rats, and set out towards the Levitical city of Beth Shemesh. They wanted to make sure this misfortune was from the Lord. The cows proceeded to walk straight down the road to the city. And the Philistine leaders went home.
The ark was nothing to play with and we see that. Seventy of the residents of the city were killed when they dared to look inside. From here we Samuel in his role as both priest and prophet. Once again Israel is at war with the Philistines and the Israelites are fearful. Samuel leads the people in returning to the Lord and he interceded for them in their battle. We see that in all Samuel's lifetime the Lord's hand was against the Philistines. We also see that Samuel learned how to manage his sons from Eli. Just like Eli’s sons, the sons of Samuel were corrupt and sought dishonest gain. The elders of Israel came to Samuel and told him he was old, and his sons could not follow in his footsteps. And they demanded a king...just like everybody else had. It angered Samuel and he went to the Lord. Once again, we see the depth of Israel’s depravity. They no longer wanted God to be their king and sovereign. They wanted to be like everybody else, something the Lord did not want to happen. Israel was to be set apart, different than everybody else. They were throwing their heritage away. The Lord commanded Samuel to give them what they wanted...that they were not rejecting Samuel so much as they were rejecting the Lord.
Samuel was called to warn Israel about what having a king would be like, but the people did not care. They probably had ceased listening to Samuel by this point, and like Joshua before him, Samuel did not have a handpicked successor. This is a recipe for disaster. Israel was deliberately choosing their own path. Samuel warned the Israelites they could cry out to God all they wanted but they could not expect God to hear or deliver them because of their choices. They wanted human leadership on the battlefield instead of God who had been faithful to them. Israel had won many battles with God leading them. Now everything would change. We will see just how much starting tomorrow.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W