1 Samuel 4:13
And when he came, see, Eli sat on a seat by the wayside watching: for his heart trembled for the ark of God…
And what was this ark? In itself, it was nothing more than a chest of wood about five feet long, and half as deep and wide; but of all the holy things the Jews possessed it was the holiest. The names applied to it will show us why. It is called in this chapter "the ark of the covenant of God." It is called also elsewhere "the ark of the testimony." By the writings contained in it, it testified or bore witness to the people of what the Lord required of them. And there was another name applied to it — "the ark of God's strength." "Arise, O Lord, into Thy rest," says David, "thou and the ark of thy strength;" and so also he says in another psalm, with a reference to this very transaction, "He delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy's hand." And. why these lofty names for a thing so mean? For this reason. On the top of this ark stood what was called the mercy seat. Here He manifested Himself as really present with His people. The ark was the ark of His strength, because here He abode in His strength, and was seen to do so; He discovered on it and by it His greatness and glory. No wonder, then, that it was esteemed sacred. While it was with them, they felt that the Lord God of their fathers was with them, that they might fly to Him when they pleased for protection and look to Him for blessings. And we, too, in the Christian church have our ark. This holy thing, you perceive, corresponded almost exactly, in the purposes to be answered by it, with Christ's holy gospel. That gospel is a setting forth of His covenant with His spiritual Israel; it is a faithful testimony of all the wonderful things He has done and intends to do for them; it is an unveiling of His presence among them, of His love towards them, and, at the same time, of His greatness and glory.
I. THE SERVANTS OF GOD SOMETIMES TREMBLE FOR THE ARK OF GOD. If we ask how this comes to pass I answer: —
1. From the great love they have for it. Value a thing highly, and you will sit, as it were, by the wayside watching it; you will be anxious about it, or be tempted to be so; you will be afraid of losing it. What makes the tender mother fear for the infant that is out of her sight, or that seems in danger? Simply this — she loves her infant. And the people of God love the gospel, really, deeply; better than they love any one earthly thing. There sits Eli outside the gate of Shiloh, watching and trembling, and for what? for the life of his sons or the success of the army? Both these are in jeopardy, and he knows they are in jeopardy, but he is not trembling for them; he is afraid for the ark of God. Does this seem to any of you extravagant or unnatural? It would not, if you were really the people of God. "Lord, make Thy gospel dearer to me than all the world."
2. But there is another reason why the people of God sometimes tremble for the ark — they know something of its value to the people that possess it. He thought of the mercies that holy thing had brought with it for more than four hundred years to his nation. It was the safeguard of Israel, it was the charter of her privileges, it was the token and pledge of the Lord's special favour towards her; and therefore, when it was in danger, he trembled. And ask the Christian why he is so anxious for the gospel to be here or there. He does not always say, "Because I love the gospel, and wish it to be everywhere;" but rather, "There are many whom I love in that place, and they all need the gospel." The man has a feeling heart. "It is the greatest treasure our poor bankrupt world has left, the only treasure. It is our lifeboat, our last plank, in our dismal wreck. I know its value, and therefore I tremble for it."
3. A consciousness of guilt also will make the servants of God thus fearful. We have just been looking at the Christian as a man of a benevolent heart; we must regard him now as a man of a tender conscience. Some of you never fear for the Gospel. You never dream of its being taken away from you, or of any spiritual privilege being withdrawn. And we can tell at once who you are. You are men who do not know yourselves. You do not feel how unworthy you are of your spiritual mercies. But the real Christian is a man who carries about with him a heart that God has wounded. He feels every day he lives that he is a guilty sinner. "If the ark goes from us, it has been driven away from us by my unprofitable and unholy life." O that we could at this hour hear such language as this from every man in our church! We blame others, and they may be worthy of blame, but it would become us better to blame ourselves.
II. THE SERVANTS OF GOD HAVE SOMETIMES REASON TO FEAR FOR THE ARK OF GOD. Not only do they fear for it, as we have just seen; their fear, as we have now to see, may be well founded and right. Some of you may ask how this can be. "The great God," you may say, "will take care of His own glory in our world. Why should we be anxious for it?" I answer, God will indeed take care of His glory here, and of His ark and church also. He is able to do so, and He is pledged and determined to do so. He will ever have a people to praise Him on the earth. But we must remember that though the Gospel will never be removed from the world, yet it may be removed from this or that part of the world. It is not entailed on any congregation, or parish, or kingdom. And this also must be considered — the Gospel has often been removed from one place to another. The ark not only may be lost to a people, it had been lost.
III. THE SERVANTS OF GOD HAVE REASON TO TREMBLE FOR THE ARK OF GOD WHEN IT IS EITHER PROFANED OR TRUSTED IN. In this case it was both.
1. The people profaned the ark. Who bade them send to Shiloh for it, and take it from its holy secrecy there into the tumult of a camp? The Lord had commanded Moses that it should be kept in "the secret place of his tabernacle;" but now to answer their earthly purposes, the command of God is to be set aside, the sacredness of the holy of holies to be violated, a battlefield to become the dwelling place of the ark of God. If, therefore, a time should ever come in England when our people or rulers shall care less for the Gospel than they care for their own glory or power; let such a time come, and then there will indeed be cause to tremble for the ark of God. It is under-valued, it is profaned, and God will not bear this — it is in danger of being lost.
2. The Israelites also made too much of the ark; they trusted in it, and this at the very time that they under-valued and profaned it — a strange inconsistency, but yet a common one. God was dishonoured by having His ark put in His place, and therefore He dishonoured it and the men who so exalted it. There lie the people of the Lord in slaughtered thousands, and there goes the ark itself, that sacred thing which none but' a Levite must ever touch — it is carried by heathen hands amid heathen shouts to a heathen temple; it is lost to the Israel of God. The inference we are to draw is plain — while we do not undervalue our spiritual privileges, we must never trust to them to protect us; nay, we must not expect them to protect even themselves. It is a great mistake to say, "The church and the Gospel will defend themselves." There is the ark in Dagon's temple, and if we conclude, because we have a spiritual church and a preached Gospel that that church must stand and that Gospel still be preached, God may teach us a terrible lesson. He will deliver once more "His strength into captivity and His glory into the enemy's hand." It is the church itself, that is generally the Church's worst foe. If she falls, it will be her own worldly-mindedness and spiritual idolatry, her confidence in herself and her forgetfulness of God, that will bring her low. She will fall her own destroyer.
(C. Bradley, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And when he came, lo, Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching: for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city, and told it, all the city cried out.