1 Samuel 4:1-11
And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Ebenezer…
Israel was smitten,... and the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain (vers. 10, 11). The law of retribution which prevails in the world is, more especially in the outward life, often slow in its operation, inexplicable, and sometimes apparently partial and imperfect. But in many instances it is manifested in a sudden, clear, and most equitable manner. One of these instances is here described. Hophni and Phinehas were warned in vain, and pursued their evil way. The influence which they exerted on others was pernicious, and their sin was largely shared in by the people. At length the hour of judgment struck. "Israel went out against the Philistines to battle" - not, probably, according to the counsel of Samuel, but according to their own will, and to repel a fresh attack of their most powerful foes and oppressors (ver. 9). They were defeated with a loss of about 4000 men; but instead of humbling themselves before God, the elders expressed their surprise and disappointment at the result. They were blinded by sin, and assumed (as others have often done) that because they were the acknowledged people of Jehovah they would necessarily receive his help according to his covenant, whether they fulfilled their part of the covenant and obeyed his commandments or not. To insure his help more effectually, they sent to Shiloh for "the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, which dwelleth between (is enthroned upon) the cherubim." They looked for deliverance from the ark of the Lord rather than from the Lord of the ark. Hophni and Phinehas, its appointed guardians, readily consented to go with it, not knowing that they were going to their doom; and the aged high priest was too weak to oppose the presumptuous enterprise. The exultation of Israel was speedily turned into humiliation, and the fear of their enemies into triumph; and one of the greatest calamities Israel ever experienced occurred. These events suggest the following reflections: -
I. How OFTEN ARE THE UNGODLY EMPLOYED BY GOD FOR THE CHASTISEMENT OF HIS PEOPLE (vers. 1, 2).
1. When those who have been chosen to be separate from and superior to the ungodly have learnt their ways, it is just and appropriate that they should be given up to chastisement at their hands.
2. The chastisement which is thus inflicted upon them is the most severe they can experience. "Let us not fall into the hand of man" (2 Samuel 24:14). "The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel" (Proverbs 12:10).
3. In fulfilling their own purposes the wicked are subject to the control of God; they can go no further than he pleases, their designs are overruled for good, and when they have done their work they are broken and cast aside like useless saws and axes (Isaiah 27:7, 8; Acts 5:28). This is the case with Satan himself. "Satan is a very important element in the Divine economy. God needs him, and he therefore keeps him until he shall have no more use for him. Then will he be banished to his own place. The Scriptures call the wicked heathen tyrant Nebuchadnezzar a servant of God. They might give Satan the same name" (Hengstenberg).
II. How VAIN IS THE POSSESSION OF THE FORM OF RELIGION WITHOUT ITS SPIRIT (vers. 3, 4). Israel had a great though superstitious reverence for the ark, and expected that it would "save them out of the hand of their enemies."
1. Excessive devotion to the outward forms and ceremonies, and dependence upon them, is commonly associated with the absence of spiritual life (Matthew 5:20; 2 Timothy 3:5).
2. Reliance upon such forms arises from the delusion that they insure the presence and working of God apart from the spirit in which they are employed. They are, however, neither the necessary, nor the exclusive channels of Divine grace (John 6:63), and no benefit formerly received through them (Numbers 10:35) is to be expected, unless there be a right relation to him who has appointed them.
3. The vanity of it is clearly shown in the day of trial. "If progress to perfection is placed only in external observances, our religion, having no Divine life, will quickly perish, with the things on which it subsists; but the axe must be laid at the root of the tree, that, being separated and freed from the restless desires of nature and self, we may possess our souls in the peace of God" (A Kempis).
III. How NEAR ARE THOSE WHO ARE ELATED IN FALSE CONFIDENCE TO THEIR SIGNAL DOWNFALL (ver. 5). There was a shout in the camp at the arrival of the ark. It struck consternation into the Philistines, who had heard of the wonders wrought by Jehovah in former times (1 Samuel 6:6), and who, like Israel, supposed that his presence was inseparably connected with the symbol thereof (vers. 6-8). But they speedily regained courage, and obtained a second and greater victory (ver. 9).
1. False confidence is blind to its own weakness and danger.
2. It is generally associated with neglect of the proper means of safety.
3. Nothing is more displeasing to God than pride and presumption; nothing more frequently condemned or more severely punished (1 Samuel 2:3; Proverbs 16:18; Isaiah 2:11). "By that sin fell the angels." "We must therefore bear this in mind throughout our whole life, every day, every hour, and every moment, that we never indulge so much as a thought of confidence in self" (Scupoli).
IV. How SURE IS THE FULFILMENT OF THE DIVINE THREATENINGS AGAINST THE IMPENITENT (vers. 10, 11; 1 Samuel 2:30, 34). In mercy it may be long delayed; but mercy has its limits, and judgment comes at last (Proverbs 29:1; Romans 2:5).
1. The priests, who had so grossly abused their power in many ways, and now exposed the ark of the Lord in battle, were struck down by the sword of his enemies.
"Wisdom supreme! how wonderful the art
Which thou dost manifest in heaven, in earth,
And in the evil world, how just a meed
Allotting by thy virtue unto all"
(Dante, 'Inferno ')
2. The elders and people, who "asked not counsel at the mouth of the Lord," were abandoned to their own devices, and 30,000 of them were slain.
3. The whole nation, which had forsaken the Lord, was deprived of the sign of his presence (ver. 11); the place of the sanctuary, which had been defiled, was made a perpetual desolation (Psalm 78:59-64; Jeremiah 7:11, 12, 14; Jeremiah 26:6); and they who would not serve the Lord with gladness were compelled to wear the heavy yoke of their oppressors (Deuteronomy 28:47, 48; 1 Samuel 7:2, 14).
"The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small;
Though he stands and waits with patience, with exactness grinds he all." God's judgments are the expressions of his opinion about our guilt .... But there is this difference between man and God in this matter: - A human judge gives his opinion in words; God gives his in events. And God always pays sinners back in kind, that he may not merely punish them, but correct them; so that by the kind of their punishment they may know the kind of their sin (C. Kingsley). - D.
The inquiry of the afflicted. Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us? (ver. 3). Men are accustomed to meet affliction in various ways.
1. Some meet it lightly, and endeavour to laugh at it. But this is possible only when it is not very severe.
2. Others exaggerate it, lose their self-possession, and sink under it into despondency and despair.
3. Others quarrel with it as with an enemy, become embittered and cynical.
4. Others, still, endure it with philosophical (stoical) fortitude, accounting it not an evil, and resolving not to feel it. But this method breaks down in actual experience, and leaves the character unimproved. The truly wise, whilst fully sensitive to its natural influence, and confessing it to be an evil, seek to understand its meaning and purpose, and act in accordance therewith. They adopt this inquiry of the elders of Israel, though in a somewhat different spirit. The inquiry pertains to -
I. THE HAND FROM WHICH IT COMES. "Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us?"
1. His dominion is supreme and universal.
2. His operations are often indirect, and to our view intricate and perplexing. Adversity is not the less under his direction and control because it comes by the hand of man.
3. All he does is done in perfect wisdom, justice, and benevolence. It must be so, even when it appears otherwise (Psalm 77:19, 20). The mystery which beclouds his ways is itself adapted to beget in us proper feelings toward him. The first necessity in affliction is to settle it in our hearts that "it is the Lord."
II. THE CAUSE TO WHICH IT IS DUE. Whence? Suffering is the result and penalty of violating the natural or moral order which God has established in the world.
1. It may be often traced to the transgression of the sufferer, but not always. Those who are greater sufferers than others are not necessarily greater sinners (Luke 13:1-5).
2. It is often due to the transgressions of others with whom we are intimately associated, and in the effects of whose conduct we necessarily have part.
3. It is connected with the sinfulness of the heart, and implies participation in the fallen and corrupt nature of humanity. "This is the key both to the sufferings of the righteous and to many other secrets." Human suffering points, as with the finger of God, to human sin, and should ever lead to self-examination and profound humiliation.
III. THE PURPOSES FOR WHICH IT IS SENT. Herein the fatherly love of God appears; and to those who love him punishment is transformed into chastisement and a means of blessing (Hebrews 12:11). It is designed -
1. To manifest the presence and evil of sin, which would not be otherwise properly felt. The consequences of transgression often quicken the conscience to its "exceeding sinfulness," and lead to godly sorrow (Isaiah 27:9).
2. To restrain, and prevent future disobedience (Psalm 119:67).
3. To educate and improve the character - by instructing the soul in spiritual truth, working in it submission and patience, disposing it to sympathy, etc. (Psalm 94:12; Romans 5:3; 2 Corinthians 1:4). "All things work together for good," i.e. for the perfecting of the character in conformity to "the image of his Son" (Romans 8:29).
4. To prepare for the experience of higher joy, here and hereafter (2 Corinthians 4:17).
5. To promote the holiness and happiness of others in many ways.
6. To bring glory to God (John 9:3; John 11:4). What is naturally a curse has thus hidden within it a priceless blessing; which, however, is not attained without human cooperation and Divine grace. Affliction has not in itself the power to purify, strengthen, and save.
IV. THE MEANS BY WHICH THESE PURPOSES ARE ACCOMPLISHED.
1. Humility and penitence (Job 40:4; Job 42:6).
2. Filial trust; entering into fellowship with Christ in his sufferings, and receiving his Spirit according to his promise.
3. The hope of heaven, where there shall be "no more pain" (Romans 8:18).
"Whatever thou Host hate,
Whatever thou wouldst cast away and scorn
As profitless - Affliction never lose;
Affliction never cease to venerate.
For sorrow sanctified bears fruit to God,
Which, in his heavenly garner treasured up,
Shall feed his own to all eternity." D.
Parallel VersesKJV: And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Ebenezer: and the Philistines pitched in Aphek.