1 Samuel 4:11
And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.
And the ark of God was taken. The ark was a Divinely appointed symbol or material sign of spiritual truth, and especially of the presence and majesty, the holiness, mercy, and protection, of the invisible King of Israel. It was a part of a system of symbolical worship which was adapted to an early stage of human culture, and formed an important element in a dispensation introductory and preparatory to "the ministration of the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:8). But even under the new dispensation symbolism is not absolutely done away, for Baptism and the Lord's Supper are both symbolic. With special, though not exclusive, reference to the ancient symbol, notice that -
I. THE SYMBOL SERVES IMPORTANT PURPOSES IN RELATION TO THE TRUTH OR SPIRITUAL REALITY WHICH IT REPRESENTS. Its need arises from our being constituted of body and soul, the dependence of thought and feeling on sensible impressions, and the necessary influence of imagination in religion; and it serves -
1. To make its nature more conceivable. "In the symbol proper, what we can call a symbol, there is ever, more or less distinctly and directly, some embodiment and revelation of the infinite; the infinite is made to blend itself with the finite, to stand visible and, as it were, attainable there" (Sartor Resartus).
2. To make its presence more certain; not, indeed, in itself, but in the convictions of the soul.
3. To make its influence more powerful, constant, and universal. It should, however, be observed that only the symbols which have been appointed by God may be authoritatively used in his worship; that these should be regarded with due reverence; not improperly exalted, not altered, not despised, not handled by unworthy hands; and that no others should be introduced, or only such as do not inculcate error, and do not conduce to superstition or formalism.
II. THE SYMBOL MAY BE POSSESSED WHILST THE TRUTH IS PARTIALLY OR WHOLLY LOST. This comes to pass -
1. When the symbol receives an undue share of attention in comparison with the truth, which is distinct from it and incomparably more important; when it centres thought upon itself, and hinders rather than helps the soul in its spiritual aspirations.
2. When there is a moral indisposition and dislike, on the part of those who possess the symbol, toward the truth.
3. When, in consequence of such dislike, and the lowering of the idea of the truth, the sign is confounded with the thing signified, identified with it, and substituted for it. This is ever the chief danger attending the use of symbols in Divine worship.
III. THE RETENTION OF THE SYMBOL WITHOUT THE TRUTH IS WORTHLESS AND INJURIOUS.
1. It fails of its purpose; is a means of grace no more; an empty cistern; a meaningless, unreal, and hollow form. Nehushtan (a piece of brass - 2 Kings 18:4).
2. It fills men with false confidence, and increases their error, formality, and corruption.
3. It woefully disappoints the trust which is reposed in it, and often leaves them to despair (Galatians 5:1, 2).
IV. THE REMOVAL OF THE SYMBOL IS SOMETIMES NECESSARY TO THE RECOVERY OF THE TRUTH. And this effect is accomplished by -
1. Its correction of fatal error. In the case of Israel, teaching that the ark was not the same as the Divine presence, and did not necessarily insure it.
2. Causing deep humiliation.
3. Leading to earnest inquiry and prayer. "They lamented after the Lord" (1 Samuel 7:2), not after the ark, which had long been restored, and lay in a private dwelling without public honour, and appears to have exerted no influence whatever in the revival of spiritual truth and life that followed. Conclusion: -
1. Symbols are useful when rightly used and held in subordination to spiritual truth.
2. The course of the Divine dealings with men (like that of men with children) is less and less symbolical, more and more spiritual. "They shall say no more, The ark of the covenant," etc. (Jeremiah 3:16; Colossians 2:17: Hebrews 9:23).
3. Symbols will completely vanish away in the light of perfect knowledge (1 Corinthians 13:10-12). - D.
Parallel VersesKJV: And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.