1 Samuel 4:11
And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.
The elders of Israel were chagrined at the defeat suffered by the national army in its attempt to throw off the yoke of the Philistines. But, instead of seeking the Lord by repentance, they fell on a device to compel him, as they supposed, to give them a victory. Had not the ark been carried round the walls of Jericho, when Israel had no engines of siege to bring against a fortified city; and had not the walls fallen flat to the ground? Why not try its power again? "Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of Jehovah unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies."
I. A SACRED SYMBOL MISUSED. Forthwith the ark was brought into the camp, and the people in their foolish confidence shouted till the earth rang again. A superstitious fear ran through the ranks of the Philistines, but it did not unnerve them for the battle. They gained a signal victory, "and the ark of God was taken." At such a cost had Israel to learn that the ark ought not to be used as a charm or talisman, and that, if so regarded and employed, it could not save them, could not save itself, while the face of God was turned away from the wicked priests and the degenerate nation. It is a lesson for all times. Men are often tempted to rely on religious symbols and appointments, not so much to glorify God therewith as to protect themselves. It is much easier to shout over these than to break off sins by righteousness. So the cross has been worn in many an evil enterprise, and carried into many battles, to defend cruel and rapacious men. So, also, men shout over their Church, their English Bible, their prayer book, or their sabbath, in a vain confidence that their relation to one of them, or to all of them, will secure the Divine favour, or, at all events, Divine defence, though in character and life they be no better than others who boast of none of these things. But it is all delusion, and they who go into some hard battle of life with no better security are destined to a thorough defeat. The ark of God itself could do nothing for men who by their sins had driven away the God of the ark. What a selfish man wants in religion is to have God bound to take his part and fight on his side, instead of his studying to be on God's side, which is the side of righteousness. Such was the thought of the heathen nations of the East. Each of them had its guardian deity or deities, who were worshipped and propitiated at any cost, in order that they might befriend that particular nation or tribe, and injure its enemies. The gods were expected to give strength and victory to their own people, taking their part whether their cause were just or unjust. The Hebrews sometimes fell into the same way of thinking of Jehovah. He was their national God, and bound as such to fight for them. He was to be praised if they succeeded, to be reproached if they failed in whatever enterprise they undertook. Have not many Christians similar thoughts of God? Almost every great act of rapine has been perpetrated, and every war, however unjust, has been waged, with grave appeal to heaven, and gross usurpers and tyrants have had "Te Deum" sung for their infamous victories. But in vain do unrighteous men claim religious sanctions. God defends the right, and his face is against the wrong doer. The ark of his covenant, brought into the din and dust of battle by those who were full of sin unrepented of, went into the enemy's hand, and the priests who stood beside it were slain.
II. FOREBODING OF EVIL. The aged Eli sat in his chair of office by the gate of Shiloh, watching the road, eager for early tidings from the army, his heart trembling for the ark of God. The natural fearfulness of old age was aggravated in this case by a reproaching conscience, which told Eli that he ought not to have permitted the ark to be taken without any warrant from the Lord into the turmoil of battle. So he sat foreboding calamity; and when the heavy tidings came to him of the discomfiture of Israel, the death of his sons, and the capture of the ark by the Philistines, Eli fell to the earth without a word, and died. We do not present the pathetic figure of the old priest trembling for the ark as a model for servants of God. The right and noble thing for Eli to have done would have been to resist the desecration of the sacred ark, and to call the people to repentance, that so they might be strong in God before they encountered the Philistines. But he had governed so weakly that he had no moral influence or authority; and his great age, which ought to have brought him reverence, only brought him feebleness; so Eli could but tremble and die. We have seen such feeble saints in our own time; they are always foreboding evil; they are in great alarm about the dangers which beset Christian truth; they sit trembling for the ark. Popery is about to swallow us up! Or, Infidelity is carrying all before it! Alas for the ark of God! So they wail and lament, and spread misgivings among all who listen to them. But they do little else; they have no vigour in counsel or action to prevent or to remedy spiritual disaster. It is a poor spirited, ineffective style of Christian character. We want something much firmer and bolder for the defence and propagation of the gospel. We want repentance insisted on, righteousness preached and practised, wrongs redressed, abuses cast out of the Church, and then we need not fear the Philistines. Granted that the times are perilous; there is cause of anxiety, and there is need of prayer. But prayer itself will not gain any victory for those whose hearts and lives are not right with God. Hophni and Phinehas went to the battle field reeking from their sins. How could God fight by or for them? And the people of Israel, following the bad example in high places, were quite demoralised. Why should they have a victory? Let repentance begin at the house of God. Let iniquity be abhorred and forsaken. So God will be with us, and we need not fear the foe. We shall tremble at his word, but we shall not tremble because of the Philistines. "Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear." - F.
Parallel VersesKJV: And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.