1 Samuel 4:11
And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.
The whole of this history which gathers round the capture of the ark, and its return to the land of Israel till it found a home in Jerusalem, is of very great interest.
I. Let us first, then, look AT THIS CONNECTION BETWEEN DECLENSION AND DEFEAT. At the root of the calamity which befell the nation and the dishonour to the cause of God, there was a deep moral apostasy. The spiritual condition of the people had never sunk lower, from their abasement in Egypt to their captivity in Babylon, than at this time. The character of the priesthood had become thoroughly corrupt, and this is one of the most ominous signs that can appear in any society. The priests have the heaviest responsibility, no doubt, but sins of priests and people generally go hand. in hand. Then, if there is to be recovery at all, convulsion is not far away. Churches and ministers with a very decent exterior may be standing in the same relative position as the people and priesthood in this olden time. We may be as far beneath the Sermon on the Mount as they were beneath the commandments of Sinai. We must never forget that the great test of all religion is its moral results. Is it making men lead higher, purer, more self-denying lives? Is our Christianity presenting itself in the spirit of Christ? Are ministers following the example of the apostle who could truly say, "I seek not yours, but you"? To have Church and land safe, is not enough to be free from the profanations which led to the capture of the ark; we must be in some conformity with the Christian standard. There was another feature of the declension of the people of Israel connected with this. They had changed their religion into a formal superstition. After their first defeat by the Philistines they began to think of higher help. But it was not of God they thought, the living God, but only of His ark. "Let us fetch the ark of the covenant, that it may save us out of the hand of our enemies." And like all men when reality begins to fail, they are great in lofty phrases — "The ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts which dwelleth between the cherubim." When religion comes to this it sinks into a hideous idol, and the petrified shell must be broken in pieces if the spirit is to be saved. It is the natural result of the corruption of the word of life. So it was with the Pharisees in the time of our Lord. They made broad phylacteries with texts on them, and washed cups and plates, and made much of tithing little things, and then religion ascended a cross and hid itself in a grave. How deep it is in human nature to put the letter for the life! And when we take the Bible into our hand and call ourselves evangelical Christians we are not safe from this same danger. It is quite possible to possess an orthodox creed and put it in place of a true, unselfish life, to hold fast by our Bibles, and make the having them and reading them a charm, as truly as the Israelites, with the ark of Shiloh. There comes to the Church of Christ an evangelical revival. But in time it loses its efficacy. The same truth is preached, the very same words are used, but they have passed into a formula which glides over the tongue of the speaker, and falls on the ears of the hearers without any movement of the heart, or perhaps any distinct significance to the mind. The revival of Christian doctrine will ere long lose its power, unless it lead to a corresponding revival of Christian life. Now, there is a further stage in the ark's history before it reaches its lowest fall. It has been dissociated from the living God, and has become not merely a common but a desecrated thing. To redeem the Israelites from their error, they must learn that the ark is powerless if God forsakes them, and that the symbol cannot save without the living presence. "The Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and the ark of God was taken." Natural human courage proved itself stronger than corrupted religion, and hypocrisy was broken and scattered. No doubt the Philistines imagined they had vanquished Israel's God, and some of his sincere but short-sighted friends thought the cause of religion lost, but the victory was for God and truth. "The corruption of the best thing becomes the worst," and life, in some lower form, rises and overthrows what has lost its spirit, though it may still bear a higher name. We may think that catastrophes like these are very far from our own country, and from the churches of God among us, but there may be a slow decay which brings about the same end. Unless we can raise our Christian life in some measure up to our profession, and make it higher than the natural virtues which are found outside the Church, we shall suffer defeat in point after point, which shall bring on us serious detriment. If, for example, dishonesty and faithlessness to engagements be permitted amongst us, which would not be suffered in the common walks of life, we cannot maintain our place as the guardians of righteousness. If men of science show an unwearied love in the study of nature, an enthusiasm in gathering stores of knowledge from earth and sea and sky, and a skilfulness in applying them to practical use while we are indifferent and inert in the pursuit of spiritual truths. Careless about the hidden treasures of wisdom which cast light on the ways of God and meet the wants of souls, we shall not inspire confidence in our sincerity, or give men much interest in the contents of God's Word and the work of Christ's Church. The world is ready to judge a cause by the spirit it creates and thy fruit it produces, and if we do not surround the ark of God with all the things that have virtue and praise of which the apostle speaks, man will not believe in us, and may come to treat it with contempt.
II. We come to the other side of the subject, GOD'S VICTORY. The Philistines carry the captive ark in triumph to Ashdod, their capital, and set it up as a trophy in the house of Dagon, their god. But the ark, which could not be defended by great armies, and round which thirty thousand men fell in vain, showed the power of the God of Israel when it was left alone and in exile. Dagon fell prostrate before it and when the priests set up their idol again it brought on it a heavier ruin. Disease spread through their coasts, and they began to feel that they were in conflict with a mysterious power, though they were slow to admit their weakness. What to do with God is the world's great trial, as what to do with Jesus was the difficulty of Pilate. For the world cannot make God to its mind, and in the end the world cannot do without Him. It carries His ark hither and thither, seeks to bring Him to the level of its own conceptions, to subject Him to its own idols, but finds in all its efforts no true rest till it suffers Him to take His own way to His throne, from which in His own time He shall make good His word by still higher victories — "Over Philistia will I triumph." We are still in the midst of this history, but we have reached a wider phase of it. We see it now more frequently, not in the attempt to put Dagon above the God of heaven, but to put man above Him. This brings us to the last remark, that if the ark of God is to find its true place it must be committed to the hands of men who love it. Men who have no real faith in it may be made instruments in God's Providence of showing its powers, even by their extorted acknowledgments; but if it is to reach its throne it must be set within the border of its own land, and be borne from house to house and village to village till it gains Jerusalem. Even the God of the ark will not carry it to its end without human agency. That cross is our ark of the covenant, and in the joy that welcomed it to Jerusalem, when "David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet," we seem to catch far off the anticipation of that time when "the temple of God shall be opened in heaven, and there is seen in it the ark of His testament: and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The Kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever "(Revelation 11). And so let us, in closing, gather up the spirit of the history as it applies to ourselves. We need never despair of the cause of God; it has had its defeats where all seemed lost, but every defeat has been the herald of a new victory and of a higher rise. From Shiloh to the house of Dagon; but thence to Jerusalem to put on more spiritual beauty, and to be surrounded with those songs which go deep into Christian hearts. Let us not faint at its many vicissitudes.
(J. Ker, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.