1 Samuel 4:11
And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.
I. THE TEXT EXHIBITS THE TERRIBLE CONSEQUENCES TO WHICH UNGODLINESS IN THE CHURCH AND THE WEAK OR SYMPATHETIC TOLERATION OF IT WILL LEAD. No one can fail to perceive that this was a most crushing catastrophe. "The ark of God was taken." Looked at merely as a military reverse it presents a very gloomy aspect. Overwhelming must be the defeat inflicted when it reaches even to the capture of the general's tent or the pavilion over which fleets the royal standard; and this was what happened. On some of the sculptured tablets which adorn the walls of the British Museum you may see representations of triumphal processions, in which the gods of the congregated people are being carried into captivity. Something like this happened, I suppose, after this battle of Aphek. With jubilant, and it may be mocking shouts, a procession was formed, and the sacred prize was borne to the temple of their chief idol. To Dagon they owe their success, and Jehovah is now the prisoner of Dagon, and must own the superior Deity. And in this way, of course, their own spiritual nature was injured. The inevitable and irresistible tendency of sin, wherever it exists, is to bring calamity upon the individual, upon the family, upon the nation; but when wickedness lifts up its head in the Church there is, if I may use the expression, a cancer of the heart; the very centre of life and vigour is stricken. "Ye are the salt of the earth, but if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?" If the light that is in the world be darkness, how great is that darkness! And the end of it will be that God's name will be discredited, souls injured most desperately, the Lord's own people plunged in gloom, and the cause of truth and righteousness smitten with a staggering blow, if not covered with disgrace. Hence the folly and guilt of an easy toleration of open sin anywhere, but especially in the Church. The command to leave the Sates never means that I am to let alone those who are manifestly thorns and weeds and poisonous herbs. No, no. Persecution, of course, we must not allow, but discipline we dare not neglect.
II. The text EXHIBITS THE OUTRAGEOUS FOLLY OF ATTEMPTING TO COMPENSATE FOR THE ABSENCE OF GODLINESS BY SUPERFICIAL EXCITEMENT AND SUPERSTITIOUS ATTENTION TO RELIGIOUS FORMS.
1. It indicates that they had not consulted the Lord before they commenced the campaign. You remember the time when the earlier generations of those redeemed out of Egypt came to the borders of Canaan, and the command was given to go up and possess the land? Spies were sent to explore the country, and they brought back an evil report. The people lost heart and began to murmur bitterly. The Lord in His righteous anger said, "These people shall not go in at all; their children shall go in, but as for them, they shall die in the wilderness." Then their murmuring changed into penitential mourning, and they said, "We will go." Moses retorted, "It is now too late, the Lord will not be with you." Nevertheless they presumed to advance, "but the ark of the covenant of the Lord and Moses moved not out of the camp." It was a superficial, undisciplined, unconsecrated impulse, and it met with defeat. They anticipated Providence. They precipitated an immature crisis and produced abortion.
2. They showed very shallow conceptions in regard to the principles of the kingdom to which they belonged, and the first conditions of success. "Why had the Lord smitten them!" Surely there was little need to ask that. Was not gross iniquity tolerated in high places? Were not the services of the sanctuary steeped in defilement?
3. Their language shows that they were utterly blinded in regard to the true nature of religion, and had no .glimmer of that faith in the power of which their fathers had conquered, and which is evermore "the victory that overcometh the world." They said, "Let us take unto us the ark," as if the ark were everything. The grand old war cry, "Arise, O Lord, Thou and the ark of Thy strength," had become dwarfed and dried up into confidence in what was nothing better than a wooden chest, as if, having that, they had all they needed, or could at least compel God to go with them. There is a tendency of the soul in all ages which may be thus expressed — little religion, much religiousness; little purity, much ritual; indifferent morals, the most polished manners. When people neglect the "weightier matters of the law," all the more devoutly do they "tithe mint and anise and cumin." Herod cannot atone for Herodianism, by building a splendid temple. You cannot atone for doing a wicked deed, or cherishing a wicked thought, by ejaculating in a parenthesis, "The Lord forgive me." You cannot make up for betraying the cross by bowing to the crucifix. You cannot make up for living sour skim milk, or putrid water, by serving it up in a silver cream jug. You cannot hide the ghastliness of death by beautifying its shroud, or stay the corruption of Hades by adorning its sepulchre. You cannot cover hypocrisy or avert the consequences of formalism by running to the ark for shelter.
III. THE TEXT SHOWS US HOW GOD IN DEFEAT AND DISASTER SOWS THE SEED OF ULTIMATE DELIVERANCE AND VICTORY, "The ark of God was taken." Yes; "but the ark was taken and Hophni and Phinehas were slain"; that is, the material prop upon which they were weakly and vainly leaning was removed, and the main causes of their national deterioration were destroyed. There are some successes which are worse than any defeats. If a builder is raising a house upon a rotten or weak foundation, the higher he is enabled to raise it without a check, the more overwhelming is the collapse which he is preparing in the long run. A student who is relying on luck and succeeding by a cram, has met with a misfortune which might well make him tremble. There are victories which, confirming a false principle and strengthening a vain self-confidence, do but lure the triumphant conqueror forward into the heart of a more tangled mass of difficulties, and land him in a more utter overthrow. God can afford to let His ark be taken; for, although the ark of God be captured, the God of the ark is never outwitted nor overreached.
(R. H. Roberts, B. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.