When Religion Fails

Lesson Focus:  This lesson can help you come to a new appreciation of the holiness of God and renew a right commitment to the living God. It will lead you beyond the symbols of religious faith to the true and living God.

Misplaced Trust: 1 Samuel 4:3-5,10.

[3]  And when the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, "Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies." [4]  So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. [5]  As soon as the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded.  [10]  So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers.  [ESV]

[1-4]  An undisclosed period of time after Samuel’s conversation with Eli, the Israelites became involved in a battle against the Philistines [1]. The Philistines, who are understood to have migrated to the coastal regions of southwest Israel in large numbers during the first half of the twelfth century B.C., had become a serious threat to the Israelites during the period of the Judges. Here we have the story of one particular battle in which the Israelites suffer a defeat. Like Hannah, the Israelite elders reflect theologically on their experience of life. Like her, they were convinced of God’s power and were thus sure that it was the Lord’s decision and not any superior power on behalf of the enemy that had caused them to be defeated. However, there were limits to their understanding and they show little of Hannah’s insight. They ask no questions about their own attitudes, behavior or even strategies. We have much to learn from the common assumption in the Old Testament that all events in life can be traced to the influence of a sovereign God. Secondary causes exist, but they are often by-passed as the participants reflect on why it might be that God has allowed this particular situation to arise. However, this story shows very clearly that this approach to God’s sovereignty can also lead to misunderstandings. In this instance, rather than questioning their own actions, they jump to the somewhat superstitious conclusion that what must be missing is the tangible symbol of God’s presence, that is the ark of the covenant of the Lord. This kind of superstition that transforms helpful, God-given symbols into magical ways of ensuring God’s support was not just a problem for ancient Israel. It has plagued the church throughout its history. Even today undue weight may be given to external symbols as a means of almost guaranteeing God’s blessing on one’s actions rather than being primarily concerned about the condition of the heart. For example, particular bodily postures in worship (whether kneeling, standing, hand-raising), the timing or method of daily Bible reading, the instruments used to support singing, the arrangement or alternative usage of the worship space all can be viewed in superstitious ways as guarantees of spirituality or as a means of ensuring God’s blessing. In this case, the ark is sent for and arrives accompanied by Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas, probably reveling in their role as guardians of the ark and expecting a handsome remuneration.

[5-10]  The Israelite army was ecstatic. There was no doubt in their minds that their victory was now assured. One wonders why they did not bring the ark with them to begin with if the ark was such a guarantee of victory. Is this an example of the thought process that only calls on the Lord when you cannot handle the situation in your own strength, knowledge and wisdom?  The Philistine army was horrified. What chance could they have against such powerful magic? The result was that one army apparently became complacent and the other fought with desperation. In spite of the presence of the ark, the Israelites were comprehensively beaten and many lives, including those of Eli’s two sons, were lost. As staggering as the loss of human life was, it was dwarfed by the losses dealt to Israelite culture. For the first time in history Israel’s most sacred material possession was now in the hands of pagans, and its two most powerful active priests had died at the hands of infidels. The sanctuary at Shiloh seems to have been destroyed by the Philistines shortly after this time. Never again is the city mentioned as a worship center for Israel. And when the ark is reacquired, it was not returned to Shiloh. The implication seems to be that the root cause of this particular defeat was Israel’s assumption that God Himself could be controlled by their actions; their trust was in the presence of the ark rather than in God Himself. It is an ongoing temptation for believers to think that if an end-result seems good to them, it must, therefore, be God’s will and that they can automatically expect, if not demand, that God will take action to bring about this end-result. The ark narratives, both this one and that found later in 2 Samuel 6, provide a strong warning of the dangers of such an attitude.

God is Not in Them:  1 Samuel 4:20-22.

[20]  And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, "Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son." But she did not answer or pay attention. [21]  And she named the child Ichabod, saying, "The glory has departed from Israel!" because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. [22]  And she said, "The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured."  [ESV]

[19-22]  On the same day that Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas died, Phinehas’ wife went into premature labor and was overcome by her labor pains. Fatal complications in the birthing process caused the woman to die shortly after giving birth to a son. Instead of rejoicing in the most honorable achievement a woman in the Ancient Near East could attain – the birthing of a son – she was listless and distracted because of her anxiety over the ark. The death of Eli’s daughter-in-law heightens the sense of tragedy. In her dying moments, she too reflects theologically as she names her newborn son Ichabod, meaning ‘no glory’. Her statement that, because of the capture of the ark the glory has departed from Israel, reflects an understanding that God Himself, who was Israel’s glory, had left them. The Philistines’ conviction that they had captured Israel’s god was almost certainly shared by many Israelites. One can perhaps imagine the desolation that such a thought would bring. If God had indeed gone, there was no hope at all. This understanding would very soon be proved to be wrong; God had by no means been captured, but nevertheless, life for Israel did change. Eli’s family did not in fact die out, but they were removed from significant leadership. Shiloh lost its significance as a religious and a political center and the ark never returned there. It certainly was the end of an era. Throughout history people have commonly drawn the conclusion that a particular tragic event must mean that God is no longer powerful or probably has disappeared from the scene. How many people have refused to believe in God any longer because of some specific tragedy in their own lives? The basis on which such an understanding is built is shown in this instance, and on many other occasions, to be fallacious. When Israel was taken into exile in Babylon, the sense that God was not powerful enough to protect his own people was very strong. However, Ezekiel made it very clear that the exile, far from being a sign of God’s powerlessness, was actually an indication that He was very much in control and was a direct result of God’s judgment on the people. He would not allow His name to be dishonored by other people thinking that  He approved of or would tolerate the injustice, immorality and idolatry that had come to be characteristic of Judah. We, as much as the Israelites of Eli’s time or of Ezekiel’s time, must beware of thinking that God’s power and presence can be demonstrated only in ways that we believe to be appropriate.

Treating the Holy as Common:  1 Samuel 5:1-4; 6:19-21.

[1]  When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod.

[2]  Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon. [3]  And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. [4]  But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.

[6:19]  And he struck some of the men of Beth-Shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the LORD. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great blow. [20]  Then the men of Beth-Shemesh said, "Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?" [21]  So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, "The Philistines have returned the ark of the LORD. Come down and take it up to you."  [ESV]

[5:1-4]  It was important for Israel to understand that their God was not under their control and could not be manipulated into doing what they wanted simply by moving the ark. It seems to have been equally important that the Philistines understood something of God’s power. God-given symbols like the ark are not to be treated superstitiously in the way that the Israelites did, but equally they are not to be treated disrespectfully in the way that the Philistines did. The Philistines were very much the enemy of Israel, nevertheless the Israelites had a responsibility towards them. God’s covenant with Israel had been instituted so that they could live in such a way to indicate to the world who God was and what He was like. On many occasions when they failed so dismally to do this, God, as here, acted on His own behalf. The challenge remains today for God’s people to represent God’s character adequately before those who do not follow or believe in Him. The triumphant rejoicing of the people of Ashdod very quickly turned into fear and pain. Their god Dagon had been utterly humiliated in his own territory and Israel’s God shown to be powerful in an area well outside what might have been seen as His territory. But it was not only Dagon that suffered. The sudden outbreak of very painful tumorous boils was assumed also to be a result of the presence of the ark of God. The people of Ashdod sought to deal with the situation by moving the ark to Gath and then to Ekron. But at each location the outbreak of tumors followed. It took several months before the Philistine authorities could come to terms with the fact that their problems would be solved only by returning the ark to Israel. Their hesitation is understandable. The return of the ark would undoubtedly be seen as an acknowledgment of the power of Israel’s God. It could also be seen as an admission of weakness and even as an encouragement to the Israelite army to attack. Their problem was how to appease the Israelite God without inciting the Israelite army. Their solution was a triumph of diplomacy and strategic thinking. The Philistine priests were clear that they must admit their guilt and pay compensation for the mistakes they had made in their dealings with the ark. By placing gold rats and tumors in the ark they provided a tribute, symbolically removed the problems from their territory and at the same time acknowledged that God was at the root of their troubles. They provided a new cart to carry the ark and used cows to draw the cart without any human help. This prevented them from coming into contact with the Israelites and could be seen as a recognition that God was so powerful that He did not need any human help in returning to Israel. The cows took the cart straight to the Israelite town of Beth-Shemesh [6:12].

[6:19-21]  With the return of the ark, it might be expected that all will now be well and great blessing will follow for Israel. But instead, a large number of people in Beth-Shemesh died. The coming of the ark had the same disastrous effects on their town as it had on the Philistine cities. What was going on? The people of Beth-Shemesh had greeted the return of the ark with a great sacrifice and burnt offerings. What had they done wrong that would cause God to strike so many dead? The theme of the right and wrong uses of and attitudes to God-given symbols continues. Rather than treating the ark with proper respect and recognizing the power and sovereignty of God, they seem to have seen it as a kind of trophy signifying the defeat of the Philistines and victory for Israel. They ignored all the regulations about the way in which the ark was to be treated because it was a symbol of God’s holiness. They had no qualms about looking inside to see what goodies the Philistines might have placed there. There had been no change of attitude from the time that God had allowed the ark to be captured. There was still no real recognition that it was neither Israel nor the Philistines who had ultimate power but God who was sovereign over both. The deaths of the inhabitants of Beth-Shemesh were a terrible punishment, but the consequences for Israel of failing to understand the significance of the holiness of God could be even more tragic. We do no favors to anybody by representing God as a kind old gentleman who can always be pacified by the right present. Our God really is an awesome God and, as the residents of Beth-Shemesh discovered, we fail to acknowledge that fact at our peril. He will bless and protect His people but not at the expense of His justice or of His holiness. Just like the Philistines, their reaction to the tragedy was to move the ark on so that it might become someone else’s problem. Indeed it seems that the Philistines had learned more from events than had the Israelite inhabitants of Beth-Shemesh. The Philistines at least recognized that their problems originated from their own attitudes and behavior towards the God of Israel. It is not clear whether the residents of Kiriath-jearim were aware of what had taken place at Beth-Shemesh, although it is hard to envisage that such news, both the good and the bad, would not have spread very quickly. It certainly appears that they received the ark gladly, sending their own people to collect it. Beth-Shemesh had rejoiced too at the coming of the ark, but they had brought great sadness on themselves by assuming it meant God was going to do great things for them. They did not take God’s holiness seriously. However, the people of Kiriath-jearim appeared to have understood that it was a different matter to welcome the ark because of the opportunity it gave for them to serve the Lord, recognizing Him as the Holy One of Israel. They realized that rather than trying to make God do what they wanted, they should mourn their own sinful behavior and seek to do what God wanted. Modern readers do well to note the difference.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What mistake did the Israelite elders make in 4:3-5? Instead of bringing the ark of the covenant to the battle what should they have done? How do we make the same mistake today?

2.         The Israelites, as represented by the wife of Phinehas, identified God’s presence and power with their own victories in life. If they were defeated then God was defeated. What is wrong with this type of thinking? How have you seen God’s power expressed in your defeats?

3.         Why did God kill the men of Beth-Shemesh? What important truth was God teaching?


1, 2 Samuel, Robert Bergen, NAC, Broadman.

The Message of Samuel, Mary Evans, Intervarsity Press.

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