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1 Samuel 4:3
Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us today before the Philistines?
The advantages of defeat
This cry of amazement stands between two defeats. Defeat astounded Israel: it fell in despite of priests and religious parade. We should study defeats. Personal and corporate both. Army cadets at Sandhurst and Woolwich prepare to achieve victory by the study of military failures. Good will come of such study in spite of its sadness.
I. Defeat that compels enquiry into our moral discipline is good.
1. Defeat comes as a surprise. We are in the hosts of the Great King. We have been educated to expect victory. Our base, our supplies, our alliances, our history, have led to this.
2. We should be grateful to the first questioner in the Church, who demands research into the Church’s character. “Wherefore?” is the prelude of “Hallelujah.” So, too, in the life of the soul.
3. Enquiry will demonstrate the omission of some condition essential to success. A little later (1 Samuel 7:8) Samuel explains the double disaster. Our “Leader and Commander” has not promised unconditional triumph. “The promises are made to character.” “If ye do return unto the Lord . . . He will deliver you.”
4. Each day may be with us a day of battle.
II. It is no small gain when we see defeat to be the fruit of past neglect.
1. Had Israel been true long before, there would have been no Philistines now to vex and humiliate them. At the conquest of Canaan they had their chance. But fatigue set in, and enthusiasm faded away before the conquest could be completed. Awed and crippled remnants of heathen nations were left. Jebusites in Mount Zion, Philistines on the southwest border. They were the seed of future miseries and shames to Israel.
2. To every Christian there comes a time of special power and possibility. By laying hold on God’s strength it would be easy then to slay our native foes, our inbred sins. Conversion should bring us more than pardon. It should bring the mastery of sin. Too often, the forgiven soul carries into the Christian life sins which, though crippled, are by no means dead. Rightly taught, we should seek their extermination.
III. It is an advantage when defeat proves the worthlessness of superstition.
1. Some sacral warrior, looking on the field with 1 Thessalonians 4:0 slain, cried, “Let us fetch the Ark . . . that it may save us.” Superstition added to sin does not improve the position. Israel called for the Ark, instead of for the God of the Ark and of the nation.
2. High regard for the Ark was natural. Read its history. It was made on a Divine plan; and housed in the Holy of holies; it was the resting place of the Shekinah. By grand histories it had taken a deep place in their reverence and love. Here lay the danger. It is easy to cling to the visible loved symbol, whilst the invisible world of truth for which it stands is “let slip.” We may carry to life’s battlefields all our religious methods, and fail in the fight. Faith in God would have purified their hearts (Acts 15:9) and made them heroes in the fight. The historian Napier, speaking of our army in Spain, said, “Incalculable is the preponderance of moral power in war.” Superstition may be described as moral faith lowered from the living God to things. It is incapable of faith’s valiant movements. It has no grip of God.
3. Superstition shows itself in the Christian congregation. A modern form of it is Ecclesiolatry. The Church is unspeakably great, sacred, and dear. And it is not difficult to set it in the soul’s faith and love as a rival to God.
IV. It is a gain when defeat removes unworthy leaders. The peril of Israel lay as much in their leaders’ unworthiness as in their own vices. The nation was like a drifting ship. With men of high character at the helm she might have recovered leeway. But of her steersmen two were drunk with iniquity, and one lacked energy to the point of criminality. It was necessary to get rid of these helmsmen if the ship’s company was to be saved. First, Hophni and Phinehas were slain (1 Samuel 4:11). Next, Eli fell. With the death of these men a new era opens--the epoch of Samuel. Storms shake rotten wood from living trees to make way for fresh and healthy development.
V. Though defeated, we may win on the same site ere long. The battles were fought at Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4:1). Here the armies met again soon (1 Samuel 7:12). Then victory sat on the banners of Israel. It was a day of praise and monument raising. We improve our record of deeds done when we improve our character. (1Sa 7:2; 1 Samuel 7:4.) Let no man lose heart. Rather let him seek victory through repentance and faith in God alone. Defeat is not God’s design for us. “Thanks be to God which always causeth us to triumph in Christ.” (James Dunk.)
Let us fetch the ark . . . that when it cometh among us it may save us. (Compare with 1 Samuel 4:10, and 1 Samuel 7:3.)--
Superstition and religion
“Let us fetch the ark.” What was the ark? It was a chest made of wood. It was overlaid with pure gold, within and without, and crowned with a mercy seat of pure gold. What was its purpose? It was a material thing representing a spiritual idea. It was a thing made with hands to symbolise things not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. It was a temporality pointing to a spirituality. That is how humanity deals with unseen presences; it makes visible vestures for them, garments that can be touched. Here are ten thousand men, a nation’s army, moving with one step, to one music, on one mission. They are possessed by one sentiment, that of patriotism; they are swayed by one idea, that of freedom. But these sentiments and ideas are intangible, spiritual, unseen. The nation must give them visibility; they must become enshrined in vestures that can be handled and seen. So we give our army a flag, and a flag which cam be touched represents the unseen which cannot be couched; it represents patriotic sentiment, national enthusiasm, the common hope. Through that flag there gleams the idea of duty and of right. To abuse the flag is to insult the nation. The ermine which our judges wear is the symbol of an idea. That visible robe represents the unseen vesture of authority with which their fellow men have clothed them. All these are visible representatives of unseen forces and powers. Our very instinct leads us to give these unseen presences a local and visible habitation and name. And here was God, an unseen Power, and men hungered for some material symbol to represent the unseen and eternal. And God said: “Make an ark of wood and gold,” and it shall stand as the symbol of the meeting of God and man, the confluence of time and eternity, the blending of the unseen influences of heaven with the unseen aspirations of earth. Now the character of symbols depends upon the character of man as men become better, symbols become enriched. As men deteriorate symbols become degraded. Is that not so with the commonest of all symbolism which we call language? These words which I am now addressing to you are all symbols which I am using to represent my unseen thought. The corruption of language follows the degradation of man. Language loses significance; it becomes debased, and its deterioration must be traced to its essential cause in the deterioration of man. It is the same with other symbols besides language. They become emptied of their royal significance when men lose their royalty. The more high-minded is the soldier, the more illustrious is his flag; the more debased is the soldier, the more vulgar is the flag. And so symbols wait upon character, they can become gradually impoverished in their meaning, until at length they become as empty as those shells which are strewn in myriads along our shores, empty houses which have lost their tenants, forsaken and lifeless forms. But now, mark you, a strange foible and trick of human nature. When our feelings and enthusiasms have deteriorated, and the symbols have lost their life, we are prone to hug the empty shell, and we delude ourselves into the belief that the empty symbol can do what only could be done by its living guest. Thoroughly bad men wear a crucifix, an empty shell, a cross without a Saviour. One of the most notorious criminals of our time was found with a crucifix next to his skin. Now let us realise their position. They had lost the purity of their character, and they tried to pervert a religious symbolism into unreligious magic. They thought that a dead symbol would do the work of a living devotion, and that is superstition. It would be just as reasonable for a man who was being drawn headlong to ruin by drink to seek end save himself by putting on a blue ribbon, a symbol of sobriety, and yet to continue to grovel in the waste and slough of passion and lust. For bad men to send for the ark to protect them is evidence that their religion has degraded them into the grossest superstition. There are homes in which Bibles are kept, not to be read, but because their presence is supposed to surround the home with a certain sanctity and protection. But are we not prone to use these symbols and means as the Israelites used their ark, to obtain a sort of magical protection from physical peril, and not deliverance from the captivity of sin? And is not the divine purpose of prayer sometimes forgotten, and is it not often employed as a spell to save us from poverty and loss of danger, but not from sin? There is a short paragraph in the life of one of the saintliest men of our time which I will read to you, as it specially illustrates my argument. In one of his letters, written in manhood, he writes: “Once I recollect I was taken up with nine other boys at school to be punished, and I prayed to escape the shame. The master, previous to flogging all the others, said to me, to the great bewilderment of the whole school: ‘Little boy, I excuse you, I have particular reasons for it.’ That incident settled my mind for a long time; only I doubt whether it did me any good, for prayer became a charm. I knew I carried about a talisman--which would save me from all harm. It did not make me better, it simply gave me security.” Will you mark that last phrase? “It did not make me better; it simply gave me security.” That was what the ark did for the Philistines; is that all that prayer does for us--composing our fears but not affecting our morals, giving us a sense of security, but not delivering us from our sin? If the exercise has been thus debased, it will betray us when we need it most; refuge will fail us when we stand at last in the presence of the pure and holy God. (J. H. Jowett.)
A superstitious and religious use of sacred things
(1 Chronicles 13:14):--In the first text the children of Israel say, “Let us fetch the ark of the covenant out of Shiloh unto us.” The bringing of the ark then from Shiloh was a free and spontaneous act on their part. They had a purpose in sending for it--to save them out of the hand of their enemies. Remembering what had been done at Jordan and at Jericho through the instrumentality of the ark, they were satisfied that by having it with them they would be able to triumph over their foes. Consequently, on its being brought into the camp there was great joy on the part of the Israelites (1 Samuel 4:5) and great consternation among the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:6-7). The Israelites were disappointed in their expectations, for they, instead of being victorious, were defeated with great slaughter (1 Samuel 4:10-11). From the second text we learn that the ark came into the house of Obed-edom more by accident than anything else. He did not send for it; he did not express a wish to have it; and he had not even the expectation of its ever being brought into his house. These incidents, when placed side by side, are very instructive. The Israelites sent for the ark, and took it with them to battle, but for all that they lost the day. Obed-edom did not send for the ark, but only received it into his house, and the Lord blessed his family and all that he had. To the Israelites, who sent for it, the ark became a savour of death unto death; but to Obed-edom, who received it into his house, the same ark became a savour of life unto life. In the one case the ark was a snare, and in the other a blessing.
I. The superstitious use of sacred things. On the part of an irreligious man there is a tendency, when in sore straits, to betake himself, not to God, but to reading the Bible, or to what he calls prayer, in the hope that by “sending for the ark” his difficulties will be removed. And on the part of all there is a danger of our looking upon things sacred as charms, and therefore of contenting ourselves with keeping the Sabbath, reading the Bible, going to church, partaking of the sacrament, as if some special virtue was of necessity connected with the simple discharge of these duties. They are useful and profitable as means, but it is only in that light that they can profit anyone.
II. The religious use of sacred things. Respecting Obed-edom very little is known, but we are warranted in believing that he was a good man. He reverenced the ark not for its own sake, but as the token of God’s presence, and he was therefore blessed in his house and all that he had. His conduct suggests the profitableness of religion at home,
1. It is necessary to observe the word that is employed. It is not said that he was enriched, that he was made a prosperous man, or that he was raised above difficulties or trials. He was blessed.
2. He was blessed in his house, in his own person, in his family, in his dependents.
3. He was blessed in all that he had. He may have had burdens, he may have had trials, but he was blessed in his business, in his joy, in his sorrows. (P. Robertson, A. M.)
The form and spirit of religion
As is man, such must his religion be. Now, man is a compound being. To speak correctly, man is a spiritual being: he hath within him a soul, a substance far beyond the bounds of matter. But man is also made up of a body as well as a soul. He is not pure spirit, his spirit is incarnate in flesh and blood. Now, such is our religion. The religion of God is, as to its vitality, purely spiritual--always so; but since man is made of flesh as well as of spirit, it seemed necessary that his religion should have something of the outward, external, and material, in which to embody the spiritual, or else man would not have been able to lay hold upon it. Our religion, then, has an outward form even to this day; for the apostle Paul, when he spoke of professing Christians, spoke of some who had “a form of godliness, but denied the power thereof.” So that it is still true, though I confess not to the same extent as it was in the days of Moses, that religion must have a body, that the spiritual thing may come out palpably before our vision, and that we may see it.
I. In the first place then, the form of religion is to be reverently observed. This ark of the covenant was with the Jews the most sacred instrument of their religion. And, indeed, they had great reason in the days of Samuel to reverence this ark, for you will recollect that when Moses went to war with the Midianites, a great slaughter of that people was occasioned by the fact that Eleazar, the high priest, with a silver trumpet, stood in the forefront of the battle, bearing in his hands the holy instrument of the law--that is, the ark; and it was by the presence of this ark that the victory was achieved. It was by this ark, too, that the river Jordan was dried up. And when they had landed in the promised country, you remember it was by this ark that the walls of Jericho fell flat to the ground. These people, therefore, thought if they could once get the ark, it would be all right, and they would be sure to triumph; and, while I shall have in the second head, to insist upon it that they were wrong in superstitiously imputing strength to the poor chest, yet the ark was to be reverently observed, for it was the outward symbol of a high spiritual truth, and it was never to be treated with any indignity.
1. It is quite certain, in the first place, that the form of religion must never be altered. You remember that this ark was made by Moses, according to the pattern that God had given him in the mount. Now, the outward forms of our religion, if they be correct, are made by God. His two great ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are sent for us from on high. I dare not alter either of them.
2. And as the form must not be altered, so it must not be despised. These Philistines despised the ark. To laugh at the Sabbath, to despise the ordinances of God’s House, to neglect the means of grace, to call the outward form of religion a vain thing--all this is highly offensive in the sight of God He will have us remember that while the form is not the life, yet the form is to be respected for the sake of the life which it contains; the body is to be venerated for the sake of the inward soul; and, as I would have no man maim my body, even though in maiming it he might not be able to wound my soul, so God would have no man maim the outward parts of religion, although it is true no man can touch the real vitality of it.
3. As the outward form is neither to be altered nor despised, so neither is to be intruded upon by unworthy persons. The Bethshemites had no intention whatever of dishonouring the ark They had a vain curiosity to look within, and the sight of these marvellous tables of stone struck them with death; for the law, when it is not covered by the mercy seat, is death to any man, and it was death to them. Now, you will easily remember how very solemn a penalty is attached to any man’s intruding into the outward form of religion when he is not called to do so. Let me quote this awful passage: “He” (speaking of the Lord’s Supper) “that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”
4. And now, let me remark, that the outward things of God are to be diligently cared for and loved.
II. Now, it is a notorious fact, that the very men who have the least idea of what spiritual religion is are the men who pay the most superstitious attention to outward forms. We refer you again to this instance. These people would neither repent, nor pray, nor seek God and his prophets; yet they sought out this ark and trusted in it with superstitious veneration. Now, in every country where there has been any religion at all that is true, the great fact has come out very plainly, that the people who don’t know anything about true religion, have always been the most careful about the forms.
III. And now, in the last place, it is mine to warn you that to trust in ceremonies is a most deceitful thing and will end in the most terrific consequences. When these people had got the ark into the camp, they shouted for joy, because they thought themselves quite safe; but, alas, they met with a greater defeat than before. Only four thousand men had been killed in the first battle, but in the second, thirty thousand footmen of Israel fell down dead. How vain are the hopes that men build upon their good works, and ceremonial observances! But there is one thing I want you to notice, and that is, that this ark not only could not give victory to Israel, but it could not preserve the lives of the priests themselves who carried it. This is a fetal blow to all who trust in the forms of religion. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Regard for the Ark of God
I. ‘Tis so natural for men to claim the divine favour, in spite of their impieties; and when they disgrace the sanctuary, to rely upon the outward advantages and immunities of it. And ‘tis to be feared the case is too much our own, to be confident of God’s defence when we renounce Him in our lives, and to boast of the purity of our religion when we shelter our vices under it. Upon this calamity what counsel do the Israelites agree upon? Is there a solemn day of humiliation appointed by them? Do they resort to the Tabernacle of the Lord with tears and supplications? Do they bewail their own iniquities, and those of their forefathers? It was madness in them to presume that God would be their champion, as long as they retained their vices.
II. We know what mighty veneration was paid to the ark by God’s express institution; and that He gave it to His people to distinguish them from the idolatrous world, both by a token of His extraordinary tuition, and by reserving them to Himself as a peculiar treasure.
III. To return then to the Ark, and Eli’s passionate concern for it, let us consider the grounds and reasonableness of it:
1. With reference to the dignity of the Ark; and,
2. With regard to the danger of it.
(1) I begin with the first excellency of the Ark, as it was the symbol of God’s Presence. “There I will meet with thee” (Exodus 25:22). This then is the consequent thereof, That God blesses and defends a people with whom He dwells: And supposing the world to be governed by His Providence, we must acknowledge the necessity of His protection to succeed in any enterprise. To this purpose I shall argue upon two heads:
(1) That we may be secure in God;
(2) That we can be so in nothing else.
(1) That we may be secure in God, may appear upon three undeniable grounds; that no counsel can prosper in opposition to His wisdom; that no resistance can be made to His infinite power; and, that nothing can happen to us without His determination. From these considerations it may be seen how dismal a calamity it is to loss the protection of God; and how safe a nation is under this refuge, and this alone Let us compare it with the imbecility and deceitfulness of all human supports; none of which can bear the weight of our confidence, or justify our reliance upon them; and much less exclusively to God.
(2) Having thus considered the Ark, as it was the authentic token of God’s Presence; let us regard it, as it was the centre of the true religion: for thither the sacrifices were commanded, and the prayers of the congregation went constantly along with them; and to worship before it was in the sacred style to appear before the Lord.
For the plainer view of that assertion we may briefly consider three things.
(1) That religion is the greatest improvement of human nature, and does more distinguish it than all the endowments of reason: and that which raiseth the dignity of a man, and gives him the most honourable character, must in proportion increase the lustre of a community.
(2) Religion doth by a natural tendency promote the temporal peace and prosperity of a nation.
(3) Religion doth by a moral efficacy make a people happy, in that it engageth God to favour and protect them; His Presence goes along with the Ark of His testimony; and they that serve Him faithfully, have an especial title to the guardianship of His Almighty goodness.
(3) Supposing then, that pure religion is the greatest blessing of mankind, as united into public bodies, what more naturally follows from hence, than that good men ought to be affected as Eli was, and to be most warmly concerned for the Ark of God?
I shall briefly subjoin four reasons:
(1) Because the honour of God is dearer to them than anything else.
(2) Because nothing is more valuable to good men than what they expect in a better world; and desiring charitably for others what they justly prize for themselves, they consequently make religion their leading care.
(3) Another reason of concern for the Ark may be this, because God’s protection is removed from a people together with His presence: and hereupon, in the prophetic vision, the glory of the Lord departed out of Jerusalem, to presignify the destruction of it. Wherefore, if God departs from a land, nothing but darkness and desolation can follow: and religion is the only way of retaining Him.
2. This brings me to a prospect of the Ark, namely, as it may be in danger by the sins of those who are in possession of it: and so it actually went into captivity, when the heart of good Eli was trembling for it.
(1) This judgment of God’s removing Himself, and His Ark, is sometimes inflicted for national impenitence, when God hath long waited in vain for repentance of public sins.
(2) Another cause of God’s removing His Ark, is the contempt of Divine truth, and the undervaluing of revealed religion, and of the Holy Scriptures. And when we treat them with scorn and niceness, or with sceptical pride and curiosity. No monarch will endure the despising of his royal proclamations: and we cannot think that God is less jealous for His holy word. The Tables of the Law were kept in the Ark, to intimate what value God was pleased to stamp upon them.
(3) A cause of God’s withdrawing Himself and His Ark from a people, is the profaning of His worship: and this was the flagrant enormity which make it a spoil to the enemies of God under Eli’s administration.
(4) Divisions and contentions about religion are another cause of desolation to it.
(5) Lastly, the abuse of the means of salvation, and unfruitfulness under them, doth often provoke God to withdraw them. And ‘tis what our Lord threatens to His own people, the kingdom of God (that is, the Gospel, with the rich privileges of it) shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.
IV. And now to conclude with some inferences from what has been said.
1. Considering how necessary to us God’s protection is, let us secure it as well as we can, and be careful not to unqualify ourselves for it. What the sins are that are most obstructive to our public peace, it is the business of the day to enquire impartially; and to dispossess them by prayer and fasting.
2. Considering that the great felicity of a nation is to have the true religion established in it, let us put a grateful value upon the communion of our Church; and bless God for the inestimable advantages of it; and improve them so well as to procure the continual preservation of them.
3. Considering how we ought to tremble in all the perils of the Ark, let us implore the Divine grace, that we may seriously lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; and let us ask our own consciences whether we have not deserved that God should take sway His gospel from us?
4. Let it be considered, that though we could be certain of having the Ark of God always with us; yet we should not be nearer to Him, nor to everlasting bliss, unless our adorations towards it were pure, and our lives answerable thereunto. And let us thus maintain the credit of our Church, and when the lustre of it will not be impaired by any eclipse. We think our religion is the best in the world; and if it be so, let not those that have a worse outstrip us in any virtue: let us strive to excel them in zeal and integrity, in peacefulness and moderation, in probity and temperance. (Z. Isham, D. D.)
The Ark of God in the camp
Two great lessons were taught the Israelites by God’s revelation and dealings, viz., the peril of irreverence, the peril of superstition.
I. Professing Christians, when contending with their spiritual foes, are tempted like Israel to take refuge in superstition, to put the form for the reality. For instance,
1. Mistaken view of sacraments. Reception of sick and dying regarded as a guarantee of safety.
2. Mistaken use of the Bible. Supposed virtue in the bare reading of a chapter. Like Pharisees of our Lord’s days, or Saul of Tarsus before conversion.
3. Mistaken view as to use of certain religious language--a “shibboleth.” These may be all either means or signs of grace, and may be full of blessing; but in themselves they are profitless, like the ark without God’s presence.
II. Professing Christians, trusting to such expedients, meet with disastrous failure.
1. What did the ark contain? The tables of the law, which only condemned. These ungodly men only proclaimed their own condemnation. The law cannot save.
2. What gave it its special holiness? The presence of the Sheckinah on the mercy seat; God manifesting Himself in atonement of sin. When this was absent, the ark could not save, any more than the temple saved Jerusalem from her foes.
III. Professing Christians should learn herefrom some important lessons.
1. God values the substance more than the shadow, the reality more than the form. He will even sacrifice His own ark rather than let it conduce to superstition.
2. God rejects superstitious worship, and requires the heart and sincerity.
3. The presence on the mercy seat alone gives strength for conflict or peace in trouble. (Homilist.)
The Ark of God
1. Learn that the formal is useless without the spiritual. There is the ark, made as God dictated--a sacred thing: the law is there; the mercy seat is there. Yet Israel falls by the arms of the Philistines, and the sacred shrine is taken by the hands of the idolaters. The formal never can save men; the institutional never can redeem society. This is, emphatically, the day of bringing in arks, societies, formalities, ceremonies. You have in your house an altar; that altar will be nothing influential in your life if you have it there merely for the sake of formality.
2. Learn that religion is not to be a mere convenience. The ark is not to be used as a magical spell. Holy things are not to be run to in extremity, and set up in order that men who are in peril may be saved. “That it may save us.” That sounds like a modern expression! To be personally saved, to be delivered out of a pressing emergency or strait--that seems to be the one object which many people have in view when identifying themselves with religious institutions, Christian observances and fellowships. We must not play with our religion. We might guarantee that every place of worship would be filled at five o’clock in the morning and at twelve o’clock at night under given circumstances. Let there be a plague in the city--let men’s hearts fail them with fear--and they will instantly flock to churches and chapels. That will not do! God is not to be moved by incantations, by decent formalities, and external reverence. He will answer the continuous cry of the life.
3. We learn that the Philistines took the ark of the covenant. But though they had captured the ark, that sacred shrine made itself terribly felt. (J. Parker, D. D.)
The Ark of God of no avail
It seemed a brilliant idea. Whichever of the elders first suggested it, it caught at once, and was promptly acted on. There were two great objections to it, but if they were so much as entertained they certainly had no effect given them. The first was, that the elders had no legitimate control over the ark. The custody of it belonged to the priests and the Levites, and Eli was the high priest. There is no reason to suppose that any means were taken to find out whether its removal to the camp was in accordance with the will of God; and as to the minds of the priests, Eli was probably passed over as too old and too blind to be consulted, and Hophni and Phinehas would be restrained by no scruples from an act which every one seemed to approve. The second great objection to the step was that it was a superstitious and irreverent use of the symbol of God’s presence. Evidently the people ascribed to the symbol the glorious properties that belonged only to the reality. And doubtless there had been occasions when the symbol and the reality went together. In the wilderness, in the days of Moses, “It came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee” (Numbers 10:35). But these were occasions determined by the cloud rising and going before the host, an unmistakable indication of the will of God. (Numbers 9:15-22). Yet even superstitious men believe in a supernatural power. And they believe in the possibility of enlisting that power on their side. And the method they take is to ascribe the virtue of a charm to certain external objects with which that power is associated. The elders of Israel ascribed this virtue to the ark. They never inquired whether the enterprise was agreeable to the mind and will of God. They never asked whether in this case there was any ground for believing that the symbol and the reality would go together. They simply ascribed to the symbol the power of a talisman, and felt secure of victory under its shadow. Would that we could think of this spirit as extinct even in Christian communities? (W. G. Blaikie, D. D.)
Sin the reason of defeat
“The elders” hold a kind of council. Where were Eli the judge and Samuel the prophet? Neither had part in this war. The question of the elders was right, inasmuch as it recognised that the Lord bad smitten them, but wrong inasmuch as it betrayed that they had not the faintest notion that the reason was their own moral and religious apostasy. They had not learned the A B C of their history, and of the conditions of national prosperity. They stand precisely on the pagan level, believing in a national God, who ought to help his votaries, but from some inexplicable caprice does not; or who, perhaps, is angry at the omission of some ritual observance. What an answer they would have got if Samuel had been there! There ought to have been no need for the question, or, rather, there was need for it; but the answer ought to have been clear to them; their sin was the all-sufficient reason for their defeat. There are plenty of Christians, like these elders, who, when they find themselves beaten by the world and the Devil, puzzle their brains to invent all sorts of reasons for God smiting, except the true one--their own departure from Him. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Reliance on religious symbols
If this hypocrisy, this resting in outward performances, was so odious to God under the law, a religion full of shadows and ceremonies, certainly it will be much more odious under the gospel, a religion of much more simplicity, and exacting so much the more sincerity of heart, even because it disburdens the outward man of the performances of legal rights and observances. And therefore, if we now, under the gospel, shall think to delude God Almighty, as Michal did Saul, with an idol handsomely dressed instead of the true David, we shall one day find that we have not mocked God, but ourselves; and that our portion among hypocrites shall be greater than theirs. (William Chillingworth.)
God only for a crisis
Once an old Scotch woman was on board a steamship crossing the Atlantic. She was terribly afraid of storm and wreck. One day the wind and storm began to rise. Immediately she besieged the captain of the steamer with anxious questionings as to danger. At last the captain solemnly said, “Well, madam, I think we shall have to trust in the Lord.” “Oh,” cried the old lady, “has it come to that?” Such is a by no means uncommon tendency--to push away recognition of dependence upon God to the time of some great and squeezing crisis, and to refuse to remember that in the common calm of every day we are as much and as really dependent upon God. That is not true faith that grasps at God only in a crisis.
1 Samuel 4:4
So the people sent to Shiloh.
Shiloh and its lessons
This subject forms an impressive chapter in the history of Israel. Eli was now the theocratic judge of the Hebrew commonwealth, and its administration centered round Shiloh, where he dwelt and the ark was kept, and its statutes observed. Let us glance at the steps which led to disaster.
1. Family discipline neglected. It is often the case, as true today as then, that men are so busy with money making or important trusts, as to be almost strangers to their own households and ignorant of the habits of their children.
2. Disobedient children. They were careless of religion, but careful of tithes. They helped themselves to as much of the sacrifices as they wanted, whether the offerer would or no; and as a result men abhorred the offerings of the Lord. Family discipline is too great when children are full grown and their habits strong.
3. Religion slighted. A nation suffers more from the sins of its rulers and priests than from the sins of an equal number of private men who are simply hewers of wood and carriers of water. The sins of the former are fashionable; those of the latter are vulgar and contemptible.
4. Vain confidence. And “all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again.” But courage is not of the sword and spear and shibboleth, of bow and banner and boasting, neither of the giant frame and muscle; it is of the heart and spirit. It is the unconquerable will, and the heart conscious of right, prodigal of life for its defence, that makes one man able to chase a thousand, and two to put ten thousand to flight.
5. National calamity. It is not religiosity that saves, but spirituality.
6. Providence. Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. God will take care of His ark as well as of His people. (Homiletic Review.)
1 Samuel 4:7
And the Philistines were afraid, for they said, God is come into the camp.
Is God in the camp?
I. Consider the great mistake which both Israelites and the Philistines made. The Israelites, instead of seeking to God himself, went to Shiloh to fetch the ark of the covenant. Before they had won any victory, the sight of the ark made them boastful and confident. The Philistines fell into an error of a different kind, for they were frightened without any real cause. They said, “God is come into the camp; “whereas God had not come at all. It was only the ark with the cherubim upon it; God was not there.
1. The mistake they made was just this they mistook the visible for the invisible. It has pleased God, even in our holy faith, to give us some external symbols--water, and bread, and wine. They are so simple, that it does seem at first sight, as if men could never have made them objects of worship, or used them as instruments of a kind of witchcraft. One would have thought that these symbols would only have been like windows of agate and gates of carbuncle, through which men would behold the Saviour and draw near to Him. Instead thereof, some have neither looked through the windows nor passed through the gates, but they have ascribed to the gates and the windows that which is only to be found in Him who is behind them both. It is sad, indeed, when the symbol takes the place of the Saviour.
2. These Israelites fell into another mistake, which is also often made today: they preferred office to character. In their distress, instead of calling upon God, they sent for Hophni and Phinehas. “If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” The blind man may wear a band on his arm to show that he is a certificated guide; but will you be saved from the ditch simply because he belongs to the order of guides, and has his certificate with him? Be not led away by any such vain notion.
3. But these people who faced the Philistines made another mistake: they confounded enthusiasm with faith. When they saw the ark they shouted so that the earth rang again. “These are the kind of people I like,” says one, “people that can shout.” If that is all you want, why do you not go among the bulls of Bashan, and make your home in the midst of them? They can make more noise than any mortal man can make. These Israelites shouted, but there was nothing in their noise, any more than there is in their modern imitators. If the ejaculation comes from your heart, I would not ask you to restrain it. God forbid that we should judge any man’s worship! But do not be so foolish as to suppose that because there is loud noise there must also be faith. Faith is a still water, it floweth deep. True faith in God may express itself with leaping and with shouting; and it is a happy thing when it does: but it can also sit still before the Lord, and that perhaps is a happier thing still. Praise can sit silent on the lip, and yet be heard in heaven. There is a passion of the heart too deep for words.
4. Another mistake these people made that day was this: they valued, novelty above Scriptural order. “The Philistines were afraid, for they said, God is come into the camp. And they said, Woe unto us l for there hath not been such a thing heretofore.” The Israelites probably made the same mistake, fixing their hope on this new method of fighting the Philistines, which they hoped would bring them victory. We are all so apt to think that the new plan of going to work will be much more effective than those that have become familiar; but it is not so. It is generally a mistake to exchange old lamps for new. “There hath not been such a thing heretofore.” There is a glamour about the novelty which misleads us, and we are liable to think the newer is the truer. If there has not been such a thing heretofore, some people will take to it at once for that very reason. “Oh,” says the man who is given to change, “that is the thing for me!” But it is probably not the thing for a true-hearted and intelligent Christian, for if “there hath not been such a thing heretofore,” it is difficult to explain, if the thing be a good one, why the Holy Ghost, who has been with the people of God since Pentecost, and who came to lead us into all truth, has not led the Church of God to this before. If your new discovery is the mind of God, where has Holy Scripture been all these centuries? The mistake made on that battlefield is a mistake which nowadays is frequently imitated. It assumes many forms.
5. We fall into their error when we confound ritual and spirituality.
6. We fall into the same blunder that the Israelites and Philistines made if we consider orthodoxy to be salvation. We have secured much that is worth keeping when we have, intellectually and intelligently, laid hold on that divinely-revealed truth, “the gospel of the grace of God” but we have not obtained everything even then. Remember it was a beautiful tomb in which the dead Christ was laid; but he left it, and there was nothing there but grave clothes after He had gone; and, in like manner, the best-constructed system of theology, if it has not Christ in it, and if he who holds it be not himself spiritually alive, is nothing more than a tomb in which are trappings for the dead. It is nothing better than a gilded ark, without the presence of God; and although you may shout, and say, “God is come into the camp,” it will not be so.
7. We fall into the same error if we regard routine as security, and think that, because we have often done a thing, and have not suffered for it, therefore it will be always well with us. We are all such creatures of habit that, at length, our repeated actions seem to be natural and right. Because sentence against their evil works is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. But though Pompeii may slumber long at the foot of Vesuvius, at length it is overwhelmed. It behoves every one of us to try our ways, and specially to call in question things which have become a sort of second nature to us.
II. Having considered the great mistake these people made, I will draw your attention, in the second place, to the great truth of which their mistake was a caricature. God does come to the camp of His people, and His presence is the great power of His church. I will briefly sketch the scene that takes place when God comes into the camp.
1. Then, the truth of the gospel becomes vital.
2. When God comes into the camp, new life is put into prayer.
3. By the presence of God in the camp fresh energy is thrown into service.
4. When God comes into the camp, His presence convinces unbelievers.
5. The presence of God, moreover, comforts mourners.
6. When God is in the camp, His presence infuses daring into faith. Feeble men begin to grow vigorous, young men dream dreams, and old men see visions. Many begin to plot and plan something for Jesus which, in their timid days, they would never have thought of attempting. Others reach a height of consecration that seems to verge on imprudence.
7. The fact of God being in the camp cannot be hidden, for in a delightful way it distils joy into worship.
III. Let us try to learn the great lessons which this incident teaches us.
1. The first lesson is that which I have been insisting upon all through: the necessity of the Divine presence.
2. Learn, next, that we should do all we can to obtain the presence of God in the camp.
3. When God does come to us, we should seek by all means to retain his presence. How can this boon be secured? (C. H. Spurgeon.)
1 Samuel 4:10-22
And the Philistines fought and Israel was smitten.
The Harvest of Sin
This story tells of a harvest that had long been predicted, and that at length was reaped. “They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” See, now, the various harvests that were reaped that day.
1. Israel reaped a great harvest. How did this come about? Not surely because Israel had not enough men with whom to fight! For Gideon, with a much smaller body of men, had once defeated a much larger army than the Philistines had that day. Nor was it because God was not able to maintain the dignity of His own ark. For soon after this, without any army at all, He forced the Philistines to send back the ark--and so plagued them that they were only too, thankful to get rid of it. No; Israel reaped defeat that day because for years they had sown disobedience.
2. Hophni and Phinehas reaped a great harvest that day. Rapacious, licentious, blasphemous; they had profaned holy things, and that for many years current, so that at last they probably thought that God would not act, even if they forgot all decency, and rivalled the heathen in their sins. Because sentence against their evil work was not executed speedily, therefore their heart was fully set in them to do evil (Ecclesiastes 8:11). So far had they gone, that they in common with Israel forgot that the ark was only a symbol of the Divine presence, and that, if they so acted as to forfeit the real presence of God, no number of arks could save them. Such being the case, no wonder that their fate was what it was.
3. Eli reaped a sad harvest. His fate was by no means as dark as that of his two sons; for he was a godly man, though weak. His heart was right, after all, and he was more anxious for the welfare of the ark than for that of his wicked sons. Still, his fate was sad. Compare his end with that of Joshua, and you will realise what a vast difference there was between the two. One went out in a blaze of glory, while the other was darkened by an eclipse. His sowing in the education of his sons had been very faulty, and he had been duly warned, but in vain. As a result, he too had to reap a harvest of the same kind that he had sown. God’s laws are ever the same. Men may think that He has changed, but He has not. Or they may think that He will make an exception in their case; but they are mistaken. God makes no exceptions. Sow to the flesh--reap corruption. Sow to the Spirit--reap everlasting life. This was the law then, and this is the law today. (A. F. Schauffler, D. D.)
1 Samuel 4:11
And the Ark of God was taken (compare 1 Samuel 5:7.
and 2 Samuel 6:15).
The ark taken and retaken
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 11:1-19). 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.)
The Ark of God taken
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.)
The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.
It ill becomes the minister of peace to mix in the clang of arms. It was an evil day for Hophni and Phinehas when they took the ark of the covenant from Shiloh, and sought to work on the fanaticism of the people by unveiling the Holiest of all. Unprepared to die, and guilty of profaning holy things, they provoked the judgment which shed their blood. It was an evil day for Zuingle when he left his chaplain’s post to wear a helmet, a sword, and a battle axe covered with wounds, insulted, killed, he lay under a tree at Cappel--not yet forty-eight years of age, his body cut and burned, and his ashes driven to the winds. “He had wielded an arm that God had forbidden,” says the historian; “the helmet had covered his head, and he had grasped the halberd. His more devoted friends were themselves astonished, and exclaimed, ‘We knew not what to say--a bishop in arms!’ The bolt had furrowed the cloud, the blow had reached the reformer, and his body was no more than a handful of dust in the palm of a soldier!” It was an evil day for Walker--that noble-hearted clergyman, who in the memorable siege of Derry attained such eminence, and did such service to his country by his patriotic and Christian discourses, for which he received the thanks of Parliament, the mitre of a bishop, and a monument in the city where his words and example kept up the courage of his famished fellow citizens for many weary days--it was an evil day for Walker when he rushed unbidden and unnecessarily to the battle of the Boyne. “He ought to have remembered that the peculiar circumstances which had justified him in becoming a combatant had ceased to exist, and that in a disciplined army, led by generals of long experience and great fame, a fighting divine was likely to give less help than scandal. The bishop-elect was determined to be wherever danger was, and the way in which he exposed himself excited the extreme disgust of the royal patron, who hated a meddler almost as much as a coward. A soldier who ran away from a battle, and a townsman who pushed himself into a battle, were the two objects which most excited William’s spleen . . . While exhorting the colonists of Ulster to play the man, Walker was shot dead . . . William thought him a busybody who had been properly punished for running into danger without any call of duty, and expressed that feeling with characteristic bluntness on the field of battle. ‘Sire,’ said an attendant, ‘the Bishop of Derry has been killed by a shot at the ford.’ ‘What took him there?’ growled the king.” Godly men may make mistakes, enter suspicious circles, and endanger their sacred calling and their influence for good; but when the wicked rush into sin, and die under the chastisement of God, the calamity involves the ruin of their immortal souls--Ichabod is then written upon their eternity. (R. Steel.)
I. The utter destruction of the grossly wicked. “And the two sons of Eli, Hophni, and Phinehas, were slain.” The greed and lust and irreverence of the sons of Eli met with swift punishment. It was no accident which sent them together to their bloody death. So sometimes sudden destruction comes upon the enemies of God. We may not tell when or how, but its coming is sure. Here or beyond, there shall be a day of righteous retribution. But we do not come to half the evil of the lives of these wicked priests if we only look at their deaths as the outcome. For they were leaders of the people. No bad man is alone in his destruction. If the final judgment is to be deferred to a one last day, which shall be the end of probation for all, is it not in order that the results of good and evil may be worked out to the end?
II. The implication in evil of the weakly good. Eli stands out in the gallery of Old Testament characters as the most conspicuous example of weak goodness. Influence is not measured by the correctness or the intensity of the emotions, but by strength and direction of the will. We shall be judged, not by our feelings of sympathy or kindness, but by the deeds which express our earnest purpose. It was here that Eli was lacking. There was just force enough in his convictions to control his emotions; when that was done, their force was spent, and his speech was weak and his conduct wavering. It is not only open sin, positive disobedience, violent breaking of God’s law, which comes within the scope of sure retributions. III the safety of God’s cause. That the Lord is able to take care of His own cause is no reason why we should be careless of it, or lightly imperil its interests. (Monday Club Sermons.)
1 Samuel 4:12
And there ran a man of Benjamin out of the army, and came to Shiloh the same day with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head.
The tidings bringer
I. That useless lamentations after the event cannot compensate for weakness or misconduct during the event. It is well to repent with bitter tears over bygone follies, errors, and sins, over opportunities lost or wasted. It is unmanly, however, to waste the present in lamentations over the past, or to imagine that any tears can cause those things that have been done to be undone, or those things that have been left undone to be done.
II. That the vengeance of God sooner or later comes upon the unworthy. Hophni and Phinehas might for a time pursue with impunity their licentious and covetous propensities; but headlong destruction in the end came upon them and theirs. For ill-gotten gains, for ill-gotten power, for ill-gotten pleasures, a clay of reckoning will assuredly come.
III. That parental partiality is not sufficient excuse for the connivance at, or the perpetration of, injustice.
IV. That outward ritual, however decent and becoming in its due place, cannot compensate for moral deficiencies.
V. That in our words and in our actions we should have a delicate consideration for the feelings of others. The messenger mentioned in the text did this in his communication to Eli. To Eli’s question to the messenger, he breaks the sad news gradually and gently to the aged priest, rising by successive steps in his narrative from the lesser woes to the greater.
VI. That our errors often deprive us of the power of enjoyment, but leave us the capacity for suffering.
VII. That what the superstitious denominate premonitions of evil, are really oftentimes only the prickings of their own consciences. “Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God.” (R. Young, M. A.)
1 Samuel 4:13
For his heart trembled for the ark of God.
On solicitude for the prosperity of religion
I. That a good man will always feel concerned for the safety, honour, and advancement of religion. In the success of the Gospel, are involved the pleasure and glory of God. The good man considers it as an august display of the Divine perfections, as dear to the eternal mind in its design and accomplishment, and as vouchsafed to men in great mercy and trust. As a creature, therefore, of the Most High God, he will feel concerned for the prosperity of a work upon which, from before the foundation of the world, his Creator hath bestowed His care, and the success of which He earnestly desires, and hath sent His Son to promote. As a philanthropist, therefore, he will feel interested in the safety of this ark of mercy, before which the penitent may find forgiveness, and the sorrowful and the dying be cheered with soothing consolations and animating hopes. As a patriot, he considers religion essential to the stability, happiness and prosperity of the state. He contrasts with the rude schemes of polytheism and idolatry, which ancient legislators rendered sacred in the state, the pure, the rational, the consoling theology of the Gospel: and his love for his country will lead him to promote such an extension of the knowledge of Christianity, and such an attachment to its doctrines and worship, as may preserve it from being taken away. When he considers the value of this religion to himself; that it is the guide of his youth, the comfort of his age, his joy in prosperity, his solace in adversity, gratitude to its Author will make him a faithful guardian of the treasure, with which he is entrusted. In short, when he compares the objects which religion proposes, with aught else of high estimation, and ardent pursuit, he perceives that without these a man may possess all other things and be wretched; and that with these, the humblest of the sons of men may be resigned and happy. But hath not the Author and head of the Christian covenant said that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it?” He hath. And though, for the accomplishment of the Divine purposes, it may be appointed to many trials, and often enveloped in apparent dangers, nothing shall destroy it. But while man continues as he is, proud, corrupt, it cannot be otherwise than that the religion of our Redeemer should have its adversaries, and be sometimes exposed by its friends. These considerations will beget in the bosom of the good man a constant care for its reputation and prosperity. Not noisy and hollow will his concern for the ark of God be, but sincere and deep as Eli’s proved. Mark his solicitude when he inquires, “What is there done, my son?” Sublime piety! Wonderful instance of hallowed sensibility!
II. But from admiring the concern of Eli for the ark that was in Shiloh, let us be led to consider in what ways we may contribute to the reputation and prosperity of the ark of the better covenant. “The Gospel of our salvation.”
1. In the first place we should not disguise our belief in the religion of our Lord. Too easily does pride, a dread of the ridicule of the profane, or a coincidence with the current of the world’s opinions, deter the disciples of the Redeemer from avowing their attachment to Him. Would we advance the interests of our Saviour’s kingdom? Let us be seen in the ranks of His friends, and, as an inspired Apostle exhorts, “Go forth unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach.”
2. We may promote both the honour and prosperity of our religion by upholding its institutions and observing devoutly its sacred rites.
3. You may contribute to the safety and honour of the ark of God, by instructing your offspring in its origin, its value, and its uses, and training them up to respect and defend it.
4. We may contribute to the success of Christianity by thwarting the course of its adversaries, and counteracting the poisons prepared against it. There are books, the vehicles of impious sophistry, of debased wit, and of blasphemous philosophy. From the contagion which these diffuse the good man will endeavour to preserve his household and to suppress their reputation and influence.
5. By his personal exertions for the advancement of those arrangements which are necessary to give stability and respectability to the institutions of religion in any place, every Christian may promote the honour and influence of Christianity among men. (Bishop Dehon.)
Eli-his heart trembled for the ark of God
The key to Eli’s character is in these simple words: “His heart trembled for the ark of God.” He was a good man, but timid; faithful, but fearful; with much love in his heart to God and the ark of God, but with little strength of mind or firmness and decision of purpose. His conduct at this crisis may be contrasted with that of Moses on a similar occasion. When the Israelites, discouraged by the report of the spies, refused to go up and take possession of the promised land, and were condemned, in consequence, to wander for forty years in the wilderness--stung with remorse, they resolved hastily to repair their fatal fault: “They rose up early in the morning, and gat them up into the top of the mountain, saying, Lo, we be here, and will go up unto the place which the Lord hath promised: for we have sinned.” Moses strenuously opposed their resolution. He peremptorily refused either to lead them himself, or to let the ark of God go with them: “They presumed to go up unto the hill top: nevertheless the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moses, departed not out of the camp.” The issue of the engagement was disastrous to the Israelites. Eli is placed in circumstances not unlike those in which Moses acted so nobly. Evidently he has misgivings as to the step about to be taken; and well he may, considering all things. A heavy cloud of judgment overhangs himself and his household. If the ark is to accompany the army, it must be under the custody of his sons. Are they fit keepers of it, vile as they have made themselves, and doomed to perish miserably? Eli may well hesitate; and, when the message from the army reaches him, it must cause him deep distress. The elders and people are importunate. The old man does not resist, though in the very act of yielding his mind misgives him, and his heart cannot but tremble for the ark of God. He is a godly man, and as kind as he is godly. The brief notices of his connection with Samuel are singularly affecting.
I. Eli’s deficiency comes sadly out in all the relations which he has to sustain as a ruler--in the state, in the Church, and in the family.
1. Eli was head of the State. He was a judge in Israel. As a judge, in his capacity of civil governor, Eli saw the affairs of the Jewish commonwealth brought to the lowest ebb of fortune. It is true that little or nothing is recorded of his administration; but in the last act of it, the war waged with the Philistines, and in the way in which that war is conducted, we see indications of imbecility not to be mistaken. (1 Samuel 4:1-22.) There is an evident want of due consideration and concert. The sudden expedient, the desperate after thought, of summoning the ark to help in retrieving the disaster, only brings out more sadly the absence of all sound and godly counsel in the whole affair at the first; and the conduct of Eli is throughout, that of a habitual waverer. One thing is clear--as a ruler he left the State on the very brink of ruin.
2. As high priest, set over the affairs of the House of God, he lets his weakness still more shamefully get the better of him. The scandalous outrages and excesses committed by his two sons when they were associated with him in the priesthood! never could have taken place had “things been done decently and in order.” This laxity Eli must have tolerated; at, least he wanted firmness to repress it (1 Samuel 2:12-17). We are forced to conclude that in his capacity of priest, as well as in that of judge, he was the victim of indecision and imbecility.
3. But it is as a parent that he chiefly shows his weakness; and it is in that character that he is especially reproved and judged. Ah! he forgets that he is invested with parental authority--authority, in his case, backed and seconded by all the powers of law and all the terrors of religion. Nay, it is not so much that he forgets this as that he has not nerve to act upon the recollection of it. It is not really parental love, according to any right view of that pure affection, but self-love at bottom that Eli indulges, and self-love in one of its least respectable forms. It is himself that Eli is unwilling to mortify, not his sons. It is to himself that he is tender, not to them. And when it is considered that his selfish feebleness and fondness show themselves in his neglect of parental discipline even in matters in which the Divine honour is immediately concerned, it is not too much to say that he is preferring his children to his God. Even God’s highest honour must give place to the indulgence of his fond and feeble dotage. And the issue is that “the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be purged forever.” It is an issue, as to all the parties concerned, sufficiently disastrous. Of the utter ruin of Eli’s household we need not speak. The priesthood passes away from his family; the government is upon other shoulders; his seed are a beggared race And all this in connection with one of the meekest and holiest of the saints of Gods. It is a terrible lesson. And, in keeping with it, is the lesson taught by the melancholy notice of his own decease. The messenger of evil delivered his tidings; and his hearer could stand the accumulation of horrors--Israel fled before the Philistines--a great slaughter among the people--ay, and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, dead also. But when the crowning calamity burst upon him--“the ark of God is taken”--Eli could bear up no longer. Such was the end of so protracted a life; thus miserably died this man of God.
II. Many practical remarks suggest themselves in connection with the painful history which we have been considering--remarks applicable to parents and members of families, to individual Christians, to the ungodly, and to all.
1. It is a most emphatic warning that the fate of Eli gives to parents; and not to parents only, but to all who have influence or authority of any sort in families.
2. Let individual Christians ponder the lesson of Eli’s character. Much very much, there is in it to be admired and imitated. But his defects--or, let us say at once, his sins--are recorded for our especial warning.
3. Let the ungodly tremble. Let them look on, and see how God deals with sin in His own people. Does He spare sin in them? Does He spare them in their sins? Behold the severity of God in His treatment of the good and gracious Eli, and tremble at the thought of what may be His treatment of you! “If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and sinners appear?”
4. And, finally, let all lay to heart the irrevocable decree and determination of God that sin shall not pass unpunished; let them look and see the end of the ungodly, while they stand in awe at the chastisement of the just. (R. S. Candlish, D. D.)
Eli trembling for the ark of God
And was there nothing else, for which the old man’s heart might have trembled? Had he no friends of his own, no relations gone to the war? Yet, indeed, Eli had other causes for trembling. It was his own nation, the nation over which he presided as high priest and judge, which was now engaged in conflict with deadly enemies. Yet “his heart trembled for the ark of God,” as though there had been nothing else to excite his solicitude. We know not whether Eli were consulted on this perilous scheme of the removal of the ark. Probably not; but, if he were, he could have made but a fruitless opposition. Hophni and Phinehas were, perhaps, not indisposed to the plan; the camp may have been more agreeable than the tabernacle, to men of their dissolute habits. At all events they accompanied the ark. And now was Eli left desolate and alone. Bitter must have been his reflections, and dark his forebodings. Though his sons must die, they might first be brought to repentance for their sins. “Oh, for a new opportunity of repairing his own fault, and entreating them to prepare for the threatened visitation.” But they are separated from him; there are in a scene, moreover, of danger. Oh! how his heart must have throbbed for his children! That he fondly loved them, we may be certain. He cannot tarry in his house; he is too restless, too anxious for that. Feeble as he is, he will yet totter forth to the road along which the messenger must pass, and there will he sit watching hour after hour for tidings. But we must connect our text with the subsequent parts of the history if we would justly appreciate the devotedness of Eli to the ark of the Lord. He sat not by the wayside in vain. Now we may believe that there were various feelings at work in Eli’s breast, producing this intense anxiety as to the ark of the Lord. As a patriot, for example, he was deeply interested in the fate of the ark; forasmuch as if God suffered this to fall into the hands of the Philistines, it would necessarily indicate His being displeased with His own people, so as almost to have determined on withdrawing from them His protection. As a parent, also, it concerned him greatly to know what had become of the ark; for since the ark was in the special care of his sons it could hardly be in danger, and they continue safe. So that it might have been that his heart, trembling for the ark of God, indicated only that variety of emotion which one so circumstanced might have been expected to feel. But the account of Eli’s death, which we have just been considering, proves that his anxiety as to the ark wan altogether a separate anxiety; not the combination of solicitudes from this source and that, but purely his solicitude, as a faithful servant of God, at that being endangered, over which God had ordained him to watch. His trembling for the ark did but show how jealous Eli was for the glory of God, how intent on promoting that glory, how fearful of any thing which might impair it. Here, then, it becomes us, if we would draw a practical lesson from what is narrated of Eli, to enter a little more at length into the consideration of what it is to take the glory of God for our end. You often read in Scripture of giving glory to God, or of promoting God’s glory, as though the glory of the Almighty were that which might be increased or diminished according to contributions received from His creatures. Here, then, we shall be able to define, with sufficient precision, what it is to do anything, as St. Paul requires us to do everything, to the glory of God. “Seeing,” says Bishop Beveridge, “that ‘the glory of God’ is nothing else but the manifestation of Himself and His perfections in the world, hence it necessarily follows that he who doth anything for that end and purpose, that God and His perfections may be better manifested in the world, may be truly said to do it ‘for the glory of God.’ When a man doth anything whereby the goodness, the wisdom, the power, the mercy, or any of the properties of the most high God is made more manifest and evident in the eyes of men than otherwise it would be, so that they may see and admire Him, such an one glorifies God.” Is there anything unreasonable in such a precept? Does it exact more than we can be expected to render? Nay, surely as the creatures of God, it may justly be required of us that we act for God; His we are, and Him, therefore, we are bound to serve. But if you cannot accuse the precept of unreasonableness, what way have you made towards weaving it into your practice? Tell us, ye merchants, ye lawyers, ye tradesmen, in what degree do ye propose to yourselves the “glory of God,” as the end of your respective transactions? Ye may take as your end the so living and acting as thereby to evidence that the God whom you serve is a glorious God, glorious in His holiness, glorious in His hatred of evil, glorious in His love for “whatsoever things are honest and of good report;” and this is “doing all things to the glory of God.” There is no greater practical evil than the endeavour to put religion out of your daily occupations. Tremble the heart may for other things; but its deep, its thrilling apprehension must be for the ark of the living God. Is not that ark even now in peril? Is there no battle going forward between Israel and the Philistine? When has the battle ceased? And many a watcher sits, like Eli, “by the wayside.” There is the greatest eagerness for tidings from the camp. But what tremble they for? Oh! the mere politician will tremble at news of foreign preparation for war, or domestic insurrection; and the mere merchant will tremble at declining prices and falling stocks; and parents will tremble for the safety of children, and children for the safety of parents. But what is the chief anxiety, the uttermost solicitude? Is it for God and His cause, as with Eli it was life to know the ark safe, and death to know it in the hands of the foe? Alas! notwithstanding that there is so much profession, we can find few companions for Eli in his faithful watching by the wayside. Now, in the last place, there will probably still be a feeling amongst many of us, as though it, were something beyond the ordinary reach--this making the Divine glory the chief end of out actions. And we freely confess that if it were required of us in every particular action of our lives, that we should be thinking of and aiming at the glory of God, our thoughts would be so continually taken up with the end that we should not have time for the means of ejecting it; we might fail in doing our duty through excessive intentness on the object for which it should be done But this objection to the scriptural command, that we should “do all things to the glory of God,” is akin to the objections to other general commands, such as that we “pray without ceasing.” It would be impossible to obey such a command, but by the neglect of other duties, if the prayer “without ceasing” be literally understood, so that there should never be cessation from specific acts of devotion. But he may justly be said to “pray without ceasing,” whose habitual frame or temper of mind is devotional, though he is not always engaged in distinct acts of prayer. He may be said to “do all for the glory of God,” who makes it the main scope and business of life to promote the Divine honour; though he may not, in each individual proceeding, take account of this end, or place it prominently in view. Our great fear for numbers, who make a good profession of religion is, that after all they may be living for themselves. They have their own end; their actions centre in themselves; they make themselves their object; they aim at themselves in all they do, their own reputation, their own honour, their own interest. They “tremble,” but it is for their own safety, and not for that of “the ark of the Lord.” It is not, then, an idle and a fine-drawn distinction--that between living to ourselves and living to God. It is what we must all determine, after which we must all strive, if we would make good our Christian profession, to attain more and more the making of God’s glory the chief end of our actions. We shall not be losers we must be gainers--gainers here and hereafter--by living to forget ourselves, to sink ourselves so that God may be magnified in and through us. Would, then, that with Eli, we might “sit by the wayside watching, our hearts trembling for the ark of the Lord.” It were a noble thing that the dying Christian, worn down with age and infirmity--and what is he but a wayside watcher, expecting a message from the invisible world?--it were a noble thing, a mighty pledge of his eternal glory, that his last solicitude should be for the ark of the Lord. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
Eli trembling for the ark of God
I. Why was the ark so endeared to the faithful in Israel? Not on account of any costliness of its own. It was but a simple box of wood; it had not jewels and precious stones to bespangle it; there was only on its surface a simple lid of gold, upon which were raised two graven cherubim of the same metal; and between the wings of these, and over above these, there was a mystic light, which told that Jehovah was specially and manifestly present there. It could not therefore be anything in the mere structure of the ark that made it so dear. If we open its sacred lid we find beneath it these marvellous contents: the rod of Aaron, that budded; the pot of manna, the angels’ food, which fed the people of God in the wilderness; and above all, the two tables of stone, His covenant with His people. But more than this: the golden lid which covered in these mystic contents was itself designated the mercy seat; upon it was yearly, on the great day of atonement, sprinkled the hallowed blood of the appointed victims; and from that wondrous seat of His grace and glory the Most High gave His answers to His priests, and through them to the people. It was, therefore, the mystic meaning of the ark; the precious treasures the ark enfolded; the wondrous purpose the ark served; the grace emblematized; the fatherly presence of God, glorious in holiness, but tender in compassion towards all that sought Him in sincerity by the “new add living way,” which was then intimated and which should afterwards be fully revealed;--it was these things which made the ark the special treasure, the peculiar glory, the heart, the life, the all of Israel.
II. Have we, then, aught that answers to the ark? Have we, then, a treasure that should be more precious to us than was even the ark of the testimony to the faithful Israelites? We have. The ark was the shadow; to us belongs the substance. Yea, we have, therefore, in the precious Gospel of Christ all that the ark signified; and that no more in dimness and in gloom, but in noonday splendour. What know we of God as “in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, and not imputing their trespasses unto them?” What know we of Christ, “Emmanuel, God with us,” “the Lamb that taketh away the sin of the world?” What know we of the wondrous way of access to God thus thrown wide through the veil, that is to say, His flesh? And, therefore, it is this precious Gospel that is the ark of the Church of Christ; it is this precious Gospel in the midst of us that is the living sign and symbol of God’s abiding presence with His faithful; and the shechinah, which has beamed in the tabernacle, and sparkled in the temple, has no glory, in comparison with the pure simple Gospel. If, then, the shadow, the type, the harbinger, was so precious to Israel of old, how much more precious to us should be the substance, the antitype, the glorious reality. This, therefore, is the ark of the Christian Church; and how dear it was to the holiest and the best of every age. Let one speak for many. “What things were gain to me,” said the glowing Paul, “those I counted loss for Christ; yea, doubtless, and I count all things but loss, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.”
III. Have we, then, ever reason to “tremble for the ark of God,” as trembled the heart of the faithful Israelite, when it went forth to the battlefield, where the uncircumscribed fought with Israel? We have. If the ark could be withdrawn from any spot, and return no more, may not the Gospel be withdrawn from us, and return no more? It has been withdrawn from many a scene, where once it reigned, in purity and in power. Look at Ephesus, and Laodicea, and Thyatira, and Sardis: where is the bright lamp, which once filled them with beauty and gladness? And what is there in our own favoured land that should hinder the withdrawment of the lamp of life from our shores? There is much reason why we should often “tremble for the ark of God.” The dearer anything is to us the more we should tremble, lest we should lose it; the dearer the Gospel the more we have to be taken away from us. Will any man say--“If once I have the Gospel in my heart who shall take it from me?”
IV. But are there, then, special reasons why we should “tremble for the ark of God” among us at the present juncture in our national history? We can conceive that there are. It was at a special season that the venerable priest trembled for the ark: it was when it had been carried into the field of battle; it was when he knew that it was in imminent danger. Christian brethren, it is not the might or the mustering of all the foes of the Gospel of Christ; it is not the strength, or the combination of all that have ill will to his Zion; it is not that “Gebal, Ammon, Amalek, and Assur also, have holden the children of Lot,” to war against His truth: but if we could but say, as the holy Hezekiah said, “They be more that are with us than with them; for with them is an arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God to help us, and to fight our battles,” then should we indeed stay ourselves in these precious words, “The Lord being our light and our san ration, whom should we fear? the Lord being the strength of our life, of whom should we be afraid?” God being for us, who could be against us? But our apprehension arises from within, rather than from without--from ourselves rather than from our adversaries. In the days of old, when our reformed faith came forth in its precious freshness and beauty--when the Gospel was as dear to the people as deliverance to the prisoner: in those days, whatever combination of might was against the Gospel of Christ, the faithful had little or nothing to fear. It is not from without, then, that we apprehend danger; it is far more from within that we apprehend it. We apprehend it because there has come over us a fearful want of a holy confession of the Gospel, and a holy protest against the perversion of the Gospel, which so actuated our martyred forefathers that it seemed to them but one feeling--to love the Gospel more than life, and to hate the error, which marred, and mutilated, and destroyed the Gospel, more than death. Nor is it only this: the laxity and the latitudinarianism which have come over us are worse than this, for there is no stopping on the inclined plane of error. First, men become secure, then indifferent to the truth, then open to error; they are then gradually drawn to choose it, and to love it, and are at last led blindfold by it, at its will. Is there not cause, then, that we should “tremble for the ark of God?” May not God take the vineyard away from us, and give it to other husbandmen, who shall give Him the fruit in due season? But more than this: Is there not a cause, because of the too light esteem, and the too feeble faith, and the too cold zeal, which even those who know somewhat of its preciousness, and have somewhat of its blessings in their own souls, manifest towards the ark of God? Where is the self-denial? where is the freedom and largeness of sacrifice, for the service of God? But if we go from men of low degree to men of high degree what meets us there? We speak not of one administration, or of another administration; we speak not of rulers and dignitaries, as such; we give them the deepest respect, but we speak of the general tone of moral legislature, and of moral government, in our once protestant England; and none can gainsay us in stating that all have been unfavourable to the national maintenance of the simple Gospel. Shall not God visit for these things, and will not His soul be avenged on a nation like this? Suffer the word of personal and practical application. Is this ark of the covenant, this glorious Gospel of the blessed God, dearer to us than any thing in the whole world besides? Has God opened the eyes of our understanding, to discern its worth? (H. Stowell, M. A.)
Eli trembling for the ark
And what was this ark? In itself, it was nothing more than a chest of wood about five feet long, and half as deep and wide; but of all the holy things the Jews possessed it was the holiest. The names applied to it will show us why. It is called in this chapter “the ark of the covenant of God.” It is called also elsewhere “the ark of the testimony.” By the writings contained in it, it testified or bore witness to the people of what the Lord required of them. And there was another name applied to it--“the ark of God’s strength.” “Arise, O Lord, into Thy rest,” says David, “thou and the ark of thy strength;” and so also he says in another psalm, with a reference to this very transaction, “He delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy’s hand.” And why these lofty names for a thing so mean? For this reason. On the top of this ark stood what was called the mercy seat. Here He manifested Himself as really present with His people. The ark was the ark of His strength, because here He abode in His strength, and was seen to do so; He discovered on it and by it His greatness and glory. No wonder, then, that it was esteemed sacred. While it was with them, they felt that the Lord God of their fathers was with them, that they might fly to Him when they pleased for protection and look to Him for blessings. And we, too, in the Christian church have our ark. This holy thing, you perceive, corresponded almost exactly, in the purposes to be answered by it, with Christ’s holy gospel. That gospel is a setting forth of His covenant with His spiritual Israel; it is a faithful testimony of all the wonderful things He has done and intends to do for them; it is an unveiling of His presence among them, of His love towards them, and, at the same time, of His greatness and glory.
I. The servants of God sometimes tremble for the ark of God. If we ask how this comes to pass I answer:--
1. From the great love they have for it. Value a thing highly, and you will sit, as it were, by the wayside watching it; you will be anxious about it, or be tempted to be so; you will be afraid of losing it. What makes the tender mother fear for the infant that is out of her sight, or that seems in danger? Simply this--she loves her infant. And the people of God love the gospel, really, deeply; better than they love any one earthly thing. There sits Eli outside the gate of Shiloh, watching and trembling, and for what? for the life of his sons or the success of the army? Both these are in jeopardy, and he knows they are in jeopardy, but he is not trembling for them; he is afraid for the ark of God. Does this seem to any of you extravagant or unnatural? It would not, if you were really the people of God. “Lord, make Thy gospel dearer to me than all the world.”
2. But there is another reason why the people of God sometimes tremble for the ark--they know something of its value to the people that possess it. He thought of the mercies that holy thing had brought with it for more than four hundred years to his nation. It was the safeguard of Israel, it was the charter of her privileges, it was the token and pledge of the Lord’s special favour towards her; and therefore, when it was in danger, he trembled. And ask the Christian why he is so anxious for the gospel to be here or there. He does not always say, “Because I love the gospel, and wish it to be everywhere;” but rather, “There are many whom I love in that place, and they all need the gospel.” The man has a feeling heart. “It is the greatest treasure our poor bankrupt world has left, the only treasure. It is our lifeboat, our last plank, in our dismal wreck. I know its value, and therefore I tremble for it.”
3. A consciousness of guilt also will make the servants of God thus fearful. We have just been looking at the Christian as a man of a benevolent heart; we must regard him now as a man of a tender conscience. Some of you never fear for the Gospel. You never dream of its being taken away from you, or of any spiritual privilege being withdrawn. And we can tell at once who you are. You are men who do not know yourselves. You do not feel how unworthy you are of your spiritual mercies. But the real Christian is a man who carries about with him a heart that God has wounded. He feels every day he lives that he is a guilty sinner. “If the ark goes from us, it has been driven away from us by my unprofitable and unholy life.” O that we could at this hour hear such language as this from every man in our church! We blame others, and they may be worthy of blame, but it would become us better to blame ourselves.
II. The servants of God have sometimes reason to fear for the ark of God. Not only do they fear for it, as we have just seen; their fear, as we have now to see, may be well founded and right. Some of you may ask how this can be. “The great God,” you may say, “will take care of His own glory in our world. Why should we be anxious for it?” I answer, God will indeed take care of His glory here, and of His ark and church also. He is able to do so, and He is pledged and determined to do so. He will ever have a people to praise Him on the earth. But we must remember that though the Gospel will never be removed from the world, yet it may be removed from this or that part of the world. It is not entailed on any congregation, or parish, or kingdom. And this also must be considered--the Gospel has often been removed from one place to another. The ark not only may be lost to a people, it had been lost.
III. The servants of God have reason to tremble for the ark of God when it is either profaned or trusted in. In this case it was both.
1. The people profaned the ark. Who bade them send to Shiloh for it, and take it from its holy secrecy there into the tumult of a camp? The Lord had commanded Moses that it should be kept in “the secret place of his tabernacle;” but now to answer their earthly purposes, the command of God is to be set aside, the sacredness of the holy of holies to be violated, a battlefield to become the dwelling place of the ark of God. If, therefore, a time should ever come in England when our people or rulers shall care less for the Gospel than they care for their own glory or power; let such a time come, and then there will indeed be cause to tremble for the ark of God. It is under-valued, it is profaned, and God will not bear this--it is in danger of being lost.
2. The Israelites also made too much of the ark; they trusted in it, and this at the very time that they under-valued and profaned it--a strange inconsistency, but yet a common one. God was dishonoured by having His ark put in His place, and therefore He dishonoured it and the men who so exalted it. There lie the people of the Lord in slaughtered thousands, and there goes the ark itself, that sacred thing which none but’ a Levite must ever touch--it is carried by heathen hands amid heathen shouts to a heathen temple; it is lost to the Israel of God. The inference we are to draw is plain--while we do not undervalue our spiritual privileges, we must never trust to them to protect us; nay, we must not expect them to protect even themselves. It is a great mistake to say, “The church and the Gospel will defend themselves.” There is the ark in Dagon’s temple, and if we conclude, because we have a spiritual church and a preached Gospel that that church must stand and that Gospel still be preached, God may teach us a terrible lesson. He will deliver once more “His strength into captivity and His glory into the enemy’s hand.” It is the church itself, that is generally the Church’s worst foe. If she falls, it will be her own worldly-mindedness and spiritual idolatry, her confidence in herself and her forgetfulness of God, that will bring her low. She will fall her own destroyer. (C. Bradley, M. A.)
Eli trembling for the ark of the Lord
1. We conceive that one reason why the heart of Eli trembled for the ark of the Lord at that moment, placed amid the din of battle and the onset of conflicting powers, arose from his vivid recollection of the sins of himself and his house. Sin makes cowards of the most courageous. Especially do our sins make us fear the worst, when some object of our affection is placed in jeopardy. On the present occasion Eli recollected his own indifference to the cause with which the ark was associated--his not restraining his sons when they made themselves vile.
2. Eli’s heart trembled for the ark because of the vast deliverances it had, under God, achieved for his country. It blessed by its presence the house of Obed-edom--it overturned the walls of Jericho--it dashed from its strong pedestal the statue of Dagon--it opened a pathway through the Jordan’s bosom, and smote by its presence the most powerful armies of the aliens. Has the Protestant, Church done less for us?
3. Eli trembled for the safety of the ark from his conviction, that it alone was the real cause of the prosperity and glory of his country. It was the standing memorial of the presence of Jehovah.
4. We may conceive that the associations with which the ark was connected in the mind of the aged priest made his heart most anxious about its safety.
5. The next reason we shall specify why Eli’s heart trembled for the ark of the Lord was the intense affection which he felt towards it.
(1) The inveteracy of the hatred entertained by the Church of Rome toward our Protestant ark is one great cause of fear.
(2) Another cause for this trepidation--and one of the most painful--is found in the treachery of them, from whom identity of cause and past favours led us to anticipate very different conduct.
(3) The last cause of trembling I shall specify is the want of the Spirit, and the habit of fervent and united prayer. (J. Cumming, D. D.)
Solicitude for religion
I. Some reasons why the cause of religion should be very dear to us, in other words, why we should care for the ark of God.
1. Because the cause of religion ensures the chief elements in the welfare of men. Eli was a patriot. He felt the loss of the ark would mean sorrow and shame to the family, the loss of glory to the village, the rushing, like sudden night, of ruin on the nation.
2. Because the cause of religion is identified with the glory of God. As a creature in the work of the Creator, a loyal subject in the designs of his Sovereign, a filial child in the purposes of his father, a good man is interested in the religion God has given to man.
II. Some considerations that should fill us with anxiety about the cause of religion in our midst, in other words, which shall make our hearts tremble for the ark of God. We may urgently inquire about religion in England, as Eli did about the ark, “What is there done, my son?” The reply will tell of:
1. Antagonism. Intellectual, moral.
2. Neglect. Recent census of church-goers reveals appalling indifferentism.
III. Some of the ways in which we may promote the cause of religion, in other words, do our part to ensure the safety and progress of the ark of God.
1. Never conceal your belief in religion. Opposition is blatant and noisy, shall not allegiance be distinct and pronounced.
2. Uphold the institutions and observe the rites of religion.
3. Diffuse its knowledge and extend its influence by example, prayer, gifts, work. Old Eli, blind and feeble, sat by the wayside waiting for news of the ark, who of us will be content to be found in such a posture of feebleness and ignorance about the progress of religion? (Homilist.)
Eli-A godly man trembling for the Ark of God
I. The mixed and motley character, the very miscellaneous composition of the army in whose hands the ark of God seems to be placed, may well cause the heart of an Eli to tremble.
1. In the first place, there are those whose mere bodily presence is all that can be reckoned on--the lukewarm and indifferent--the treacherous and false--the men who have joined the standard on compulsion, or in the crowd, or to serve a purpose--disguised spies and traitors in the enemy’s interests, or soldiers of fortune, fighting every one for himself. “Unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do to declare My statutes, or that thou shouldest take My covenant in thy mouth? . . . Thy people shall be willing in the day of Thy power.” They shall be all volunteers--no pressed men among them. “Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart.” It is no strife this for mere hireling mercenaries; or for reluctant recruits, enlisted in a fit of temporary excitement. Oh, how does our heart tremble for the ark of the Lord, when we see so many lightly taking upon them the Christian name, and making the Christian profession with little of anything like an adequate and serious sense of what so solemn a pledge implies. Is it any wonder, then, that the cause of God languishes.
2. But, secondly, there are those in the camp who are not thus insincere and false--who are, nevertheless, disabled and enfeebled by some rankling inward wound, some corroding grief, some sad sense of insecurity, or of a doubtful right to be themselves there, and to have the ark among them. On the occasion before us, the Israelites had just been smitten in a previous battle with the Philistines; and it was as defeated men that they were about to take the field again. The ark, indeed, is with us; but in what spirit has it been sent for, and in what spirit received? If it be right to take it down with us into the second battle, it must have been wrong to go without it to the first. By thus seeking to have God in the midst of us now, we confess that He was not in the midst of us before, and that it was in our own strength that we fought. Have we repented of our sin? If not, with all the security which the ark of God is fitted and designed to give--ay, and that multiplied a hundredfold--can we dare to hope for a better issue in the enterprise which we are about to undertake tomorrow? Is there anything analogous to this state of feeling among us?--Let us inquire with reference not only to our standing, us individual believers, but to the congregation with which we are associated, the community to which we belong, and the Church of Christ generally. Let, us consult first and principally our own personal experience. We have failed, perhaps, hitherto once, or it may be more than once, in maintaining the Lord’s cause, and resisting the enemies of our peace. Are our consciences thus laden with the sense of recent, backsliding? Have we to confess that we are in the position of beaten men in Christ’s warfare, or of men who have given way? And are we engaging in any holy service--coming, let us say, to the Lord’s table--in something of the same spirit in which the Israelites sent for the Lord’s ark. The unanswered question, “Wherefore did the Lord smite us before the Philistines?” stands ominously out as a barrier against our complete enlargement, confidence, and security. But why, let us ask again, why is it still an unanswered question? Even now the Lord is ready to answer it. Even now He will search and try us. Thus repenting and doing our first works, returning anew to God, and embracing anew His promises of full and free reconciliation, by all means let us send for the ark; by all means let us come to the sacrament; it will do us good now. No matter for our past defeat--we shall be more than conquerors now. For who can shut his eyes to the fact, that even since the Lord began to deal with us, and with the Church, as in these last years He has been dealing, there has been too much of human boasting and human confidence--too much noise and shouting?
3. Once more, in the third place, let us take yet another, and that the most favourable view of the parties in whose hands the ark has come to be placed. Let us suppose them to be neither hypocrites and mere formalists on the one hand, nor backsliders and men of doubtful position on the other. Let them be men of truest conscience and tenderest walk before God in Christ. Still, compassed about as they are with manifold infirmities, and liable to err and stumble at every step they take--how shall they carry the precious burden safe along the rough road. For it is a delicate and tender, as well as a costly deposit that is committed to their charge, easily susceptible of injury--apt to be soiled and tarnished if the dust of earth reach it, or the very wind of heaven be suffered to visit it too roughly. The essential holiness of God--do we rightly apprehend what it is? And have we any adequate impression of that, holiness as imparted and communicated to whatever is His? Ah! if indeed you are a believer in Jesus, consider how much of what is God’s you carry about with you wherever you go!--your body and your spirit, which are His,--your character and reputation, which are His,--your talents, which are His,--your very life, which is now altogether His! Let me put myself now for an instant in the position of an onlooker or watcher, like the aged Eli; and what might be my thoughts, as I gaze, not on the faithless or the faltering part of the Lord’s army, but on His true and earnest adherents? Do I see any living for themselves alone--caring for their own souls--apparently finding food and refreshment in ordinances, and striving to have a close walk with God--while there is yet no sign of their taking any special interest in any department of the Lord’s work. My heart trembles for the ark of God. Do I see any who are keepers of the vineyards of others, and are not keeping their own. Where, then, shall this trembling heart find rest? The composition of the army to whom the ark of God is committed, may but too well account for the trembling of an Eli’s heart.
Let us ask if no company or army of men may be got together, to whom Eli could see the ark of God committed without his heart trembling--at least so very anxiously.
1. In the first place, let them all be men who come, not as fancying that the Lord hath need of them, bug as feeling that they have need of Him. This is our primary and capital qualification. We are to have no self-righteous, self-confident cavaliers, who would either hire themselves to Christ for a reward, or espouse His cause with an air of condescending patronage, as if they were doing Him a favour. Secondly, let all who flock to the Lord’s standard at first, or continue to rally round it, make sure and thorough work of the settlement of their covenant with the Lord himself. Finally, let all in this army recognise and feel their responsibility--the peculiar sacredness of the trust committed to them, and its extreme liability to receive damage in their hands. Then, though their infirmities may be many, and they may often feel themselves to be in straits, let, them be assured that it is not on their account that Eli’s heart will tremble for the ark of God.
II. Besides the composition of the army into whose hands the ark may have come, the occasions and circumstances which seem to bring it forward in battle, and to peril it on the issue of battle, may cause not a little trembling of heart for its safety. We might here speak of such occasions as that on which the Israelites sustained a miserable defeat at the hands of the Amalekites and Canaanites, when they would have taken the ark with them in their unwarranted enterprise, had not Moses sternly refused to let it go out of the camp (Numbers 14:40-45). There is not always at hand a Moses to keep the ark from being involved in the hazards of a presumptuous enterprise. It is the prayer of every true servant and soldier of the Lord, that the din of war and controversy may speedily come to an end, and the Church may dwell safely in a quiet habitation. The world, indeed, is apt to judge otherwise of those who maintain the Lord’s cause, especially in troublous times, stigmatising them as troublesome and pestilent sowers of sedition, or as lovers of strife, seeking to turn the world upside down. “O thou sword of the Lord, how long will it be ere thou be quiet? Put up thyself into thy scabbard; rest and be still. How can it be quiet, seeing the Lord hath given it a charge against Askelon, and against the seashore? There hath he appointed it” (Jeremiah 47:6-7). Quiet! Rest! how can it be? Satan is not bound; the world still lieth in wickedness; heresies, divisions, strifes, abound; Babylon is not yet fallen. And seeing how things most sacred are now at issue on the field of strife, and how much risk there is, in such stirring times, of the kindling of that wrath of man which worketh not the righteous of God, as well as the scheming of that wisdom of man which is foolishness with God--how shall not Eli’s heart tremble for the ark of God! Is there, then, no source of consolation in the prospect of such trials and commotions as these? Had anyone sought to comfort, the blind old man, as he sat upon a seat by the wayside watching, and to allay the agitation of his soul--he might have been reminded that what his heart trembled for was the ark of God; that God himself, therefore, might not be expected to care for it; and that for him to be so anxious concerning it, was almost like distrusting God. (R. S. Candlish, D. D.)
1 Samuel 4:22
Ichabod, the glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken.
zhere was a dark cloud over Israel’s firmament. It was a night of gloom; but amidst the revelry and excitement of sin, few could hear the hearings of the commonwealth, or discern the signs of the times that betokened national disaster. At length catastrophe came. The independence of the people was broken. The ark of God--the visible representation of Divine majesty--was in the hands of the Philistines. The outward form, the last remaining evidence of national religion, was lost. It indicates lamentable ignorance on the part of the elders of Israel, when they proposed to bring the ark of God to the field of battle--as if their God was Dot in all places, and able to help those who called upon him in faith. We do not wonder that when Eli beheld Israel’s sun setting in such darkness his own flickering light paled and died away. “Precious in the sight of God is the death of His saints,” but it was a sad scene in Israel when the ark of God was taken, and the pious priest who had ministered so long before it, gave up the ghost under the heavy tidings. Truly was Ichabod, the glory is departed, the appropriate name of Israel. The ark of God was taken! And Israel, who had staked at! their remaining piety within its mystic timbers, were left without their God. Their glory departed. It was the ebbing of their national religion. It was the blight on their spiritual profession. It sealed their estrangement from their God. There may have been, as we know there were, solitary instances of godliness remaining. There were Elkanahs and Hannahs, and such as they, who lived in sequestered nooks, and who kept alive a witness for the Lord. There was a Samuel in the deserted Tabernacle, in whose piety the hopes of the believing lay infolded, expecting from his growth the revival of religion and the recovery of independence. But meanwhile oppression, sin, and impiety afflicted the land. The people seemed for a season left to the sad fruits of their own ungodly course. This dark episode is suggestive of several important lessons.
1. It reveals the character of believers in perilous times. They tremble for the ark of God. When sin increases, piety degenerates, and the judgments of God alarm, believers tremble for the ark. In times of rebuke, and blasphemy, and sin, the genuine believer trembles for the cause of Christ. His dearest earthly interest is there. His Saviour’s interest is there. The welfare of the soul is there. More than any other terrestrial object does the ark of God concern him. For its preservation does he pray and toil, and weep and watch.
2. We learn also the danger of a mere profession of religion. To have no more than the outward form is to be as Israel were when they thought the ark would save them from the Philistines. Over how many professors has this mournful title been inscribed! They surrounded the ark of God, reverenced its mystic symbols, were enrolled in the membership of the Church, partook of its sacraments, rejoiced in its sanctuaries, and hoped for heaven; but having a name to live while they were dead, neglecting the one thing needful--a personal interest in Christ--they realised at last only the miserable wail, “Ichabod,” as they sunk into a lost eternity.
3. We learn also the advantage of personal piety in perilous times. Though Eli shared the judgment which overspread Israel and ruined his house, it was well with that aged saint when he fell down dead at the gate of Shiloh. He was saved, yet so as by fire. And though the wife of Phinehas shared the woe which afflicted the land and desolated her home--though an accumulation of sorrows and her painful solicitude at once oppressed her--it was well with her in dying. Her piety was her blessing. We doubt not that there were even in the army on the field a faithful few who were prepared to die, who mourned the infatuation of their brethren, and who rested on the Lord. To such, death on a field of battle would be their entrance into the saints’ everlasting rest. Amidst the ungodliness and spiritual carelessness which often mark soldiers in a camp, it is blessed to know that some have kept the faith and died in Christ. Along with our sad memories of the winter before Sebastopol, we have comfortable thoughts of some who, while they fought bravely and fell in their country’s service, passed away to glory. Of one, and he did not stand alone, it is told that after being twelve hours in the trenches, or out all night on picket, he visited hospitals and prayed with the dying, distributed tracts and exhorted the living. The man of prayer was a captain of courage; and amidst the gloom of that memorable night, a sudden moonbeam revealed Hedley Vicars waving his sword and crying, “This way 97th!” Another moment and he was lying in his blood. But so striking had been his personal consistency, that his brave men could testify that it was well with their captain then. (R. Steel.)
These histories have a permanent meaning, and an up-to-date application. God deals with the Church today as He dealt with Israel in days gone by. The spiritual Israel is akin to the natural and the national Israel. Well, the Church of God, the chosen seed, is doubtless suffering defeat. I doubt very much if the Church of God is even holding its own today: I believe in the final triumph of Christianity, I am sure that Christ will reign from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth; but I confess that if I look candidly and without prejudice at the signs of the times I am bound to say that here and there if not everywhere, Israel is getting the worst of it, and the Church of God is being beaten slowly back. Be sure of this; the fault is not with God. You know the advice of these elders of Israel. They decided that the ark of the covenant of the Lord, which was resident at Shiloh, should be brought, and that the battle should be renewed with this as the standard. Surely victory would then result. The mischief was deeper than the elders of Israel imagined; it was not to be cured by the presence even of the ark of the covenant of God. That seemed only to add to the disaster, for itself was taken prisoner, and the two licentious sons of Eli, who bore it into the battle, who, we may believe, fought bravely for its preservation, were slain hard by the outspread wings of the golden cherubim. Wherein did the mistake of these people consist? I think we shall find that it was a three-fold error.
I. In the first place, they acted on human impulse, instead of on Divine command. A distinct command is recorded, that when once Israel was settled in the land of promise the ark, with the Tabernacle, should remain at a fixed place. It was not to be brought to the people. The people were to be humble enough to come to it. In this case, therefore, if they were not distinctly disobeying God’s command, they were acting without a Divine injunction, and this is always a dangerous venture. We may he as disobedient by acting without a command as we can be by actually running in the face of a distinct injunction. We cannot be too precise. Let us do what God hath bidden us, and none other. Let there be no alteration of God’s way. Add not to the ordinances, nor detract from them. Make no addition to, or adulteration in the doctrines. Do not imagine that enthusiasm will suffice. You Christian workers, there are a hundred plans for doing work for God today of which we have to ask first of all, “Has God appointed this?” If we enquire of the Lord before we go down to the battle, and before we take any weapon in our hands, certain of those things which are most approved by men will be found not to have the warrant of Scripture, and to be therefore mere wooden swords, which, whereas they may inspire some enthusiasm, mainly because they are our own manufacture, will be broken at the first onslaught of the foe. So much for Israel’s first mistake. Let us not do likewise.
I. Secondly, and still more seriously, they substituted the symbolical for the spiritual. Therein they grieved the Spirit of God, therein they played the fool exceedingly, after the fashion of the dog in the fable, who let go his goodly joint of meat that he might grasp the shadow. Now, it must be admitted that the ark was, by Divine institution, a symbol of God’s presence. The contents also pointed in the same direction; but these people, elders though they were--and who can wonder that the multitude went wrong when their leaders were astray?--these people confused the symbol with the Presence itself. This superstition was the natural result of the decay of religion. I venture to say that the Israelites in this case were little better than the Philistines themselves. The Philistines, if I mistake not, had images of their gods in the battle by way of standards and flags, and Israel seems to have said, “We must have a standard, too, we must cherish in our midst a symbol of our God.” They craved for something tangible and visible. Nor are we less guilty who forget that our religion is altogether spiritual, that our warfare and its weapons are spiritual. We are not less guilty who mistake forms for internal power. We are not less blameworthy who, having a form of godliness, deny the power thereof. How careful some are of the externals. I believe in creeds, but oh, it is an awful thing to have a creed only. A religion of the head does not cleanse the heart, a religion that touches only externals evidently does not affect the internals, and the heart and the soul are the things with which we have to do. Thank God for the Sabbath, but a rigid observance of the Sabbath is not enough; we want to be in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.
III. But there was another mistake, deeper than either of these. They failed to perceive that sin was the secret of defeat, sin on the part of Eli’s two sons, sin on his own part, and sin, if I mistake not, which was shared in by all the people, for there is an indication in Psalms 78:1-72, which speaks of that time, that the people were estranged from God. This it was that weakened their arms, and prevented their success. Even Balaam could not curse God’s people, though he longed to do it. Why? Because there was no iniquity in them, because God Himself beheld no perverseness in them. Therefore Balaam had to say, “The Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.” These people shouted, but it was not the shout of a king; it was the shout of presumption, and therefore closely preceded and heralded a disastrous defeat. A worldly Church is nigh unto cursing. A grieved God means a conquered Church. I tell you the ark itself is valueless if there be an Achan in the camp. Do you know that in this same place God wrought wondrously a little later. Read the story, at your leisure, in chap. 7. It is only a chapter or two further on than this, but oh how the scene has changed. Ichabod then gave place to Ebenezer. The days of the Church will brighten and her power be as of yore when she comes back to primitive practices and doctrines, and to the old-time holiness, and to zeal for God, love for souls, and reverence for the Holy Ghost. (Thomas Spurgeon.)
The concern of the pious for religion in peril
The person by whom this mournful language was uttered, was the wife of one who, by descent and occupation, had been associated with the momentous office of the priesthood of ancient Israel. That people were engaged in war with the neighbouring nation of the Philistines, their persevering and inveterate foe.
I. First, we propose to notice the properties of true religion, as indicated by the symbol, under which it is represented. “The glory” of Israel, of which the pious mother spake, was “the ark of God;” so called, from the place which it occupied in the ritual of Levitical worship, and because, on account of that place, it became necessarily the token of the whole economy and general interests of religion. The religion possessed by Israel was, really and truly, its “glory.”
1. Following this mode of illustration, you will observe, first, that the ark was associated with immediate and visible displays of the Divine presence. Above the ark were the mysterious figures of the cherubim, overshadowing it with their outstretched wings, and between the cherubim was the Shechinah, that luminous cloud denominated “the cloud of glory” which betokened the Divine presence, and from which, in audible voice, God uttered His will and His promises to the priests whom He had chosen. In the economy of the Gospel, the presence of God has been possessed, not indeed, you must remember, by outward and visible signs and tokens, but spiritually, and with a spiritual clearness, which, in the present state, cannot be surpassed. That presence is vouchsafed in the work of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the operations and influences of the Divine Spirit, whose office it is to apply the work of the Lord Jesus to the minds of men. And therefore it is, that the ancient symbol is used in reference to them both.
2. Observe, secondly, the ark was identified with the Divinely appointed mediation for the pardon of human sin. The covering or lid of the ark was denominated “the mercy seat,” because the priest, by Divine command, sprinkled upon it the blood of the sacrifices, which had been offered in propitiatory atonement for sin. He then, according to the same command, interceded, that for the sake of the blood so presented before God, pardon and favour with Him might be obtained. Now this whole arrangement will be found directly typical of the one Saviour, as revealed under the economy of the Gospel; and the victim, and the priest and the mercy seat were all made to terminate and concentrate in Him. The mediation in this manner set forth--a mediation precisely adapted to the circumstances and wants of man, and preserving its efficacy unexhausted in all successive ages--this is the supreme and permanent glory of the Gospel. Apart from it, the glory of that Gospel would indeed be but dim and cloudy; and when you observe the mode of its indication, and the value of its influence, you will doubtless again recognise how well your religion is represented by the ancient symbol, and how richly it deserves the appellation of “the glory.”
3. Again, you will observe, that the ark was the instrument of Divine protection, in behalf of the people who possessed and who rightly applied to it. On various occasions in the history of Israel, we find that it was connected with marvellous preservation, deliverance, and victory. Now, the religion of the Gospel is directly the agent of God, in imparting protection and deliverance to man. If the Gospel be viewed in a political aspect, we are sure that it is to the nations now, what the ark once was to Israel of old. We might, without any difficulty, show from multiplied evidence, that, for the sake of His truth, God has been pleased in this manner to protect and to shield us, in our own land; and there is abundant reason also to conclude, that just in proportion as the nations of the earth become imbued with the vital spirit of Christianity, they become protected against the very elements which would naturally operate to subvert and to destroy. If the Gospel be viewed in a spiritual aspect--in relation to the interests of the souls of men, we know how, by its mediatorial power and grace, brought home through the agency of the Spirit, men are guarded against the various adversaries, by whom, from time to time, their progress in the present world is assailed--how they triumph over “the last enemy,” and how they are exalted to the final inheritance of heaven, where they will abide in triumph, in bliss, and in glory, for over and ever.
II. Let us now proceed to notice the danger in which the interests of religion, like the ancient symbol, may appear to be involved. There are not a few circumstances occurring from time to time, when the religion of the Gospel appears, according to human judgment, in its various interests, to be in jeopardy, in danger of dishonourable defeat and injury.
1. And you will observe, first, that apparent danger to the interests of religion arises from the efforts of avowed and open adversaries to its claims. From the commencement of its career, to such efforts the Gospel has been exposed. In its earliest period, it encountered the malignant hostility of the Jews, who, mistaking alike the nature of their own system and of the Gospel, crucified “the Lord of Glory,” and when He had triumphantly risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, “breathed out threatenings and slaughter against the Church,” that they might overwhelm it.
2. We observe, that apparent danger also arises to the interests of Christianity, from the evils which exist and are cherished, within its own internal sphere. The danger to the ark of God as much arose from the habits and dispositions of the Israelites themselves, as from the array and hostile exertions of the Philistines. We very briefly notice what we fear from the internal aspect of the Gospel, so as to constitute its existing or its anticipated danger.
(1) And there are the errors by which the doctrines or truths of the Gospel are compromised, or substantially abandoned.
(2) Again, we may mention the discords by which the union of those who profess the Gospel is jarred, and broken.
(3) There are, again, the worldly conformities, by which the line of separation between the professed disciples of the Gospel, and the votaries of sin, is diminished, and rendered well-nigh imperceptible. And thus it is, that there is jeopardy to that, which we ought to keep, and not to part with for worlds. And when to these evils we add the external adversaries, which have already passed before your view, there appears a combination, which may well strike the timid with terror, while it subdues even the boldest into a spirit of solemnity and awe.
III. We now proceed to observe the emotions which the apparent danger to the interests of religion must properly produce.
1. The emotions of the mother of the infant, whose case is here recorded, were those of fear and of grief, for fear and grief ended her own life; and she perpetuated her impassioned emotion in the name which she gave to her offspring: “she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel;” “and she said, The glory is departed from Israel, for the ark of God is taken.” Emotions of the same class--those of fear and grief--may well fill the hearts of Christians, when they look upon the apparent danger to their religion in itself, and without regard to those consoling considerations, to which it will be our duty to allude. Recognising the value of Christianity in all respects to every class of human character and human interests, we cannot contemplate the probability of any injury being done to it, but in a view of immense and almost inconceivable magnitude. Were we to have placed before us the prospect of the downfall of religion in our own land, what a sad and mournful catastrophe would then be before us! If our “ark” were taken, what would then remain? Think you, that we should long retain the possession of the riches, by which we have been adorned, and hold our high station among the surrounding nations of the earth.
2. But, having noticed the nature of these emotions, we must now observe the manner, in which they may be soothed. The ark of God, notwithstanding the calamity which had happened to it, had a power with it, which secured its essential preservation. You read its history and the history of the attendant power which directed it, in the chapters which follow, until it came back in triumph unto the nation, to whom it appertained. You are doubtless aware also, with regard to Him, whose power is with His Church in the Gospel, that He has announced positive intentions respecting it, that it shall “go on conquering and to conquer,” that it shall survive and overcome all the efforts which are made to injure and to blast it, and that it shall at last receive an empire over the whole universe. This great intention, which forms a part of the purpose of the Father, has been sealed by the blood of the Son, and by the promise and the influence of the Spirit. Amidst all that appears ominous and dark in the times which are before us, we are to rest upon these truths, with encouragement and with hope.
3. Observe, finally, the deportment to which these emotions should prompt. While we exercise this consoling reliance upon the purpose and upon the promise of God, we are not to forget the importance of employing those means which are placed within our grasp, and which it is our bounden duty to use, in order that we ourselves may be instrumental in meeting the danger, and in attributing victory to the cause and to the empire of the Redeemer.
(1) Allow me to suggest that there ought to be on our part, and on the part of all professing Christians, a careful removal of those imperfections, by which we may have been tainted and corrupted. Has there been any compromise, or abandonment of the doctrines and truths of the Gospel? Then let us return to a faithful and stedfast adherence to those doctrines, and “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints,” “holding fast the form of sound words.” Has there been a display of discord and disunion?
(2) Again: with this removal of the existing imperfections of the Church, there must also be great zeal in behalf of the unconverted.
(3) And then again, there is required also an importunity of prayer. (J. Parsons.)
Despair of religion sometimes mistaken
It is certainly something that we are perfectly familiar with that precious memorials become popular idols, and come in course of time to be bound up of necessity with the ideas of safety and of progress and even of spiritual liberty and truth. When the flame of the temple of Vesta went out upon the Roman Forum, those who had known that it had been in existence for centuries said, “The glory has departed from Rome;” and when it has happened from time to time that some central ceremony has been suspended or some special relic has been destroyed, there have always been at once certain people to arise and to utter some despair of the Divine Commonwealth, and to suppose that just in the existence of a material and perishable object there lies some sort of guarantee of the Divine favour and of the Divine help. The great days in the history of religion are the days when God teaches us the failure and illusion of all this, that God rests nothing upon the perishable and upon the material, only on faith in Him and obedience to His will in righteousness. (Silvester Horne, M. A.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "1 Samuel 4". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29