The doom of the wicked household of Eli was not confined to the priestly family alone. Notwithstanding the resumption of the Lord’s revelations to Samuel, a judgment of unprecedented severity was about to be inflicted upon the whole nation. The instrument of its execution was the warlike Philistines. Over the last 19 years (1141-1122 BC), this terrible foe had held “dominion” over the Israelites – and it would continue for 21 years longer (Jud. 13:1). During these last 19 years, Samson had been growing up in preparation to be the Lord’s instrument that would “begin” (Jud. 13:5) to break the Philistine yoke from Israel’s neck. And now, in 1122 BC, the Israelites rallied themselves together in an attempt to shake off their oppressors. But this ended in devastating failure. An invading army of Philistines camped in Aphek, in the highlands of Judah. And the Israelites, gathering their forces, assembled at a place that was later called Eben-ezer. The attack was made, and the Hebrews gave way with a loss of 4,000 men! Sin, “the accursed thing,” was in the camp; and it gave their enemies all the advantage that they could wish for.
A council was held that evening. The Israelites acknowledged the hand of God in their trouble; but instead of submitting to Him, they spoke angrily – as if they were not aware of any just provocation that they had given Him. The foolishness of man perverts his way; and then his heart frets against the Lord (Prov. 19:3), and he finds fault with Him. Then, in the true spirit of superstition, the elders of Israel resolved to fetch the sacred Ark of the Covenant from the Tabernacle in Shiloh. They supposed that they could oblige God to work in their favor by bringing the Ark – the visible symbol of His presence – into their camp! They foolishly put their trust in the symbol itself, even though they had forsaken the God Whom the symbol represented – without Whose help, they couldn’t stand a chance! Thus the Ark of God, under the care of Eli’s two wicked sons, soon arrived in the camp. There it was received with shouts of rejoicing – shouts so great that the earth “rang again!” When the Philistines heard this great noise, they were struck with terror; yet they resolved, like brave men, to fight to the last. Ironically, the Philistines called to mind Jehovah’s mighty works that He had done nearly 375 years earlier on Israel’s behalf; but the Lord’s own people who benefited from these mighty deeds had allowed them to pass out of their memories.
The battle began again; and to the utter consternation of the Hebrew warriors, the enemy gained a complete victory! They pursued the Israelites to their camp and killed no less than 30,000 men in the combat. But this was a trifling misfortune compared with the overwhelming fact which soon became known: the Ark of the Lord had been lost to the enemy! And the sons of Eli had been slain as they stood by its side. The sacred symbol had proved to be a vain defense.
With torn clothes and dust upon his head, a swift-footed Benjamite ran across the hills to Shiloh. There he made known the terrible blow which had fallen upon the nation. The aged Eli, blind and feeble, was seated on his official throne near the gate. He was anxiously awaiting news of the battle – and probably not without some forebodings of the truth. It seems that he may not have approved of the removal of the Ark from Shiloh, for verse 13 tells us that his heart trembled on account of the Ark. And when the dreadful disclosure could no longer be withheld from him, he fainted beneath the shock! The defeat of the army was very grievous to Eli, as a Judge of Israel; the news of the death of his two sons, to whom he had been so indulgent, touched him as a father; and yet there was an even greater concern on his spirit. When the messenger concluded his story with, “The ark of God is taken!” – he was struck to the heart, and died immediately. He fell backwards and broke his neck in the fall – thus sadly terminating his life at the venerable age of 98.
The effect of that dark and mournful day was no less fatal in the case of Eli’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas. She speedily sank beneath the pains of premature childbirth when the intelligence of her double bereavement was made known to her. It seems that Phinehas’ wife was indeed a person of piety; for her dying regret was for the loss of the Ark, and the departure of the glory from the rebellious nation of Israel. How can anyone take pleasure in earthly enjoyments, when they lack the comfort of the Lord’s gracious presence and the light of His countenance?
Although not recorded here, it appears that even worse troubles subsequently came upon the town of Shiloh. This place had been the center of Israel’s national life and worship for over 300 years, but the terrible fate which the Lord brought upon its inhabitants for their great wickedness (Jer. 7:12) may be guessed at from the pathetic words of the Psalmist in Psalm 78:56-64.
From this chapter, let us learn that we must never rest satisfied with an outward profession of faith and an external enjoyment of physical privileges alone! To do so is to act no differently than the Israelites when they trusted in the Ark of the Covenant, which – without the presence of the Lord – was nothing more than a mere chunk of wood. Churches, sermons, sacraments, prayers, and even Bibles cannot save us – only Jesus can! A relationship with Him, by living faith, is the only thing that can make a profession of faith real. The outward profession is only the shell, but the grace of God is the true kernel of life! Only Jesus can pardon our sins and purify our souls.
Father, we pray for grace for ourselves, our friends, and our family, so that we may embrace the Lord Jesus and have our sins pardoned and our souls purified in preparation for heaven! Amen.
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illustration by Pamela Maxwell | Lightstock.com