1 Samuel 4: Lessons Regarding God’s Judgment from the Jews’ Defeat and Loss of the Ark

Introduction: 1 Samuel 4 is one of the low points in the history of Israel. It is one of only two times in the Old Testament when the sins of Israel were so bad that God removed His Shekinah Glory. In this account, the Jews lost the ark, 30,000 soldiers, their High Priest, and his sons. From God’s judgment upon Israel, He reveals several principles about His judgments.

First, even though Israel was about to suffer a terrible loss, God gave hope to His people through His prophet Samuel if they returned to Him. From this, He reveals that He always offers hope before His judgment. Second, because the Jews turned from God, He removed His hedge of protection and allowed the Philistines to defeat Israel. From this, He reveals that He always begins His judgment with His own people. Third, instead of repenting or praying for God’s guidance, the Jews thought that they could force God to protect them by bringing His ark into battle like a good luck charm. They committed sins of both presumption and idolatry. From this, God reveals that He will judge a nation when it turns to idolatry. He also will not be coerced to do our will. Fourth, after giving the sons of Eli multiple chances to repent, God judged them. From this, God reveals that He is slow to judge and gives every person a chance to repent. Fifth, Eli could not discern what was happening to Israel because he was spiritually blind. His physical blindness was the outward manifestation of what was happening inside of him. From this, God reveals that His judgments can bring spiritual blindness. Sixth, after Eli failed to accept God’s last opportunity to repent, God struck him down to fulfill His prior judgment against him. From this, God reveals that His prophecies of judgment will be fulfilled. Finally, after the Jews sought to manipulate God by bringing His ark into battle, He removed His Shekinah Glory. From this God reveals that sin may cause separation. But He will never leave you nor forsake you.

1. God Always Offers Hope Before His Judgment. 1 Sam. 4:1.

  • The hope given through Samuel preceded Israel’s judgment. Before God judged Israel, He gave hope to his people through His prophet Samuel if they returned to Him: “Thus the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out to meet the Philistines in battle and camped beside Ebenezer while the Philistines camped in Aphek.” (1 Sam. 4:1). From his youth, Samuel ministered to the Lord (1 Sam. 2:11, 18; 3:1). Because God was with him, every prophecy given through Samuel came to pass (1 Sam. 3:19). By his fulfilled prophecies, he proved himself to be a prophet under the Law given through Moses (Dt. 19:15; 17:6; Heb. 10:28; 2 Cor. 13:1). God’s revelations through Samuel caused His hope to spread from the northernmost part of the Promised Land “Dan” (southern Lebanon) to the southernmost territory in “Beersheba” (near the Gaza strip) (1 Sam. 3:19-21). Even in their defeat, Samuel would serve the role of a true prophet by encouraging God’s people. The Jews were defeated and lost the ark at a place called “Ebenezer” (1 Sam. 4:1; 5:1). Samuel would later name a stone after this place as a symbol of hope: “Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the LORD has helped us.”’ (1 Sam. 7:12).

In the Jews’ time of darkness, God offered hope through His prophet Samuel1

  • The hope given through Jesus Christ proceeds His future judgment. For those who are trapped in sin, God always offers a way out. For example, He brought the Jews into the wilderness when they sinned so that they would listen to His hope of redemption: “Then I will give her vineyards from there, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope . . .” (Hos. 2:15). Today, the hope that He provides is available through Jesus. Only through faith in Jesus’ death on the cross is your salvation possible (Ro. 3:9-12; Gal. 2:16, 21; 3:23-24). If you are grateful for the hope Jesus gives you, how are you thanking Him?

  • Be a Samuel to others. You are Jesus’ light to those who have no hope (Matt. 5:14). With His light, you are called upon to encourage those without hope: “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.” (1 Thess. 5:11). Are you acting like a Samuel to those who feel desperate and without hope?

2. God Always Begins His Judgment With His Own People. 1 Sam. 4:2.

  • God removes His protection from Israel’s army. Because the Jews turned from God, He removed His hedge of protection and allowed the Philistines to defeat Israel: “The Philistines drew up in battle array to meet Israel. When the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines who killed about four thousand men on the battlefield.” (1 Sam. 4:2). This was part of a then familiar pattern. Before Samuel, God raised up 12 judges. Each time God used a judge to deliver the people, they returned to their sins: “Then the Lord raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed themselves down to them. They turned aside quickly from the way in which their fathers had walked in obeying the commandments of the Lord; they did not do as their fathers.” (Jdgs. 2:16-17). Samson was the last of these judges. When Samson lived, God also allowed the Philistines to control Israel for 40 years, a symbol of God’s testing: “Now the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD, so that the LORD gave them into the hands of the Philistines forty years.” (Jdgs. 13:1). The Jews failed this test. They would continue to live under oppression until King David.

The Jews did not listen to Samuel, and God removed His hand of protection2

  • Disobedience may cause God to remove His hedge of protection. God’s actions should not have come as a surprise. He promises to be a shield to those who take refuge in Him (Prov. 30:5; 2 Sam. 22:31). Yet, He twice warned the Jews that disobedience toward His covenant would cause Him to lift His hedge of protection. This in turn would cause the Jews to face fear and defeat: ‘“I will set My face against you so that you will be struck down before your enemies; and those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee when no one is pursuing you.’” (Lev. 26:17). ‘“As for those of you who may be left, I will also bring weakness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies. And the sound of a driven leaf will chase them, and even when no one is pursuing they will flee as though from the sword, and they will fall.”’ (Lev. 26:36). “The LORD shall cause you to be defeated before your enemies; you will go out one way against them, but you will flee seven ways before them, and you will be an example of terror to all the kingdoms of the earth.” (Dt. 28:25). “You cause us to turn back from the adversary; and those who hate us have taken spoil for themselves.” (Ps. 44:10). Are you being obedient to God?

  • The sins of a few can affect the entire community. We do not know how many Jews in Israel sinned to bring on this judgment. Yet, that is the wrong question to ask. The sins of even one person (or a few wayward priests) can bring pain to an entire nation: ‘“Did not Achan the son of Zerah act unfaithfully in the things under the ban, and wrath fall on all the congregation of Israel? And that man did not perish alone in his iniquity.’” (Josh. 22:20). The Jews, however, would forget this lesson. In this account, they would eventually lose 30,000 men (1 Sam. 4:10). Solomon later warned that: “Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.” (Ecc. 9:18). The sins of Eli and his sons may have been enough to bring God’s judgment upon all of Israel.

  • Be Jesus’ salt in the wound of sin. Christians cannot turn a blind eye toward the sins of the community around them. Believers are meant to be His salt and light on Earth (Matt. 5:13-16). Salt stings when it is applied to the wound of sin. If the Church ceases to be an irritant toward sin in the world, it will lose its saltiness and become worthless in Jesus’ eyes: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.” (Matt. 5:13). These verses challenge the libertarian worldview that has invaded the Church. The Church falls short of God’s calling when it ceases to irritate the immoral society around it. The Church has largely stopped speaking out against sin in society in the hopes of being seeker friendly to nonbelievers. The result is a Church that has lost its saltiness. Are you praying for sinners around you to repent?

  • God judges His own people before He judges others. The Philistines would not escape judgment. Their judgment came in the next chapter (1 Sam. 5). Yet, before God judges others, He judges His own people first. He will not use His people to be the instruments of His judgment if they are compromised by sin: “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Pet. 4:17). “You only have I chosen among all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2). ‘“For behold, I am beginning to work calamity in this city which is called by My name, and shall you be completely free from punishment? You will not be free from punishment; for I am summoning a sword against all the inhabitants of the earth,’ declares the LORD of hosts.” (Jer. 25:29). If God is going to use you, He must also convict you of your sins to cleanse you so that He can use you as His salt and light.

3. God Will Judge a Nation When it Turns to Idolatry. 1 Sam. 4:3-10.

  • The Jews’ sins of idolatry and presumption. Instead of repenting or praying for God’s guidance, the Jews thought that they could force God to protect them by bringing His ark into battle like a good luck charm: “3 When the people came into the camp, the elders of Israel said, ‘Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us take to ourselves from Shiloh the ark of the covenant of the Lord, that it may come among us and deliver us from the power of our enemies.’ So the people sent to Shiloh, and from there they carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts who sits above the cherubim; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. As the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth resounded. When the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, ‘What does the noise of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews mean?’ Then they understood that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp. The Philistines were afraid, for they said, ‘God has come into the camp.’ And they said, ‘Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who shall deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who smote the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. Take courage and be men, O Philistines, or you will become slaves to the Hebrews, as they have been slaves to you; therefore, be men and fight.’ 10 So the Philistines fought and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent; and the slaughter was very great, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers.” (1 Sam. 4:3-10). The elders knew that God was displeased with them based upon their question: “‘Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?” (1 Sam. 4:3). At God’s direction, the Jews had used the ark to signify His presence in defeating the Jews’ enemies. For example, Moses had used the ark to bring judgment upon Israel’s enemies: “Then it came about when the ark set out that Moses said, ‘Rise up, O LORD! And let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You.’” (Nu. 10:35). Likewise, Joshua also used the ark to bring judgment upon Israel’s enemies: “So Joshua the son of Nun called the priests and said to them, ‘Take up the ark of the covenant, and let seven priests carry seven trumpets of rams' horns before the ark of the LORD.”’ (Josh. 6:6). Both Saul and David also later brought the ark into battle (1 Sam. 14:18; 2 Sam. 11:11). But these all involved circumstances where God told them to bring the ark. It was an act of presumption for the elders to believe that they could coerce God to be with them by dragging the ark to the front lines. They also turned the ark into an idol by mistakenly turning the symbol of God into their god.

The Jewish elders bring the ark of the covenant to battle without God’s consent3

  • The Jews’ sin of presumption. Normally, the Jews were not to act presumptuously by acting without the direction of the priests. “The man who acts presumptuously by not listening to the priest who stands there to serve the LORD your God, nor to the judge, that man shall die; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel.” (Dt. 17:12). Yet, this Law assumed that the priests were in fact seeking out God’s will, which was not the case here. Even people walking with God can make the sin of presumption. At the edge of the Promised Land, the Jews became afraid and rebelled. After God told them that they would wander in the wilderness as a punishment, they were again afraid (Nu. 14:41). But Moses warned them that they would be disobeying God if they tried to enter the Promised Land at that point (Nu. 14:41). Moses warned that, if they went up, God would not be amongst them (Nu. 14:42-43). The Jews again ignored God’s warning, and many were slaughtered because God had lifted His protection (Nu. 14:45). “So I spoke to you, but you would not listen. Instead you rebelled against the command of the LORD, and acted presumptuously and went up into the hill country. The Amorites who lived in that hill country came out against you and chased you as bees do, and crushed you from Seir to Hormah. Then you returned and wept before the LORD; but the LORD did not listen to your voice nor give ear to you. So you remained in Kadesh many days, the days that you spent there.” (Dt. 1:41-46). At the battle of Ai, the Jews again committed the sin of presumption. Joshua’s spies made no claim that God would deliver Ai to them. They also did not bring the ark. These spies believed that the troops could take Ai on their own without troubling God. Joshua compounded this sin of presumption by failing to seek God’s counsel. Had he done so, God would have likely warned him not to attack. Thus, the spies and Joshua bore partial responsibility for the eventual death of 36 Jewish soldiers (Josh. 7:2-5). There is a spiritual equivalent to this error. Believers cannot assume that they can prevail in every battle without God. Without His intervention, most believers will lack the power to defeat an addiction or conquer the desires of the flesh. Are you trying to fight your spiritual battles on your own?

  • Don’t try to turn God into a good luck charm. Many times, believers make the same mistakes of presumption: “The Israelites probably felt they were better than the Philistines because the Philistines were pagans, worshiping false gods. Yet the Israelites thought and acted just like pagans, thinking they could manipulate God and force Him into doing what they wanted Him to do . . . He wouldn’t allow His arm to be twisted by the superstitions of the Israelites. God is a Person, not a genie to be summoned at the will of man.” (David Guzik on 1 Sam. 4).4 “They supposed that they could oblige God to appear for them, by bringing the ark into their camp. Those who have gone back in the life of religion, sometimes discover great fondness for the outward observances of it, as if those would save them;” (Matthew Henry on 1 Sam. 4).5 Those who assume that God is with them simply because they wear a cross, have a religious tattoo or bumper sticker, or because they carry or display a Bible make the same mistake.

  • The Jews’ sin of idolatry. Sometimes even well-meaning worship of God can go astray when believers misrepresent God the Father as having an image. When Aaron built the golden calf, he did not intend to create a new god. He instead tried to use a golden calf to depict Yahweh so that the people could touch and look upon the deity that delivered them from Egypt. “He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.’” (Ex. 32:4). God did not accept the well-meaning but misguided attempt to worship Him. He told Moses that the Jews’ worship of Him had become corrupted: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them.” (Ex. 32:7). During the time of the Judges, Micah’s family committed a similar sin when they created a molten image of God after the mother recovered 1,100 pieces of silver that her son stole from her (Jdgs. 17:3-4). Soldiers from the tribe of Dan then stole the idol and used it for a false system of worship (Jdgs. 18:14-31). The Jews made another similar mistake when they created a bronze serpent to worship. In a foreshadowing of Jesus, the bronze serpent symbolized God’s power to heal those afflicted from their own sins when they looked upon it in faith (Nu. 21:8; Jo. 3:14). But the people later began offering incense (a symbol of prayer) to the symbol and not directly to God. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, King Hezekiah ordered his men to destroy this symbol of faith because it had become idolatrous (2 Kgs. 18:4). Although that symbol has been expunged today from Jewish worship, it can still be seen as the symbol used for the medical profession in many parts of the western world.

  • A person who creates physical images of God the Father is cursed under the Law. God’s Second Commandment prohibited the use of any image to depict Him: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Ex. 20:4-6; Dt. 5:8-10). “You shall not make other gods besides Me; gods of silver or gods of gold, you shall not make for yourselves.” (Ex. 20:23; Lev. 19:4). “You shall make for yourself no molten gods.” (Ex. 34:17). Even a well-meaning idol of God the Father will bring on a curse for those not redeemed by Christ for breaking the Law: ‘“Cursed is the man who makes an idol or a molten image, an abomination to the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and sets it up in secret.’ And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.’” (Dt. 27:15). Even though well meaning, the Jews’ act of building the golden calf resulted in 3,000 deaths (Ex. 32:27). Hundreds of years later, King Jeroboam was also cursed when he created graven images for the people to worship: “you also have done more evil than all who were before you, and have gone and made for yourself other gods and molten images to provoke Me to anger, and have cast Me behind your back” (1 Kgs. 14:9). If a Christian offers prayers directly to a statute of a saint or Jesus’ mother, the Christian’s sin is no different than that which King Hezekiah condemned. Jesus taught that worship should be directed to only God alone (Matt. 4:10). There is also only one mediator between man and God, Jesus Christ: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 2:5). Thus, praying or petitioning to Mary or any other person usurps the role that God the Father has appointed exclusively to Jesus. It also most likely violates the Second Commandment.

  • Worship Jesus in spirit and truth. Although some might feel that the rules for the Second Commandment are black and white, the Bible is clear that not all religious images are prohibited. God, for example, told Moses to add cherubim figures on the curtain which separated the tent of meeting from the Holy of Holies (Ex. 26:31). Jesus also stated that because His disciples had seen him, they had seen God the Father (Jo. 14:7-9). Paul also referred to Jesus as the “image of the invisible God.” (Col. 1:15). Thus, we need not recoil simply because someone has created an image of Jesus. Where should we draw the line today? We should first note that everything God does is done for a reason. Jesus could not have come earlier than He did. The exact time of his crucifixion had been prophesied by Daniel. Moreover, the Jews had to learn of their need for a savior through their inability to comply with the Law. It is also important to note why Jesus did not come later. Besides His needing to come at an exact time to fulfill Daniel’s prophecy, Jesus came at a point in history when His image could not be captured in an oil painting, a picture, or by video. We can infer from this that Jesus did not mean for us to know or worship His image. The definition of faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). Jesus never wanted us to know if His skin was dark or light. He did not want us to know if He had dark eyes or green eyes. He did not want us to know if He had a large nose or missing teeth. He also never wanted us to know if He became muscular working as a carpenter or if he was skinny. He also never wanted us to know what His hair and beard looked like. He is much bigger than any image that we can create of Him. Most attempts to portray Jesus today also show Him in a more charismatic human form than He most likely had: “He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.” (Is. 53:2). Oddly, in paintings or depictions of Jesus, almost none show Him wearing phylacteries or tassels. Because Jesus kept the Law, He would have worn both (Dt. 6:8, 11:18; Nu. 15:38). He did not criticize those who wore them as being misguided. He instead criticized those who wore excessively long phylacteries or tassels merely to be noticed by others (Matt. 23:5). Jesus said that we should worship God the Father in His spirit form: “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, . . . true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.’” (Jo. 4:21-24; Dt. 4:12-19). Because we don’t know what Jesus looked like and because most historical depictions showing Him without Jewish attire are most likely wrong, worshiping Him in spirit is also the safest way to avoid misrepresenting what He really looked like on Earth.

  • When God has revealed your sins, repent. When the elders knew that God was displeased with them, they should have repented and offered sacrifices: “When Your people Israel are defeated before an enemy, because they have sinned against You, if they turn to You again and confess Your name and pray and make supplication to You in this house, then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of Your people Israel, and bring them back to the land which You gave to their fathers. When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain, because they have sinned against You, and they pray toward this place and confess Your name and turn from their sin when You afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your servants and of Your people Israel, indeed, teach them the good way in which they should walk. And send rain on Your land, which You have given Your people for an inheritance.” (1 Kgs. 8:33-36). When Joshua and his men sinned at Ai by acting presumptuously, he tore his clothes in grief and cried out for God not to allow His name to be profaned by their sins: ‘“9 For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it, and they will surround us and cut off our name from the earth. And what will You do for Your great name?’” (Josh. 7:9). Like Joshua, Moses also frequently appealed to God’s desire not to have His name profaned by wiping out the Jews for their sins. This in turn would nullify His prior promises to them (Ex. 32:12; Dt. 9:28). God will not allow His people to be permanently defeated because it would defame the belief of some in His ability to keep His promises: “For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act; for how can My name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another.” (Is. 48:11). “For the LORD will not abandon His people on account of His great name, because the LORD has been pleased to make you a people for Himself.” (1 Sam. 12:22). When your sins are revealed, do you repent to be forgiven (1 Jo. 1:9).

4. God is Slow to Judge to Give Every Person a Chance to Repent. 1 Sam. 4:11.

  • The fulfillment of God’s judgment upon Eli’s sons. After giving the sons of Eli multiple chances to repent, God judged them according to their deeds: “11 And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.” (1 Sam. 4:11). This fulfilled God’s prophecy that Eli’s two sons would die on the same day for their sins. “Behold, the days are coming when I will break your strength and the strength of your father's house so that there will not be an old man in your house. . . . This will be the sign to you which will come concerning your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas: on the same day both of them will die.” (1 Sam. 2:31, 34). His Word always comes true (Matt. 24:24). For believers, this is a reason to celebrate. Yet, for nonbelievers, this is a reason to repent.

Many Jews died when the Philistines captured the ark6

The Philistines humiliated the Jews, and they desecrated God’s holy ark7

  • God’s mercy and grace in delaying His judgment. Although this account records God’s judgment, it also shows His mercy and grace in delaying judgment to give the family of Eli and the Jews multiple opportunities to repent: “How gracious God is to His people Israel, especially when they are sinful and undeserving. Graciously, God repeatedly warns Eli of the judgment which is coming upon His house. The years that pass between the first warning and the fulfillment of God’s promised judgment are a time when Eli could repent and act properly in response to the sins of his sons. God is gracious in breaking the silence and again revealing Himself and His Word to the nation through the prophet, Samuel. . . God (however) hates sin, and He judges sinners who will not repent. These are dark days for the nation Israel. The priesthood is corrupt. Those who are to serve God and the nation are abusing their office and abusing the people. The priests are thieves and robbers. They are corrupt and immoral. God’s Word clearly indicates the sacredness of this office and ministry and reveals the ways in which priests should reflect and respect the holiness of God. Eli’s sons shake their fists in God’s face, and finally their day of judgment comes, precisely as God has said. God’s day of judgment may come later than we expect, but it will most certainly come.” (Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh (4. The Rise of Samuel and the Fall of Eli and Sons (1 Samuel 3:1-4:22)) (italics original).8

  • God is also frequently slow to judge our sins to give us opportunities to repent. Like the family of Eli, God is also slow to anger when you sin and quick to forgive when you repent: “Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth;”’ (Ex. 34:6). “The LORD is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; . . ..” (Nu. 14:18(a)). “The LORD is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.” (Ps. 145:8). You only need to repent and return to Him to receive His mercy and grace: “For if you return to the LORD, your brothers and your sons will find compassion before those who led them captive and will return to this land. For the LORD your God is gracious and compassionate, and will not turn His face away from you if you return to Him.” (2 Chr. 30:9). Every believer deserves the same fate as Eli, his sons and the Jews who lost in battle. The only difference between them and a believer is that Jesus paid the price of every believer’s sins. If you understand the price Jesus paid for you, have you abused His mercy and grace as a license to sin? (Ro. 6:1-2).

5. God’s Judgment Can Bring Spiritual Blindness. 1 Sam. 4:12-15.

  • Eli’s blindness to God’s judgment. Eli could not discern what was happening to Israel because he was spiritually blind. His physical blindness was the outward manifestation of what was happening inside of him: “12 Now a man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day with his clothes torn and dust on his head. 13 When he came, behold, Eli was sitting on his seat by the road eagerly watching, because his heart was trembling for the ark of God. So the man came to tell it in the city, and all the city cried out. 14 When Eli heard the noise of the outcry, he said, ‘What does the noise of this commotion mean?’ Then the man came hurriedly and told Eli. 15 Now Eli was ninety-eight years old, and his eyes were set so that he could not see.” (1 Sam. 4:12-15). The messenger from the tribe of Benjamin ripped his clothes in a sign of grief (cf., Josh. 7:6; 2 Sam. 1:2; 13:19; Job 2:12). By contrast, the peoples’ High Priest and representative before God was oblivious to what had happened. He was spiritually blind.

Eli learned of his sons’ death, but he remained blind to God’s judgment9

  • Eli represented Israel in his spiritual blindness. Like Eli, Saul had become blinded to the things of God: “Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus.” (Acts 9:8). As the High Priest, Eli represented Israel. Like Eli, Israel was spiritually blind to the fact that it had ceased to follow after God: “For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins.” (2 Pet. 1:9). “Now hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see; who have ears but do not hear.” (Jer. 5:21). “Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.” (Is. 6:10). “They have closed their unfeeling heart, with their mouth they speak proudly.” (Ps. 17:10; Matt. 13:15).

  • Only Jesus can restore your spiritual sight. Jesus has come to give sight to the spiritually blind (Is. 61:6; Lk. 4:18; Matt. 11:5). “And Jesus said, ‘For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.’” (Jo. 9:39). Are you praying for Jesus to give sight to those who are in spiritual blindness?

6. God’s Prophecies of Judgment Will be Fulfilled. 1 Sam. 4:16-18.

  • The fulfillment of God’s judgment upon Eli. After Eli failed to accept God’s last opportunity to repent, God struck him down to fulfill His prior judgment upon him: “16 The man said to Eli, ‘I am the one who came from the battle line. Indeed, I escaped from the battle line today.’ And he said, “How did things go, my son?’ 17 Then the one who brought the news replied, ‘Israel has fled before the Philistines and there has also been a great slaughter among the people, and your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been taken.’ 18 When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell off the seat backward beside the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for he was old and heavy. Thus he judged Israel forty years.” (1 Sam. 4:16-18). God warned Eli that his sons would die on the same day (1 Sam. 2:34). But Eli did not know that he would die on the same day as well. This may reflect that Eli’s day of judgment was not cemented on the same day as his sons. He had ignored his additional chances to repent.

After Eli failed to repent, God judged him10

  • God’s further judgment on the Tabernacle in Shiloh. God’s judgment also included the destruction of the city and the Tabernacle where the Jews kept the ark at that time, Shiloh. “The sanctuary at Shiloh seems to have been destroyed by the Philistines shortly after this. Four textual reasons can be cited in support of this conclusion: (1) never again in 1, 2 Samuel is the city mentioned as a worship center for Israel; (2) the ark was not returned to Shiloh following its reacquisition by Israel (cf., 7:1-2); (3) Samuel moved the center of his activities back to his hometown of Ramah (cf., 7:17); and (4) references in the Book of Psalms (78:60) and Jeremiah (7:12-14; 26:6, 9) explicitly mention its destruction. Taken together, these facts suggest the possibility that the city – or at least its sanctuary – was violently ransacked during the period of hostility. Archaeological excavations conducted by I. Finkelstein at the site confirm that Shiloh was destroyed by fire in the mid-eleventh century B.C.” (Robert Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, New American Commentary, Vol. 7, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, Tennessee (1996) p. 92; citing I. Finkelstein, “Shiloh Yields Some, But Not All, of Its Secrets,” BAR 12 (1986): 22-41).

  • God’s future judgment will also come to pass. Just as Eli knew God’s day of judgment was coming with certainty, nonbelievers must also be warned that God’s eventual day of judgment is certain as well: “For the vision is yet for the appointed time; it hastens toward the goal and it will not fail. Though it tarries, wait for it; for it will certainly come, it will not delay.” (Hab. 2:3). ‘“Therefore wait for Me,’ declares the LORD, ‘For the day when I rise up as a witness. Indeed, My decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out on them My indignation, all My burning anger; for all the earth will be devoured by the fire of My zeal.” (Zeph. 3:8; Joel 3:3). Everyone who does not know Jesus will be judged according to their deeds: “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.” (Rev. 20:12). Are you sharing God’s Word with nonbelievers about the future judgment in the end times?

7. God May Remove His Presence. Yet, He Will Never Forsake You. 1 Sam. 4:19-22.

  • God’s Shekinah Glory departs from Israel. After the Jews sought to manipulate God by bringing His ark into battle, He removed His Shekinah Glory from Israel: “19 Now his daughter-in-law, Phinehas’s wife, was pregnant and about to give birth; and when she heard the news that the ark of God was taken and that her father-in-law and her husband had died, she kneeled down and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. 20 And about the time of her death the women who stood by her said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, for you have given birth to a son.’ But she did not answer or pay attention. 21 And she called the boy Ichabod, saying, ‘The glory has departed from Israel,’ because the ark of God was taken and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 She said, ‘The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God was taken.’” (1 Sam. 4:19-22). Phinehas’s wife lost her husband, her brother-in-law, her father-in-law, thousands of countrymen, and the ark all in one day. She grieved because God’s presence had left Israel. But His presence had left long before this. Before He revealed Himself to Samuel, the Bible records that He only spoke “rarely” in Israel (1 Sam. 3:1). His voice was so rare that Samuel at first did not even recognize it the first three times that He called him (1 Sam. 3:4-9). The capture of the ark symbolized what had already happened. “When God heard, He was filled with wrath and greatly abhorred Israel; so that He abandoned the dwelling place at Shiloh, the tent which He had pitched among men, and gave up His strength to captivity and His glory into the hand of the adversary.” (Ps. 78:59-61). “But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I made My name dwell at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel.” (Jer. 7:12). This would be a low point in Israel’s history, matched only by the time God’s glory left the Temple (Ezekiel 10:18). As one commentator notes: “Israel made an idol of the ark and God often deals with our idolatry by taking the idol away.” (David Guzik on 1 Sam. 4).11

With Eli’s death, God’s presence also left Israel12

  • Sin will not cause God to leave you. Yet, it can “hinder” your prayers. In the Old Testament, God promised never to leave or forsake His people. “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” (Dt. 31:6, same, Heb. 13:5). Yet, He warns that their sin would cause separation from Him. In the Old Testament, He would not hear the prayers of sinners: “So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood.” (Is. 1:15). “And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken falsehood, your tongue mutters wickedness.” (Is. 59:2-3(b); Prov. 15:29; 8:9; Ps. 66:18). Today, He warns that sin can still “hinder” a believer’s prayers (1 Pet. 3:7; Jo. 9:31). Are you doing anything that might “hinder” your prayers?