What Not to Do When You Lose (I Samuel 4)
Topic: I Samuel Passage: 1 Samuel 4:1–4:22
Crying for a King
I think you might be surprised at how many things actually come in a box. A simple search online revealed all sorts of interesting results: tree-in-a-box, band-in-a-box, birthday-in-a-box, dinner-in-a-box, arcade-in-a-box, security-in-a-box, shrink-in-a-box, driver ed-in-a-box, Earth day-in-a-box, home theater-in-a-box, cello-in-a-box, business-in-a-box, book club-in-a-box, art-in-a-box, lobbyist-in-a-box, and the list goes on.
I think that suffix, “-in-a-box” became popular 50 or 60 years ago when convenience and affordability were the buzzwords when it came to popular progress and innovation. What housewife would not want the benefit of dinner-in-a-box? What school boy wouldn’t go crazy for a build your own robot-in-a-box? Who wouldn’t want to what have the ability to do what you want to do with comfort and control?
This morning we return to our study in the book of Samuel, specifically to I Samuel chapter 4. Now, if you were here last week you may be wondering, “Hey, we just finished chapter 2 last week. What happened to chapter 3?” And that’s a very good question to ask.
The simple answer to that question is that after reading I Samuel 3, I just didn’t find it that interesting. So what do you do? I’m kidding, of course. No, after reading I Samuel 3, I thought it would make a fantastic intro for our new series coming up in February on the word of God. So I decided to switch these last two messages of January and tackle chapter 3 next week.
II. The Passage: "The Glory Has Departed" (4:1b-22)
So turn with me to I Samuel chapter 4. We are going to start in the second half of verse 1. Listen to what God tells us here about Israel in the days of Samuel:
A. Defeated by God, Take One (4:1b-3a)
Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2 The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3 And when the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?
Now, up to this point in the book of Samuel we have not heard much about what was happening on the broader national scene. The writer has had us focused on events at Shiloh, that place about 20 miles north of Jerusalem where the Israelites had set up the Tent of Meeting.
But here we get a glimpse of what was happening politically and militarily. If we were reading from the beginning of the Bible, we would have just come out of the book of Judges. In light of that book, what we read here about the Philistines would not be surprising at all.
The book of Judges tells about consistent hostility between Israel and the Philistines. This is really clear in Judges chapters 13 through 16 where we read about Samson and his conflicts with the Philistines.
The Philistines were originally a sea people who came from the island of Crete. Probably not long before this they had established themselves on the southwestern coast of Canaan, having built five major cities there. As we will see, the Philistines play an important role all throughout the books of Samuel.
But here we read that Israel went out to fight against the Philistines, but they were badly beaten. In fact 4000 Israelites were killed at the hands of the Philistines. 4000 men were dead.
Now, in light of this painful defeat, the question asked by Israel’s leaders in verse 3 seems like not only an expected question, but a wonderful question in terms of the perspective.
The elders of Israel don’t ask, “How could our strategy have failed?” They don’t ask, “What tactical advantage did the Philistines have?” They don’t ask, “Which of our generals dropped the ball?”
They ask “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?
These leaders rightly see their defeat as, ultimately, a result of God’s will. Why did they believe this? Because God had said this very thing to them through both Moses and Joshua. Listen to Deuteronomy 3:
And I commanded Joshua at that time, ‘Your eyes have seen all that the Lord your God has done to these two kings. So will the Lord do to all the kingdoms into which you are crossing. 22 You shall not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who fights for you.’ (3:21, 22)
Not many years after this battle, a simple shepherd boy would make a similar declaration when facing the Philistines. David would say: “the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord's”.
So if the battle belongs to God, then their defeat ultimately means that it is God who has defeated them. At this point, one commentator suggests, “they should have allowed the question to hang and bother them for a while.” But they don't. So let’s keep reading and see what they did as a result of their question and consideration.
B. Defeated by God, Take Two (4:3b-11)
Look with me back at the text, beginning in the second half of verse 3. What do the elders of Israel concluded in light of their painful defeat? They declare, verse 3…
Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. 5 As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.” 10 So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. 11 And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
In light of their earlier defeat, the elders of Israel conclude that their number one problem militarily is a lack of supernatural firepower. What they need is the Ark of the Covenant. Do you remember what the Ark was? It was a box made out of acacia wood, about 4 feet by 2.5 feet by 2.5 feet tall, covered with gold, in which was contained several things, the most important being the tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments.
But more important than that was the fact that top cover of the Ark, called the Mercy Seat, was the place where blood was sprinkled once a year to make atonement for the whole nation. It is, far and away, the most sacred, the most treasured possession of the nation of Israel.
But in light of what we just read in verses 3 through 11, while the Ark was a great morale booster for the Israelites, and a great psychological weapon against the Philistines, in the end it does nothing for the army militarily. In the end, over seven times as many men are killed in this second battle as compared with the first.
Not only that, but the Ark itself, this national treasure, this invaluable part of Israelite worship, the Ark is captured by a heathen army. This is without a doubt, one of the lowest points of Israelite history.
But if we look at the rest of chapter 4, we see that there is more to this story. Notice that the remainder of chapter 4 contains two postscripts to the battle account, two postscripts that each announce a death.
C. Postscript #1: The Death of Eli (4:12-18)
Look with me at the first postscript in verses 12 through 18:
A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with dirt on his head. 13 When he arrived, Eli was sitting on his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out. 14 When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?” Then the man hurried and came and told Eli. 15 Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set so that he could not see. 16 And the man said to Eli, “I am he who has come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” And he said, “How did it go, my son?” 17 He who brought the news answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great defeat among the people. Your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” 18 As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.
So Eli, the chief or high priest, who is also the judge of Israel, is described here a sitting by the road. He is very old, very blind, and very fat. And even though he could not see, he wanted to be able to hear the initial reports about the fighting because he was extremely worried. What was he most concerned about? Well, I'm sure he was concerned with his sons, to a certain extent, but verse 13 tells us that “his heart trembled for the ark of God.”
That's why, as soon as he hears that the Ark has been captured, he seems to faint, or tremble violently enough that his large frame tips backward off the chair and he breaks his neck.
D. Postscript #2: The Death of Eli’s Daughter-In-Law (4:19-22)
But this isn't the only postscript is it. Look at verses 19 through 22:
Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. 20 And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention. 21 And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
Now up to this point, we had no idea that Phinehas had a wife. Knowing what we know from chapter 2 about his sexual exploits with the women at the Tent of Meeting, we should probably feel pity for this woman who is not only putting up with a unfaithful husband, but is also pregnant with his child.
But just like Eli, when she hears the report about the second battle (and also about her father-in-law), she is so upset that she goes into labor and eventually dies from the physical and emotional duress.
But again, notice her final words. She does not cry out in anguish about the death of her husand. She is not even consoled by the fact that she has a new baby boy. She names the boy Ichabod, which means “Where is the glory?” Why that name? Verse 22: “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
Two battles. Two Postscripts. Two more deaths. But what does it all mean?
III. Perspective: Magic Versus Obedience
So how should the writer's main point in this chapter affect the way we think about God, about ourselves, and about our everyday lives?
What is the main point here? Well, in some sense, what we're seeing here in chapter four is simply confirmation of the fact that when God promises judgment, as He did in I Samuel chapter 2, it will come to pass.
It is the foolish decision of the Israelite elders to bring out the Ark that also brings out the sons of Eli, that brings them out of their routine of greed and corruption, that draws them away from Shiloh, that leads these priests into the field of battle, the very priests of whose family it was said in I Samuel 2:33, all the descendants of your house shall die by the sword of men.
And it is the fate of the Ark that leads, in some way, to the deaths of Eli and his daughter-in-law. Remember what God promised Eli and his family in I Samuel 2:31, Behold, the days are coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your father's house.
When God promises judgment, it will come to pass.
But we see something else going on here. I believe the writer wants to expose something in this chapter about the condition of God's people. We know from the last chapter of Judges that this period in Israelite history was a period during which “every man did what was right in his own eyes”. That was certainly true with the priestly leadership at Shiloh.
But here, this situation, this mess with the Ark serves a dual purpose. Not only is it central in this chain of events that brings about God's judgment on Eli's family, but it is also serves to expose the misguided thinking of God's people about God himself.
Look again at the way the Israelite elders respond to their absolutely 'right on' question “Why has the LORD defeated us today?”. Their response: Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”
What? What happened here? Do they really believe that the LORD defeated them because they did not carry the Ark out to battle with the army? The Law of Moses says nothing about taking the Ark into battle. Except for its presence at Jericho, when Joshua waged war in Canaan, when the previous judges delivered the people, the Ark was never part of the equation.
If they had been careful to listen to, to consult with God's law, they would have discovered what God himself, in Leviticus 26, said about this kind of military defeat:
“But if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, 15 if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, 16 then I will do this to you: I will visit you with panic, with wasting disease and fever that consume the eyes and make the heart ache. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. 17 I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies.”
H.L. Ellison describes it this way in his comments on Phinehas's wife. After stating the story of her death is “touching”, he is clear in saying, “but she was wrong. The glory of God had indeed departed, but not because the ark of God had been captured; the ark had been captured because the glory had already departed.”
The people were defeated because their hearts, because they themselves, were far from God. But for them, for all the characters in this chapter, God was near because God was somehow in the box. He was in the Ark. To bring out the Ark was to bring out the power of God. To lose the Ark was to lose God.
Their loss of the Ark was not going to bring about some awful judgment. Along with their defeat in battle, their loss of the Ark was the judgment...for their disobedience, for their failure to love God and keep His covenant.
They didn't want to obey God. They wanted to use Him. The writer wants his readers to see that apart from obedience, apart from faithfulness to God himself, the Ark and all it represents, all of the rituals and offerings of the law, all of it means nothing. There is no magic in these things.
Real power for real victory only comes through trusting God according to His word.
That is the perspective we need as we head off into all the battles that await us this week.
IV. Practice: God-in-a-Box
But what will this perspective look like when it comes to your practice, when it comes to the everyday decisions you and I face?
Well, I think what is so helpful about this chapter for us today is that it teaches us a great lesson about what not to do when we lose.
Are you a loser this morning? Are you a loser?
I think I'm safe in saying that most, if not all us, are not losers in this sense; we are not losers in a military sense. But nevertheless, all of us still lose battles all the time.
We often lose in our struggle to control our tempers. We often lose in our struggle to not be anxious about this or that situation. We often lose in our struggle against not becoming cynical or judgmental about others. We often lose when it comes to our struggle with lust, or with greed, or with gossip, or with complacency, or with pride. We often lose in our battle against indifference and forgetfulness...thanklessness...faithlessness.
Like the elders of Israel, we often stop and ask, “Why was I defeated, once again, by this or that thought, this or that feeling, this or that person, this or that situation?”
And like the Israelites, we are so often tempted to turn to a “God-in-the box” mentality.
Like every other “in-a-box” product, we re-imagine God in order to have the ability to do what we want to do with comfort and control.
“But I shouldn't have to be alone, because God wants me to be happy, right?”... “Well, I don't think God wants me to say anything to that brother because I know he'd take it the wrong way.” … “Look, God knows that I'm faithful in giving and serving and attending...my free time is my chance to relax.” … “Come on. Jesus dealt with the past. The old is gone. I don't need to worry about dealing with those broken relationships from way back when.” … “God's word is clear. Therefore, I need to remind my wife about what God expects of her...I need to remind my husband about what God expects of him.” … “If God gets his portion, what does He care about how I spend the rest of my money?” … “Yes, coming on Sunday mornings is good, but God knows how crazy things can get at home, with the schedule...He doesn't want our family to be overloaded does He?” … “I'm only sharing this about that person because I think God would want us to pray for her?” … “If God calls me to discipline my children than, sometimes, I need to lay down the law with a firm hand...and if I have to always shout to be heard, so be it.” … “God knows I have needs. He knows I won't ever be perfect. He'll always forgive, no matter what.”
Brothers and sisters, that kind of God cannot save us. That is not the God of the Bible. When we carry out our “God-in-a-box”, out into the battle, the result will always be pain and loss.
So what should we do when we lose? Our failures should not cause us to re-imagine the nature of the God who saves. Our failures should cause us to remember the nature from which God has saved us.
Every time we lose in our struggle against sin, we need to remember that, apart from His grace, there is no hope for losers like us. We can't just do better. We won't just eventually figure it out. In and of ourselves we are bankrupt.
Every time we lose in our struggle against sin, we must look to the cross of Jesus Christ, because there and only there will we find forgiveness; only in Jesus will find a sure foundation for our hope in God; only because of what He did, can we have peace in God.
Every time we lose in our struggle against sin, we have to remember that our obedience is not what God expects in terms of merit; our obedience is what God makes possible through grace.
As it should have been for the Israelites, when God's people suffer defeat it is always an opportunity to examine God's word, to turn back to God in humble repentance, to rejoice in God's forgiveness, and to be renewed in grateful obedience.
I have no doubt that I will be, that you will be, defeated this week. Let's remember what NOT to do when we lose. But let's remember that the battle belongs to the Lord. And because of the ultimate battle, fought on the Cross, every day this week, in every defeat, let's echo Paul's words from I Corinthians 15: But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.