Psalm 37, 1 Samuel 4: 1 – 18 and Acts 11: 1 – 18
Our steps are made firm by the Lord, when he delights in our way; though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand. Psalm 37: 23 and 24
So the Philistines fought; Israel was defeated, and they fled, everyone to his home. There was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot-soldiers. The ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died. 1 Samuel 4: 10 and 11
Last week we were thinking about the way in which Hannah offered her son Samuel back to God and enrolled him in temple service. The corrupt environment was hinted at with the dissolute behaviour of Eli the priest’s sons, who feature in today’s reading. In 1 Samuel 4 we see the military threat of the Philistines resulting in a large Israelite army being sent into battle. Initial defeat and the loss of 4,000 men led to desperate measures. The Ark of the Covenant symbolised God’s presence and protection, from the time Moses obeyed God’s instructions in the wilderness to create the ark and tabernacle. This led the people to regard it as some sort of talisman to protect them from further defeat. As the chapter unfolds, we see how the morale of the Israelites was raised and, in contrast, panic gripped the Philistines. In the next battle we see on the one hand complacency in the Israelite army, believing they were now invincible, and the Philistines galvanised into greater efforts. The outcome was tragic and decisive, with 30,000 Israelite soldiers killed. Alongside this immense loss of life was the appalling shock of losing the revered Ark of the Covenant into enemy hands. With the capture of the Ark came the news that Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, had died too.
A messenger returned to the 98-year old blind and overweight Eli and told him the awful news about his sons, but it seems it was hearing of the loss of the Ark of the Covenant that led to him falling backwards from his seat and breaking his neck. So ended the forty-year period when Eli had judged Israel. Samuel’s era of prominence had begun at the start of the chapter, but with Eli and his sons now dead, his position as God’s spokesman was now unchallenged.
This disquieting story of a nation that had departed from God and fallen under corrupt influences sounds surprisingly relevant, and there are obvious lessons about the perils of straying from God’s path in national life. In the case of the people of Israel, these periods of rebellion were marked by military defeat by whichever enemy was in the ascendancy at the time. As we progress through the books of Samuel for the next six weeks, we will see how the Philistines continued to be the opposing force and how first Saul was made king, and then David.
Psalm 37 is a helpful reminder that God is with us and we should not worry about the ‘wicked’. We are encouraged to trust in the Lord because those who oppose God will fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. Verse 6 tells us that if we trust in God, he will make our vindication shine like the light. Ultimately God will always prevail, and whatever or whoever may be the current threat (like the Philistines in Samuel’s time), verse 11 tells us the meek shall inherit the land. It is quite a long psalm, and some of the points are repeated, but it repays study for the hope it offers.
We have all passed through an unprecedented period that has brought suffering, fear and death. The Bible helps lend perspective to previous times of challenge and how God brought his people through. It also looks forward into eternity and a time when all things out of kilter because of sin will be made perfect. The most important lesson to remember is that God’s promises and standards are unchanging, and that it is human sin that sees society deviating. In 1 Samuel 4 the Israelites overstepped the mark in using the Ark as some sort of lucky charm and were taught a horrifying lesson in lives lost. It seems Eli and his sons were complicit in this departing from God’s ways and lost their lives as a result.
We make our priority for prayer in remembering those personally affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, but we also need to pray more widely for a disordered world, where the consequences of sin see untold suffering through war in countries like Yemen. We need to pray for leaders of nations at a time of economic setback and uncertainty, and persist in prayer for a revival of faith. The gospel is for everyone – a lesson Peter learned in Acts 11.
Kevin Boak, Lay Reader