The repercussions of Israel’s disobedience were soon about to be felt by the Hebrews as they were going to war against their rivals, the Philistines. Having lost the battle and about four thousand men, the Israelites were baffled and were questioning the elders to ascertain the reason for their humiliating loss.
“Why did the LORD bring defeat on us today before the Philistines?”1 Samuel 4:3
Israel had stopped listening to the voice of God and had corrupt leaders who themselves did not know the will of God. They were continuing with their rituals and meaningless sacrifices thinking that they are pleasing to God but their hearts were away from Him. This war was a way for God’s glory to be revealed to both nations and the umpteenth opportunity for Israel to repent from its ways. If we choose to listen to our hearts and not follow God’s will, we should not be surprised when the results are not as we imagined.
Let’s Bring the Ark
After discussing with the leaders, the solution that they came up with was to bring the Ark of the Covenant to the battlefield. If God is not helping them they sought to make Him by taking the holy box to the battle. Just like baptism is an outward symbolism of an inward transformation, the Ark of the Covenant symbolized the presence of God with His people but the people of Israel were satisfied with the symbolism as the Ark of the Lord had now become the golden calf for this generation. So they sent people to Shiloh and the priests carried the Ark with the armies into the battlefield perhaps as a scare tactic or to offer motivation to the troops. Now the priests who were in charge of carrying the ark were the sons of Eli, Phinehas and Hophni, about whom God had prophesied to both the prophet and Samuel.
When they learned that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp, the Philistines were afraid.1 Samuel 4:6-7
The Philistines recalled the works of Yahweh probably told to them by their ancestors of how He had delivered the Israelites at the hands of the mighty Egyptian army. Their plan worked but only for a short time as the Philistines mustered their strength and fought even harder to defeat the Hebrews and carried away their precious Ark.
Among the casualties of the war were the two sons of Eli who were carrying the Ark, Phinehas and Hophni. When the Benjamite messenger from the battlefield brought the news of the death of his two sons and the capture of the Ark by the Philistines, Eli fell out of his chair and broke his neck and died instantly. The leader of the Hebrews of forty years had passed so unceremoniously. Even his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas while giving birth to a son was overcome by labour pains and died after naming her son Ichabod.
She said, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”1 Samuel 4:22
The Ark symbolized the covenant between Israel and God, a covenant that Israel was not willing to live up to. Bringing the Ark at the last moment was an empty gesture, a lucky charm as God was not with them. The Israelites mourned that the Ark had departed from them but the Glory had long been departed from their midst. Often time the believers also wonder why has the calamity happened in their lives. They try to pray at the last moment and expect God to shy away from doing His own will. Not having a relationship with God and only using Him when problems come our way is like the Israelites who carried only the Ark while forgetting God, into a war-zone thinking they would still be victorious.
The Ark in the Temple
After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon.1 Samuel 5:1-2
Dagon was one of the chief Philistine gods, perhaps representing the fish-god. In Hebrew, the word dagon translates as grain causing many to believe that the Philistine god was regarded as the god of the harvest. Setting the Ark beside their god in their temple was a symbolic gesture by the Philistines that they had captured the heart and soul of their neighbours. But the very next day strange things started to occur. The idol of Dagon was fallen on its face on the ground right before the Ark of the Lord. They put the idol back in its place only to be horrified the next morning.
But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the LORD! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained.1 Samuel 5:4
The chopping of the hands and head of their god was signifying the utter helpless situation of the Philistines and their gods before the Lord of the heavens and the earth. The Philistines knew that they had to return the Ark back to Israel or great destruction would befall them. They kept transferring the Ark from one town to another seeing the devastation it was causing among their people. God hit the Philistine towns that housed the Ark with tumors and death filled the cites with panic and the outcry of the people went up to heaven. Even though they had won their battle against the disobedient Israelites, they had lost the war to the God of heaven and earth as on that day they too experienced the wrath of God first-hand, much like the stories they were told about the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt.
- Why did the Lord cause Israel to lose at the hands of a pagan army?
- Why did the Israelites lose even after bringing the Ark?
- Why did God torment the Philistines?