In our study of 1 Samuel chapter four, we look at the fact that God cannot be manipulated by men to fit their will.
And Samuel's word came to all Israel. Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield.
The Philistines were extending their territory in Canaan and so the Israelites decided to go to battle. We see that they decided to go to battle and it was not that God told them, through Samuel, to do so. It seemed good to them, so they made their own plans and went about implementing them. We notice that Samuel was known for being a prophet but they never went and asked what the Lord had to say about the matter. Sometimes, we, as Christians, can do the same type of thing where we get a good thing in our mind and "go for it". We often do this without stopping to pray and often the result is similar to the Israelite campaign against the Philistines.
When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, 'Why did the Lord bring defeat before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the Lord's covenant from Shiloh, so that he may go with us and save us from our enemies.' So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the Cherubim. And Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
After they returned from their defeat, the leaders of Israel recognized that God was not with them in the battle. Once again, instead of seeking God's will, they devised a plan to get the ark of the covenant and to take it into battle with them. When trials strike us, do we stop and seek God or do we come up with a plan and act like the Israelites did? We also see that Eli's disgraced sons were still with the ark of the covenant. That should have been a warning sign to them but they continued with their plan.
When the ark of the Lord's covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, ''What's all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?' When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp, the Philistines were afraid. 'A god has come into the camp,' they said. 'Oh no! Nothing like this has happened before. We're doomed! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness.'
The Israelites were glad when they brought the ark of the Lord into the camp because they assumed that God was with them. The Philistines heard the noise and, when they found out that the ark was there, they were afraid. We see that they had heard about what God had done in Egypt for His people.
'Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!'
The leaders of the Philistines urged their men to fight. They reminded them that, if they did not, then they would be slaves to the Israelites. They did not know that God was not in the Israelite camp but they were able to overcome their fear because they didn't really have any other option.
So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
The Israelites were routed and the ark was captured by the Philistines. God's word concerning Eli's sons was brought to pass as they were both killed on the same day. This is a reminder to us that the best laid plans of man are nothing when they come up against God's plan. It also reminds us that we cannot assume that God will be with us when we are not following Him because He will not. God leads; He does not follow.
That same day a Benjamite ran from the battle line and went to Shiloh with his clothes torn and dust on his head. When he arrived, there was Eli sitting on his chair by the side of the road, watching, because his heart feared for the ark of God. When the man entered the town and told what had happened, the whole town sent up a cry.
As the Israelites were being decimated by the Philistines, a Benjamite man fled to report what happened. We see that the man was repentant as his clothes were torn and he had dust on his head. He found Eli sitting beside the road as he was waiting because he had been afraid when they removed the ark from Shiloh.
Eli heard the outcry and asked, 'What is the meaning of this uproar?' The man hurried over to Eli, who was ninety-eight years old and whose eyes had failed so that he could not see. He told Eli, 'I have just come from the battle line; I fled from it this very day.' Eli asked, 'What happened, my son?' The man who brought the news replied, 'Israel fled before the Philistines, and the army has suffered heavy losses. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.'
The man broke the news to Eli that Israel had been defeated, his sons were dead, and the ark was lost. Eli must have suspected that this was going to happen but he never stopped them from taking the ark in the first place. Even until the last, he would not restrain his two sons and now they are dead and his worst fears are confirmed.
When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and he was heavy. He had led Israel forty years.
When Eli heard about the ark, he fell over and died. We see that he had been the high priest for forty years and are reminded that the number is associated with complete earthly trials. In the end, Eli had failed in his leadership as the ark was now in enemy hands.
His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant and near the time of delivery. When she heard the news that the ark of God had been captured and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she went into labor and gave birth, but was overcome by her labor pains.
When she heard the news, Phinehas' wife went into labor and was dying. We see that God's word concerning the entire family of Eli was being fulfilled.
As she was dying, the women attending her said, 'Don't despair; you have given birth to a son.' But she did not respond or pay any attention. She named the boy Ichabod, saying 'The Glory has departed from Israel - because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. She said, 'The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.'
We see that Phinehas' wife had given up all hope and even named her son "no glory". The people were caught up in a symbol of God's presence and did not realize that the box they had lost was empty. God had not been there on the battlefield and He was not trapped in some box to be captured. This empty box is a picture of many "churches" of today. They may look good on the outside but their is no Spirit of God on the inside.