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1 Samuel 4-7: From Ichabod to Ebenezer Print E-mail
1 Samuel
Sunday, 30 April 2017

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In the final scene of “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the characters have a fictional encounter with the ark of Israel. The Nazis have captured the ark to help them conquer the world (apparently they were unfamiliar with our passage this morning). They find a spot out in the desert and decide to see what is in it. While it is being opened, Indiana Jones hurriedly tells his lady friend to close her eyes, which they both do. Meanwhile, the Nazis are all killed for looking at the ark, which frees up Professor Jones who then somehow crates the ark up and hides it in some unknown location. The hero wins, the bad guys lose, and the ark is left in mystery.

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The premise for much of that movie is found in 1 Samuel 4-7. The fictional story is based upon the historical events recorded in these chapters. And although the action revolves around the movements of the ark, the deeper issue is the honor of God. Is He the true God? Is He greater than all the other gods? Will He fight for Israel as He did against the Egyptians? All of these questions are being answered throughout this story of the ark.

Of course, before we begin, we need to ask: What is the ark? The ark is a golden box about four feet long and two feet high and deep. It held within it the two stone tablets upon which were written the ten commandments, an urn which held some manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded (see Hebrews 9:4). It was the only piece of furniture in God’s most holy place and it symbolized His presence with Israel. The lid had two angels on it and was referred to as the mercy seat, where atonement was made for the people’s sins. It had been with Israel since the building of the tabernacle and was the center-piece of Israel’s worship there. So what happens to it in 1 Samuel 4-7?

Israel is defeated and the ark is captured (ch. 4)

The story begins with Israel battling the Philistines. Look at 4:1-2. The Philistines lived on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the land of Canaan. They had five major cities and a ruler for each city. And they were determined to rule over Israel. Unfortunately for Israel, they have success on this day. So the elders come up with a plan. Look at verses 3-4. They recognize that the Lord has allowed them to be defeated by the Philistines and they decide to try and earn/manipulate His favor by getting the ark. So they send for Hophni and Phinehas, which already tells us that this is a bad plan.

So how does it turn out? The people of Israel are excited when the ark arrives and the Philistines are frightened because they have heard what happened to the Egyptians (even though they were a little off on the details.) But they decide to fight anyway. Look at verses 10-11. Just as the Lord said would happen, Hophni and Phinehas died on the same day. Unfortunately, their judgment meant the loss of the ark for Israel. When Eli hears the news, he immediately falls over dead. When his grandson is born, the mother names him Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel” (v. 21).

This is terrible. This is a tragedy. And this is exactly what the Lord said was going to happen. Israel was not being faithful to Him. They were not honoring Him as they should, which is evidenced by their treatment of the ark. Davis comments: “Here was a pressure tactic, a way of...twisting God’s arm. That is not faith but superstition. It is what I call rabbit-foot theology.”1 Instead of praising and honoring God, they simply wanted to use Him for blessing. God fulfilled His prophecy about Eli’s house and punished Israel for their disobedience.

The Philistines are afflicted and the ark is returned (5:1-6:18)

One question must be asked about Israel’s defeat: did that mean that God lost? The Philistines thought so. They believed that their god, Dagon, had defeated Yahweh. So they bring the ark and set it before Dagon to show how he is greater than Israel’s God. So what happens? Look at 5:3-4. Man, I love this scene! Our God is full of humor. Dagon falls over in front of the ark in submission. When his followers find him, they have to set him back up (notice the irony in that). Then the next day they find him with no hands and no head. It is a funny scene. But it is also instructive. No god can contend with the Lord of hosts!

The Lord is clearly (and mercifully) showing the Philistines that their god is powerless. Of course this teaches us an important lesson as well. We are all serving a god. We are all worshipping a god. Whatever or whoever we love most is our god (another person, a good time, comfort, materialism, etc.) The question is this: is your god worthy of such affection and praise? Dagon was not. And the implication from this scene is that no god is worthy besides Yahweh (see 2:2).

Things only get worse for the Philistines. They took the ark to Ashdod (where Dagon was at) and things do not go well there. Look at 5:6. The people of Ashdod realize what the Lord is doing and they send the ark to Gath (another one of the Philistines five cities). But things do not go any better their. Look at 5:9. Then they try to send it to Ekron but the people cry out. Look at 5:11-12.

After seven months of this affliction from the Lord, they come up with a plan to give the ark back to Israel. But they want to be sure that the God of Israel is really causing all the trouble.  So they gather together their guilt offering (some golden tumors and mice!) and load the ark on a cart being pulled by two momma cows. If the cows go back toward their calves, which naturally they should do, then the Philistines will know that all their troubles were just a coincidence. But if the cows head towards Beth-shemesh, a town in Israel, then they will know that the hand of the Lord has caused their pain. So what happens? Look at 6:10-12. They went straight to Beth-shemesh. God not only speaks through donkeys, but He can use cows as well!

We see in God’s dealings with the Philistines that He is sovereign over all, even the enemies of His people. We also see that God does not need even His own people to fight His battles. The Lord used the Philistines to bring about His plans in Israel. He then defended His own honor by having Dagon bow before the ark and afflicting the people until they returned it to Israel. God is completely capable of defending His honor. And He will do so even when His people are disobedient. Such truth should keep the church humble and thankful that He lets us spread His glory by living lives that bring honor to Him through faith in Christ.

Israel repents and the ark is restored (6:19-7:17)

Of course, the story of Israel is not over. The ark has been returned after seven months and you would think that all would be well. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Look at 6:19-20. The ark is then taken to another city in Israel where it will remain for many years until David takes it to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). And notice what is said about the people in 7:2. They recognize that things are not right. They long for Lord. Yet, even here we have to wonder if they are simply lamenting the loss of His blessing or truly longing for the Lord.

Samuel decides to put them to the test. Look at verses 3-6. Samuel calls for more than just feeling sad or being upset. He calls for true repentance. He tells them to turn away from their idols and serve only the Lord. Feeling sorry is not enough. Genuine repentance leads to action. It is a turning away from sin and a turning toward the Lord in faith. This is the response that is called for when a person follows Jesus. They let go of their sins, their idols, and they trust in the One who paid for their forgiveness at the cross and rose again on the third day.

And what happens when God’s people truly repent? What happens when they give their lives to honoring Him? Look at verses 7-12. This time when the Philistines fight with Israel, the Lord defeats them. In chapter 4, Israel sought to manipulate the Lord into fighting for them. But here they simply cry out for His mercy and trust in His sovereign goodness. In a sense, you could say that the battle was won by Israel even before it started. They did not win it with swords and spears, they won it on their knees in repentance. They had learned the important lesson of honoring the Lord. And so Samuel sets up a stone and calls it Ebenezer, for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us” (v. 12). ‘Ebenezer’ means ‘stone of help’ or ‘The Helper’s stone.’ It is this passage that the second verse of “Come Thou Fount” is based upon. Like Israel, those of us who have trusted in Christ for our salvation can say: ‘God has helped us to get this far and He will get us to Heaven through faith in Jesus.’ Jesus gave His precious blood to bring us to God. Even today, we come to the table to ‘raise our Ebenezer’ and remember Him.

The Lord will continue to use Samuel as both judge and priest throughout His life. His work points us to the One who will be for us Prophet, Priest, and King. Like Israel, we need the Lord’s help to overcome our enemies. So God has sent us His Son to pay for sins through His death and resurrection. Because of our own rebellion against God, our names could all be Ichabod. But through repentance and faith in Jesus we can raise our Ebenezer to Him. Would you do that today? Would you give up on your false gods, your false hopes in sin, and turn and trust in Jesus as your Savior? And those of you have trusted in Christ, would you seek to live out the victory that He has helped you with at the cross? Would you seek His honor in all that you do? May we all live lives that bring glory and honor to the Lord of hosts and Jesus, His Son. Amen.

1 Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Samuel FOTB (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2014), p. 54.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 16 May 2017 )

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