Today's passage: I Samuel 4
This is one of those chapters in the Bible, where it is hard to find anything redeeming to mention. It is a dark day for Israel. I'm not sure how much time has passed between the time when Samuel had to deliver God's message to Eli, and the time the judgement would actually take place. In the previous chapter, Eli was already losing his eyesight, so he was evidently an older man. It seems that Samuel had been prophesying because the first verse tells us "And the word of Samuel came to all Israel."
When looking at a map of Israel, Eben-ezer and Aphek are located about 20 miles from Shiloh. This may seem like an easy distance, but by foot and through the hills of Ephraim, this would probably be a little arduous. Take into account, that on the trip back, soldiers would have been carrying the Ark of the Covenant, and the trip becomes even harder. Somehow, the older, more seasoned men of Israel get it into their gray heads that it would be a good idea to transport the Ark of the Covenant to their battle site. They figure, after losing 4000 men, they could use some kind of lucky charm. Eli's sons, Hophni and Phinehas, escort the ark to Eben-ezer and the soldiers celebrate as if they have already won the next battle. Eli is aware of the ark leaving the tabernacle, because back in Shiloh, it says, "Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching; for his heart trembled for the ark of God." He knew this was a bad idea, but he seems powerless to stop his sons or the elders of Israel. With all of the whooping in Israel's camp, the Philistines start to worry. When the information reaches them that the Israelites have the Ark of God with them, they worry a little more. But the Philistines are determined to fight even harder, to prove this God of Israel has no power over them. It would seem they were successful. Not only do they slaughter the Israelites, they capture the ark and take it back to Philistia. Eli's own sons lose their lives in the massacre. Thirty thousand men are killed, maybe more, since this number refers only to the foot soldiers. That number is about half of the number of men who lost their lives in the entire Vietnam War.
Who wants to be the messenger that gets to deliver this news back to Shiloh? Who wants to volunteer to tell the high priest that his sons have been killed, and oh yeah, the Philistines have captured the Ark of the Covenant? Who wants to be the one that has to explain to most of the townswomen that they are now widows, and their children are fatherless? I'm thinking that twenty miles from the battle site was feeling especially far for this poor fellow. His worst fears are realized when Eli drops dead from the startling news. When Phinehas' pregnant wife hunches over in delivery pains, he is really wishing he had not been elected for this job. When she dies, leaving Phinehas' newborn son an orphan, I'm sure he was wishing he had been among the casualties.
I mean, what good thing can I take away from this passage? Is there anything encouraging here? It just seems like one morbid event after another. And what about young Samuel? Or maybe he is older Samuel by now, I don't know how much time has passed. The man who helped raise him has died. Two men, he probably looked at like older brothers have been killed, as well as many of the other men who had probably befriended him in his time here. How was Samuel feeling in all of this? The Bible doesn't tell us, but I think I can guess he was feeling rather low. I feel low reading about it, and I didn't know any of these people.
I do know this, although God's glory had departed with the ark. God had not. The symbol of God's glory was no longer with the Israelites, but God had not left them. He had not deserted him, although looking at the battlefield, someone might tell a different story. These were still his chosen people, through good times and bad. He allowed them to learn a painful lesson, that He was not a lucky charm to call on, when they needed something. We still do this today. We promise God if only He will get us out of this sticky situation we're in (usually one we caused ourselves), we will do anything He asks. Sometimes He helps us out, and sometimes we follow through and actually keep our promise. Sometimes He lets us learn the lesson the hard way. It doesn't mean He has left us. It doesn't mean He doesn't still care. It just means, sometimes we will learn better through the pain, than we will through the rescue. This was one of those unfortunate times for the Israelites. They had taken a beating, but God had not left them, and they would be better for it. If I ever feel like God has deserted me, that is my fault, not His. If I ever feel as if God doesn't care, it must be because I'm depending on results. When the results don't always meet my expectations, it is not because God has left. It must be that He is trying to teach me something. It might be that the results would do me more harm than good. Every chapter in the Bible has redeeming value, and every event in my life does too.