I Samuel 4–7. The Ark of the Covenant Was Lost.

Key Notes: God's presence was not at Israel's disposal, yet He dfeated their enemy. Evidence of God's strong hand did not persuade the skeptics. Ebenezer: God helps.

This is the story of a great tragedy that shook Israel: defeat in war and the loss of the Ark of the Covenant. The background is the presence of Samuel and the beginning of his work of turning Israel back to God. In it, we will see God's judgment on individuals and the nation, using physical death and spiritual separation as His methods. Mercifully, the story also details how Israel recovered the Ark. The study contains an example of a scientific experiment done by pagans to test for the power of God. It was positive; it worked. But the people who did the experiment went home and forgot about it. Why?

4:1–5  Israel went to fight the Philistines, camping at Ebenezer; the Philistines were at Aphek, (Ebenezer means "Hitherto the Lord has helped us.") The Philistines lined up for battle, and Israel was defeated--4,000 men dead. The elders considered their defeat and decided to bring up the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh. The Ark had been instrumental at Jericho (Josh.6:8) when it was part of the battle array. The Ark of the Covenant was normally hidden from view inside the Holy of Holies. When seen in public, it would be covered with sacred drapes. So the w sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas, brought out the Ark of the Covenant into the camp of Israel. Israel's morale went up for the moment.

4:6–11 The Philistines were afraid that the gods who smote the Egyptians "in the wilderness" (God smote the Egyptians in Egypt) with plagues were against them . They did not want to become slaves of the Israelites. So they took fresh courage and killed 30,000 men of Israel, almost ten times more than at the first battle. Hophni and Phineas were among the dead. The Philistines had defeated the "gods" of the Israelites and killed their priests.

A Benjaminite came from the battle with the news, and Shiloh was in an uproar. There had been a great slaughter; Hophni and Phineas were dead and the Ark was in the hands of the Philistines. Eli was 98, heavy and blind; when he heard the news, he fell over backward and broke his neck.
Phinehas' wife was in labor, and died giving birth to a boy she named Ichabod, "...the glory has departed from Israel". Without the Ark of the Covenant, where the glory of God was enshrined between the cherubim, it would be assumed that God had deserted Israel and she was doomed. It was a dark time.

5:1–5  The triumphant Philistines carried the Ark of the Covenant from Ebenezer to Ashdod and set it in the temple beside Dagon. In the morning the image of Dagon had fallen down before the Ark. They set the god back on his perch and the next morning he had fallen again, his limbs and head broken off. Both hands lay on the threshold.

5:6–12 The people of Ashdod were afflicted with tumors. They brought the Ark to Gath, but tumors broke out upon them too. At Ekron there was deathly panic in the city because of plague--deadly bubonic plague.

6:1–9 After seven months of epidemic sickness and death the Philistines called on their priests and diviners for a plan to return the Ark. They were advised to send the Ark back with a guilt offering: 5 golden tumors and 5 golden mice, images of the things that ravaged the land. And they should give glory to the God of Israel, so that He would lift His hand from them. They should not harden their hearts as Pharaoh and the Egyptians hardened their hearts [hundreds of years before]. The application of their knowledge about Israel and Egypt is now the opposite of the one given before the battle.

Comment: Bubonic plague was the likely cause of the deadly epidemic. Rat and mouse fleas carry a bacterium that causes painful lymph-node masses ("buboes") as well as severe and often lethal pneumonia in humans.

6:10–16 They were to take a new cart and two milk cows that had not been yoked; their calves were to be taken away. The Ark was put in the cart with a box containing golden mice and golden tumors [the size of a golf-ball] as a guilt offering. And they could watch to see where the cows went. They naturally would go back to the barn to their calves. If they went away toward Beth-shemesh, they would know that it was God who did them this great harm; but if not, then it happened by chance.

The cows went straight down the road to Beth-shemesh. The lords of the Philistines following them to the edge of the town. The men of Beth-shemesh rejoiced to see the Ark and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord on the great rock, using the wood of the cart for fuel. The lords of the Philistines watched, then went back home to Ekron. It was not by chance.

6:17–7:2 Some of the men of Beth-shemesh died because they looked into the Ark, 70 of them, and probably not all at once, so they sent for the men of Kirjath-jearim to take the Ark, and they put it in the house of Abinadab. He consecrated his son Eleazar to take charge of the Ark. The Ark was there for 20 years, and Israel mourned after the Lord.

7:3–14 Then Samuel gathered Israel at Mizpah and judged them there. They poured out water (symbolic of community cleansing?) before the Lord and fasted and confessed sin. Then the Philistine army came up against them and Israel begged Samuel to intercede for them. He offered a whole lamb as a burnt offering and cried to the Lord. At the onset of the attack, God thundered against the Philistines and threw them into confusion. Israel routed them.
Samuel set up a stone called Ebenezer: "Hitherto has the Lord helped us". (Now the name was meaningful). The Philistines were quiet for the duration of Samuel's administration and Israel rescued its territory from the Philistines. There was also peace between Israel and the Amorites.

How God preached to the Philistines.
a. contact: the Ark of the covenant came into the camp of Philistines, captured from Israel. They recognized that the God of Israel was the one who smote the Egyptians with plagues. God was known to them. Unfortunately, the contact was flawed. If God were the God of Israel, why did He not protect Israel and keep Philistines from capturing the Ark? Dagon must be stronger.

b. attention: Dagon fell off his pedestal before the ark.
Dagon fell again, broken before the Ark.
Dagon must be less than God and subject to Him.

c. message of the plagues: the God of Israel is displeased with Philistines and is destroying them because they are keeping the Ark.

d. solution: "If you send away the Ark of the God of Israel...by all means return Him a guilt offering."
"Give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps He will lighten His hand from off you, your gods and your land."
"Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did. After He had made sport of them, did they not let the people go...?"

The priests and diviners were spiritually astute. They spoke of God in a personal way. They had a a memory of events 400 years old that was not part of their national history. We surmise that Israel's ways were well-known to the nations around them, but that nationalism and culture prevented them from worshiping God.

e. method: golden replicas of the things which caused the problem were fabricated. The golden masses caused by the infection, and golden mice as a guilt offering were put into a cart. Cows separated from their calves were yoked to the carts. Will they go back to their calves or take the Ark to Israel? This could all be chance.

f. conclusion: the Ark went to Israel. They were willing to consider the possibilities: is it chance or is it God? It was not chance. God's hand struck us.

g. reaction: The Lords of the Philistines went back to their gods.


Philistines quickly learned that it was wrong to try to keep the Ark. Dagon's fall warned them, and the epidemic threatened their cities. The tumors and mice were replicas of the disease caused by sin that needed to be atoned for. There are two other examples of the use of replicas to illustrate sin and forgiveness.

*In Num.21:4–9 Israel was bitten by vipers as punishment for rebelling against the Lord. When they repented, Moses was instructed to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole so that the people looking to it might be healed. The bronze serpent was a replica of the vipers which spoke of the rebellion; the Israelites looked to it for forgiveness and were healed.
*Jesus made the bronze serpent a type of His own death by crucifixion in John 3:14--His death for the people bitten by the plague of sin. The cross is the symbol of our sin atoned for when we turn to God for forgiveness.

Why did the Philistines not become believers?
1. People are not persuaded by evidence. The Jewish rulers were not persuaded by the resuscitation of Lazarus (Jn.11:45–48), or the resurrection of Christ. They tried their best to suppress the evidence--to kill them.
Evidence mainly supports and persuades people who are coming to faith.

2. Cultural conditions dictate: to follow the God of Israel the Philistines would have to assimilate, and lose their national identity. Moreover, the fertility gods of the Canaanites were more attractive than the austere God of Israel. Dagon was not a fish-god, but the image of a man, a god involved with grain, and harvest, and hence fertility.

3. Israel was a poor example. They lost the Ark because of their sin, leaving a confusing situation to be interpreted. If believers only behaved like believers!

4. Israel made no effort to evangelize, to persuade her neighbors to turn to the true God.

What is God doing here? He is shocking Israel, waking them up. They are in mourning (6:19). Soon Samuel will bring them to the edge of revival. (7:3–11). Although the Philistine lords walked away, soon men from Gath ("Gittites") will be coming to Israel's side (IISam.6:11), some as members of David's royal guard. IISam.15:18–20,‘:2

Our situation is similar. Society (the Philistines) is ambivalent religiously because it sees our sins and takes fresh courage yet knows that God exists and will judge. Intelligent design is widely rejected, yet it is intuitively correct, a fact of life.

Society delights to see our leaders sin—pastors and politicians disgraced—sometimes unfairly. James “Dobson is a hypocrite.” “Reggie White is a homophobic bigot.” And the culture worships the generative impulse in its many forms, but knows that that is wrong.

There is a lot of guilt in society expressed for our greed and materialism, without any intent to change. As soon as the recession subsides, people will go back to their self-indulgent ways. But we believers are shocked and mourning for sin, and Philistines are coming over to our side.