The Captivity in the Philistines' Land
1 Samuel 4.
As has been frequently noticed, the enemy who could successfully attack the people of God, represent in a spiritual way their state, or the natural consequence of their state. Throughout Judges we find various enemies, assailing different parts of the nation and at different times. At one time it is the Moabites on the east; at another, Jabin king of Hazor on the north. The first suggests carnal profession, and the second rationalism. The last enemy spoken of in Judges was the Philistines. Samson, last, strongest and feeblest of the judges, fought against them during his life — when he was not having associations with them. He did much, in an indefinite way, to keep them from completely bringing the people into bondage, but never wrought a thorough deliverance. He died in captivity, and though he slew at his death more than he had in his life, he left them still practically unconquered.
These are the enemies that confront Israel during the priesthood of Hophni and Phinehas, and all through the reign of Saul. So we must see afresh what they represent in a spiritual way. Living in the territory which rightly belonged to Israel — their own land — they stand for that which is closest to the people of God without being really such. They drifted into the land — exemplifying their name, "wanderers," — along the shore of the Mediterranean sea, the short way from Egypt. For them there was need neither of the sheltering passover, the opened Red Sea or Jordan's flow arrested. They stand thus for the natural man intruding into the things of God.
That this has been done in its full measure by Rome, none can question. She has taken possession of the heritage of God's people, and settled there as though it belonged by right to her, giving her name to the entire Church, or claiming to be "the Church," just as Palestine, the whole land, got its name from these Philistines. Rome with its profession, its ritualism remains the great enemy which menaces the inheritance of the saints. It is to be feared that Protestantism, like Samson, has but feebly dealt with this adversary, and too often adopted its principles to be a true and victorious deliverer from it. They still remain in probably greater vigor than ever, ready to make fresh inroads and to lay waste more of the land of God's people.
But Rome as a system appeals to man's carnal nature. It may be said that all mere carnal, formal religion is Rome in principle. At any rate, doubtless, the Philistines stand for all that is of nature in the things of God. Any carnal trafficking in unfelt, unrealized truth is but the intrusion of the flesh — mere Philistinism. This explains the constant tendency toward ritualism, and so toward Rome. Nor will this cease till the "mother of harlots" gathers back her children, representing apostate Christendom, after the removal of the Church to heaven. Rome will again be supreme.
A state of the people like that which we have been tracing, with its carnal and corrupt priesthood and no power to act for God, would be just suited for the degradation now imminent. Indeed in Hophni and Phinehas we see but Philistines under another name. God will show His people outwardly where they are inwardly. How often in the individual soul, and in the Church at large, are the outward sins but the expression of a state of heart which has long existed.
We are not told the occasion of the conflict here, whether there was some fresh inroad of the enemy, some additional imposition of tyranny, or whether in fancied strength the people arrayed themselves against them. This last would almost seem likeliest from the language, "Israel went out against the Philistines to battle." "Pride goeth before destruction," and self-sufficiency is ever the sign of an absence of self-judgment. Many times do God's people go out to do battle against a spiritual foe in a state of soul which would make victory impossible, which it would really compromise God's honor were He to give it. This is why it is absolutely imperative that there should be the judgment of self, before there can be a true warfare against outward foes.
But one defeat is not enough to teach the people their need, and the folly of their course. Four thousand fall before the enemy, and surely this should have brought them on their faces in confession and prayer to know the reason of this defeat. Had they waited upon God, they would soon have learned the reason, and doubtless have been spared the further loss of the next battle. But evidently they think nothing of their own condition, and the only remedy they can think of is truly a Philistine one. They will have something outward and visible brought along which will quicken the failing courage of the people, and strike terror into the hearts of their enemy. It does both, for when the ark is brought into the camp, a great shout is raised by Israel, and the Philistines are smitten with fear.
The ark had led them to victory before. It had gone before them in the wilderness, "to search out a resting-place"; it had stopped Jordan for them to pass over, and had led them about Jericho till its walls fell. Naturally they think of it as the very throne of God, and substitute it, in their minds, for God Himself.
But God is holy, and can never be made to link His name with unholiness. The ark was His resting-place in Israel, but He cannot be forced to countenance sin. So His ark can no more overthrow the enemy than Israel could previously. The hosts of Israel are overthrown, Hophni and Phinehas are slain, the ark is taken captive, and carried in triumph and placed in the house of Dagon, thus giving the glory of the victory to the idol.
What food for solemn thought is here. No outward privilege, no past experiences of God's presence, no correctness of position or doctrine can take the place of reality of soul before God. None can ever say they have a claim upon God because of any thing except Christ Himself laid hold of, and presented in true self-distrust and brokenness, with real, true judgment of all in the life that would dishonor the Lord.
This is the meaning of "Ichabod," the glory has departed. It refers to the ark, the glory of God's manifest presence; but this can only abide among a broken, self-judged people. In a real sense, we have the Spirit of God always abiding with us, but if that is allowed in the heart or life which grieves Him, all outward and manifest approval of God ceases. He will permit the badge of His presence to be removed. Persons will lose the joy of the Lord individually, and the candlestick of collective testimony be removed, if God's warnings fail to bring His people into their true place. Let us ponder this lesson, remembering that none have a claim for permanent recognition, but only as God's holy presence is not dishonored.
Poor Eli! he had died long before, so far as service for God was concerned. His lesson is written large and clear. May we have grace to learn it. The way to "Ichabod" is careless weakness when God's honor is involved. He bears patiently, but there is a limit to His forbearance, and when there is "no remedy," He must allow the due results of His people's weakness, folly and unfaithfulness.
So far as the people were concerned, they had lost the very badge of their relationship with God. "The Ark of the Covenant" had passed from their unfaithful hands — the very throne of God was no longer in Israel. "He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which He placed among men; and delivered His strength into captivity, and His glory into the enemy's hand" (Ps. 78:60, 61).
What an abiding witness that God will never act contrary to His nature, even though the stability of His earthly throne seem for a time to be threatened.
How it shows that all divine power is holy, and that there is no authority save that which is consistent with God's holiness. God does not need to preserve the outward continuity of His government, as is the common thought of men. What a mass of ecclesiastical rubbish is swept aside when this is seen. No need to delve into the annals of the past — doctrinal errors of the early "Fathers," grossest abuses of Rome, with her rival popes and councils, all tainted with that unholiness which forever disqualifies them from a claim to God's recognition. No need to search here for a succession from the apostles. Ichabod is upon it all. God forsook all that, as He did Shiloh of old.
But what a relief is this to see that God can never be held responsible for the errors of His professed people. Were this seen, how quickly would earnest souls turn from Rome or any other establishment which bases its claims of authority upon an unholy past. God can never act contrary to His character, and when that character has been distinctly and persistently ignored, we have a Shiloh — no matter what precious associations may be linked with it — bereft of its glory. Faith can follow God. Even as at an earlier day, when the golden calf usurped God's place in Israel, Moses pitched the tent of meeting outside the camp, and thither resorted all who desired to meet Jehovah, rather than the place where once He manifested Himself.
Thus faith ever reasons: "Let us go forth unto Him without the camp." Has He been compelled to withdraw? We can no longer recognize that which He has left. Shiloh with the ark away is like a body when the spirit has departed. It can only be buried out of our sight.
We have here a principle of wide-reaching application. Not only is a simple path for faith laid down, where there is no need to attempt to justify what is not of God but there is a basis here for recovery to Him, and thus for true unity amongst His people. Who would not desire that? But it can only be in this way.
The great mistake with nearly all efforts after outward unity among God's people, is in having the eye upon them rather than upon Him. The question, the only question to be asked is, Where is God with reference to the matters upon which His people are divided. Has He been compelled to withdraw His approval? does His word condemn that which characterizes His people? To uphold their position does that need to be maintained which violates, in a radical way, His character? Then surely all effort at uniting His people, and at the same time ignoring that which has dishonored God, will never meet with His approval, not even if it outwardly brought together all those now separated. God, His will, His character, ignored — all else is absolutely worthless.
But have not all here a most simple basis of true unity? We side with God — we take up, patiently and prayerfully, if painfully, that which has occasioned the breach. Is it a matter about which God's word expresses His mind? Then the only thing to be done is to own that mind — to bow to Him. On the other hand, is it a matter practically immaterial, where patience and forbearance would accomplish what suspicion and force could not do? Then the path is equally clear. May there ever be grace among His own to seek to be with God according to His word, and they will ever be with one another also. Mere ebullition of love to saints, no matter how real, can never take the place of a clear, thorough examination of the difficulties in the light of God's word. To ignore difficult questions, is but to invite fresh and more hopeless complications. But we must return to our narrative.