1 Samuel 4.

Throughout all Scripture the brightest testimony for God is seen during periods of the greatest corruption among His people. Thus "in the days when the judges ruled" and there was a famine in the land, Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz are introduced to show that, whatever the departure, the Lord maintained His truth in the hearts of a faithful remnant. So when idolatrous Ahab and Jezebel reigned, the faithful Elijah appeared upon the scene, a man of God and mighty in intercession; and, even though he knew it not, the Lord had preserved His seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal. In like manner, in the opening chapters of this book, we see God working in grace, amid the failure of the sons of Aaron, to keep the light of His candlestick burning (although they suffered it to go out in the temple; see chap. 3:3) for the guidance and comfort of the godly, and also for the deliverance in due season of His oppressed people. This is a great encouragement to count upon the Lord in an evil day, and to expect His interposition on behalf of those who keep His word and do not deny His name.

Nothing could be sadder than the state of things at the time when Samuel was ministering unto the Lord before Eli the priest. It is all the more so from the fact that Eli was himself a godly man, and was in heart knit to the faithful ones in Israel. A quiet pious soul, he yet failed to maintain order in the priestly house. "His sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not." In chapter 2, indeed, we have a detailed account of their evil practices, of their covetous ways, using their office for their own purposes in such a way that "men abhorred the offering of the Lord." And Eli heard all that his sons did to Israel and knew that they were both corrupt and corrupters, and he remonstrated with them, besides warning them of their danger. But having allowed the reins of government to fall so long out of his hands, he could not now resume them, and his sons went on in their evil ways. They were sowing to the wind, and would soon reap the whirlwind of judgment.

The reader will not fail to perceive how the Spirit of God delights to call attention to the child Samuel in contrast with Hophni and Phinehas. (See chapter 2:11, 18, 26.) He was, indeed, a rare plant of the Lord's own raising; and planted, as he was, in the house of the Lord, he flourished "in the courts of our God." It would seem, moreover, as if, in the remarkable language used in chapter 2:26, the Spirit of God designedly marks him out as a type of the child Jesus. It says, "And the child Samuel grew on, and was in favour both with the Lord, and also with men." Luke writes of our blessed Lord, "And the Child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon Him"; and again, "And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man." (Luke 2:40, 52.) The coincidence may be meant to teach that Samuel became in measure to the remnant in his day what the Lord did to the poor and afflicted people of His time, those in whom was all His delight. In any case the Lord established His servant in the position in which He had placed him; for all Israel, from Dan even to Beersheba, recognised that he was called to be God's vessel of testimony; and Samuel's word came to all Israel.

But in chapter 4 the scene changes. The judgment passed upon Eli's house did not slumber, and God once again used the Philistines as its executors, and also to bring out into the light the state into which His people had fallen. The Philistines were the enemies of Israel inside their own territory - enemies who could never be overcome except by the power of the Spirit of God. But Israel went out against them to battle in their own strength, and consequently were defeated. God could not suffer them to win victories through their own hand; He was not with His people, and hence they were smitten before the Philistines. Their defeat did but reveal their sad condition. "Wherefore," they enquire, "hath the Lord smitten us?" And then they went on to say, "Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, IT may save us out of the hand of our enemies." They probably had recalled the march through the wilderness, when everything was ordered according to God through Moses, and when God Himself went before His people to search out a resting-place for them, and when, as the ark went forward, Moses said, "Rise up, Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee." (Numbers 10.) Alas! they made two mistakes: they thought they could command Jehovah's presence through the symbol of the ark, and they depended upon the ark instead of upon the living God.

The Lord permitted them to carry out their intention. The ark was fetched, "the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, which dwelleth between the cherubims: and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God." Poor deluded people! In their ignorance of the holiness of their God, and blind to the profanation of His name through Hophni and Phinehas, they vainly imagined that God would now interpose on their behalf; and, in confident anticipation of victory over their enemies, they shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again. The Philistines were filled with fear, for they thought that the mighty God who had smitten the Egyptians had indeed come into the camp. But their fear acted as a stimulus to their courage and they fought, and, God using them as His sword of judgment, they smote Israel with a great slaughter, "and the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain." What an instruction for God's people in all ages - proclaiming to all who have ears to hear that the Lord is with them, as He said to Asa by the mouth of Azariah, only while they are "with Him." (2 Chron. 15:1-2.) Without the fulfilment of this condition they will be utterly powerless in the presence of the enemy, and be exposed to certain disaster.

God thus executed His threatened judgment upon the house of Eli (see chap. 2:34), and together with this brought to light the state of His people, even allowing the enemy to carry the holy ark into their idolatrous land. The secret of it all is revealed to us elsewhere: "They provoked Him to anger with their high places, and moved Him to jealousy with their graven images" (and this in addition to the evil conduct of the divinely-appointed priests); and "when God heard this He was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel: so that He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh … and delivered His strength into captivity, and His glory into the enemy's hand." (Psalm 78:58-61.) So our blessed Lord, rather than allow Peter to go on making a fair show in the flesh through his self-confidence, permitted him to fall into the enemy's hand and to dishonour his Master's name. God's love to His own is unquenchable, but He often expresses it by chastisements, and He must be glorified in them that call upon Him. Thus it is that they have often to learn that their God is a consuming fire. But blessed be His name in that, if He cause them to pass through the fires of His holiness, the dross only is consumed and the gold is purified.

Going back to Shiloh, what a different scene meets the eye. The aged Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching; for his heart trembled for the ark of God. Great as his failure had been, his heart was true, and the ark of God - Christ in type - was everything to this faithful soul. The man of Benjamin, who had escaped from the slaughter, came in hastily and told Eli. With touching, trembling accents the aged priest said, "What is there done, my son?" - Then he learned all the truth of the dark disaster that had befallen Israel - they had fled from their enemies, there had been a great slaughter, Hophni and Phinehas were dead, and the ark of God was taken! He had great natural affection, but it was the ark that had the chief place in his soul, and the tidings of its captivity broke his heart, and falling off his seat he died. Under the hand of God as he surely was, God would not allow him to pass away without this striking testimony to His aged servant. His heart was true, notwithstanding he had failed in his responsibility as a parent and as the priest of God.

There is yet another devoted soul numbered with this pious remnant, and she was the wife of Phinehas. Though linked with a husband of such depraved habits, she maintained through grace a life of godly reverence, and cherished as beyond all price the Lord's dwelling-place in the midst of His chosen people. The tidings that the ark of God had been taken, and that Eli and her husband were dead, reached her under painful natural circumstances, and so bowed her heart in sorrow over the desolation wrought that even the birth of her son could not alleviate her anguish. No; the light of her life was extinguished, for she said, as she named her child Ichabod, "the glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father-in-law and her husband." If, however, we are allowed to know that even her husband's sin did not eradicate her love, it is yet manifest that, as also with Eli, the ark of God possessed the chief place in her heart. It is for this reason that the Spirit of God adds, "And she said, The glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken." Like the godly remnant of a later date, her chief concern was for the honour of Jehovah's name and of His dwelling-place. Like Mary Magdalene by the empty sepulchre, she felt that Israel had lost everything when the ark of God - the symbol of His presence - had fallen into the hands of the enemy. May there be many in this day of a like spirit who will cherish the presence of the Lord in the midst of those gathered to His name as their chiefest and most blessed heritage.