Defeated by the Philistines, Israel’s army brought the ark of the covenant to Shiloh to assure victory in the next battle—and were soundly beaten again! Their mistake? Failing to recognize their first defeat as punishment for disobedience, they forsook repentance and superstitiously trusted in the ark rather than in the living God. Such misplaced faith is still common today. Rather than defining God by our own terms, Alistair Begg encourages us to know the God of the Bible and glorify Him through our obedience.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to 1 Samuel and chapter 4. First Samuel chapter 4, and follow along as I read from verse 1:
“And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.
“Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, ‘Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.’ So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
“As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, ‘What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?’ And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid, for they said, ‘A god has come into the camp.’ And they said, ‘Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.’
“So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.”
Thanks be to God for his Word. You may just keep it open there if you wish to follow along as we study it.
Let’s pause and ask for God’s help:
O Lord, in the stillness of these moments, we humbly pray that you will speak to us by and through and from your Word. Save us, Lord, from everything that would mar in any way or distract in any way from our ability to hear your voice, above the voice of a mere man. And to this end we seek you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, if you are visiting with us, we have begun now for a little while to study in this book of 1 Samuel, and we have now reached chapter 4. By and large, I think we’re making fairly steady progress. And yet, when you come to a chapter like this, as I have done this week and as we come to it now, it’s possible for us to almost immediately say to ourselves, “I wonder what possible relevance this ancient story can have for us in our lives today?” After all, we’re removed geographically by significant distance, and we’re removed chronologically by a very long time. And we are so vastly different in so many ways from the people who are described here—and yet, actually, not at the very essential nature of who and what we are.
What we are as a nation is surely privileged. We recognize that there are so many benefits that we enjoy, and when the population is surveyed, it is still fairly customary for the majority of people in America to declare that they believe in God. The statisticians tell us that that number is actually diminishing, but nevertheless, it is still a very high number in comparison to other nations throughout the world. And so we can be thankful for that.
And yet at the same time, when the individual who declares their belief in God is pressed to explain just what that means, it very quickly becomes apparent that for a significant number of people, God, G-o-d, does not spell what is spelled out in the Bible. They do not immediately think in terms of a triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They’re not thinking of the God who is the creator of the ends of the earth. They’re not thinking of God who has declared in Jesus the way of salvation. They’re not thinking that God has determined that “it is appointed once to die, and after that comes judgment.”
In many cases, it is simply a concept or an idea. And you can test this by listening for this phraseology in the week that is before us: you will hear, if the conversation goes in a certain direction, people saying things like “Well, my view of God is…,” or “I like to think of God as…,” or “My concept of God includes this”—which is, of course, entirely understandable, given that men and women, if they do not have an understanding of God’s revelation of himself, if they’ve grown up without any instruction in the Bible, if all they have is a sort of semblance of Judeo-Christian understanding, then of course they are tempted to view God just exactly as they conceive him.
Someone has somewhat cynically said that in the beginning God made man in his own image, and ever since then man has been trying to repay the compliment by conceiving of God in our own image or in the way that we would like to think of him. So some people would see him just as a cheerleader. Cheerleaders, they don’t play in the game. They’re on the sidelines. They are there to encourage us to do our best with little chants like, “You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!” And some people’s view of God is just like that. Every so often they can hear some faint notion in the background that it’s going to be okay, and they can do it.
For others, God is just like a waiter in a restaurant. The waiter doesn’t sit at the table; he doesn’t eat the meal with you, or she doesn’t. They’re largely in the background, but they’re available if we need something: “Excuse me, I don’t think we have any salt. Could you help me?” And there they come; it’s very nice and helpful. And for some people, that’s God: somewhere over in the corner, not actually involved in the day-to-day events but available as necessary.
A bit like a landlord, if you like. The landlord might not even live in the building. He might live in another building, but he has a number, and you can call him anytime you want—especially if anything goes wrong. If the boiler bursts, then you can give him a call. And that’s the way people treat God: “If something goes wrong in the house of my life, I’ll call the landlord.” Most of the days, he’s completely out of sight. He’s not even in the building. Most of the days, he’s actually out of mind. I don’t even think about the landlord—until something goes wrong, and then I say, “I better get the landlord.”
If you listen carefully, you’ll find that people are treating God in much the same way. God has no weight to him. God has no glory to him. The God who has made himself known in the person of Jesus is set aside. And I could keep this going for a long time. Other people view God as a therapist: someone who is at arm’s length from the patient or the client, and the person is seeking counsel, inspiration, comfort, healing, whatever it might be.
And so it is that our culture is increasingly less religious by report and at the same time phenomenally spiritual. How do you explain this? Well, because of the vacuum. The vacuum: when we cease to believe in God as he’s made himself known, then we don’t believe in nothing; we believe in everything. And so people are looking for a way to try and fill in that gap. So the businessman will call out to God for a little success, the patient to God for a little healing, the student for success in exams, and the lonely person for influence in relationships; in each case affirming that there is something there without knowing what it is.
And yet even those who affirm a true belief in the God of Scripture may live as practical atheists. So, professing theists: “I believe in God. He’s very important to me. ‘My God, how wonderful thou art.’ ‘Be thou my vision, … Lord of my [life].’ I don’t care about this, and I don’t care about that. This is all I care about.” But when it comes to filling in the tax returns, when it comes to honesty, when it comes to purity, when it comes to obedience, when it comes to worship, when it comes to the actual application of the truth of God in the warp and woof of life, the professing theist may actually be living as a practical atheist. It has no implications.
The God who’s invented by us is always a nonjudgmental God. Have you ever noticed that? People say, “Well, I don’t like to think of God as like that.” “You know, it says in the Bible that there is appointed unto man a day that he will face judgment,” and people say, “Well, I don’t like to think of God like that.” Well, of course you don’t! How do you like to think of him? “Well, I like to think of him like Santa Claus: he has a big bag of things, and he loves to give them to people, and he’s always checking to see if you’ve been pretty good. But he by and large overlooks your sins, he grades on the curve, and he exists for us rather than we exist for him. We don’t take him seriously, but we feel that we can call upon him as necessary. We like to have a little religion in our lives. We go once a Sunday. We think he’s pleased with that. Doesn’t really matter Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday—certainly not on Friday nights. No, we have Friday night off with God. He doesn’t do Fridays. But we come on Sunday.” As if somehow or another he exists for us.
Well, you say, “This is all well and good”—or maybe you don’t. But you’re saying to yourself, “How in the world does this actually fit in with what we’re looking at here?” Well, simply for this reason: that that kind of perspective is not new. For the idea is essentially this: that somehow or another, God, if he exists, can be manipulated, can be controlled, by us, so that we actually can call on him as necessary. This comes out in very strange ways. People, for example, will say to me, “Thank you for allowing God to use you.” I always say to myself, “What in the world does that mean? ‘Allowing God’? How would I allow God?” The mystery is that God would actually deign to use any one of us! He demands of us; we do not demand of him.
And at the very core of 1 Samuel 4 is the mistaken notion, is the misplaced faith, that if we do certain things in a certain way, then God is pretty well duty bound to show up for us. The problem for the people is not that they have a wrong view of God but that their understanding of God has been set aside in the course of time.
Back in chapter 2, remember, in Hannah’s prayer, Hannah has helped us understand who God is. Verses 2 and 3:
There[’s] none holy like the Lord:
for there is none besides you;
there is no rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
Now, these people understood that. But what has happened to them?
Well, we just follow the text as it is before us. The opening sentence, “The word of Samuel came to all Israel,” may actually be a fitting conclusion to chapter 3. Whether it is the conclusion of 3 or the beginning of 4 doesn’t really matter. What we know is that the word of God through the lips of the prophet of God—namely, Samuel—is now going out into all Israel. The prophet has been installed. He speaks from God; he speaks for God. And you will notice that the word of Samuel that we have to this point was a word of judgment. He had declared a message of judgment that would make the two ears of everyone who heard it tingle.
Now, it is in that context that we bid farewell to Samuel, at least until chapter 7. You won’t find Samuel in the remainder of 4, 5, and 6, so you have to wait for a little time to get him back. Now the camera lens has shifted from a focus on Samuel the individual here to this matter of the ark of God. And it is in that context that we now read that “Israel went out to battle.” We don’t have details of the battle—a territorial struggle, presumably. This place Aphek was about twenty miles cross-country from Shiloh. The Israelites were largely in the hill country; the Philistines were in the plains, and it would seem, perhaps, that the Philistines have decided to advance their territory. We don’t have details. But what we do know is that in verse 2, the lines were drawn up against Israel, and “when the battle spread, Israel was defeated.”
Now, Israel wasn’t used to being defeated. If you’ve read in the earlier parts of the Old Testament, you know that it was often the story of triumph, that God manifested his power in victory. But in this case, it isn’t so. And so, “when the people came to the camp,” verse 3, the elders of Israel were posing this question: “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?”
It’s the right question, isn’t it? They understood that God was sovereign over victory and defeat—that they had lost, and God was sovereign over the fact that they had now been decimated. It apparently never occurred to them to see any connection between their disobedience and their defeat. Because God, who is introduced to us again and again as the God of the covenant—the ark, as the God of the covenant of the armies of God, this picture of the magnificence of God—God, in making his covenant with his people, had made it very clear to them that if they obeyed him, there would be blessing, and if they disobeyed him, there would be punishment.
Now, just so that you have this to go to, let me just quote to you two places. First of all, in Leviticus, and in chapter 26 and from verse 14 or so. This is a recurring story. This is God, Leviticus 26:14; he says, “If you will not”—this is to his people—“if you will not listen to me and will not do all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, … if your soul abhors my rules, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, then I will do this to you.” And then he says, 17, “I will set my face against you, … you shall be struck down before your enemies. Those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you.” I won’t turn to it, but Deuteronomy 28, you will find the exact same thing.
Now, God had made this clear to his people. Now look at the mess in Shiloh—the mess in Shiloh that is represented in the experience and expressions of Eli and his two sons. And the word of God’s judgment has come upon that circumstance there in Shiloh, first by the individual who came as a certain man at the end of chapter 2, and then reinforced by the word of Samuel himself when God has now appeared to Samuel and has said, “The word that I spoke is the word that is to be fulfilled, and when Eli asks you, then make sure you tell him everything.” And Eli had been on the receiving end of that word. Now they are defeated in battle; the elders say, “Why has the Lord defeated us today?” Their question was right; their solution was wrong.
Notice what they then do: “Let us [then] bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh.” So notice clearly what this is here. There is no acknowledgment of sin. There’s no appeal for mercy. Instead, what they decide to do is bring the ark in the mistaken notion that having this ark with them will make all the difference—that if they have the ark, then God is duty bound to show up and to pulverize their enemies.
They’re wrong. It is a mistaken notion. It is a misplaced faith. It is the same kind of misplaced faith that you find in religious expressions whereby people think that the externals of religion—“I do this, and therefore, that; I do this, and therefore, that”—without the reality of the transforming power of God in the heart and life of the individual… These folks were actually on the wrong side of God’s design for them, and they knew that they were defeated. But no cry for mercy. Instead, “Let’s just get the ark.”
Now, for many of us, mentioning the ark takes you not to your Bible but to Raiders of the Lost Ark. I recognize that. That won’t be any help to you at all. You just need to get a concordance and follow it up. We can’t take time now to put the whole ark piece in place. Exodus 25 will be a good starting point, because there Moses gives the charge to the people to build the ark, to create it—very specific directives—in order that this essentially 3½'-by-2½' chest that is so beautifully fashioned, with cherubim on the top, the expression of the mercy seat, all of that was put in place. And God says in the creation of the ark, he says, “And tell the people, ‘There I will meet with you.’” All right? So, “It will be the symbol of my presence.”
When Moses then goes out and leads the people and sets forward the ark, he sets forward the ark not looking to the ark but looking to the one to whom the ark points. So, for example, in Numbers chapter 10, the ark moves forward, and Moses says, “Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered.” “If there’s going to be victory, it will be because you have arisen, O Lord, not because we’re carrying this box. We know that it is the symbol of your presence. We know that it is a place that you will meet. But without you, the box doesn’t matter.”
And that’s what they had got wrong. You see, faith in the living God was replaced, if you like, with superstition—no longer prepared to bow down before God’s righteous judgment, no longer prepared to acknowledge that “we’re in the mess we’re in because we’re in the mess we’re in.” No! “We know we’re in a mess. We know we’ve been defeated. But hey, we’ve got this!”
Now, you can apply this in so many ways. It’s what one of my friends refers to as “rabbit-foot theology”—you know, the idea of carrying a rabbit foot around. I don’t know what it’s supposed to do for you. It’s a really bizarre notion, but it is fairly prevalent. Everyone that has ever had a rabbit foot is feeling somewhat guilty right now and deciding that you’re probably going to give it away to somebody. I wouldn’t do that. I looked it up during the week. It was a big diversion. I eventually gave up on it. But it’s quite fascinating. It wasn’t just… If you’re gonna do this right, you just don’t have a rabbit foot. You have to have the correct rabbit foot. It has to be the left hind foot. But it isn’t just a left hind foot; it has to be the left hind foot of a rabbit that was killed. But not just a rabbit that was killed; a rabbit that was killed in a cemetery. So once you’ve got the proper thing, then you’ve got the proper rabbit foot, and so off you go. It’s bizarre, isn’t it?
But that’s essentially what these people are doing. They’re saying, “The box, the box, we’ve got the box. We’re all set.” And they weren’t all set, as we’re about to see. Because, you see, they had replaced reverence for God with respect for the ark. Of course, it was possible to both respect the ark and reverence God. But if you dump the reverence for God and all you’ve got left is respect for the ark, then frankly, you’ve got nothing. But the incongruity of this, it never seemed to bother them, perhaps never really registered for them. They should at least have had some idea of what was going on when the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, are described being there with the ark of the covenant of God.
So, it’s more than possible that when the word went back to Shiloh, “We want the ark,” Eli, who’s there, said to his worthless sons, said, “Why don’t you take the ark and go down there?” So you imagine a more pathetic picture in all your life than these two worthless sons, who are destined to die on the same day, come down carrying the poles of the ark. And the people should have been going, “Well, I don’t know about this.” But instead, what were they doing? Well, they went nuts! Verse 5: “As soon as the ark of the … Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded.” “We’re gonna be fine now.”
The reaction of the Philistines is then in verse 6 and following. They respond with consternation and with fear: “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” They don’t refer to them as “the Israelites.” It’s possible that “the Hebrews” was a sort of derogatory reference in this case: “these Hebrew people.” “And when they learned that the ark … had come to the camp,” then they “were afraid.” Why were they afraid? Well, their history of the people of God wasn’t very good. They’ve got things tangled up here, as you would see. They’re referencing the exodus, and they knew that in the exodus, God showed up in a dramatic way. But of course, the exodus preceded the construction of the ark. So nothing like this has actually happened.
But what they’re doing is this: they are taking the ark for God, as it were. But why would we be surprised? Because the Israelites were virtually doing the same thing. The Philistines could be forgiven, because they had all kinds of gods, all kinds of ideas. The Israelites could not be forgiven, because they had the God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Jacob, who had manifested himself in so many ways. But now they were relying on the presence of this chest.
Interestingly—and I think surprisingly—the Philistines don’t beat a retreat. Despite what they say, they take courage, and they bolster their forces, and they go against the Hebrews, and you have the sorry conclusion in verse 10 and verse 11: “So the Philistines fought, and Israel was” once again “defeated.”
Well, clearly, the ark wasn’t the answer, right? Going to get the ark and trusting in its presence was a bad plan. Not only did it not work, but it was the occasion of a dreadful slaughter. And the text is clear: “Israel was defeated,” the army melted away, “every man to his [own] home,” “there was a very great slaughter,” “the ark … was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.”
If you’re reading this on your own, you’d be sitting there, and you’re saying to yourself, “I wonder why they would mention, ‘And the two sons of Eli … died.’ After all, if there are all these thousands of people that died, why mention just the two?” Well, because it was the sign of God’s judgment. Wasn’t it? They did not know God because they didn’t want to know God. They spurned the place where God manifested his mercy and his grace. For them there was no recourse, only the prospect of judgment.
And the writer is reminding us that what was actually happening here was the very fulfillment of the word of God—both an expression of his judgment and at the same time an expression of his grace. His grace in this respect: that in removing these two characters, he was clearing the decks. He was preparing the way for his people under this whole new framework whereby the word of Samuel, as it would come again and again, would guide the people forward. In order that that word might be heard in all of its clarity, it was necessary that these fellows would be removed.
In essence, what we have is an expression of misplaced faith. Misplaced faith. The Israelites thought they could trust in the presence of the ark while paying no attention to God’s demands.
That’s actually not so far removed from today. You may be doing the very same thing. You’re not trusting in an ark, but you may be trusting in something else. And you say to yourself, “But I can do this. It doesn’t matter if I do this. I’m trusting in the… I’m trusting in the… I can do this. This doesn’t matter.” It does matter! Because the fundamental flaw lay in the fact that they thought they could trust in the ark while just disobeying God. Essentially, they’d begun to view him as a cheerleader—that God could be called out to urge them on to victory as necessary. And instead he was fulfilling his promise of judgment.
You know what this actually means when you fast-forward? It means this: that when a person says that “I am a follower of Jesus,” that “I believe in Jesus,” that “my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness,” the plan and purpose of God for that life is as Jesus said: “If such an individual loves me, he or she will keep my commandments”—not as a means of acceptance but as an evidence of the fact that I am accepted.
And that is where the mistake falls. That’s where the notions of magic come in. That’s when you get, for example, a form of sacramentalism that says, “But you had the this, you took the wafer, you got the wafer, you’re good with the wafer, you’re fine with the wafer.” But what about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday? Or “I went, you know. Therefore, I’m fine.” No! Because remember Hannah’s prayer. This is the “God of knowledge.” He is the one who weighs the actions of the heart. And he weighed the actions of Phinehas and Hophni and pronounced judgment on them. And that is the solemnity of it. Basically, their trust in the ark meant nothing so long as they paid no regard for God’s call to obedience. It’s actually quite chilling. It’s a lot closer than we think at first reading.
Matthew Henry, in the seventeenth century, closed out his sermon in this way: he said to his people, “Let none [then] think to shelter themselves from the wrath of God under the cloak of a visible profession”—“I was baptized, I did this, I did that.” “Let none think to shelter themselves from the wrath of God under the cloak of a visible profession, for there will be those cast into outer darkness who have eaten and drunk in Christ’s presence.” You remember what Jesus said? “I am going to eat with you now. And one of you is a devil.”
See, it’s perfectly understandable to me why people want to conceive of God in the wrong terms—you know, “Let’s get out of here. Leave the waiter behind.”
Let’s just pray:
Lord God, we acknowledge how easy it is for us to trust in everything and trust in anything rather than trusting in you, and how prone we are to divorce our outward professions from our private call to obedience. We thank you that the chilling reminder of the opening part of this chapter is not to threaten and to undo us but is to direct us to the only one and to the only place where our faith can be founded and where our lives can be made new. Thank you that in the Lord Jesus Christ there is the reminder that we can’t save ourselves either by trying or by being religious. We can’t, and we don’t need to, because you’ve sent Jesus to die in our place. Some of us, even this morning, have been tempted to trust in the fact that we actually show up at church, or that we’re a lot better than we used to be, but that we’ve never actually bowed down and acknowledged that we are by nature rebellious and disobedient and lost.
So, Lord, shine the light of your Word into the recesses of our lives, in order that individually and as a church family, you’ll save us from hocus-pocus, from magic, from superstition, from relying on that which is so easily and quickly divorced from all that you are in and of yourself. Help us to this end, we pray. Fulfill your purposes in us and through us, we ask. We don’t want to fade. We don’t want to be blown away. We don’t want to be like the chaff. Lord, we want to be those in whose lives the seed of your Word has found a resting place and is bringing forth fruit, thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and some a hundredfold.
Hear our prayers, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 Hebrews 9:27 (paraphrased).
 Frederick W. Faber, “My God, How Wonderful Thou Art” (1849).
 Dallan Forgaill, trans. Mary E. Byrne, “Be Thou My Vision” (1905)
 See 1 Samuel 3:11.
 Exodus 25:22 (paraphrased).
 Numbers 10:35 (ESV).
 Edward Mote, “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” (c. 1834).
 John 14:23 (paraphrased).
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (1706), https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/1-samuel/4.html.
 John 6:70 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 13:1–23; Mark 4:1–20; Luke 8:4–15.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.