Having called Samuel and revealed to him the doom of Eli’s house, “the Lord appeared again in Shiloh,” so we read, “for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the Lord.” As was pointed out, this statement closes the third chapter. The narrative continues at chapter 4:1 as follows, “And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. . . A It is evident, as already has been observed, that here the narrative flows on in unbroken continuity. The word of Samuel that came to all Israel of chapter 4:1 is the revelation of the Lord of chapter 8:21, so that we should read, “And the Lord appeared again in Shiloh: for the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the Lord. And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.” Then we read, “Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle.” Doubtless there is connection between the fact of Samuel’s word coming to all Israel, the Lord’s bringing to pass all Samuel’s prophecies, and thereby establishing him a prophet in Israel on the one hand, and Israel’s going out against the Philistines to battle, on the other. The word of Samuel that came to all Israel was not a command to the effect that Israel march to battle against the Philistines. The matter is this. The whole period of the judges —a period of some 375 or possibly 400 years—knew but four prophets, three of whom were obscure men, whose words were exceedingly few. It means that, in the language of the sacred writer, “the word of the Lord was precious in those days, there being no vision breaking through and spread abroad.” This notice was explained as meaning that in the age of the judges no new revelations were added to those already given in preceding centuries, that, otherwise said, there was no word of God that came to Israel directly from the Lord by prophetic announcement. The Lord had spoken in the past but spake no more. Hence, there was no man, prophet of God who could confront Israel with a “thus saith the Lord.” Revelation, intercourse of God with the people of Israel, had ceased. Then, after all those years of silence, the Lord again spake. There were again visions breaking through and spread abroad. Israel again had a prophet, and that prophet was Samuel. The true Israel rejoiced. Samuel was an answer to their cry, “There is no more any prophet; neither is there any among us that knoweth how long. O God, how long shall the adversary reproach.” The adversary was reproaching in those days. Israel was being oppressed by the Philistines. And the worship at the sanctuary was in charge of the wicked sons of Eli. And they were not being restrained. But Israel again had a prophet, God’s gift to His people. And the faithful again took heart. They knew that the Lord again was about to do great and terrible things. Their salvation was nigh. Even by the mouth of two prophets—“the man of God” and Samuel, judgment had been pronounced on Eli’s house. The Lord had promised salvation, to include, certainly, the lifting of the oppression of the Philistines. Hannah had made mention of it in her prayer of thanksgiving, “The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; out of heaven he shall thunder upon them. . . If the Lord had looked upon her affliction, would He not look upon the affliction of her people, the true Israel, who cried unto him day and night? And though she could not have vowed that her son be a prophet all the days of his life, yet it is not unlikely that she knew, by prophetic inspiration, that the Lord would send salvation in the way of Samuel’s intercessions. And Samuel had grown to be a youth. And all Israel knew that he was established to be a prophet of the Lord. His word came to all Israel. The land again had a prophet.
The faithful were reassured; but not only they but the carnal Israel as well. They, too, concluded that salvation was nigh even for them. And though their hearts were far from God, their expectations ran high, so that they dared to risk a war with the Philistines and expected that the Lord would fight for them. Defeated in battle, they were amazed and asked, “Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us today before our enemies?” Why had the Lord done that, they meant to say, after reviving their hopes by the gift of Samuel? What they were willingly ignorant of is that the presence of Samuel among them could only indicate that the Lord was about to send salvation to His people, the penitent in Israel, but not to men such as they. What they wanted is deliverance without repentance. But the Lord smote them before their enemies. Still they would not be instructed. They took to them the ark of the covenant of Jehovah out of Shiloh and removed it among them that it might save them out of the hand of their enemies. They thought that it would save them as if by magic, it being the ark of the covenant and Jehovah’s throne, and in this lifeless thing they now put their trust, and said to it: “Thou art my God.” Rather than forsake their sins and turn to the living God for help, they put their trust in a religious symbol. They made an idol of God’s throne, and believed that it would stand by them in their warfare with the Philistines. To such foolishness God gives up men who know God, as did the apostate Israel—they knew Him by special revelation—but who glorify Him not as God and are not thankful (), and whose religion has ceased to be a thing of the heart and become a thing only of the head. Then men of religion go to trusting in God’s symbols. His means of grace—the sacraments and the church, the dead letter of the word and even prayer—instead of in the living Christ and His Father, as when, to illustrate, they imagine that they are saved just because they are sprinkled with the water of baptism, eat the Lord’s Supper, spend much time in prayer and Bible reading, and belong to a church. We have a name for such foolishness. We call it superstition, but the Scripture calls it idolatry. That was precisely the sin of those men of Israel; they trusted in the ark instead of in Jehovah. It is against this sin that the church warns when she says to parents, who present their children for baptism, that they must not use this sacrament out of custom or superstition; and she exhorts communicants not to cleave with their hearts unto the external bread and wine, but to lift them up on high in heaven, where Christ is our advocate. Sinful man, by nature hateful of God, dissociates from God’s person His power and grace and shuts them up in things harmless, lifeless, speechless, sightless, and deaf, yet mighty to save out of all trouble, so man likes to imagine contrary to his better knowledge. Certainly, the people of Israel could not do without the Ark, the priests, the sanctuary, and the sacrifices, no more than we can do without the sacraments and the church. But it is Christ’s God who saves His people.
Let us try to understand well the doing of those men of Israel and the imaginings back of that doing. Judging from their complaint “wherefore hath the Lord smitten us today before our enemies”, they had made the Lord their expectation prior to their defeat, yet not actually the Lord but the Lord as changed by them as to His glory—as to all His goodnesses—into an image made like to corruptible man (), capable of the vices of such a man. For they wanted the Lord to send salvation as walking with them in their sins. But this the Lord could not do, he being Holy God. He could only be against them as long as they continued impenitent. Thus their problem was how to get Israel’s God to work for the success of their arms without laying upon them the necessity to repent. That their solution was the ark, shows that in their minds they connected God’s power with this vessel or rather identified the two and thus reduced God to a blind, impersonal, non-intelligent, non-volitional, and non-ethical force, to a kind of atomic bomb, in His essence and terrible energy locked in the ark; and that they believed that this vessel, if only removed to the theatre of war, would spend its energy against the Philistines. Was it not Jehovah’s throne? Was it not the token of His presence among them, and the sign of His covenant? It had made for their fathers a path through the Red Sea and led them on their journeys through the wilderness. So they concluded that the thing for them to do was to instruct the priests to fetch the ark to the camp, which they did, in the expectation that it would save them. To be sure, they knew better, for they were rational men. Their blindness was not intellectual but spiritual-moral. Being apostates, they refused to think and act realistically in matters of religion. The fault lay with the hardness of their heart. It was not a lack of theoretical knowledge about the true God and the impotence of idols that can account for their doing. What they needed is not more instruction in the field of theology but a new heart to receive the instruction that already had been given them. What they needed is severe chastisement, a hard blow that, as blessed to their hearts by Christ’s spirit, would gender in them the will to put away their idols, including the ark, cleanse themselves of their vain imaginings, think right of God, the knowledge of whom they were holding in unrighteousness, and serve the living God with all their hearts, repenting of their sins. That would be the only solution of their troubles. Hence, the Lord does not give them more instruction, but He deals them that blow.
The ark came into the camp, “and all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again.” Thus they were wildly enthusiastic. Victory should be theirs, considering their splendid morale and the state of mind of the Philistines. And yet Israel was smitten even with “a very great slaughter; for there fell in Israel thirty thousand footmen.” If courage counts for anything in war, the men of Israel should have won that battle. But despite their shouts of joy, true courage was lacking to those men. They were afraid of God and afraid therefore of the Philistines. For being apostates, they received testimony in their hearts that the Lord was against them. Hence, they were defeated before the commencement of the battle. As to the Philistines, investigating the shout of the Israelites, they learned that the ark of the Lord had come into their camp, and with it, so they believed, the Lord Himself; for being heathen men, they, too, identified God and His throne. And they were sore afraid. They thought that they all were dead men. For they were not unacquainted with Israel’s God. The works that He had performed in delivering Israel from the bondage of Egypt had clearly demonstrated that He was God and none else. And the report of that mighty demonstration of His power had travelled far and wide. Indeed His name had been declared throughout all the earth. And the Philistines remembered. And their plight seemed hopeless to them. This is what they said, “God is come into the camp. And they said, Woe unto us! for there has not been such a thing heretofore. Woe unto us! who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues of the wilderness.” The description here is lively and distinct. The shout that rose from the camp must have astonished the philistines; for in that first battle Israel had been vanquished. But when they learned through scouts that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp of the Israelites, their astonishment gave way to fear and terror. Yet they did not seek safety in flight. Stouthearted men among them spake words of encouragement, urging the terrified body of the army to bold struggle. They said, “Be strong, and quit yourselves like men, O ye Philistines, that ye may not be servants unto the Hebrews, as they have been to you: quit yourselves like men and fight.” It was doubtless the leaders that were here speaking, the generals in the army. They were of the world’s brave. Their “be men” was twice repeated and opposed to the twofold “Woe unto us”. So did they appeal to the pride of those fearful ones in the attempt to shame them into fighting the war to its finish. If they be men, let them act the part of men and not be dismayed even by the consideration that the adversary with whom they have to do is the mighty God of the Hebrews. They must not allow themselves to be demoralized by the consideration that Jehovah is invincible God as he was reputed to be. That doubtless was fable. “Be strong, quit yourself like men”. Thus these leaders appealed not only to the pride of those fearful ones but they also exhorted them to consider that they were strong men, stronger even than God, and that therefore the thing for them to do was to realize that they were strong. And trusting in their own strength they would not be put to shame, in a warfare with Israel’s God. Let them fight therefore. This “Be strong and fight” the leaders oppose to the “Who will save us” of those fearful ones. Who would save them? They themselves, if only they fought. Therefore “Be strong and fight.” These leaders had one more argument. That they quit themselves like men, and fight was a dire necessity in view of what would result from their being vanquished. They would be servants to the Hebrew as the latter had been to them. That would be insufferable. That certainly their pride would not be able to endure. Well then, Let them fight. The words of the leaders took effect. But only because God worked. By that vain, curt, and martial address of those Philistine leaders, God worked in the hearts of those fearful ones the fierce and iron determination to fight. And he made their arms strong and their hearts hard, so that they went forth to do battle with Israel’s God. And the Philistines fought, “and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen.” That was the second defeat and a major disaster. That was the second blow that God dealt them. It was a blow much harder than the first. For they had refused to be corrected.
So had the Philistines been gloriously victorious, so they thought. They had proven to themselves that they were men indeed, if only they wanted to be. Trusting in their own strength, they had not been put to shame. Even the invincible God of the Hebrews, could not stand before them, when once they had aroused themselves. Having’ captured the ark, they even concluded that He had fallen into their hands and that they now had Him in their power. And they took the ark, and brought it into the temple of Dagon and set it by Dagon, who had given them the victory, as they said.