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And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken. 

I Sam. 4:21

The period of the judges was coming to its end; and it appeared that the life of Israel was reviving. 

It had begun, perhaps, with Samson. At the time of his birth, the children of Israel had been thoroughly demoralized, cowed by the power of the Philistines. The Philistines had subjugated them, and they had not had the will to fight back. In fact, when Samson himself had begun to seek occasion for battle against the Philistines, they had sought to make him stop because he was arousing the anger of the Philistines against them. But gradually this had changed. The children of Israel began to recognize in Samson the power of God preparing the way to deliver them. For nearly twenty years they came to recognize Samson as a judge in their midst. 

The next step along the way took place under Samuel. Eli too had served as judge, and his judgeship had overlapped that of Samson. He also had experienced the demoralization of Israel. Eli, being High Priest as well as judge, lived his life and fulfilled his office within the courts of the tabernacle at Shiloh. Here, more than anywhere else, it had been apparent how far Israel had departed from dependence upon Jehovah. The tabernacle was often a quiet, almost solitary place, so few were the worshippers that frequented it any more. And then of those that did come, many used it as a place for excess and debauchery rather than true worship. His own sons, priests under him, were the leaders of that crowd. 

But then Samuel had come. He was only a child; but he had brought to the tabernacle a new sense of dedication and joy in the service of Jehovah which had not been there before. And when still a youth, he began to receive visions of revelation from God. For Eli it had been difficult, for the revelation was against him and his family; nevertheless, the wonder of this revelation could not be ignored. It had been given in open vision such as had not been received since the days of Moses. Nor was that the end. Open visions continued to appear unto Samuel, and soon all Israel came to know of it. It was like a breath of fresh air—as though the face of the Lord was turned to them again after being for a long time hidden. All of Israel was moved by it. 

The first great indication of the change that was taking place in Israel was a sudden willingness to move against the Philistines in battle. This was the one thing that Samson had wanted so badly but had never seen. For many years they had been too completely overawed by the power of the Philistines. In fact, for a long time they had felt that the only thing they could do was try to be friends with the Philistines by doing whatever the Philistines commanded. Samson had brought the people so far that they had given this up. They had come to recognize Samson as their judge and the Philistines as their enemy; but they refused to be rallied to battle. Now this was changed. There was something in the revelations given to Samuel that reminded the children of Israel of the works performed under Moses. They became convinced that the Lord had returned unto them in favor and that now no one could withstand their power. Almost spontaneously they came together and arrayed themselves in battle. 

Nevertheless, all was not well in this movement. Outwardly it was quite proper that Israel should recognize and fight against the Philistines as their enemy; but inwardly it was not done in most cases with the proper motive. The fact was that many of the children of Israel had for years been following the heathen nations in their idol worship. Some of them had never known any other form of religion because their parents had been idol worshippers before them. Idolatry was really the only form of worship they knew. To them this new allegiance to Jehovah was little different from changing from one idol to another. It was just that the appearance of a prophet like Samuel seemed to them to be a good omen. It was sufficient basis for them to be willing to identify themselves as worshippers of Jehovah for the time being, so that they might be in on what ever advantage the appearance of Samuel might bring about. 

The superficiality of their attitude became evident as the children of Israel prepared themselves for battle. There was no sense of repentance to be found among the people for the sins they had committed in the past. There was no returning to the writings of Moses to study and learn how they ought to conduct themselves in their worship and in preparing themselves for battle. There was no sense of dedication to defending the name of their God against the wicked powers of the heathen. In the past whenever Israel had prepared itself seriously for battle, the people had first come together before the Lord to sacrifice to Him and to ask for His guidance and blessing; but not now. It was more as if the people were preparing themselves for some frivolous game which they could not really lose. The feeling was that they had a sort of magical power on their side which made defeat quite impossible. They would go to battle; but they didn’t have to worry, they didn’t have to go out of their way to prepare themselves, they wouldn’t even have to fight so hard; the omens were in their favor and victory was assured in the end. 

By the God of Israel, this attitude could not be condoned, and He would not support it. Light-heartedly and with confidence, the children of Israel arrayed themselves in battle against the Philistines; but it was not long before they were turned back in defeat before the hardened forces of the Philistines. Behind them four thousand men lay dead in the field. 

The indications were there. The children of Israel had every reason to stop and reconsider the foolish way in which they were going. Had they really taken the appearance of Samuel the prophet seriously, they should have searched him out and inquired what it was that the Lord would have them do so that they might be delivered from their oppressors. But no, these were people steeped in the practices of idolatry. They depended upon magical omens, and when one didn’t work, they looked for another. Thus the elders of Israel, having returned to their camp, said to each other, “wherefore hath the LORD smitten us to day before the Philistines? 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.” 

Here we have one of the low points in the history of the nation of Israel. Through the spiritual decline of the period of the judges, even the elders of Israel could not tell the difference between the worship of Jehovah and an idol. They thought that they could satisfy the demands of their God by merely taking His ark from out of the tabernacle and using it as a magical charm. Israel had much to learn. 

On the fore in this all were Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli who figured so prominently in the first prophecy of Samuel. Being priests, they perhaps were numbered among the elders in Israel. If getting the ark from the tabernacle was not their idea, it certainly met with their approval. It meant that they would be the center of activity and attention in the army, and that was where they liked best to be. As quickly as possible, they hurried back to Shiloh and took the ark from the inmost sanctuary. There was no difficulty from their father. Ninety-seven years old, he was now nearly blind, and they were far gone before he even realized what it was that they had done. 

Into the camp of Israel Hophni and Phinehas came, proudly bearing the ark; and a great shout went up all about them. The children of Israel now were more confident than ever. 

Through the hills this shout rang until it came even to the camp of the Philistines. The scouts were sent out, and soon the report came back that Israel had received the ark of their God into their camp. For a moment there were flutterings of doubt as they said to each other, “Woe unto us! Who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty Gods? 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 in the wilderness. Be strong, and quit yourselves like men, O ye Philistines, that ye be not servants unto the Hebrews as they have been to you: quit yourselves like men, and fight.” These Philistines were not cowards. 

The next day the battle was joined; but not for long. The overconfident and ill-prepared Israelites were no match for the fierce determination of the Philistines. But more important was the fact that God was on the Philistines’ side. He would not allow His ark to be manhandled as though He were a mere idol who had nothing to say about it. It was more important that Israel should learn to reverence and respect His law even than that His ark should be kept from the hands of the heathen. In short order 30,000 soldiers of Israel lay dead, including Hophni and Phinehas; and the ark of the covenant was taken. The defeat of Israel was complete. 

How sad this day was for Israel we see as we follow the messenger of the battle. 

First he came to Eli. By this time the old man had learned what his sons had done with the ark of the covenant. It was the ultimate abuse of the priestly office, the final fruit of his failure to discipline his sons in their younger years. Now an old man of too many years, he could only sit by the gate of the tabernacle to hope and wait and pray. His eyes are now dim, but his ears are yet sharp. When he heard a cry go up from the city, he knew a messenger had arrived and he knew the outcome of the battle, but the all-important details still remained. Impatiently he cried out for explanation until the messenger came also to him and said, “Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken.” It was that last that hurt. Israel had been defeated in battle before, and he had long known that his sons would come to no good in the end; but when he heard that the ark was taken, that was too much. From the shock of it, the old man fell from his seat so that his neck broke and he died. 

It remained for his daughter-in-law, Phinehas’ wife, to express the dismay of it all in words. She was about to bring forth a child when she heard of the outcome of the battle and gave way to despair. It was not the death of her husband that hurt the most; it was nothing the birth even of a son could cure. She was, unlike her husband, a God-fearing woman. In shock, she gave up the ghost, but only after she had named her son Ichabod, saying, “The glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken.”