Israel’s Darkest Hour

I Samuel 4

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
February 2020

I Samuel 4 is a very important chapter.  It is a short chapter.  It is NOT a chapter about success.  It is a chapter about failure.  It is a chapter about God’s people being defeated.  It is NOT a chapter about God’s people winning but of God’s people losing, not once but twice.  it is a chapter about the glory of God departing from the nation.

It is a dark chapter. It is a depressing chapter. It is a sad chapter. Nothing good happens in this chapter. This chapter is bad news after bad news after bad news. In fact, the news is so bad that it causes other bad things to happen. The only good news in the chapter is that a baby is born. Everyone else in the chapter, except a baby, but the baby is named Ichabod and symbolizes the judgment of God.

I Samuel 4 was perhaps lowest point in the nation of Israel.  It was Israel’s darkest hour. What happens in this chapter?  A nation is defeated in battle twice.  They do not just lose; they are completely humiliated.  They were running from the Philistines. Tens of thousands of people are dead.  Morale is low.

The religious establishment of the nation is decimated.  Several ordained ministers drop dead in this chapter.  Two priests are dead.  The High Priest is dead.  Finally, it records, the ark being captured by idolatrous pagans, who are the enemies of God.

The lowest point in our country in recent years was 911.  What happened to Israel in this chapter was far worse than 911.  On 911, we lost 2,977 people.  They lost much more that we did.  There are several disasters that take place in this chapter.  There is a national tragedy.  There is a personal tragedy and there is a spiritual tragedy.

National Tragedy

What is the national tragedy?  Military defeat in battle.  Israel loses in battle.  Israel fights its arch enemy twice and loses.  They do not just lose; they are slaughtered.  It is a massacre. Thirty-four thousand people are dead.

There are two battles in this chapter.  In the first battle, the Israelites lose four thousand.  In the second battle, they decide to take the ark with them.  This time they lose thirty thousand more people and they lose the ark.  When people finally got the news, we are told that “all the city cried out” (I Samuel 4:13 ESV).  You can picture mothers screaming for their sons who were killed in this battle and wives are crying for the husbands that they would no longer see again.

Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. 2 The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield. 3 When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did THE LORD bring defeat on us today before the Philistines? (I Samuel 4:1-3 NIV)

Notice that they blamed God for their defeat.  The enemy was not just stronger than they were militarily.  The Philistines were a nation of warriors. Israel was a nation of farmers and herdsmen.  The truth was that God defeated them.  God was on the side of the Philistines.  He was supposed to be on their side.  They were the people of God.  The Philistines were idol worshippers. What was their battle plan?  Take the ark into battle.

Let us bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh, so that he may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.” (I Samuel 4:3 NIV)  What was the ark?  What do we need to know about the ark?

Facts about the Ark

It was a SMALL BOX (three and a half feet long and two and a half feet wide and high.  It was a small box or chest.

It was a FANCY BOX.  It was made of wood but it was covered with gold inside and out.  It was gold plated and it had a top that was made, not of wood, but of pure gold and it had some decoration on the top of it.

It was an OLD BOX.  This box was made during the time of Moses.  Joshua put it in Shiloh.  It has been there for hundreds of years through the time s of the judges.

It was a HOLY BOX.  It contained some holy relics (e.g., Ten Commandments).  This box contained the law of God and other things used in miracles (Aaron’s Rod).  God’s presence and glory filled this box.  It symbolized the very presence of God.  It was the place of Presence.

This box was not just in a holy house (the Tabernacle).  It was in the holiest part of the Tabernacle (the Holy of Holies).  The ark was so holy that it could NEVER EVER touched by human hands.  They could not even touch it accidentally.  In fact, if you did touch it, you would die.

Six Common Mistakes Today

What was wrong with taking the ark into the battlefield?  There were six problems and these six problems are common mistakes people do today.

1. They PLANNED but they did not PRAY

The Israelites had a problem.  They were defeated by their enemies and they were defeated BY GOD but they did not go to God to ask why.  They did not pray.  They did not turn to the Scriptures to ask what God has to say about this.  They did not turn to the Prophet Samuel to see if he had a word from the Lord.  He had the reputation throughout the whole country as a genuine prophet of God.

The elders did not do this.  The priests did not do this.  The people did not do any of these things.   They just grabbed the ark and went off into battle.  Two wicked priests who do not know the Lord took it out of the Holy of Holies and took it on the battlefieldWe can criticize them but how often do we do the same thing.  We have a problem in our life, but we do not turn to God.  He may be the last one we turn to.  We come up with our own plan instead and wonder why it does not work.  Do we pray when we have problems?

2. They tried to MANIPULATE God, rather than OBEY God.

God did not tell them to take the ark into battle; they just did it.  They thought that if they took the ark into battle, they would have to win, because there was no way that God would let the ark be taken by complete pagans.

Satan tempted Jesus to do the exact same thing.  He took him to the highest point of the temple and told him to jump off because the Bible says that angels will protect you.  He told Jesus to just try to kill himself and watch the angels go to work supernaturally to protect him (Matthew 4:5-6).  That was trying to test God.  It was trying to manipulate God and force His hand.

Of course, Jesus did not give in to this temptation.  He didn’t do it. God cannot be manipulated.  Many of us today are just like the Israelites.  We want a God we can control and we can manipulate.  We do not want to worship a God who is sovereign. We want a God who acts like a genie in a bottle.  Do we try to manipulate God?

3. They put their trust in a THING, rather than in a PERSON.

They did NOT turn to God; they turned to the ark.  They put their trust in the wrong thing.  The were worshipping the ark, not God.  They needed God, not a box.  We often turn to things to solve our problems, rather than to God Himself.  Is our trust in things?

4. They confused the SYMBOL with the REALITY

The Israelites knew they lost because God was not with them, so they thought if they brought the ark that God would be with them. What good was it to have the ark with them if the nation and the leaders of the nation forsake God?  The ark becomes meaningless.  They confused the symbol of God’s presence (the ark) with the reality of God’s presence.  Many people do this today.  The have many outward symbols of religion.

Many churches are big on symbols and rituals, especially liturgical churches, but the symbols of water baptism and communion (taking the bread and the cup) are absolutely meaningless without genuine faith.  Paul said that some had a form of godliness but denied its power (II Timothy 3:5).  Lots of people have an outward form of godliness but they are not godly.

 “The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the Lord.

“I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts?

13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. 14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! (Isaiah 1:11-15 NIV)

This is a strange verse.  God is not against sacrifices and worship and prayer but He hates meaningless rituals and ceremonies.  He hates empty sacrifices and worship.  He does not like vain prayers.  He says in Amos 5:21 that some church services are a big stench to Him.  He can’t even stand the music in these places (Amos 5:23).

He hates people who live wicked lives but are real religious on Sunday.  Their hands are full of blood but they lift their hands in prayer.  These are people who want the symbol without the substance.  They want religion without morality.  Does that describe you?

5. They confused HOLINESS with MAGIC

The Israelites used the ark as a good luck charm.  They used it like a rabbit’s foot.  They thought that if they took the ark with them into battle, they could not lose, as long as they had the magical box with them.  If they had the ark, they thought that they would be invincible.

One preacher gave a sermon on this chapter called “Rabbit’s Foot Religion.”[1]  Much of religion is just superstition.  There are many superstitious Christians.  They wear some religious beads.  They wear a cross around their neck.  They put some holy water on them for good luck. Do we know the difference between holiness and magic?   Do we know the difference between religion and superstition?

6. They confused EMOTION with TRUTH

When the ark of the Lord’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. 6 Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, “What’s all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?” (I Samuel 4:5-6 NIV).

Now this is very interesting.  The Israelites took the ark into battle and were all excited.  They were shouting.  They had loud music.  It was so loud that the Philistines heard it.  They had hands raised.  They were emotional.  They were passionate.  They were confident.  They all had faith but none of it mattered.

Jesus said that God is spirit, and his worshipers MUST worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24 NIV).  No matter how much enthusiasm you have, no matter how much on fire you are in worship, it has to be based on truth.  Many Muslims can show all kinds of emotion in worship but that does not make their worship genuine.  God wants passion and excitement, but he also wants truth.  Do we worship God in spirit and in truth?

Spiritual Tragedy

I Samuel 4:11 says, “The ark of God was captured” (NIV).  If God was gone from the nation, there was nothing left.  That was what made Israel unique from all other nations on the planet.  They had God.  Now, God was gone.  Israel’s national treasure was stolen by the enemy.  It was not the Nazis but the Philistines who become “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  When the Philistines took the ark, they thought that they had defeated the God of the Israelites.  They saw Him as God in a box and now they had the box and now they were celebrating.

Personal Tragedy

The chapter ends with a personal tragedy.  It ends with two personal tragedies.  First, a dad loses two sons.  They die on the same day.  Then, a wife loses her husband and father-in-law.  Let’s look at the first one.

Eli asked, “What happened, my son?”  17 The man who brought the news replied, “Israel fled before the Philistines, and the army has suffered heavy losses. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.”  18 When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and he was heavy. (I Samuel 4:16-18 NIV).

Eli was blind but he was not deaf.  He could hear the whole city in an uproar and asked what was going on (I Samuel 4:14).  A messenger tells him four things.  They are all bad news (Israel fled before the Philistines, the army has suffered heavy losses, your two sons, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured) but did not respond until he heard about the ark being captured.

He loved his sons, but he expected them to die.  Two prophets told him that they would die soon.  He probably had a premonition of their death but what he was not prepared for was the loss of the ark.  When he heard that news, the old fat high priest fell backwards, broke his neck and died.  Eli had a few health problems before he died.  He was old (ninety-eight).  He was fat and he was blind.

Much has been made about Eli being fat.  We live in a day in which people are obsessed with weight loss.  Churches today have weight loss programs.  Some equate a thin waistline with spirituality.  The Bible does not have that perspective.  In fact, many times in the Bible fat is looked in positive light.  Joseph had a dream about skinny and fat cows in Egypt.  The fat cows were the healthy ones and the skinny cows were the unhealthy ones.  In the Bible, it was a sign of blessing.

Eli was fat for a different reason.  He was fat not because he was blessed but because he was disobedient.  Eli got fat on the offerings that should have gone to God.  Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?’ (I Samuel 2:29 NIV).  Eli ate the fat portions of the offering that were to be burned and, as a result, he became fat, which ultimately led to his death.

There is a second personal tragedy.  A pregnant woman goes into premature labor and dies in childbirth.  We are not told the name of the woman, but we are told that she was Phinehas’ wife.   Her husband was wicked.  He was greedy.  Her was immoral.  He cheated on her.  He committed adultery.  He had sex in the Tabernacle with women who worked there.

Phinehas’ wife was godly.  She apparently was not like her husband at all.  She was godly.  Her husband was the priest.  He was the ordained minister.  He had the prominent position, but she was the one who was godly.  She also like her father-in-law was more concerned about the glory of God than her own family.

His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant and near the time of delivery. When she heard the news that the ark of God had been captured and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she went into labor and gave birth, but was overcome by her labor pains. 20 As she was dying, the women attending her said, “Don’t despair; you have given birth to a son.” But she did not respond or pay any attention. (I Samuel 4:19-20 NIV)

Here this poor woman is feeling terrible.  She is pregnant and then she gets really bad news and goes into labor.  She loved God more than she loved her husband and father-in-law.  As she lay dying, more concern about God’s glory than her own life.  What made the most impact on her was not losing her husband or losing her father-in-law but losing the ark. Twice, she says, “The glory has departed from Israel!’ because the ark of God had been captured” (I Samuel 4:21-22 NIV)

She is sad and depressed.  She is devastated.  She is crushed.  The birth of a baby is supposed to be a joyous occasion.  It is supposed to be a time of celebration, but this mother is not celebrating.  She is not happy.  The midwives try to cheer her up.  She did not care if her baby was a boy or a girl.  As she was dying, the women attending her said, “Don’t despair; you have given birth to a son.” But she did not respond or pay any attention. (I Samuel 4:20 NIV).

After the ark was taken, nothing else mattered. She became completely hopeless.  She had no reason to live and she dies.  We could learn from this poor woman.  This woman was passionate about the glory of God.  She lived for God’s glory.  That was the only thing that mattered in her life.  Wouldn’t it be great if that was true of us?

She was not perfect.  We should never be without hope.  The glory of God was removed from the nation, but it was only temporary.  The Philistines only had the ark for SEVEN MONTHS (I Samuel 6:1).  God wasn’t confined to a box.  He is bigger than a box.

Her final act before she died was to name her son.  She named him Ichabod, not Ichabod Crane, just Ichabod.  Ichabod Crane was a character in Washington Irving’s classic short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820). It is not a true story.  In I Samuel 4 we hear the story about the real Ichabod.  One preacher entitled this section, “God, Glory and Sleepy Hollow”[2]

What do we know about Ichabod?  His name was (ee-kah-vode) which means “no glory.” EE means “without” or “no.”  kah-vode means “glory.”  It is only found in the book of I Samuel in the Bible. We do not know what happened to him, but you have to feel sorry for this poor baby boy.

Ichabod was given a terrible name that no one would want to have.  He was born into a family that was cursed by God.  His father, mother and grandfather all died just before he was born.  He came into the world as an orphan with a bad name in a family that was cursed and under the judgment of God.  He was born with the deck completely stacked against him.

Applications for Today

1. God keeps His Word

Whatever God says, comes to pass.  It may take some time, but it will take place. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35 NIV).  How do we see this here?  In I Samuel 2, one prophet predicted the judgment on the house of Eli.  In I Samuel 3, another prophet predicted the judgment on the house of Eli (little Samuel).

In I Samuel 4, the prediction comes to pass.  It is fulfilled. In fact, in the last chapter we are told something very interesting about Samuel.  The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. (I Samuel 3:19 NIV).  All of his predictions came true.  The OT Law said that if a prophet made a false prophecy, they were to be put to death.  Prophets in the OT had to bat a thousand.

But any prophet who falsely claims to speak in my name or who speaks in the name of another god must die.’ 21 “But you may wonder, ‘How will we know whether or not a prophecy is from the Lord?’ 22 If the prophet speaks in the Lord’s name but his prediction does not happen or come true, you will know that the Lord did not give that message. That prophet has spoken without my authority and need not be feared. (Deuteronomy 18:20-22 NIV)

It is very different for today.  We have all kinds of people who claim to be prophets in churches who make false prophecies today.  In the last election, some claimed that they had a word from the Lord which said that Hillary would be in the White House and defeat Donald Trump (e.g., Brian Carn, Vonda Brewer).  They didn’t just say that she would win.  They said that God told them this.  Once she lost, these YouTube posts were suddenly taken down.

2. God judges sin

He often judges it severely.  He not only judges sin, He judges sin in His own people.  Judgment must begin at the house of God (I Peter 4:17).  All the people who died in this chapter were ISRAELITES.  They all worshipped the true God.  God does not just judge sin in His people, He judges sin in leaders.  Some ordained ministers in this chapter die.  God took out the top three religious leaders in the country.

The top three priests suddenly drop dead and their death was NOT an accident.  They did NOT die of old age or natural causes.  Their death was not an accident but a judgment of God.  His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death. (I Samuel 2:25 NIV).  Why?  We are told in the same chapter that “this sin of the young men was VERY GREAT in the LORD’s sight, for they were treating the LORD’s offering with contempt” (I Samuel 2:17 NIV)

These priests were corrupt.  They were completely apostate.  They were immoral.  Their sin was flagrant.  They engaged in temple prostitution.  They did not even try to hide it.  Their dad tried to rebuke them, but they just laughed at them and God judged them.  We do not think God does this today, but He does and often judges sin in the church.

The head of the church is not the pastor or elders.  It is Jesus.  The Pope is not the head of the church.  Jesus is the head and He judges sin.  Sin has consequences.  Sin does not just affect your personally.  It may also affect your family.  An entire nation can be affected as well.  It is very dangerous to live with unconfessed sin in your life.  It is especially dangerous to be a leader and to live with unconfessed sin in your life.  This chapter is a warning to us today.

3. God removes His glory

This is where it gets very interesting.  God can disappear.  His presence can depart.   Sin causes God’s glory to depart.  It can depart from a nation.  It can depart from a church.  It can depart from a ministry.  A nation can lose its glory.  Has the glory of God left America?  America used to be a shining city on the hill.

A church can lose its glory.  God can remove his glory from a church.  It is one of the worst things that can happen to a church.  Many churches have seen God do great things but, in some churches, he has stopped working.  In fact, He is no longer present. Ichabod is written over the doors of many churches today.  You can run God out of your church.  One Fundamentalist pastor preached a sermon on this chapter entitled, “Ichabod Baptist Church.”[3]  some may have been to a church like that.

Characteristics of Ichabod Churches Today

How do you know if your church has Ichabod written on the door?  What are some of the signs?  There are several signs to look for in this kind of church.

1) The leaders engage in great sin

Ichabod churches today have leaders like Hophni and Phineas who engage in great sin.  These are churches in which sin is tolerated.  It is covered up whenever it occurs.  The church is soft on sin.  They never preach against sin.  The sermons are always positive and uplifting.  There is no church discipline in the church.  That is the sign of an Ichabod church.

2) God is no longer working

These churches have no power.  Nothing supernatural is taking place.  You cannot see the power of God in these churches.  Miracles never take place.  God is not doing anything great. There is no growth.  There is no revival.  There is no prayer.  God’s word is not preached, and the services are dull and boring.  You want to fall asleep in them.  These churches are dying.  That is the sign of an Ichabod church.

3) They are not what they used to be

Many churches, like many Christians, start of great.  They are on fire.  They are great soul-winning churches, great bible-teaching churches, great praying churches, great worshipping churches, great miracle-working churches but, as time goes on, they cool of and become just a shell of its former self.  That is the sign of an Ichabod church.  Their glory is gone.

[1] https://www.sermonaudio.com/saplayer/playpopup.asp?SID=129141733298

[2] http://www.notbyworks.org/God-Glory-And-Sleepy-Hollow

[3] https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=211081831286

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