SynopsisIn this passage, the Israelites engage the Philistines in battle, and lose. About four thousand Israelites are killed, and they want to know why the LORD brought this defeat. And they hit upon a solution: They’ll bring the Ark with them, into battle! There is no indication that they ask the LORD if this is a good idea, but Eli’s two wicked sons, Hophni and Phinehas, go with the Ark, so the plan seems to have the approval of the priests, at any rate.
They bring the Ark into the Israelite camp, and when the soldiers see it, they’re overjoyed; they give out a shout so loud that the ground shakes. Which worries the Philistines; what’s going on over there? Then they find out that the Ark has come into the Israelite camp, and get even more worried: A god has entered the Israelite camp! How are they supposed to fight the Israelites and their god(s)?!? Not only that, but they have heard of these gods! They’re the same gods who struck the Egyptians with those ten plagues! (Obviously, since they keep referring to the Israelites’ “gods,” in plural, they sort of understand what’s happening and sort of don’t.)
So they (the Philistines) firm up their resolve. They don’t want to be subject to the Israelites, the way the Israelites have been subject to them, so they’re going to have to “be men, and fight!” (verse 9). And boy do they! They not only defeat the Israelites, they defeat them worse than they had in the first battle: thirty thousand Israelite soldiers are killed, and the rest of the Israelite soldiers flee back to their tents. Not only that, but the Philistines capture the Ark, and Hophni and Phinehas die—on the same day, as was prophesied.
ThoughtsThe main problem the Israelites seem to have in this chapter is that they are treating the Ark as some kind of talisman, rather than the dwelling place of the LORD Almighty. According to verse 3, they understand that it is the LORD who brought them defeat against the Philistines, which is good, but then it seems like they believe they can just wave the Ark at the Philistines like a magic wand, and cause their defeat.
It’s also interesting to see how the passage talks about the Ark. When the Israelites are discussing the issue in verse 3, they say, “Let us bring the ark of the LORD’s covenant from Shiloh…” Then, in verse 4, the author of I Samuel describes it a bit differently:
So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim. (verse 4a)
First of all, I see more respect in the second description. Not that the Bible always describes the Ark in this way, but the author seems to be emphasizing the respect, in this case, in contrast to how the Israelites are treating it.
Second of all, it’s a subtle difference—and I might be reading too much in to it—but the Israelites are calling it the Ark of the LORD’s covenant, whereas the author of I Samuel is calling it the Ark of the LORD. Might we be in a situation where the Israelites are assuming they can do whatever they want, and the LORD has their back, even if they’re not obeying His commandments? Because, they think, He has promised to protect them, and therefore He has to, no matter what?