Sermon for Sunday, October 29th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
Old Testament reading:
[1Sa 4:1-22 ESV] 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. 2 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. 3 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.” 4 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. 5 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. 6 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, 7 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. 8 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. 9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.” 10 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. 11 And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died. 12 A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with dirt on his head. 13 When he arrived, Eli was sitting on his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out. 14 When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?” Then the man hurried and came and told Eli. 15 Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set so that he could not see. 16 And the man said to Eli, “I am he who has come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” And he said, “How did it go, my son?” 17 He who brought the news answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great defeat among the people. Your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” 18 As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years. 19 Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. 20 And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention. 21 And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
New Testament reading:
[1Pe 4:12-19 ESV] 12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” 19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.
[Luk 23:44-49 ESV] 44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.
This is not an uplifting passage. Not all sections of the Bible have that purpose. Here we have judgement and the departure of the glory of God from Israel. It is a somber passage, asking us to take heed of the warnings of God and to know that His word is true; that all prophecy is fulfilled.
Here we have the fulfillment of that prophecy which God gave through his prophet, a certain “man of God” to Eli, the High Priest of Israel. Because of the evil of his sons, Hophni and Phinehas, and because of Eli’s lack of controlling them, God is now bringing judgment.
His judgment comes not only upon the sons of Eli, but upon Eli himself, and upon the “house of Eli,” removing it forever from the line of High Priests.
And the judgement comes not only upon the household of Eli, but upon Israel.
There are similarities to the story of Achan in the Book of Joshua. The sin of one man brought calamity and punishment upon the nation. Achan had stolen gold, silver, and a beautiful garment even though Joshua had said it was all to be consecrated to the Lord and put in the treasury. And because of the sin of Achan, 36 Israelites are killed at the “First” Battle of Ai. Achan was found out and stoned along with his family in order to remove the evil from Israel.
Now again we have the sin of a few (Hophni, Phinehas, and Eli) bringing calamity upon all Israel. No doubt there are ways in which all Israel sinned as well. They permitted these evil priests to continue. But the text focuses on sins of Hophni, Phinehas, and especially of Eli.
Well, let’s look at this narrative in three parts.
1. Disaster Comes to Those Who Have Abandoned God
2. The Messenger’s Bad News Brings to an End he Priestly Dynasty.
3. The Glory Departed from Israel.
Point 1: Disaster Comes to Those Who Abandoned God
The text starts in saying “And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.” And this clearly fits better with the previous section. The decisions on chapter breaks, made centuries after the writings of the Bible, are not always perfect. It was chapter 3 where we saw the rise of Samuel and the return of the Word of God through Samuel as a prophet.
Verse 2 is where we really start on this chapter. “Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines.” This is the ancient foe of Israel. We are years yet from David and Goliath, but these Philistines are the ancestors of Goliath. Israel and Philistia fight many times throughout their histories.
But the transition is abrupt. From Samuel to warfare. I mentioned that Israel is guilty of sin. Here is another one. Israel goes out to battle without even consulting Samuel, who is a prophet of the Lord.
A. Round 1: 4,000 killed
The armies encamp near each other, and then line up for battle. And it is a defeat for Israel. This time they don’t have just 36 men die, but 4,000! This isn’t just the sin of some guy (Achan), this is the sin of the High Priest and His family.
God could have won this battle for the Israelites in any number of ways. God conquers armies by all sorts of methods: the raging waters of the red sea, hailstones, or even sending his angel.
But there is no such assistance this time. And 4,000 Israelites die.
So what do they do about it? I think this is a critical junction in this chapter.
What do they do about it? Do they recognize the problem? With Achan they listen to the word of God that comes to Joshua and so they drew lots and found out the sinner.
Now, do they seek the Lord? Do they ask Samuel the prophet what the Lord desires? No! They devise their own plan.
First they say “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?” But they don’t seek an answer. They don’t look to the sins of the Priests. So they don’t find the right solution.
Rather than putting the priests to death, they call for the Ark of the Covenant.
They say “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.”
Here is a great problem. Rather than going to the Lord in prayer or through His prophet, they go to the Ark of the Covenant. They try to strong-arm God to their cause. But God is not a rabbit’s foot. The Ark is not a talisman, a good luck charm.
This is the problem of “things.” It is the problem of ritual over heart religion.
They need to turn to God, not to the Ark.
A commentator says: It is common for those that have estranged themselves from the vitals of religion to discover a great fondness for the rituals and external observances of it, for those that even deny the power of godliness not only to have, but to have in admiration, the form of it.
These Israelites abandon God, but seek comfort in the things of God.
This reminds of a number of funerals I’ve been called to preach where the person had no fear of God, even the family doesn’t know the Lord, but they want a Christian funeral. They want the veneer without the substance. But putting on a Christian T-shirt or a cross necklace doesn’t make you a Christian.
The Israelites abandon God, but yet want Him to win the battle for them.
God REVERSES their plans. How does He do this?
Well, when the ark comes into the camp all Israel gives a mighty shout so that the earth resounds. This STIRS UP the enemy, the Philistines, and leads to a greater defeat for Israel.
B. Round 2: 30,000 killed, the Ark of God taken, and the sons of Eli killed.
This time it is not 4,000 Israelites who are killed, but 30,000! What a great disaster.
“And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.”
And shortly after this time, it is believed, though not said in the text anywhere, that “The sanctuary at Shiloh seems to have been destroyed by the Philistines”
So what is to be done?
Fire the coach! That’s what the football fans would say. It is like being down two touchdowns at halftime, and the coach is to devise a new plan to win in the second half. But the team comes back out and looses worse than they did in the first half! Fire the coach.
Well, old Eli soon passes, not by the hand of the Israelites, but in the timing of God.
Point 2: The Messengers’s Bad News
With the dust of the battle still settling, a messenger arrives. And the messenger’s bad news brings to an end the priestly dynasty.
This messenger, “a man of Benjamin” arrives with his clothes torn and with dirt on his head, both symbols of mourning in ancient Israel. These are not good signs of what has happened at the battle.
And he comes to Eli and tells him three things:
“(1) Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great defeat among the people. (2) Your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and (3) the ark of God has been captured.”
A. The Death of Eli
It is the third of these, the capture of the ark, that puts Eli into such a shock that he dies. It is bad enough to lose sons or to here of a massacre, but the departure of the Ark of the Covenant, symbolizing the departure of God himself from Israel, that is too much for the old and blind man.
And that was Eli’s greatest fear. Even as the messenger was arriving Eli “was sitting on his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God.”
This may go with our position last week that Eli did fear God.
But now the fulfillment of the prophecy is happening. The sons die, on the same day, as prophesied. And the household of Eli no longer has an old man in it.
B. The Death of the Wife of Phinehas
The fall of the house of Eli continues with the death of the wife of Phinehas.
She too dies after hearing that her husband and brother and father-in-law are dead, and that the Ark had been captured.
It is interesting that while the priesthood itself no longer is with the house of Eli, the house does survive in this child. Ichabod, born to the wife of Phinehas.
Point 3: The Glory Departed from Israel
Before she dies she names her son Ichabod. Now, “chabod” is the word for glory. And Ichabod means “no glory.” The glory, the weight, the presence of God is departed from Israel!
This is a low time for Israel.
So is there anything cheerful I can say? And we’ll look at some applications from this chapter; things that can be learned. But is there anything cheerful? Sometimes it is a stretch to look for something cheerful. And this time might be more of a stretch than others. But we should recognize this … while God has “collective punishment” in the Scriptures such as in the case of Achan and in the case now before us with Eli and Sons, there is also collective forgiveness in Christ.
You can say “it is unfair that all should be punished.” Maybe so. But if you say that, you must also say “It is unfair that all should be forgiven.” But I’ll take Christ. I’ll take the “unfair.” Give me that sweet collective forgiveness which is also a personal forgiveness for you and for me.
So there is Gospel. Not in the passage directly perhaps, but by contrast.
Well, I yet want to look at a few applications.
Application 1. Take heed of the warnings of God.
God will is always done. The which He promises always comes to be. So we are to take heed of the warnings of God.
For example, the Lord tells us not to neglect out family. Consider this from a very old commentary:
JFB: Poor Eli! He was a good man, in spite of his unhappy weaknesses. So strongly were his sensibilities enlisted on the side of religion, that the news of the capture of the ark proved to him a knell of death; and yet his overindulgence, or sad neglect of his family–the main cause of all the evils that led to its fall–has been recorded, as a beacon to warn all heads of Christian families against making shipwreck on the same rock.
Application 2. Great Noise does not make for Great Work of the Lord.
The noise in the camp was celebration before victory. And the rock concerts you find in many churches often don’t go much further than the music. Shouting Biblical words is no substitute for believing them and living them.
Application 3 and Conclusion: Trust in God, nothing else.
What we have in our text, about the Israelite, is the “sin of substitution.” They go to the Ark rather than to God. They try to manipulate God to be on their side. But it doesn’t work that way. God cannot be manipulated. God will not be used.
Don’t trust in a crucifix, or rosary, or even the physical Bible. You don’t’ get much out of having a Bible on your possession. You’re blessed by reading it.
When things go awry do you take out a crucifix or a rosary? Or when you testify in court upon a Bible, what does it matter if you are a liar. You could swear on a stack of Bible a mile high and it wouldn’t matter if your heart is in the wrong place.
Instead, trust in God. Go to Him. What a great privilege that we can go straight to God.