1 Samuel 4:1
And the word of Samuel... all Israel. This clause is rightly connected with the foregoing verse of the previous chapter in the Syriac and Vulgate. Attached to the fourth chapter, it gives a wrong sense, namely, that Samuel gave the command for the assembling of all Israel for battle with the Philistines. This is so plainly erroneous that the A.V. dissents from it by translating the and in the next clause by now. Joined to the previous chapter, it gives the true meaning. Because Samuel spake by the word of Jehovah, therefore his word came to all Israel, that is, it was a binding and authoritative command throughout the whole land; or, in other words, when Samuel was acknowledged to be Jehovah's prophet he also became the virtual judge of Israel, though probably he did not act with full authority until after Eli's death.
DEFEAT OF ISRAEL AND CAPTURE OF THE ARK (1 Samuel 4:1-11).
Now Israel—rather. And Israel—went out against the Philistines. During the declining years of Eli, the yoke of the Philistines, which apparently had been shaken off in his manhood, began once again to press heavily upon the neck of Israel. But Israel was still strong enough to make valiant resistance, provoked apparently by the Philistines invading the land, as we find that they had pitched, i.e. encamped, in Aphok. As Aphek means a fortress, many places bear the name; but the position of the Philistine camp is fixed by its being near both to Eben-ezer and to Mizpah, and probably, therefore, it was the Aphek in Judah (Joshua 12:18). Eben-ezer, the stone of help, had not as yet received this name (see 1 Samuel 7:12); and apparently it was not a town, but a monument set up m an open plain fit for the purposes of war, and which up to this time had. no specific appellation.
1 Samuel 4:2
In the field means "in the open country." By a gradual change of language it now signifies cultivated ground, and even an enclosure, whereas in the A.V. it retains its old meaning of unenclosed and uncultivated land (see 2 Kings 4:39).
1 Samuel 4:3
When the people were come into the camp. Before the battle Israel had entrenched itself, so that upon its defeat it had a place capable of defence into which to retire. We find also that their communications were open, so that they could send to Shiloh. The army is called the people because battles were not fought in those days by men specially trained, but by all the inhabitants of the country of the proper age. The question, Wherefore hath Jehovah smitten us? expresses surprise. The elders had evidently expected victory, and therefore the domination of the Philistines could not have been so complete as it certainly was in the days of Samson. There must have been an intermediate period of successful warfare during which Eli had been their leader. Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of Jehovah. This, the remedy suggested by the elders, was to employ their God as a talisman or charm. The ark was the symbol of Jehovah's presence among them, and of their being his especial people, and by exposing it to danger they supposed that they would compel their God to interfere in their behalf. They would have done right in appealing to their covenant relation to Jehovah; and had they repented of the sins which had grown up among them, fostered by the evil example of Eli's sons, he would have shown them mercy. But for God to have given Israel the victory because of the presence of his ark in their camp would have been to overthrow all moral government, and would have insured their spiritual ruin as inevitably as would the granting to any order of men now the power of working miracles or of infallibly declaring the truth.
1 Samuel 4:4
Which dwelleth between the cherubims. Literally, "which sitteth, i.e. is enthroned, upon the cherubim." The idea is not that of Jehovah's habitation, but of his seat in state as Israel's King. In bringing the ark they brought to the camp the throne of Jehovah, as their theocratic Ruler; but the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark, representing the immorality of the nation, whose very priests were abandoned men. We are not to suppose that there was any fault in the manner of bringing, because it is said that the people sent that they might bring the ark from Shiloh. Levites may have carried it, and priests with the Urim and Thummim have had the charge of every detail. But there was the ill-omened conjuncture of personal immorality with superstitious reverence for mere material symbols, and thereby the presence of the ark only insured, in the moral government of God, Israel's defeat.
1 Samuel 4:6
But they, sure of its talismanic influence, shout for joy as they see its approach, and the Philistines ask the meaning of the great shout in the camp of the Hebrews. This name is constantly given to the Israelites by those not belonging to them, and probably has a certain amount of animosity in it, as showing that they were foreigners; literally, passers over, people who in the person of Abraham had come from the other side of the Euphrates, and having began as feeble immigrants, had ended in obtaining possession of the land, and ousting the rightful inhabitants.
1 Samuel 4:8
These mighty Gods. In Hebrew "Elohim, though plural, is used of the one true God, but in this sense has always the verb or adjective belonging to it in the singular. In 1 Samuel 4:7 the Philistines conform to this rule, and say, Elohim is come; but here the verb, pronoun, and adjective are all plural, i.e. they speak as heathen, to whom polytheism was natural. With all the plagues. Rather, "with every plague," i.e. with every kind of plague. In the wilderness. God did not really smite the Egyptians in the wilderness. The plagues, including the destruction of Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea, had all happened before the Israelites had entered it. But probably the Philistines confused together the plagues of Egypt and the miracles in the wilderness, and even the conquest of Canaan, in one grand but vague whole, and so were ready to give way to despair, as they called to mind the traditions they had heard of these mighty interpositions of God for his people.
1 Samuel 4:9
Be strong. But, as is often the case, despair served only to nerve them to bitter determination. The greatness of the danger—for as heathen the Philistines fully believed that the ark would act as a charm—and the fearful alternative of being servants, i.e. slaves to those who not so very long ago had been slaves to them, made them resolve to do their very utmost. The result was a complete victory.
1 Samuel 4:10
Israel fled every man into—better to—his tent. Their camp stood them this time in no stead. It was stormed by the Philistines, and the whole army fled in confusion. In those days the Israelites dwelt in tents, and to flee "every man to his tent" means that they fled away in every direction, each to his own home. It is in this indiscriminate flight that an army suffers most. As long as men keep together the loss is comparatively slight. But now, thus utterly broken, there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen—a terrible slaughter. They are called footmen because the Israelites had neither cavalry nor chariots.
1 Samuel 4:11
Moreover, the ark of God was taken, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain, according to the prediction of the man of God. Probably the last resistance was made round the ark, and the sons of Eli at least died "as men" (1 Samuel 2:33).
THE OVERTHROW OF ELI'S HOUSE (1 Samuel 4:12-22).
1 Samuel 4:12
There ran a man of Benjamin. The whole story is told with so much vividness, and is so full of exact particulars, that it must have come from an eyewitness, probably from Samuel himself. According to Jewish tradition, this Benjamite was no other than Saul, but the chronology is at variance with this supposition. The importance in old time, when even roads did not exist, of men capable of running long distances to carry news in war is evident, and many instances are recorded showing the high appreciation in which their services were held Thus the running of the Cushite and of Ahimaaz forms an interesting episode in the pathetic history of Absalom's death (2 Samuel 18:19-31). So Herodotus mentions that Pheidippides, when sent to urge the people of Sparta to come to the help of the Athenians against the Persians, arrived there on the second day after his departure from Athens. Shiloh, apparently, was but a comparatively short distance from Eben-ezer, as the runner arrived there on the evening of the very day on which the battle was fought. The rent clothes and the earth upon the head were the usual signs in token that some great calamity had taken place (2 Samuel 1:2).
1 Samuel 4:13
Upon a seat—literally, "the throne"—by the wayside, whither his official chair had been removed to some spot near the gate of the city (see 1 Samuel 4:18), and probably commanding a view of the pathway by which a messenger would arrive. There probably for hours he had sat, anxiously awaiting tidings of the ark, which, we may feel sure, he had very unwillingly allowed to be carried away into the camp. When the man came into the city. Literally the words are, "And the man came to tell it in the city, and all the city cried out." We are not to suppose with some that Eli, being old and now blind, let the messenger slip by unobserved. A man of his high rank would not be alone, and the mention of his throne suggests that he was seated there in somewhat of official dignity. And so, as the runner drew near, with the symbols of disaster upon his person, the priests and Levites in attendance upon Eli would begin the cry of sorrow, and soon it would spread throughout all Shiloh.
1 Samuel 4:14
And when Eli heard the noise of the crying, he asked the meaning of this tumult. The word signifies any confused noise, as the splashing of rain (1 Kings 18:41), but especially the din made by a multitude of people (Job 39:7). It exactly expresses here the Babel of voices, all asking news at once, which at the coming of the messenger surged around the high priest's throne. He demands the reason, and the uproar is quelled, while "the man hasted, and came and told Eli." Not came in, for Eli was without on the wayside, but simply came to Eli, being summoned thither by one of the Levites in attendance. Eli, as the chief ruler, was, of course, the person whom he sought, and immediately that he knew where he was, he hasted to him.
1 Samuel 4:15
Eli was ninety and eight years old. Until the invention by the Arabs of the present system of numerals, all ancient nations had a most cumbrous system of expressing numbers. The Hebrew method was to attach a value to each of the letters of the alphabet, and then add them together, and thus the eighth and nineteenth letters would between them make up ninety-eight. Such a system led to constant mistakes in copying, and thus the numerals in the earlier parts of the Old Testament are beset with uncertainty. Here the Septuagint has ninety, and the Syriac seventy-eight. But as Eli was described already as "very old" in 1 Samuel 2:22, the Hebrew text is the most probable. Instead of dim the Hebrew has set, i.e. Eli was now absolutely blind, as the word expresses the motionless state of the eye when obscured by cataract. In 1 Samuel 3:2 a different word is used, rightly there translated "dim," as the disease is one which comes on gradually. In I Kings 1 Samuel 14:4 we read that Ahijah was blind from the same cause, and the word is there correctly rendered "set."
1 Samuel 4:16, 1 Samuel 4:17
What is there done, my son? Literally, What is the thing? Or, as the phrase is translated in 2 Samuel 1:4, "How went the matter?" Eli must have gathered from the words of the messenger that Israel had been defeated; for he expressly says, I fled, and his haste, as testified by the added words today, showed that the defeat was a severe one. Eli, therefore, anxiously asks what has happened, and the answer piles misery upon misery, rapidly heaping together four crushing catastrophes. For Israel had fled before the Philistines; there had been a great slaughter; among the slain were Eli's two sons; and, worst of all, the ark of God was taken.
1 Samuel 4:18
At this last sad news the old man's spirit failed; and though it was his own want of a firm sense of duty that had prepared the way for this sad ruin of his country, yet we cannot but respect his deep attachment and reverent love for the symbol of his faith. The rest he could have borne; but that the ark of God, especially intrusted to his care, was now captive in heathen hands was a calamity that broke his heart. He had judged Israel forty years. The Septuagint reads twenty, but these differences in numbers occur constantly. In either case he would have been well advanced in years before he reached the judgeship, and probably he attained to it slowly; not by one great act, but by the qualities of a statesman, by which he lightened the yoke of the Philistines, and rendered the people for a long time a match for them in war. His character is not that of a hero, but of a wise, patient, and prudent ruler, but one whose good qualities were spoiled at last by his weak partiality for his unworthy sons.
1 Samuel 4:19-21
His daughter-in-law. The death of Eli's daughter-in-law is equally tragic with his own. The news of the terrible calamity that had befallen the ark of God brought on a premature delivery; but when she had given birth to a son, the attendant women naturally hoped that the good tidings would cheer the mother's heart. They haste, therefore, to tell her; but she answered not, neither did she regard it. This does not mean that she was already dead; if so, the women would not have told her. It means that no private joy could compensate her for the loss of the outward sign and proof that the covenant of Jehovah was with her and her people. The loss of the ark seemed to her to signify the overthrow of her national religion. But she heard, for immediately There is she named the child I-chabod. There is some doubt as to the exact meaning of the word. It may mean Alas! the glory; but more probably it signifies No glory—the glory of Israel is no more. In the reason given by the narrator for her sorrow, as summed up in the name given to her child, the deaths of Eli and of Phinehas are included, but her own words refer only to the ark. Literally they are, "The glory is gone into captivity from Israel." There is possibly a reference to this in Psalms 78:64, where, speaking of the fall of Shiloh, the Psalmist says, "Their priests fell by the sword, and their widows made no lamentation." Others, it may be, like the wife of Phinehas, felt that there was no room for private grief at a time of so great national distress and humiliation.
1 Samuel 4:1-11
Moral causes of disaster.
Assuming that the first sentence properly belongs to the third chapter, and refers generally to the acceptance of Samuel as prophet by the whole nation, the section (1 Samuel 4:1-11) sets forth the following facts:—
1. Israel, suffering from subjection to the Philistines, enters on war for the recovery of freedom and suffers defeat.
2. Ordinary means failing, recourse is had to the ark of God in order to insure success.
3. The visible presence of the ark at once raises the courage and hope of Israel and fills the Philistines with fear.
4. As a counter stimulus to conflict, the Philistines stir up their own love of freedom.
5. The battle issues in the heavy defeat of Israel, the death of Eli's sons, and the capture by the Philistines of the ark of God. There can be no doubt but that the will of God is being wrought out in the triumphs and disasters of national life through all time. The laws by which men are governed are uniform. They are often slow and subtle in operation, and it requires that the whole life of a people be known before we can see the sure working out of the laws that determine success or ruin. It is an advantage to the world that in sacred history we have revealed to us, in concrete form, the principles on which God rules men. The disasters that fell upon Israel in the early years of Samuel's life furnish us with much instruction. We learn that—
I. There is for a PEOPLE A STATE OF PROSPERITY FOR WHICH THEY ARE ORIGINALLY DESIGNED, AND AFTER WHICH IT IS NATURAL FOR THEM TO ASPIRE. Israel, as a people, was constitutionally fitted to enjoy a high degree of national well being. There are material blessings proper to all nationalities, and especially were these included in the lot promised to Israel through Moses (Deuteronomy 28:1-13). It was quite natural, therefore, for the people in Samuel's time to seek freedom from a foreign yoke, and to strive to regain political influence and internal prosperity. There stands, more or less clear, before the mind of nations and individuals, an ideal of what they ought to attain to. The vision of good, though remote, is a powerful influence in life. Before every State, Church, and home there lies a condition of freedom, peace, and influence for which it is designed by Providence, and which should ever be the goal of effort.
II. The DIVINE FAVOUR IS REQUISITE FOR TRUE SUCCESS IN THE EFFORT TO ATTAIN TO THE GOAL. Israel could not obtain the national blessings so eagerly sought unless the favour of God be secured. This is the record of their entire history. It is the "blessing of the Lord that maketh rich." The life of a nation extends possibly over centuries; and as during the few years of a man's life he may be allowed to strive on without God to the end before disaster is apparent, so the course of centuries alone may reveal whether it is possible for true, enduring success to be realised apart from the favour of God. The favour of God means a coworking of the Divine energy with his creatures, so as to secure a convergence of all physical, mental, and social forces towards their welfare. That he should do this without dislocations of nature is as reasonable as that our spirit should, in its measure and mode, strike in on the external forces of matter, and, without violating their laws, cause them to subserve its purposes.
III. The REVEALED CONDITION OF INSURING GOD'S FAVOUR IS CONFORMITY TO HIS WILL. Israel could not expect that God would, as a matter of course, prosper their endeavours after the goal of life. The evils from which the nation suffered were the result of non-conformity to the will of God. It is clear that God discriminates between men, and although it may be that God's energy works along lines fixed and uniform, yet, inasmuch as all the lines are his creation, and are coincident with his great law of blessing the good and chastising the bad, it turns out, in every case, that his favour, in specific acts and issues, goes with conformity to his will. Moreover, is there not a very true sense in which it may be said that the whole being of God is in immediate and constant contact with every subtle element in existence? They are all ministers that do his pleasure. God has not banished himself from all spheres of action, so as to be the only powerless Power in the universe.
IV. CONFORMITY TO THE WILL OF GOD LIES IN TWO THINGS:—
2. MORAL CHARACTER.
The natural craving of Israel for national prosperity could only be satisfied by making strenuous efforts to shake off the Philistines' yoke and develop all the resources of the land, and, further, by the possession of a moral character such as God delights in. It is the will of God that if men will enjoy whatever enters into the conception of a well developed, prosperous life, they must work for it. But that is only one side of duty. We are not only bound to act, to work, but are bound to BE; and it depends on the kind of persons we are as to the direction and force of our acts. Israel in Samuel's time had a moral character, but not according to the will of God. Every nation and every individual bears a moral character before the eye of God. It is only when our moral condition is a reflex of the righteousness of God that we can be said to have the conformity to his will which is essential to the favour that insures real success to life's effort.
V. RELIANCE SOLELY ON PHYSICAL AND MENTAL EXERTION FOR THE ATTAINMENT OF A DESIRED GOOD IS SURE TO END IN FINAL DISASTER. Israel put forth physical and mental effort to attain to freedom and former prosperity. In this respect there was conformity to the will of God, and an observance, therefore, of the laws of success. But the radical defect in the case was that of an utter carelessness concerning the possession of the character which alone can be acceptable with God. The people lacked all the force which lies in being right with God. Those who strive for the masteries must, we are told (2 Timothy 2:5), strive lawfully—in harmony with all the moral as well as physical laws which govern the enterprise, whatever it be, public or private, relating to commerce, education, or religion. The great practical truth here exhibited is that it is possible for a people to set heart on the achievement of a purpose good in itself, to devise means, combine forces, and arouse enthusiasm likely to issue m the desired result; but yet there may be in the daily life some irreligious, unholy spirit, which, being known to God, has the effect of causing the hidden wheels of Providence so to move as to render useless efforts otherwise sufficient. Righteousness is the most important factor in life. Unrighteousness will in the end neutralise all exertion. The seeming prosperity of the wicked is short, and "shall destroy them." Sin saps the foundations of public and private good. True godliness alone makes the most of men.
VI. DISTINGUISHED GOODNESS OF INDIVIDUALS AND REGARD FOR RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS ARE NO SUBSTITUTES FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS OF LIFE. Samuel had become known in Israel. The long lost "open vision" was restored. The people knew that he was a prophet. There was, therefore, so the people reasoned, an evident sign that the favour of God was returning. Their own character was bad enough; but had they not a holy man of God, a superior character, in the sanctuary at Shiloh? Encouraged by this trust and heedless of repentance and reformation, they sought freedom and prosperity by the exertion of their own physical powers. The moral element of conformity to the will of God was despised. Disaster came. In like manner it is in vain for a nation to leave goodness to officials in the Church, and for men of business to leave goodness to their wives and children. God will take no substitute for personal holiness. Not even is the perfect righteousness of the Redeemer of any avail to the man who will live in unrighteousness. He is "our righteousness" when our faith in him brings forth the fruits of the Spirit. But the ingenuity of the heart in evil is marvellous. Israel, finding that vicarious goodness is of no avail, has recourse to a new expedient—outward regard for the symbols of religion. Men remember historical facts, though they may have lost a perception of their spiritual significance. Had not the waters of Jordan and the walls of Jericho recognised the presence of the "ark of God"? Did it not go before the people to "search out a resting place" for them? If the presence of a Samuel in the land was not a guarantee of victory, surely all power must submit to this ancient and renowned worker of wonders? And thus the unholy heart imagines that an outward exhibition of the sacred things pertaining to Divine worship will be a practical substitute for the character not possessed. "History repeats itself." Yes; men still trust in the symbols of the Church—creeds more or less orthodox, outward forms of worship, and much else—in vain hope that these will prove a charm by which the crushing power of sin will be avoided and life end prosperously. The most sacred of forms and symbols are a poor refuge for a soul that loves unrighteousness (Psalms 24:3-5).
1. Study well all the laws of permanent success in secular government, religious organizations, commercial transactions, domestic life, and spiritual culture.
2. Let personal conduct be influenced by the fact that even the salvation of the soul is according to law (cf. Matthew 11:28, Matthew 11:29; Acts 4:12; Acts 10:43; 1 Corinthians 9:25; 2 Timothy 2:5).
3. The comparative failure of religious efforts outwardly suitable may be remedied by a revival of the spiritual power.
4. In times of depression and religious weakness in the Church, look not so much to the adoption of new expedients for subduing the world to Christ, as to the spiritual condition of his professed servants.
It was declared to Eli that a sign of coming judgment on him and his house should be found in the death of his two sons in one day (1 Samuel 2:34), and also that an event should occur at which "both the ears of every one that heareth it shall tingle" (1 Samuel 3:11). The fulfilment of this prediction was, to the mind of Eli, certain, but the means and occasion were uncertain. It was difficult for the old man to conjecture how God would keep his word. The narrative reveals the unlooked for coincidences which established the veracity of God.
I. MEN ARE INDUCED TO ADOPT A COURSE OF CONDUCT AT VARIANCE WITH THEIR USUAL PRACTICE. The recent history of Israel proved them to be utterly indifferent to religion. The vile conduct of the priests caused them to abhor the sacrifices of the Lord. In their conflicts with foes they had gone forth at first without the presence of symbols of religion; but now these same people, being left judicially to the blind guidance of their corrupt hearts, lead forth to war the "ark of God," and the priests in charge of it. In like manner the ordinary course of the Philistines would be to yield to the force of their knowledge of what wonders had been achieved by the "ark of God" (1 Samuel 4:6-8), and either refrain from fighting or flee at the first onset. But instead of that, by, doubtless, the subtle, secret action of God on their spirits, the ordinary course was deviated from, and the strongest sentiments of religious superstition were overborne by an urgent appeal to weaker sentiments. The last thing men do is to go in face of religious fears and historic facts. History furnishes parallel instances. The Jews, in their desire to get rid of Christ, although disgusted with Roman supremacy, took the strange course of pleading their loyalty as against his treason. In ordinary affairs, also, men are often found acting on new lines which perplex their opponents.
II. GOD SOMETIMES DOES THINGS THAT ARE NOT ANTICIPATED. The Israelites little thought that God, whose symbols they paraded, would so act on the spirits of their foes as to counteract the natural effect of their own expedient. Man is a very imperfect judge of the ways of God. There are no doubt immutable laws of righteousness on which all his actions are based, and in many spheres we are enabled by a careful study of things to say what is sure to happen. But we see only "parts of his ways." His "thoughts are not as our thoughts." He sometimes does "a new thing." Precedents are being created. An ordinary observer would not have thought that the eternal God would suffer his covenant people to endure serfdom. It was foolishness to the Greeks that a crucified One should be the Divinely appointed Saviour of the world.
III. By THE COINCIDENCE OF UNEXPECTED HUMAN AND DIVINE ACTIONS THE PURPOSES OF GOD ARE SOMETIMES ACCOMPLISHED. Had not Israel deviated from their usual course in demanding the ark, the sons of Eli would have remained in Shiloh. Had not the Philistines striven hard to overcome religious fears, no defeat would have fallen on Israel. Had God exercised his power as in former times, the ark would not have been captured. But the reverse of these events occurred, and therefore, in accordance with prediction, Eli's sons were on the battle field, and perished in one day, and "both the ears" of all the people were made "to tingle" with the awful tidings that the "ark of God" was taken. So is it true in other instances that, by the concurrence of events not anticipated, and by the secret action of God along with the human events, his purposes are realised in judgment or in mercy.
1. God holds a complete mastery over the spirits of men, and can, when it pleases him, so act on them as to secure the realisation of his designs without destroying their freedom.
2. The Church may look on with confidence to the fulfilment of all that is said of Christ's kingdom, since God can bring about the desired conjunction of events.
3. Wicked men, emboldened by deferred judgments, may well tremble at the thought that the "day of the Lord" may come as a "thief in the night."
1 Samuel 4:12-18
Victory in defeat.
The facts given are—
1. Eli, aware of the absence of the ark on the battle field, awaits with anxiety the earliest tidings of the issue of the conflict.
2. A fugitive relates to him and to the people of Shiloh the nature of the disaster that had befallen Israel.
3. The effect of the news on the city is a wailing cry of despair, and on Eli sudden death. By record and tradition the people were familiar with the disasters and sufferings occasionally experienced by ancestors. Influenced by the prediction of the "man of God" (1 Samuel 2:27), Eli, while sitting by the wayside, feared the worst. But even he was not prepared for such a climax of calamity. Defeat would bring sorrow, not surprise; for were not the people godless? Slaughter would be regarded with pain as retribution for national sins. Was it not his own fault that his sons had not suffered capital punishment long ago? All that was most sacred and revered in the history of the chosen race, the very glory of God—this to be wrested from the hands of Israel and borne off in triumph by the heathen, who can hear it and live! There is nothing now to live for.
I. TO THE EYE OF MAN GOD SUFFERS DEFEAT. The men of Shiloh may be taken as a type of the worldly, unspiritual mind. They had been instructed to believe that Jehovah was engaged on their side in conflict with the wicked idolatrous nations. The ark had become with them almost synonymous with the Almighty himself. Hence the sudden wail of the city when they, hearing the sad tidings, leapt to the sudden conclusion that now at least the Vanquisher was vanquished. The disaster was a check to his purposes proceeding from his declared enemies. There are occasions when the surface of events suggests such a thought. The introduction of sin into the world by an evil power appeared to mar the work of God and defeat his purpose in creating a pure and beautiful world. In the days of Noah the power of evil seemed to triumph, inasmuch as the earth became utterly corrupt. The destruction of the holy hill of Zion, and desecration of the courts of the Lord by the declared enemies of Israel's God, was regarded by the heathen as a proof of his inability to guard his own. To the terror stricken disciples of Christ it seemed for a while that the "gates of hell" were prevailing against him, and that the kingdom of which prophets wrote and poets sang was prematurely annihilated.
II. The APPEARANCE OF DEFEAT IS OWING TO THE CONDITIONS UNDER WHICH GOD IS PLEASED TO CARRY OUT HIS DESIGNS. God does not govern in the moral world by hard mechanical laws, but realises his purposes under the conditions involved in the existence of creatures endowed with freedom and accountability. He adapted his exercise of power to the spiritual condition of Israel. Hence, what is defeat to the human eye may really be foreordained and reasonable restraint. Symbol and chastisement were suited to the imperfect state of the religious thought and feeling. If the surrender of the symbol shall issue in better results than its retention, then what seems defeat arises out of the peculiar conditions under which God works his will. The principle has wide application. It is a condition of the possible existence of free moral creatures that their life may or may not be marred by sin. If, then, sin mars the world, God's purpose is not really defeated. The forces of evil in the antediluvian age might have been crushed out by the Spirit had God reversed the conditions under which he governed men, and forced them to be holy. The visible, transitory life of Christ and his liability to death were, from "the foundation of the world," Divinely recognised conditions of accomplishing human redemption. The occasional obliteration of religious ordinances and of personal piety often results from the fact that the Church is amenable to the law, "From him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." Finally, so far as we can see, the happiness of a world is reasonably made conditional on the free, responsible action of the world as an interrelated community, in which the good or evil of one is wisely made to affect all the rest.
III. WHAT SEEMS DEFEAT TURNS OUT TO RE A STEP TO FINAL VICTORY. It is the perfection of wisdom to snatch victory from defeat. This is seen in the first effect of the capture of the ark. The dormant conscience of the people was aroused. Righteousness, not charms and ceremonials, must be the antecedent of victory. It will be found that all other apparent defeats of God's designs prove to be stages toward a higher good. The curse of sin was the occasion of the "seed of the woman" being promised to "bruise the serpent's head." The men of Noah's time procured a sweeter earth and a most weighty warning and encouragement for the use of all future generations. The sighs and tears of desponding disciples yielded to the exultant joy and abounding hope of the kingdom won with his blood who now liveth evermore. And however much sin may now mar the life of the world, there is reason to believe that, under the control of him who is "able to subdue all things to himself," the issue of all will be the vindication of right and the more glorious assertion of God's majesty.
1. It is proper to avoid haste in expressing unfavourable judgment on events that seem adverse to the final success of Christianity.
2. When great calamities come on the Church, the first effect should be great searching of heart.
3. There is every encouragement, from the history of the past, for strongest confidence in the final triumph of Christ over every foe. Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy (Micah 7:8). Cast down, but not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:9). Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee (Psalms 76:10). He must reign till he hath put all enemies under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25).
There is deep pathos and much instruction in the words of the sacred historian as he closes the references to Eli: "And he had judged Israel forty years." A man eligible for so honourable a position, having rendered varied service to his people, dies in a state of blended consternation, grief, shame, and remorse. Not the calm, joyous end of the righteous; not the end cheered by views from Pisgah's peak of a glorious inheritance; but an end amidst a horror of great darkness. "And he had judged Israel forty years!" Oh, the exquisite pathos of the Bible!
I. The POSITIVE GOOD OF A MAN'S LIFE MAY BE LARGELY NEUTRALISED BY HIS WEAKNESSES. The tenor of the narrative suggests that as a whole Eli's life was good. Forty years' discharge of important functions indicates a long series of holy desires and beneficent acts. The natural effect of this would be only for the formation of a sound national character. For in those times, as seen in the instance of Moses and Joshua and others, the moral and material welfare of a people was more entirely dependent on force of individual character in the leader and ruler than on the manifold influences which prevail in modern times. But negative qualities hindered the effect of the good. Thus it is not enough for a man—ruler, pastor, or parent—to be religious at heart, attentive to routine duties, and "harmless" in conduct. These may fail in their desired issue unless accompanied with the energy and resoluteness of a will that rests only in seeing right done, God feared, and life made holy. The good that some men do with one hand they undo with another. A little sin destroys much good.
II. It MAY BE A LONG TIME BEFORE THIS NEUTRALISATION OF POSITIVE GOOD IS FULLY DISCOVERED. Eli was not blind to the fact that for years past the condition of the people and priests had degenerated; but some men are slow in detecting their own part in a given result. As he gave more heed to causes outside his own conduct and bearing, so do men still overlook their own contributions of a negative character to the formation of opinion and habit in their too exclusive thought of what proceeds from others. A weak ruler wonders how it is the people are dissatisfied, and perhaps rebellious. A weak parent deplores that his words and deeds are so little heeded at home. Each of these is conscious of sincere motive, upright purpose, and actual toil; but it is only by slow degrees that he comes to see the neutralising process.
III. The ISSUE THAT REVEALS THE NEUTRALISATION MAY BE OF THE NATURE OF A JUDGMENT. In Eli's case the catastrophe which fell upon the nation and himself was the means of revealing to him, in unmistakable terms, the truth that the element of indecision and moral cowardice in his character had rendered comparatively useless his "forty years" of office. The death of sons and desolation of the Church of God tell of years of honourable care and toil spoiled by irresolution to visit the guilty with punishment and purge the sanctuary of the vile. There are crises in the lives of communities and individuals. The effect of these is to bring into clearer light the causes of failure. "The day shall declare" "every man's work," "because it shall be revealed by fire." The ruin which comes to a business, a Church organisation, a home, or a reputation, exposes the weak parts of an elaborate superstructure. Although the catastrophe may come about in a natural way, it nevertheless is under Divinely ordained law, and therefore is the judgment of God.
IV. The POSITIVE GOOD IN PERSONAL CHARACTER MAY SURVIVE DISASTER TO LIFE'S WORK. The last act of Eli's life was one of homage to religion. The better side of his character asserted itself in his dying moments. His horror and shame and grief on the mention of the capture of the ark of God revealed his loyalty of heart to spiritual religion. The poor old man reaped in pain and death the reward of his sinful weakness; but while gathering the bitter fruit, he showed his profound interest in the honour and glory of Jehovah by being so sensitive to the reproach brought on the sacred name. We must distinguish between the ruin of a man's work and the ruin of his soul. In the former there is a grievous chastisement for carelessness and avoidable ignorance; in the latter there is an abandonment to the essential and preferred wickedness of the heart. Eli's heart was right with God, but his will was weak to work as he ought. Those who by faith are on the one Foundation are safe. They may build up a superstructure in personal qualities and in deeds for others, much of which may perish in the fire which tries every man's work, while they may be "saved yet so as by fire" (1 Corinthians 3:11-15).
1. We should seek self-knowledge if we would avoid errors in conduct and make the best use of a Christian life.
2. When the results of effort are not satisfactory, strict attention should be given to causes within self.
3. When constitutional or acquired weakness is discovered, it may be counteracted by a care to exercise as much as possible the opposite positive virtue.
1 Samuel 4:19-22
The facts given are—
1. The wife of Phinehas, hearing the sad tidings of Israel's disaster and of the death of her husband and of Eli, suffers premature labour.
2. The loss of the ark of God contributes more to her anguish of spirit than does the sudden death of her nearest relatives.
3. She deliberately refuses the most natural of all consolations.
4. When dying she gives a name to her child that shall express her sense of the calamity fallen on Israel.
The record furnishes us with three typical references to persons greatly affected by the tidings brought from the field of battle.
1. The superstitious populace of the city, who utter a cry of consternation and despair.
2. The public functionary, good but blameworthy, who sees in the event a just judgment, and, being sensible of his personal offence, pays dying homage to the sacred cause with which his life had been identified.
3. A very spiritually minded individual in private life, whose dying words manifest her extraordinary piety. In the brief reference to the wife of Phinehas we see—
I. The NATURE OF SUPREME CALAMITY. Opinions of men differ with respect to what it is that constitutes the greatest calamity that can fall to the lot of nations, Churches, and individuals. The dying experience of the pious Hebrew mother throws useful light on this question. The ark of God was gone; and also, as its moral cause, the righteousness of the people. Hence, as a people's "glory" lies in the enjoyment of the highest distinction God confers, and the happiness resulting therefrom, it follows that the greatest calamity falls on a people when that distinction and consequent happiness are taken away. The nature of the supreme distinction enjoyed depends on the capacities and vocations of those concerned.
1. Israel. The supreme distinction of Israel was the enjoyment of all that was suggested by the presence of the ark of God. By virtue of its structure, its contents, and uses, the ark was the outward sign of an inestimable good. It meant that Israel was chosen above all people for a holy and far reaching purpose, in which all nations should be blessed, and that great covenanted blessings were theirs. To them the ark was favour, noble destiny, protection and enrichment, knowledge, holy influence, fellowship with the Eternal. And, in so far as its continued presence was connected with their possession of a character conformable in some degree to its purpose and their own destiny, its abode among them would suggest that they had not become utterly corrupt and unfit for the end for which they were chosen. When, then, the ark of God was allowed to be taken away, there happened, so far as the outward sign was still a correct index to its original and ordinary intent, the direst calamity conceivable. The evidence of being the people of Jehovah was gone! The tables of covenant were lost! The mercy seat was inaccessible by the appointed means! And, also, the righteousness of life appropriate to the continuance of such blessings and honours was lacking! Marvel not that a wail of woe arose from at least one true heart—"Ichabod!" Loss of men, of commerce, of political influence, of home, of health, of all, was not to be compared with this. For what is Israel worth, what Israel's function in the world, without Divine favour and blessing?
2. Nations. Taking nations generally in their relation to God and one another, their crowning distinction lies in righteousness of spirit and conduct. Population, trade, armies, fleets, science, art, have no permanence, no real value, apart from a healthy national conscience and right doing. If by any means this righteousness disappears, then the greatest calamity has come; and it is only a question of time with respect to the passing away of greatness. God never allows an unrighteous people to attain to the best a nation is capable of.
3. Churches. The Christian Church is the body of Christ. It exists as a body to exhibit the spirit and do the work of Christ, the Head. Its highest honour is in doing what Christ would have done in the world. But if a Church, professing to be part of the One Body, so far loses love for Christ and true holiness of life as to fail to answer the practical ends for which it exists, then it suffers a calamity far more serious than depletion of numbers, loss of social status, the pains of poverty, and the fiercest persecution. "Ichabod" was once appropriate to Laodicea (Revelation 3:15-18).
4. Individuals. The highest distinction and bliss of a human being is to be conformed in nature to the holy nature of Christ. This is the permanent crown of life. It could be shown that a soul so blessed wilt find the most perfect development. This is that for which Christ came, lived, died, and rose again. And it is obvious that not thus to be saved is to suffer the greatest loss ever possible to a human being. "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Then, indeed, "Ichabod" is fearfully true.
5. The ministry of the gospel. A true ministry must embrace all the teaching requisite for the "perfecting of the saints." A full and perfect gospel means all that Christ and his apostles have left us. An examination of the apostolic ministry will show that the great theme on which the inspired preachers chiefly dwelt was the cross of Christ. This is the peculiar distinction of the New Testament teaching, and it is a truth which enters directly or indirectly into everything pertaining to Christian life. A ministry is good in proportion as it gives due place to this dominating truth. An aversion to the cross as the apostles preached it is an unhappy sign, as, also, is a mere parade of the term or the symbol. History proves that a Christless ministry is always a failure. "Ichabod" may be affirmed of it. Generally, then, "Ichabod" is true whenever the crowning characteristic has departed; in that lies a supreme calamity.
II. HOW A JUST APPRECIATION OF A SUPREME CALAMITY REVEALS ITSELF. The wife of Phinehas was a study to her attendants. They, in common with the mass of Israel, felt that a sad disaster had befallen them, but her extreme anguish and singular conduct were perplexing. The fact was, she formed a just appreciation of what had occurred, and her feelings, words, and conduct were the natural expression of it. The appreciation appears in—
1. All absorbing concern. A more striking instance of this is perhaps not to be found in the entire range of sacred history. This unnamed person was passing through the most momentous personal crisis possible to woman; the anguish of nature was enough to absorb every thought and power. Birth of a son was a new demand on attention and care, and the death of a husband was, at such a season, a special occasion of sorrow. Yet all these most important and pressing matters were entirely test sight of in her soul's utter absorption in the interests of that Divine kingdom which lay so near to her heart. We have read of widows dying under the shock caused by a husband's death, and with his name on the tongue as the last sign of affection and interest; but here the one word is "Ichabod." The cause of God was the one thought. In like manner will a just appreciation of calamity show itself when nations have lost the righteousness which exalts, when Churches have failed in their holy design and have become a reproach, when souls cared and watched for are lost, when a ministry professedly of the gospel leaves out the cross. The whole soul will be filled with anguish and care.
2. Refusal to accept any substitute. The highest and most welcome comfort nature can afford to a sorrowing widowed mother is to give her a son. In the love of offspring the heart finds some healing and solace. But, marvel of devotion to the Spiritual and Eternal, this mother refuses to derive compensation from the new-born child! "She answered not, neither did she regard it." The mother's conduct was right and natural; for the cause of God is first and highest. Nature sanctified will not accept a lower transitory good in the place of the higher eternal good. Jerusalem is to be preferred above our" chief joy." No wea