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Prophecies fulfilled as Ark surrendered at Battle of Aphek
About fifteen years elapsed between I Samuel 3:21 and 4:1, so the events of chapter 4 took place in 1075 B.C. when Samuel was about twenty-five years old and Israel had been under Philistine domination for about twenty years. The Philistines had assembled in battle array at Aphek, about twenty miles west of Shiloh, and Israel was defeated. The elders of Israel were devastated and asked one another (I Samuel 4:31), "Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us today before the Philistines?" Then they followed the errors of their forefathers and devised a plan without seeking the Lord's guidance. Without fasting and prayer they chose to take the Ark of the Covenant out of Shiloh and carry it into battle, thus reducing the Ark, which represented the throne of God, to a mere talisman like a "lucky rabbit's foot" in their mentality. When the ark arrived at the battlefront, the people thought it was going to bring them victory and even the Philistines began to lose heart when they saw it for they said (v81):
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.
Incredibly, the pagan Philistines remembered the history of the Israelites and their former glories which had occurred in 1446 B.C., three hundred and seventy-five years earlier! Critics and skeptics today say that the Exodus never took place and the plagues never came down on Egypt by the hand of Moses from God, yet the Philistines knew it to be true almost four centuries after it happened. Nevertheless, even while fearing God, the Philistines roused one another by saying (v94), "Take courage and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews, as they have been slaves to you; therefore, be men and fight." Thus they gathered their spirits and went out with determination against Israel, killing thirty thousand foot soldiers in the battle and capturing the Ark of God, thus fulfilling the prophecy of I Samuel 2:32, where God said, "Thou shalt see an enemy in my habitation." Additionally, the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, who had carried the Ark into the battle were both killed, fulfilling the prophecy of I Samuel 2:34, fifteen years earlier, that they would both die on the same day. Although the Ark of God was the symbol of His strength and power and throne, God was not defeated as the Philistines thought He was in the reasoning of their pagan theology, for they also believed in "Rabbit-Foot Theology!"
While the Israelites foolishly concluded that taking the Ark of God to war was their guarantee of success in battle, in the plan of God the Israelites taking the Ark into battle was the means ordained by Him in fulfilling the words of prophecy He had spoken through the unnamed prophet. The Word of the Lord was fulfilled in part, but there was more divine judgment to come on this day of infamy. Eli was stationed by the road in his seat, trembling in heart as he eagerly waited for news of the battle. Perhaps he sensed that this is the day of judgment. The Ark of God is gone from Shiloh, as are his two sons, and Eli's "heart was trembling for the Ark of God" (I Samuel 4:13) A Benjamite man escaped death and fled back to Shiloh from the battle scene with his clothes torn and dust on his head - a sign of mourning and defeat, which Eli was unable to see because his "eyes were set so that he could not see." The rest of the city began to cry out as word of their defeat quickly circulated.
Eli could hear, even if he could not see, and what he heard frightened him. His ears were about to tingle (see 3:11), fulfilling another prophecy. Eli asked what the commotion meant and the man who escaped hurried to his side and gave his report. The terrible news was more than Eli's 98-year-old gluttonous body could handle and he fell backwards from his seat and broke his neck. The mention of the ark of God was the news that caused Eli's collapse and death and the key in God's judgment against the nation for the ark symbolized God's presence with His people. Even the death of Eli's sons was not as great a disaster to him as the loss of the Ark and he died on the same day as his sons, and his forty years of service as judge over Israel ended ignominiously.
The tragedy was not yet over for the house of Eli for the wife of Phinehas was pregnant and the news of Israel's tragic defeat, the loss of the Ark, and the deaths of Eli and her husband brought on her labour. As she struggled in labour, things did not go well and, although the women helping her told her not to be afraid for she had given birth to a boy, she only lived long enough to name him Ichabod, a name meaning: "The glory of the Lord has departed from Israel"," because the Ark of God had been taken and her husband and father-in-law were dead. The daughter-in-law of Eli seemed more perceptive than her husband, for at least she seemed to recognise that the greatest disaster was the loss of the Ark with the resultant departure of God's glory. Yet even here there is a warning to the wives of leaders in the church - the priests in Eli's day, but elders today, for if you partake in the ill-gotten gains of your husband you may share his fate! Clearly many Christians today believe that Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5v1-11) were exceptional sinners to be struck dead by the Holy Spirit, by God Himself, but "all" they did was lie over the sale of a plot of land! Many of today's heretics are as guilty of blasphemy as Eli and his sons and there will come a time of judgement for them too.
We must recognise that the Ark was not the manifestation of God to Israel there in the tabernacle for Israel had descended as low as the Philistines with their "Rabbit's Foot Theology" in looking upon it as little more than an idol. While it may have been a symbol of God's presence with His people which the priests held in their possession there in Shiloh, the truth was that the glory of God had long since departed. The capture of the Ark only symbolized what was already true and had been true for a long time. Although the glory had departed from Shiloh, God's glory will never be fully hidden or besmirched by sinful men, for his omnipotence can always override the sad frailties of men.
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