The Promises Forsaken

Chapter 23

The Lord had faithfully fulfilled His promises made to Israel; Joshua had broken the power of the Canaanites and had distributed the land to the twelve tribes. After the settlement in Canaan, however, they made no active effort to rid the land of its former inhabitants.

Until the generation that had received instruction from Joshua had all died, idolatry made little headway; but the parents had prepared the way for the apostasy of their children. The disregard of the Lord's restrictions on the part of those who came in possession of Canaan sowed seeds of evil that continued to bring forth bitter fruit for many generations. By their sins, the Israelites were separated from God; His strength was removed from them, and they could no longer prevail against their enemies. Thus they were brought into subjection to the very nations that through God they might have conquered.

"And they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, of the gods of the people that were round about them, and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the Lord to anger." Therefore the Lord "forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which He placed among men; and delivered His strength into captivity, and His glory into the enemy's hand." Judges 2:12; Psalm 78:60–61. Yet He did not utterly forsake His people. There were always a few who remained true to Jehovah. In response to their prayers, from time to time the Lord raised up faithful and courageous men to put down idolatry and to deliver the Israelites from their enemies. Sadly, as soon as the deliverer was dead and the people were no longer under his authority, they would gradually return to their idols. Thus the story of backsliding and punishment, of confession and deliverance, was repeated again and again.

Eli was a priest and one of the last judges of Israel. But although he had been appointed to govern the people, he did not rule his own household. He indulged his children in whatever they desired and neglected the work of fitting them for the service of God and the duties of life. Then, though they were wholly unfit for the office, they were placed as priests in the sanctuary to minister before God. Their irreverence soon robbed the service of its holy and solemn significance, and the people "abhorred the offering of the Lord." "Wherefore the sin of the young men was very great before the Lord."

"And there came a man of God unto Eli, and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Did I plainly appear unto the house of thy father, when they were in Egypt in Pharaoh's house? And did I choose him out of all the tribes of Israel to be My priest, to offer upon Mine altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before Me? and did I give unto the house of thy father all the offerings made by fire of the children of Israel? Wherefore kick ye at My sacrifice and at Mine offering, which I have commanded in my habitation; and honourest thy sons above Me?"

The promise had been made that the house of Aaron should walk before God forever, but this promise had been made on condition that they should honor God in all their ways. Eli and his sons had been tested, and the Lord had found them wholly unworthy of the exalted position of priests in His service.

Another warning was to be given to Eli's house. In the midst of evil, the child Samuel remained true to Heaven. The word of the Lord, coming to him in the form of a warning for Eli, was his commission as a prophet of God.

"And the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open vision. And it came to pass at that time, when Eli was laid down in his place, and his eyes began to wax dim, that he could not see; and ere the lamp of God went out in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was, and Samuel was laid down to sleep; that the Lord called Samuel: and he answered, Here am I." Supposing the voice to be that of Eli, the child hastened to the bedside of the priest. The answer was, "I called not; lie down again." Three times Samuel was called, and responded in like manner. Then Eli was convinced that the mysterious call was the voice of God. He directed Samuel to answer, if again called, "Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth." Once more the voice was heard, and the child answered, "Speak; for thy servant heareth." So awed was he at the thought that the great God should speak to him that he could not remember the exact words which Eli bade him say.

"Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of everyone that heareth it shall tingle. In that day I will perform against Eli all things which I have spoken concerning his house: when I begin, I will also make an end. For I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not. And therefore I have sworn unto the house of Eli, that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be purged with sacrifice nor offering for ever."

Samuel was filled with fear and amazement at the thought of having so terrible a message committed to him. The Lord had not commanded him to reveal the fearful denunciation, hence he remained silent, avoiding, as far as possible, the presence of Eli. Eli was confident that the message foretold some great calamity to him and his house. He called Samuel and charged him to relate faithfully what the Lord had revealed. The youth obeyed, and the aged man bowed in humble submission to the appalling sentence. "It is the Lord: let Him do what seemeth Him good."

Yet Eli did not manifest the fruits of true repentance. He confessed his guilt, but failed to renounce the sin. Year after year the Lord delayed His threatened judgments. Much might have been done in those years to redeem the failures of the past, but the aged priest took no effective measures to correct the evils that were polluting the sanctuary of the Lord and leading thousands in Israel to ruin.

"Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Ebenezer: and the Philistines pitched in Aphek." The nation was ripe for the judgments of God. The battle resulted in a disastrous defeat, yet they did not see that their own sins had been the cause. They said, "Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies." The Lord had given no command for the ark to be brought to the battle, yet the Israelites felt confident that victory would be theirs and uttered a great shout when it was borne into the camp.

The Philistines looked upon the ark as the god of Israel. All the mighty works that Jehovah had wrought for His people were attributed to its power. As they heard the shouts of joy at its approach and understood that the ark was in the camp, they were afraid and said, "Woe unto us! for there hath not been such a thing heretofore. 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. Be strong, and quit yourselves like men, 0 ye Philistines, that ye be not servants unto the Hebrews, as they have been to you: quit yourselves like men, and fight."

The Philistines made a fierce assault, which resulted in the slaughter of thirty thousand men; the ark of God was taken, and the two sons of Eli were killed.

When the army went out to battle, Eli, blind and old, had remained at Shiloh. It was with great misgivings that he awaited for news of the conflict. Taking his position outside the gate of the tabernacle, he sat by the highway, anxiously expecting the arrival of a messenger from the battlefield.

At length, a Benjamite from the army came hurrying up the rise leading to the city. Passing without thought the aged man beside the way, he rushed on to the town and told the waiting throngs the tidings of defeat and loss.

The sound of weeping reached Eli and he called for the messenger. Coming quickly, the messenger told him, "Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead." This did not come as a great surprise to the old man; but when the messenger added, "and the ark of God is taken.," it was too much. And "And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died: for he was an old man, and heavy."

The Philistines removed the ark in triumph to Ashdod, one of their five principal cities, and placed it in the house of their god, Dagon. They imagined that the power that had always attended the ark would now be theirs. But upon entering the temple on the following day, they beheld a sight that filled them with alarm. Dagon had fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of Jehovah. The priests reverently lifted the idol and restored it to its place. But the next morning they found it, strangely mutilated, again lying upon the earth before the ark. The upper part of this idol was like that of a man and the lower part was in the likeness of a fish. Now every part that resembled the human form had been cut off, and only the body of the fish remained. Priests and people were horror-stricken; they viewed this mysterious event as an evil sign. They now removed the ark from their temple and placed it in a building by itself.

The people of Ashdod began to sicken and die with a fatal disease. Remembering the plagues that had come on Egypt, they believed their illness was the result of having the ark among them. They moved it to another city; but wherever the ark was taken, the plague followed. Fearing to longer keep the ark in their cities, the people next placed it in an open field. Soon a plague of mice infested the land, destroying the crops, both in the storehouse and in the field. The survival of the nation was now threatened.

Their wise men acknowledged a mysterious power accompanying the ark. Though they still hated the God of Israel, they were forced, by overwhelming judgments, to yield to His authority.

A plan was proposed and immediately acted upon. The ark was placed upon a new cart attached to two cows that had never before been yoked. Their calves were shut up at home, and they were left free to go where they pleased. It was decided that if the cows left their calves, going to the land of Israel by the shortest route, this would be accepted as evidence that the God of Israel had caused all of the evil they had experienced since capturing the ark.

Once they were released, though no human hand guided them, the cows turned from their young and, lowing as they went, took the direct road to the land of Israel. The lords of the Philistines, who had followed the ark, witnessing its reception, now returned to Ekron. The plague had ended, and they were convinced that their miseries had been a judgment from the God of Israel

The men of the border village Bethshemesh quickly spread the news that the ark was back in Israel. The people from the surrounding country flocked to welcome its return. While they rejoiced at the return of the ark as an omen of good, they had no true sense of its sacredness. As they continued to gaze upon the sacred chest and to talk of the wonderful manner in which it had been restored, they began to question wherein lay its peculiar power. At last, overcome by curiosity, they removed the coverings and ventured to open it.

All Israel had been taught to regard the ark with awe and reverence. Even the heathen Philistines had not dared to remove its coverings. The irreverent daring of the people at Bethshemesh was speedily punished. Many were smitten with sudden death.

The defeat they suffered at the hands of the Philistines, which had led to the ark being taken captive, did not have the result of bringing the people to recognize their backslidden condition. As a nation, they continued in a state of irreligion and idolatry; and as a punishment, they remained in subjection to the Philistines.

After suffering the oppression of their enemies for twenty years, the Israelites "lamented after the Lord." During the years since the Lord first spoke to him, Samuel's call to the prophetic office had come to be accepted by the whole nation. He now counseled them, "If ye do return unto the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the Lord, and serve him only: and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines."

With the cooperation of the heads of the tribes, a large assembly was gathered at Mizpeh. With deep humiliation, the people confessed their sins; and as an evidence of their determination to obey the instructions they had heard, they empowered Samuel with the authority of judge.

The Philistines interpreted this gathering to be a council of war and with a strong force set out to scatter the Israelites before their plans could be fully developed. The news of their approach caused great fear in Israel. The people pleaded with Samuel, "Cease not to cry unto the Lord our God for us, that He will save us out of the hand of the Philistines."

As the Philistines drew near for battle, a terrible storm burst upon them. Soon the field was littered with the bodies of the pride of the Philistine army. As the Israelites saw the slaughter of their enemies, they knew that God had accepted their repentance. Though unprepared for battle, they seized the weapons of the dead Philistines and chased the fleeing host to Bethcar. This outstanding victory was gained upon the very field where, twenty years before, Israel had been smitten before the Philistines, the priests slain, and the ark of God taken.

That the occasion might never be forgotten, Samuel set up, between Mizpeh and Shen, a great stone as a memorial. He called it Ebenezer, "the stone of help," saying to the people, "Hitherto hath the Lord helped us."

This chapter is based on 1 Samuel 1–7