THE LOST ARK 1 Samuel 4–7
“A god has come into the camp” (1 Sam. 4:7).We should never take the symbols of our faith for the reality. Yet to many, symbols are important.
Definition of Key Terms
The ark of the covenant. The ark was the holiest object in Israel’s religion. This box-like, gold-covered object contained memorials of the Exodus—notably the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments and a container of manna. Two cast angels were mounted on its lid, their wings touching over its center, where each year the high priest sprinkled sacrificial blood on the Day of Atonement. The ark, which symbolized the presence of God with His people, was to be kept in the inner room of the tabernacle. The act of Eli’s sons in removing it showed both their contempt for God’s command, and a superstitious awe of the ark as a symbol. Archeologists have recovered many Philistine artifacts. These show a high level of material culture and artistic achievement. The Philistines far outclassed the Israelites in their skills, but were far inferior in their religion.
The Philistines killed Eli’s two wicked sons in battle and captured the ark of the covenant (4:1–22). Plagues frightened the Philistines into returning the ark (5:1–6:21). Some 20 years later, Samuel led Israel back to God (7:1–6). God then helped the Israelites hand the Philistines a crushing defeat at Mizpah, and guarded them throughout Samuel’s lifetime (vv. 7–17).
Understanding the Text
“A god has come into the camp” 1 Sam. 4:1–11. The Philistine reaction when the ark was brought into the Hebrew camp tells us much about their religion. They worshiped idols and supposed that Israel’s God was an idol too. What is more significant, however, is Israel’s reaction. God’s people shouted for joy, for they too believed that the Lord Himself was identified with this material object. We can value symbols of the holy. But we must never confuse them with God or rely on them as if they were God Himself. As Jesus taught us, “God is Spirit, and His worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). “The glory has departed from Israel” 1 Sam. 4:12–22. In the battle, Eli’s sons were killed and the ark captured. The loss of the ark was a disaster, but not because it was a “god.” The ark was the one place where blood could be sprinkled on the Day of Atonement to cleanse Israel of sin. The true glory of God, displayed in His goodness and forgiving love, truly had departed from Israel. God’s people now had no avenue of approach to the Lord to find forgiveness. We may take pride in the beauty of our churches or cathedrals. Yet the true glory of God is not to be found in them, but in His love and His grace. “He afflicted the people . . . with an outbreak of tumors” 1 Sam. 5:1–6:21. When the ark of God was placed in the temple of Dagon, a Philistine god, the idol fell before the ark. Even a symbol of God is greater than the gods of pagans. Many believe that the “tumors” God sent were actually hemorrhoids. How fitting. The Philistines were not even allowed to sit comfortably in the presence of God’s ark! At last the Philistines decided that the God of Israel caused their discomfort and returned the ark. For 20 years it rested on the property of a man called Abinadab. “Because they had looked into the ark of the Lord” 1 Sam. 6:19. When 70 Israelites curiously looked into the ark, God struck them down. Why? Eli’s two sons had shown contempt for God by ignoring rules for conducting worship. These men showed contempt for God by treating the ark, a holy thing, as if it were an ordinary object. While the symbol is not the reality, symbols of the holy are to be treated with respect. “The Israelites . . . served the Lord only” 1 Sam. 7:1–6. When Samuel grew to adulthood he was able to lead Israel back to the Lord. Samuel was recognized as a spokesman of God (3:20). When he promised that God would deliver His people from Philistine oppression, he was believed. Sometimes only suffering will move us to turn to God. If that’s what it takes, God will bless us with suffering. “The Lord answered him” 1 Sam. 7:7–17. When the Philistines attacked a religious convocation at Mizpah, Israel fought back as Samuel prayed. The Bible says that the Lord answered him. Samuel had listened to God all his life. Now God listened to him. Obeying God’s Word lays a good foundation for prayer. The text tells us that Samuel served as Israel’s “judge” (ruler) all the days of his life. During this time Israelite strength grew, and they were at last able to push the Philistines out of the highlands.
Symbols and Reality (1 Sam. 6–7)
The ark of God was His chosen symbol of His presence with Israel. It was not God. He did not inhabit it. But in a real way it stood for Him. As such, the symbol was to be treated with respect. When the victorious Philistines carried the ark into the temple of their god, they saw it as a trophy. Placed there, the ark would symbolize the superiority of their deity to Israel’s God. Instead the prostrate, broken idol of Dagon proved that the Lord alone is truly God. When a plague of “tumors” broke out in the Philistine cities, the Philistines knew the cause. Israel’s God was so holy that the Philistines could not even survive the presence of a symbol that represented Him. When the ark was returned, God struck down 70 of His own people who curiously looked inside it, treating it as if it were a common object rather than something set apart and holy. Each of these events helps us understand those who find significance today in Christian symbols. The stained glass, the churches, the organs, the crosses, the ritual, the Christmas creches, even the roadside shrines, are not to be identified with God, as though He were present in them. Yet each can serve as a symbol of the holy. Each can remind believers of who God is, and in reminding, can invite them to worship. You or I may not rely on symbols in our worship. We may not feel they are needed, or we may even feel that they hinder true worship. But the ark of God, which was holy in the Old Testament era, reminds us that God does speak to some through symbols. And when He does, the symbol is sanctified by His use.
We need to be sure that our religious symbols actually do direct our thoughts to God Himself.