First Samuel 4 Commentary
Eli dies. His two sons, the wicked priests, Hophni and Phinehas also die. The Ark of the LORD is captured. 34,000 soldiers die in battle. A son is born to Phinehas’ wife. He is named Ichabod, meaning, ‘the Glory has departed from Israel.’
Eli’s death is caused by the sad news of the capture of the Ark of the LORD. He had sat watching by the side of the road, fearing for the Ark of the LORD. This in itself is strange. Why fear for an empty box? Eli should have known better. The wickedness of the people, especially his own sons, had emptied the Ark of its sanctity. And without the presence of the LORD, the famed Ark was nothing but a specially designed box.
Eli’s mindset is shared with the elders of Israel. They feel the LORD is like a Canaanite god who can be transported around, even by two extremely wicked men. This scenario is perfectly mirrored by a man who reduces the El-Shaddai God to a power bank for some personal battles. The LORD is not an ATM for luck in one’s life engagements. You cannot have both; a no to holiness and a yes to power. The elders of Israel feel they need to drag this God into battle, just in case transport is required. Everything Israel is doing here is religious nonsense.
You would wish the priest Eli cared more about the wickedness of his own sons. But no. Eli’s religion revolves around an empty Ark. Like the elders of the nation, Eli still feels the LORD is present when the LORD is long gone. The Glory resides among the people by godliness. How can Eli forget these simple but foundational elements of Israel’s worship?
The only thing that made the Sanctuary at Shiloh important was the Ark. It was housed within layers of holiness; the holy place and then the Most Holy place. The Ark was most important for its content: the Law, inscribed on two tablets of stone. It is this law that demanded obedience. Without obedience, the Glory isn’t there. Therefore, the Glory had been missing from Israel’s national life long before Ichabod’s untimely birth.
Eli’s religion is very strange. But really, this is what happens when the Glory disappears. Man must find all sorts of replacements. For pagans, replacements consist of countless acts of evil in shapes and colors only limited by man’s imagination. For believers, replacements come in form of religious activity and objects such as sacraments, services, and charity works. They are still religious in nature but removed from the realities of God’s will and purposes as revealed in His word. Such is the case at hand. The religion of the box and not that of the contents of the box, the Law.
The saint’s calling is to protect the contents of the box and not the box. The law must be carried in our hearts. When the enemy captures our churches – the church-going, conferences, workshops, and public prayer; will believers still be believers? It should be simple. Eli messed it. His wicked sons were wicked. Phinehas’s wife didn’t know it. The elders of Israel missed it. The Presence, (Glory), is by the word of the LORD, (the Law or simply the Ten Commandments). Israel didn’t keep it. It wasn’t there because Israel didn’t keep it. The Glory must be kept – by obedience.
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