First Samuel 4 tells the story of one of Israel’s darkest hours. Israel had been defeated by the Philistines. The priests of God were dead. The Ark of the Covenant had been captured. After hearing the news of the ark and the death of her father-in-law and husband, Eli’s daughter-in-law (and wife of Phineas, the priest) named her newborn son Ichabod, meaning “the glory of God has departed.”
What was it that led to this dark hour? How did it come to be that the presence of God departed the land? And what can we in the church today learn from this sobering time in Israel’s history?
The Tabernacle at Shiloh
Recently, my wife and I were in Israel as guests of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During our time there we visited an excavation site where the tabernacle once stood in Shiloh, as told in 1 Samuel chapters 1-4. While standing in the very location where Hannah would have cried out to God, Lisa and I began to pray from the depths of our hearts. As I prayed, the Lord gave me a renewed perspective of the significance of what happened there.
There were two significant events unfolding in the days leading up to Israel’s defeat and the loss of the ark—the first of which should serve as a sober warning to the church today, and the other as a message of hope in a dark time. The first thing was the dimming of the lamp of God due to the disobedience and compromise of the nation’s leadership. Specifically, it was the wickedness of the priests Hophni and Phineas, and the apathy of their father, Eli, who did nothing to correct his sons, which led to “Ichabod” and the glory of God departing from the nation.
Scripture tells us that Hophni and Phineas “had no regard for the Lord.” They engaged in temple prostitution and took advantage of the worshippers who came to sacrifice at Shiloh. Moreover, they neglected their priestly duties, one of which was to keep the lamp in the Holy Place filled with oil so that the flame would not burn out.
As this tragedy was unfolding, however, there was another part of the story developing, which serves as a message of hope. Despite the wickedness of the priests, God was still working his plan of redemption. In 1 Samuel 1, a barren woman cried out to God for a son, pledging to dedicate his life to the Lord if her request was granted. The Lord answered her cry and Hannah’s son, Samuel, came to Shiloh as a young child to serve in the house of God. Out of a humanly impossible situation, the Lord brought forth a new generation, a righteous prophet and judge.
First Samuel 3:3 tells us that “the lamp of God had not yet gone out” (NIV) when the Lord first called to Samuel. Though the Lord intended to bring judgment to Hophni and Phineas, he also promised to raise up “a faithful priest” who would follow His commands.
Private Disobedience and Public Powerlessness
As I reflected on all that had happened in Shiloh, I was struck with this sobering truth: Private disobedience causes public powerlessness. Hophni and Phineas were engaged in private disobedience. They were profaning the holy things of God, neglecting their responsibilities to steward that which was entrusted to them. They abused their priestly authority and took advantage of the people. It is likely these sons of Eli thought they could continue in their sin with no repercussions.
Though what they did in secret may not have been known or spoken of in public, God saw it. And the repercussions of their private sin impacted the entire nation. In 1 Samuel 4:1-3, the Israelites suffered a defeat at the hands of the Philistines. As a result, they decided to call for the ark of the covenant to go with them into their next battle, thinking it would save them. They didn’t realize God’s presence had already left them and the ark would not bring them the victory they sought. Sadly, they were defeated again, the ark was captured, and Hophni and Phineas died on the day of battle.
Like Israel, many in the church are just going through the motions, relying on traditions and practicing an institutional Christianity. But God’s presence is no longer there and our institutions are powerless. We have been fooled into thinking our private sin goes unnoticed, but what we do in private has a public, corporate effect. The enemy continues to win battles and take ground in our nation, largely while the church goes about our business as usual. We blame our losses on the government, politicians or those who disagree with us, with little understanding of the role we’ve played in our own defeat.
The key to victory is not the ark, nor our Christian institutions, but obedience. Disobedience causes the lamp to go out and the presence of God to depart. Without His presence, there can be no victory.
In Search of the Faithful
Ezekiel 22 describes a disobedient Israel that reminds me of much of what I see in our culture today. It describes five kinds of people—the five Ps, I call them—who had turned from the ways of the Lord. The Lord calls out the Princes, the Politicians, the Prophets, the Priests (pastors), and the People for turning from the Lord and allowing the shedding of innocent blood in the land, allowing corruption and unrighteousness to prevail. Many overlooking what was going on around them for personal preference and profit.
Sound familiar? In verse 30, the Lord says, “So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one” (NKJV). God was looking for a faithful priest, prophet and judge who, like Samuel, who would follow His commands.
I believe God is issuing this same warning to us today. Like Israel before us, we are unaware that the lamp of God is growing dim, the oil is about to run out and the presence of the Almighty is departing the land. God is looking for a righteous remnant who will follow His commands and honor His word. Our politicians and princes are corrupt. Our prophets and priests lack moral clarity. The people are drowning in a sea of iniquity and perversion. What can we do?
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
For those who will heed God’s warning, there is a call to prepare for the days ahead. There is a three-fold call—to prepare the Bride, to prepare the Ark, and to prepare the way of the Lord.
One man who heeded God’s warning and prepared was Noah. Hebrews 11:7 tells us that “By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear [and] prepared an ark for the saving of his household.” Noah lived in dark days full of corruption and immorality. But he heeded God’s warning that judgment was coming and prepared accordingly. As a result, his household was saved, as were all the living things that came with him on the ark.
Likewise, God wants His church to prepare for the days ahead and be an ark of refuge in times of trouble. By preparing and getting in alignment to God’s kingdom principles, both individually and corporately, we can be ready to be a help to others. When disaster strikes, we will have an opportunity for our testimony (Luke 21:13).