Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Capture of the Ark

"The man who brought the news replied, “Israel fled before the Philistines, and the army has suffered heavy losses. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured” (1 Samuel 4:17).

Eli named his sons Hophni (“Strong”) and Phinehas (“Oracle”). Doubtless when they were born he hoped they would grow up to stand for the Lord and help turn the tide of wickedness in Israel. A former Phinehas (Numbers 25:6–8), had turned away God’s wrath by slaying a couple for the sin of fornication. Sadly, Phinehas ben Eli preferred to indulge in fornication himself (1 Samuel 2:22). Eli failed to discipline his sons, which was not only a failure of family discipline but, more importantly, a failure of church discipline.

God determined to bring judgment upon Israel for her sins and particularly upon the house of Eli. In preparation, he moved Samuel into position as an “adopted son” of Eli (1 Samuel 3:6). When Samuel was old enough to take over (about age 20), God led Israel into war with the Philistines. Israel was defeated in battle. Determining they had lost the battle because the ark of the covenant was not with them, the superstitious leaders brought the ark out of the tabernacle and took it to the battle. The two apprentice priests, Hophni and Phinehas, went with it.

The Philistines were fearful when the ark arrived because they knew that it was Yahweh’s throne and they had heard how Yahweh had destroyed Egypt centuries earlier. Surprisingly, the Philistines fought harder than ever and won the battle (1 Samuel 4).

A messenger returned to tell Eli the bad news. When he mentioned that Israel had been defeated again, Eli grieved. When he said that Eli’s sons had been killed, Eli mourned. But when he told Eli the ark of God had been captured, it was too much for him. Despite his failings, Eli loved the Lord and His people. When he heard the news he fell over backward in his chair, broke his neck, and died.

There was now no high priest in Israel. Eli and both his sons were dead. Moreover, with the ark gone from the tabernacle, it was no longer possible to conduct the regular sacrifices. Into this ecclesiastical vacuum, God sent Samuel, who acted as a lay-priest and reorganized the religious system of Israel around his disciples, the prophets. Samuel’s interim arrangements would continue for a century until the ark was once again housed in a temple, built by Solomon.

The story of Eli illustrates a fundamental principle of the Bible: church discipline is essential for social order. Too often the leaders in the church wring their hands over sin instead of dealing with it through exhortation and appropriate discipline. Should discipline be necessary for your church, be supportive of the difficult stand your leaders must take.