Life Apart from God

"Faithlessness and Defeat—Lessons from the Demeanor and Demise of the Nation of Israel in 1 Samuel 4"—was a radio sermon delivered in 1966 by Pastor James R. King of the North Shore Baptist Church in Bayside, New York.

For many years the Word of the Lord came to Israel through Samuel. It was a witness of the love of God for His people, and while it did not prevent a disaster, it surely maintained faith in a remnant. But God’s faithfulness was met by the faithlessness of His people, as can be seen in the following ways:

1. In their rebellion 

Israel revolted against the hand of God upon them. “The children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines forty years” (Judg. 13:1). Israel had been in servitude for twenty years, and it was the middle of their subjection to the Philistines, and they revolted. Israel went out against the Philistines to battle.

2. In their willfulness 

Samuel was over all Israel. He was the recognized channel of communication between the people and God, but he was not consulted about the war. Israel went to war after their own charges. Samuel had no part in their rebellion against God’s dealings with them.

3. In their unrepentance 

In their attempt to throw off the yoke of their oppression, they would have succeeded better if they had repented and reformed and to so begin their work at the right end.

4. In their self-confidence 

They provoked the war with the Philistines. They were over-confident. This goes along with departure of heart from the Lord.

5. In their pride 

“Israel was smitten before the Philistines: and they slew of the army in the field about four thousand men” (v. 2). In four thousand homes of Israel there was lamentation and woe. And they realized that their defeat was from the Lord. The elders said, “Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us to day before the Philistines?” (v. 3), but they did not humble themselves in His presence, to seriously enquire of Him. It was plain enough: Israel had sinned, though they were not willing to see it and own it. They own the hand of God in their trouble (so far was right), but instead of submitting to it they quarrel with it and speak as those who are angry at God and His providence. Note: “The foolishness of man perverteth his way: and his heart fretteth against the Lord” (Prov. 19:3).

6. They despised the Lord 

All knew that Samuel was the prophet of God, but they sought not his advice. Instead, they took the advice of the elders who had no legitimate right over it to take the ark of the covenant into battle. The custody of the ark belonged to the priests and the Levites, and Eli was the high priest. Eli was probably passed over as too old and too blind to be consulted, and his two sons would be restrained by no scruples from an act which everyone seemed to approve.

7. They were pagan in spirit 

They trusted the externals for worship rather than in the Lord Himself. The elders 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” (v. 3). They ascribed to the symbol the properties that belong only to the reality. They expected that the symbol of God’s presence would do for them all that might be done by His presence. It was a superstitious and irreverent use of the symbol of the glorious properties that belong only to the reality. 

The only true God is a living God. But this idea of God as the living God with a will of His own, and a purpose of His own, and that He will not countenance any undertaking that does not agree with His will or purpose, is strangely foreign to the human heart. The first consideration in any enterprise is, or should be, the will of God. The Israelites ascribed to the ark the virtues of a charm. And this spirit is not extinct in Christian communities. What are the Romish and high church doctrines of the sacraments but an ascription to them when rightly used of the power of a charm. Rome teaches the sacraments to be the reservoirs of grace. The superstitious mother thinks, if only her child is baptized, he or she will be saved. The dying sinner thinks, if only he had the last rites of the Church, he would be borne peacefully through dark scenes of death and judgment and forgets that the commandment of Scripture is not, look unto the sacraments and be saved, but “Look unto the Lord and be saved.” 

Alas! What will men not substitute for personal dealings with the living God. The first and last books of the Bible present sad proof of man’s recoil from such contact. In Genesis man hears God’s voice and runs. In Revelation, when the Lord appears, men call on the mountains to fall on them and hide them from His presence.

The Hopes of Misguided Israel

The ark was received into the battle with a great excitement. “All Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again” (v. 5). It should have been received with awe and confession of sin. But Israel was practically heathen. They took the same view as the Philistines. Repentance would have brought God, but dragging the ark out of its place removed Him only further away.

The Effect of the Ark on the Undisguised Heathen

It struck consternation into their breasts. They were afraid, “for they said, God is come into the camp.… 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” (vv. 7-8). But now an effect took place on which the Israelites had not reckoned. The Philistines were too wise a people to yield to panic. Never yield to panic even when the situation looks desperate; there may be some untried source to fall back on. The Philistines said to each other, “Be strong, and quit yourselves like men … and fight” (v. 9). Much more surely the believer knows that “man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” No peril is too imminent for God not to be able to deliver.

The Hopes of Misguided Israel Turned Out to Be an Illusion

The battle raged, and Israel “was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen” (v. 10). They found out to their consternation that the symbol does not carry the reality. And it pleased the Lord to allow the ark, with which His name is so intimately associated, to be seized by the enemy. And Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were slain. They died as they had lived: in the very act of dishonoring God. They saw even more vividly than Samuel and Eli the truth of one part of the divine rule: “Them that honor Me I will honor, and they that despise Me shall be lightly esteemed” (2:30). To this sad event the psalmist refers, “[He] delivered His strength into captivity, and His glory into the enemy’s hand. Their priests fell by the sword” (Psa. 78:61, 64). 

The taking of the ark was a very great judgment upon Israel and a certain token of God’s hot displeasure against them. Now they are made to see their folly in trusting to their external privileges when they had by their wickedness forfeited them and fancying that the ark would save them when God had departed from them. Now they are made to reflect, with the utmost regret, upon their own rashness and presumption in bringing the ark into the camp.

Back at Shiloh

Since the ark was carried off from Shiloh, Eli the high priest must have had a miserable time of it, reproaching himself for his weakness if he even gave a reluctant assent to the plan. Poor old man of ninety-eight years, he could but tremble for the ark! His official seat had been placed somewhere on the wayside, where he would be near to get tidings from the field by any who might come with them. And at last a man of Benjamin came in sight, with his clothes rent and earth upon his head. It was a sure sign of calamity. But who could have thought of the extent of the calamity. He announced (v. 17): first—“Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people”; second—“Thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead”; third—“The ark is taken.” At the mention of the ark of God, old Eli fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate and broke his neck, and he died.  

Dr. Lightfoot observes that Eli died the death of an unredeemed donkey, whose neck was to be broken (Ex. 13:13). Yet we must observe, to Eli’s praise, that is was the loss of the ark that was his death and not the death of his sons. He does in effect say, “Let me fall with the ark, for what pious Israelite can live with any comfort when the symbol of God’s presence is removed.”

And Even Yet the List of Calamities Was Not Exhausted

“And [Eli’s] daughter in law, Phinehas’ wife, was with child, near to be delivered: and when she heard the tidings that the ark of God was taken, and that her father in law and her husband were dead, she bowed herself and travailed; for her pains came upon her. And about the time of her death the women that stood by her said unto her, Fear not; for thou hast born a son. But she answered not, neither did she regard it. And she named the child I-chabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband” (vv. 19-21).

What an awful impression these scenes convey to us of the overpowering desolation that comes to the soul with the feeling that God has taken His departure. Tell us that the sun is no longer to shine; tell us that neither dew nor rain shall ever fall again to refresh the earth; tell us that a cruel and savage nation is to reign unchecked and unchallenged over all the families of a people once free and happy; but even then you convey no such image of desolation as when you tell pious hearts that God has departed from their community. Let us learn the obvious lesson to do nothing to provoke such a calamity. It is only when resisted and dishonored that the Spirit of God departs—only when He is driven away. Oh, beware of everything that grieves Him—everything that interferes with His gracious action in your souls. Beware of all that would lead God to say, “I will go and return to My place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek My face” (Hos. 5:15). Let our prayer be the cry of David: “Cast me not away from Thy presence; and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation; and uphold me with Thy free Spirit” (Psa. 51:11-12).

Finally, let us not fail to point out this very solemn truth: that all doom presages the final doom of “outer darkness.” This is the eternal doom of those who say to God, “Depart from us; for we desire not the knowledge of Thy ways” (Job 21:14).

[The previous article was reproduced from Foundation magazine, Issue 4, 2009, published by the Fundamental Evangelistic Association]