I Sam. 4:2-7:17
The Philistines were bitter enemies of the Israelites. They engaged in many battles with them—both successfully and unsuccessfully. Soon after Samuel’s appointment as God’s prophet, Israel fought a war with Philistia and lost four thousand soldiers in a disastrous defeat.
Following that defeat, the Israelites mistakenly took the ark of the covenant with them into the next battle. They had the ark, but not God’s presence. Thirty thousand foot soldiers, including Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas died. The ark was also captured by the Philistines and placed unceremoniously before Dagon, the god of the Philistines.
A messenger reported to Eli that his two sons had died in battle and that the ark of the covenant had been captured. The news that the ark had been captured caused Eli to fall backward. The fall broke his neck and he died at the age of ninety-eight years.
Phinehas’ wife heard the news of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of Eli and her husband. The shock of that news caused her to go into labor. Soon after naming her baby son Ichabod, she also died. The prophecy against Eli’s family was beginning to be fulfilled.
Sometimes what one thinks is a good thing turns out to be not so good. The Philistines in their exuberance of capturing the ark learned that even though God had turned His back upon Israel, He refused to allow their god, Dagon to prevail against the ark. It fell before the ark and its head and hands broke off leaving only its torso.
Plagues broke out in every city in which the Philistines moved the ark of God. By then, no one wanted it in their presence. They asked that it be sent back to its own place. Man and his gods cannot prevail against God.
After seven months of misery, the Philistines called for their priests and diviners to tell them how to return the ark of the covenant to the Israelites. They were instructed to make a trespass offering of five golden images of both the tumors and rats that had afflicted them and to place them in a chest on a cart beside the ark. The cart was to be pulled by two milk cows that had never been yoked. If they took the cart with its load to the Israelites instead of returning to their calves, they would know that it had been God who had afflicted them because of the ark and not a by chance occurrence.
There was great celebration in the Israelite city of Beth Shemesh when they saw the ark. They used the wood of the cart for fire and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. However, in their excitement, some of the men opened the ark. Only priests and Levites were allowed to touch it. Because of their disrespect, God destroyed fifty thousand and seventy men of Beth Shemesh. The ark was taken to Beth Jearim where it remained for twenty years.
Israel continued to suffer at the hand of the Philistines. Samuel, the judge and prophet of God convinced them to put their gods away and return to the true God. As the Israelites were meeting for worship and rededication at Mizpeh, the Philistines again went up to attack them. With God’s help, His children were able to subdue them. They once again lived in peace.
“And Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.”