Samuel disappears from the story at 4:1 and does not reappear until chapter 7, which describes an event that occurred twenty years after the Battle detailed in this chapter. We do not know how old Samuel was when this event occurred, but it is clear that he had nothing to do with it. The focus in chapters 4–6 is on the ark of the covenant.
In verse 3, after the defeat of the armies of Israel in battle with the Philistines, the leaders of Israel ask an important question, one that we should be asking today when the church is losing many battles, even in our own locality. The question acknowledges both the sovereignty of God and the corporate experience of the people of God. When things go wrong, it is right that we should examine ourselves. Here the leaders took responsibility in asking the question, and that is an area in which church leaders should always be on the guard. I think it is also worth noting that the defeat involved the whole body of Israel; none could detach themselves from it even if they personally had a right relationship with God.
The answer they propose is to take the ark of God with them on the next occasion of battle. What was signified by the ark? At least three aspects of God’s relationship with Israel were depicted in this ark. First, it was God’s throne; he sat between the cherubim. We know from later scriptures that this is a reflection of the throne room in heaven. Second, it was the place where reconciliation was made annually on the Day of Atonement when the high priest entered on behalf of the nation of Israel. Third, the ark was the place of divine revelation, for it contained the revealed law of God and was also the place where God’s will was revealed to the high priest. Given these features, it is not surprising that the leaders decided to take the Ark with them.
But what were the reasons for taking it? I will suggest three possibilities. The first possible reason was assuming that actions from the past will be honoured by God in the present. The ark had led the children of Israel through the wilderness, and the God it represented helped his people defeat their enemies. Surely he would do the same again! We could describe this as the policy of depending on tradition.
A second possible is that the Israelites had become so spiritually immature they reduced the ark to an equivalent of an idol, and imagined that its physical presence guaranteed victory. This outlook would be a problem throughout Israel’s history, for we find false prophets on the eve of the exile assuring the people that Judah could not be defeated by the Babylonians because God’s temple was still standing in Jerusalem. This outlook can be described as superstition.
The third possible reason was that they were putting God to the test. This thinking argues that if one creates a situation in which God has to honour his name, then he will come and do so. It was unthinkable that God would allow a defeat against his name. This outlook can be described as manipulation, of thinking that God can be controlled by his people.
It is not only the children of Israel long ago who think like that. We today can do the same. We live in an age of spiritual decline, and despite our awareness of God as ruler, reconciler and revealer, these three responses appear repeatedly with us. Some take refuge in tradition – there is nothing wrong with old practices if they are helpful, but unless God has told us to practice them they will not be of any help as we fight our spiritual battles.
Others assume that because the signs of God’s presence are with us – his word and his sacraments – we are secure. But the presence of the signs is no guarantee that God is with us; an assumption like this is merely superstition.
Others set up their innovative remedies with enthusiasm, some very ingenious and striking, but give the impression that God is bound to bless these new methods. But the reality is, that just like Israel of old, we are not blessed by him whether our position is one of tradition, superstition, or innovation.
What was the problem with the Israelites? The defeat did not happen because of the strength of the Philistines. The problem was with the relationship the Israelites had with their God. As a people they had departed from the Lord and his ways, and therefore they were defeated.