There are five lessons that we can learn from the account of the defeat of Israel by the Philistines. First, God is prepared to let his people be defeated if their relationship with him is not right. One of the helpful sections of Scripture in this regard are the warnings the Saviour gives to the seven churches of Asia. With five of these churches he finds fault, and with two of the five we would have been pleased, those in Ephesus and Sardis. Ephesus was doctrinally orthodox, purged out heresies, while Sardis had a name that she was alive. Yet Jesus was prepared to let them go out of existence if they did not repent of their sins of lovelessness and hypocrisy.
Second, God is prepared to allow his name to be humiliated if the relationship with his people in a given place is not right. There was great celebration in the Philistine camp, although we know their celebrations were short-lived. But the point I am making is that God was prepared to give both his people and their enemy the illusion that he had been defeated. This has happened repeatedly throughout church history.
Third, the action of the Israelites removed the fear the pagans had of the God of history. At first, the Philistines were apprehensive of taking on in battle the assumed presence of such a God who had done great things in the past. But when they discovered that the presence of the ark added nothing to Israel, they concluded they had nothing to fear. Is it the case that the church’s response of recent decades, whether it be tradition, superstition or innovation, which has achieved almost nothing, has caused society to lose its fear of God. A church in a wrong relationship with God is not an army to be feared by either the devil or the world.
Fourth, when this type of thing happens, we are not to assume that God is doing nothing, for he is present but acting in judgement. In this situation, he fulfilled his own word about the house of Eli. Yet even the way Eli died, and the concern expressed by his daughter-in-law, as well as the general concern of the people, suggests that some of the people had begun to realise that there was a problem. It may be, that in the current weakness of the church, the Lord is removing outdated ideas, superstitious notions and irrelevant innovations to bring about a church that repents of her wrong relationship with her Lord, and hopefully there are some with the eyes to see this and examine their relationship with Jesus.
Fifth, God must withdraw himself from his people in order for them to turn and seek him. When they realise he is not there, then they become serious about their devotion and commitment. This is anticipating a future event at Mizpah, where what was needed was self-humbling, confession of sin and rededication to him.