“The glory has departed”
The events in Israel in the times surrounding the life of the prophet Samuel follow those of the book of Judges in the Old Testament. In fact, Samuel himself is usually considered the last of the judges. During his time, Samuel was the one to whom Israel looked for instruction in the ways of God and for guidance in times of oppression from foreign enemies. He was the last to hold this office before Israel and Judah began to be ruled by kings.
But the days were becoming dark. Even though Samuel himself continued in a strong relationship with God, the spiritual lives of most of the people during these times had lost practically all their meaning. The society had not become secular, necessarily, but the religious life of the people was more like that of the nations around Israel. Theirs had actually become a religion without life and one that was merely ceremonial. It had lost the sense of a true relationship with God.
It had become a religion of cold tradition, where the people looked upon their duties only as fulfilling certain rituals and formalities. Since their perception of religion was much like the people of the other nations, the Israelites had even adopted as their own many of the gods of the surrounding nations, idols such as the Baals and the Ashtoreths.
The final sentence of the book of Judges encapsulates accurately the tenor of the day’s society when the author of that book concludes his writings by saying that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
Mustering the Troops for Battle
But the fact that the Israelites had become much like their surrounding nations does not mean that they lived in peace with them. There were constant incursions and wars. So was the situation during the last days of Eli the priest. This was before Samuel became the recognized leader of the spiritual life of Israel.
This portion of the story of the Israelites begins, oddly enough, at a location on the map called “Ebenezer.” The name means “Stone of Help.”
It is not clear if this spot actually bore that name at the time the story begins, because it is after an eventual and great victory over the Philistines that Samuel set up a stone to name Ebenezer, while saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us,” but that time would not to come until several years later. Nevertheless, the name is significant even at the beginning of the battle, because it is where the Israelites mustered their troops, readying themselves for the ensuing conflict.
The Philistines, for their part, came together at a site known as “Aphek.” The word means “fortress.” Because it is likely that there were also other Apheks, it is unclear if this was actually the given name of this specific place, or if it was simply a fortress with a name that has been lost to us.
However, the significance of the place-names lies in the meanings. Ebenezer refers to the need of help, in this case meaning the help that comes from the Lord. Aphek symbolizes the best efforts of man. A fortress. A stronghold. The mightiest of man’s defenses.
But it takes more than place-names to instill proper attitudes and behavior in the people. Although the Israelite troops were mustered at a site called Ebenezer, there is nothing in the text to suggest that they actually looked to the Lord for help in their battle against the Philistines. As a result and because the faith of the Israelites was not truly in God, the Philistines stuck down about four thousand of their warriors, and Israel was defeated by the enemy.
Crushed by the defeat, the elders of Israel then began to question why they were not able to overcome the invaders. “Why has the LORD brought defeat on us before the Philistines today?” they wondered.
There had been no previous indication that they had been seeking the help of the LORD before going out into this battle—no prayers for guidance and blessing, but now they seemed to believe that the cause of their defeat was because God was not with them. They correctly assessed the cause, but the solution that they proposed demonstrated their complete deficiency in understanding the ways of God.
The elders suggested, “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD from Shiloh, so that it may go with us to save us from the hand of our enemies.”
It was true that the Ark of the Covenant served as a vanguard in times previous to this and even symbolized the presence of God, but the ark was not God Himself. It is not as if the physical act of bringing the ark into the camp was the same as having the presence of God with them.
If the Israelites would have learned the lessons of their history, they would have known that the presence of God depended more upon their own obedience to his word than it did with any religious symbolic relic or artifact. Moses could have told them this, and in fact he did.
The Presence of God with Moses
During the forty years when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt, Moses set up what was called “the tent of meeting” outside the camp. It was within that tent where Moses would meet with God and speak with him “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11).
I do not know in what form God appeared to Moses. There is no indication in the text that it was in the form of a man, like a pre-incarnate Jesus, but it may have been. All that we are told is that when Moses entered the tent, a pillar of cloud would come down and remain at the entrance. Although we are told that Moses spoke with God “face to face,” it was not the actual full face of God that Moses saw, for just a few verses after we are given that phrase, in response to the request by Moses to see the full glory of God, God told him, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live” (v.20).
What Moses actually saw and what he sensed when he was in the tent of meeting is left only to the short description that we have of those events and however we picture it in our minds. But the important matter is that the relationship that Moses had with God was a personal one, not one simply based on ritual and paying homage. Moses wanted to know God in an intimate way. He spoke with him as a man does with a friend.
Moses said to God, “Now if indeed I have found favor in Your sight, please let me know Your ways, that I may know You and find favor in Your sight. Remember that this nation is Your people.”
If the Israelites of Samuel’s day would have had this same desire, if they wanted to know the ways of God, they would not have been concerned that he would be with them in their battle with the Philistines. The Lord would have said to them as he answered Moses, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:13-14 BSB).
The Presence of God with Joshua
Joshua also could have told the Israelites this as they were going to battle. After his army was defeated in a battle that Joshua thought should have been an easy victory for them, he realized that something had gone wrong in the relationship of his people with God.
Indeed, when Joshua came to God to ask him the reason for this defeat, God told him plainly, “Israel has sinned; they have transgressed My covenant that I commanded them…This is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies. They will turn their backs and run from their enemies, because they themselves have been set apart for destruction. I will no longer be with you unless you remove from among you whatever is devoted to destruction” (Joshua 7:11-12 BSB).
It was only after Joshua and the Israelites put themselves through a lengthy process of determining the root of their failure with the Lord that God gave them the success that they were seeking. Their failure had been that they had not taken the words of God to heart. Outwardly, they may have appeared to be following what God had told them, but inwardly they had been disobedient.
The sin could not be hidden. God had seen it and had abandoned his people because they had abandoned him.
Some of the very first words that God spoke to Joshua after the death of Moses are words that all of us should hear if we seek to have a true and living relationship with God, and not merely one of performing certain rituals like “going to church,” and “saying our prayers.” These practices may be good things, but they cannot be the extent of a full relationship.
God told Joshua that obedience was important, but not simply outward and ritualistic obedience. It was to be an obedience that grows out of a true understanding of the mind of God. It is to be an obedience that has come about because the follower of God “meditates day and night” on the words that God has spoken.
“For then,” God told him, “you will prosper and succeed in all you do” (Joshua 1:7-8).
The Corruption of the Priesthood
But the Israelites of Samuel’s day had forgotten these things. As I mentioned, their religious leader and teacher at the time was not yet Samuel, but it was still the High Priest Eli, along with his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas.
The two sons were known for their wickedness. They had no regard for how they should conduct themselves as priests, or regard even for the Lord. They took for themselves the offerings that were meant for the Lord, and they habitually slept with the women who served at the entrance.
The father Eli knew of these transgressions, and attempted to reprimand his sons for their actions, but they had no respect also for their father and did not listen. Eli said to them, “If a man sins against another man, God can intercede for him; but if a man sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?” (1 Samuel 2:12-25)
His words were more accurate than perhaps he even knew. Eli and his sons had allowed the priesthood to become a mockery, and God was soon to bring each of their lives to a violent end.
A man of God soon visited the priest, telling him of God’s intentions to put Eli’s line of priesthood to an end with his two sons dying on the same day. The prophet also told Eli how the Lord was then to raise up a faithful priest, who would do whatever is in God’s heart and mind (1 Samuel 2:35). The immediate fulfillment of this prophecy was to be Samuel, although the ultimate fulfillment involved a deeper significance.
The Ark of the Covenant Goes to War
But Samuel was not yet the recognized religious leader at the time when the army had made decision to bring the Ark of the Covenant into the battle with them against the Philistines. So unaccustomed were they with the teachings of their Scriptures that they thought that bringing this relic into the fight with them would give them victory.
They said, “Let us bring the ark of the LORD from Shiloh, so that it may go with us to save us from the hand of our enemies.”
The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, also came with the ark of the covenant of God. So certain where the soldiers in this new battle strategy, that when the Ark of the Covenant entered the camp, “all the Israelites raised such a great shout that it shook the ground.”
So great was the cheering that the Philistines heard the noise. They asked one another, “What is this loud shouting in the camp of the Hebrews?”
When they realized that the ark of the LORD had entered the camp, the Philistines were afraid. “The gods have entered their camp!” they said.
The Philistines can be excused for their lack of understanding about the nature of the LORD God. All ancient cultures had their war gods—from Odin of the Norse people, Mars for the Romans and Ares of the Greeks. In the ancient perception of battle, it was not merely the number and strength of the warriors that determined the outcome, or their weaponry, but also the power of the war gods that were on each side. Thus, when the Philistines understood that the Israelites had carried their god into their camp, they were greatly frightened.
“Woe to us, for nothing like this has happened before,” the cried. Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. Take courage and be men, O Philistines! Otherwise, you will serve the Hebrews just as they served you. Now be men and fight!” (1 Samuel 4:7-9 BSB) .
Victory for the Philistines
And fight they did. The Philistines fought with such abandon that not only did they kill thirty thousand foot soldiers and defeat the Israelites, but they even captured the ark of God. Also, as the man of God had predicted to Eli, his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died - both on the same day.
As a messenger ran back to Shiloh to tell of the defeat, he reported to Eli, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has been a great slaughter among the people. Your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are both dead, and the ark of God has been captured.”
Hearing the news about his sons was shocking enough for the old priest, but when he heard that the ark of the Lord had been captured, he fell backwards in his chair. He was an old man, and the years of easy living had caused him to grow very fat. When he fell, he broke his neck and died.
One of the dead sons, Phinehas, had a wife who was well advanced in her pregnancy. When the news came to her about the capture of God’s ark, and the deaths of her husband and her father-in-law, all strength left her. She collapsed where she stood. The shock of the situation also caused her to go into labor. She was dying and giving birth at the same time.
There was a woman attending her at the birth, and trying to encourage the dying mother she said, “Do not be afraid, for you have given birth to a son!”
Her only response was, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
She named the boy Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel.”
A Regrettable Cycle of Sin
The departure of the ark from Israel was the indication that the glory of God was absent from that nation, but it did not mean that the glory of God had ceased to exist. God was still as sovereign and powerful as ever. It was only that Israel had forsaken God, so he had also forsaken them. His glory was not present with his people.
It was not to be a permanent absence, for the glory of God would return after some years. But that return would only be after a number of years, and it would be only after Samuel the judge brought about a revival in the faith of the people toward the Lord God.
This cycle of the people of God abandoning him and then returning was one whose history is recorded for us multiple times in the Bible. It would be many years after these events that the prophet Jeremiah would write the following words concerning the people of his own day. As you read these words of Jeremiah slowly (and preferably in voice), ask yourself how much this applies to our own nation of the United States in our present days.
From the writings of Jeremiah:
The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “This is what the LORD says:
‘I remember the devotion of your youth…how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of His harvest…
What fault did your fathers find in Me that they strayed so far from Me, and followed worthless idols, and became worthless themselves?
They did not ask, “Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and pits, a land of drought and darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives?”
I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and bounty, but you came and defiled My land, and made My inheritance detestable.
The priests did not ask, “Where is the LORD?”
The experts in the law no longer knew Me, and the leaders rebelled against Me.
The prophets prophesied by false gods and followed useless idols.
Therefore, I will contend with you again, declares the LORD, and I will bring a case against your children’s children…
My people have exchanged their Glory for useless idols.
Be stunned by this, O heavens; be shocked and utterly appalled…
For My people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living water,
And they have dug their own cisterns—broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
Where is the Lord?
There are too many similarities between these words and our own situation for me to ignore. In our present hour, we may not be battling the Philistines, but our own vulnerability is just as obvious.
We may not face invasions from outside armies at this time, but whether you wish to consider COVID-19, racial hatred and violence as we are seeing in some of our cities (again!), or whatever other force of devastation that is coming to us, it may be time for us to ask, “Where is the LORD?”
“Where is the Lord who brought our fathers and mothers from a state of impoverishment in far distant lands to live in this land of plenty? Have we abandoned him? ”
We are turning this beautiful land into a land of hatred and destruction.
His glory has not abandoned us. We have abandoned him.
But there is a road back.
Next week—Ebenezer. “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”