Though Samuel himself continued in a strong relationship with God, in the nation of Israel as a whole, the days were becoming dark. 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. It had become one that was merely ceremonial. It had lost the sense of a true relationship with God and had become a religion of cold tradition. 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 various forms of 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. This was the situation during the last days of Eli the priest, and before Samuel became the recognized leader of the spiritual life of Israel.
This particular 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 event would not 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.” That word means “fortress.” It is likely that there were also other Apheks, so it is unclear if this was actually the given name of this specific place, or if it was simply one of several fortresses 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. The name Aphek, on the other hand, symbolizes the best efforts of man. A fortress. A stronghold. The mightiest of man’s defenses.
Although the Israelite troops were gathered at a site called Ebenezer, it takes more than place-names to instill proper attitudes and behavior in the people. The name may refer to the fact that there is a need for help from God, but there is nothing in the text to suggest that they actually looked to him 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. 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 that they had been defeated, 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. Similar to the rest of the spiritual understanding of the people, they looked to ritual instead of inner life.
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 we can know of 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 with God. We also must come to know his ways and to walk in them.
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 previously, 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, both 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 was 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 the people 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 went with the ark of the covenant of God. So certain where the soldiers of 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 either 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)
Strange that the Philistines remembered the history of Israel, but the people of Israel did not.
Victory for the Philistines
And fight the Philistines did. They 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. No doubt they had been victims of the battle.
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.” The name means, “there is no glory.”
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.
A Regrettable Cycle of Sin
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. But the ancient nation of Israel is not the only nation who once served and worshiped God and then in later years abandoned him and turned their desires in other directions. All nations who have had a foundation based on the teachings of God should turn to the example of ancient Israel to reap the lessons of its history.
It would be many years after the events of Ichabod 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.
[You were] 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 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. (Jeremiah 2:1-13)
Where is the Lord?
We might ask, “How could that ancient nation of Israel, who had seen so many miracles of God and had experienced so many blessings from his hand, abandon him in the end?” It may seem inconceivable to us, except for the fact that our own nation has acted in much the very same manner.
There are too many similarities between the words that Jeremiah wrote and our own situation for me to ignore. We are that nation who has abandoned God. We may not be battling the Philistines, but our own vulnerability is just as obvious.
We have our own battles. The invaders of our land do not come with swords and arrows, or with any other type of military armament, but they are real nonetheless. We are presently facing a barrage of crises on several fronts, whether we talk of economic crisis, pandemic health crisis, a chaotic immigration crisis, or a new surge of racial hatred—these are but a few of them.
And what is our response to these disasters? Like ancient Israel, we do not ask, “Where is the LORD?”
Instead, we further implicate ourselves in evil by continuing to reject what God has taught us in the Scriptures. Moreover, not only are we rejecting God’s word, but we often act in direct defiance of what he had told us or how he has created us to live.
As an example, some of the first words of the Bible are about the creation of all that we know. Among those words concerning creation are these: “God created man in His own image…male and female He created them.”
But today, we are no longer allowed to describe sexuality in terms of only male and female. This idea, as fundamental as it is in the creation account and in God’s design, has become archaic and backward in our society. In addition to describing us as Male or Female, we must now include an alphabet soup of letters to accommodate those who have chosen to “self-identify” (a new term for our age) as some other confusing perversion of God’s design. Notice that our modern term “self-identify” is actually a suitable term, for God identified only male and female. All other identities come from rebellion against God.
But today, this distinction between men and women is losing credibility. Today, we are expected to ask what pronouns a person prefers—what mixture of self-identified gender labels should we use when addressing them? As in the days of the Judges of Israel, “everyone merely does what is right in his own eyes.”
Many want the loving term of “mother” to be replaced with “birthing person,” because now, even as we tout our confidence in “science,” we also teach that men can become pregnant. And one of the most distressing things about all of this is that we are also seeing these lies taught to our children so that they are brought up in a society almost completely devoid of God’s standards.
Even with all of this, as upsetting that it all is, this same subject of children brings me to what I consider the greatest of all the evils of our society. That evil is the denial of the right for all children, both those born and those yet to be born, to have life.
For nearly 50 years, children still in the womb of their mothers in our country have had no rights. They remained alive merely at the whim of their mothers. In that nearly 50 years since these unborn children lost their fundamental right to live, over 60 million of them have been killed.
Life is the very essence of human rights. It is, as stated in our constitution, an “inalienable right.” It is given to us by God, and not to be taken from an innocent, merely at the whim of another.
Many Middle Eastern societies in ancient days practiced child sacrifice by killing infants in homage to their gods, to the Baals or to other gods. Our practice of killing children while still in the womb is our own modern version of child sacrifice. Our god is no statue or image as in those ancient days. Our god is ourselves. We worship our own desires above all else.
For some reason (and it can only be the patience of God), he has so far not brought judgment upon our nation because of this evil of child sacrifice. God has been longsuffering with us, but his longsuffering is not endless when it comes to blatant disobedience and evil in a society. Again, we see this in the story of ancient Israel.
A Pivotal Moment of Time
In our own nation, we are at a critical moment—a pivotal moment. We are living at the very instant of our history where enough people have finally come to the point of saying, “no more killing of babies,” that we may actually be able to make this major change in our laws. We are at the point where we can give these unborn children their right to live.
But as you know, the opposition is great. The forces of politics and finance are waged against it. There is actually no certainty how this matter will end.
Our nation is at the point of choosing what path to follow. Should we continue to further implicate ourselves in rebellion against the ways of the Lord, there is no doubt in my mind that God’s presence will soon (very soon) depart from our land. We have already seen it in many ways. Should we fail at this point, as our nation collapses to the ground, it will be shouting “Ichabod!”
We are turning this beautiful land into a land of hatred and destruction.
“Ichabod!” The glory of the Lord has departed!
But it is not his glory that has abandoned us. We have abandoned him. However, there is a road back. We can begin to travel that road now.
Next week—Ebenezer. “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matthew 5:8)
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 29:11-14)
Show me Your ways, O LORD; teach me Your paths. Guide me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; all day long I wait for You. (Psalm 25:4-5)
Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
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