Chapter 7: His Early Ministry

(1 Sam. 4)

THE expression with which our chapter opens, "And the word of Samuel came to all Israel," seems to indicate that it was not so much the prophetic word as the more ordinary ministry of the Levite, in exhortation and instruction, "teaching Jacob Jehovah's judgments, and Israel His law" (Deut. 33:10). It is called "the word of Samuel," probably to distinguish between it and that ministry which was peculiar to him as a prophet of the Lord. In the days of the kings, Jehoshaphat sent out Levites to teach in all Judah: "And they taught in Judah, and had the book of the law of the Lord with them, and went about throughout all the cities of Judah, and taught the people" (2 Chron. 17:8). So also in the days of king Hezekiah, the Levites "taught the good knowledge of the Lord " (2 Chron. 30:22).

And here the word ministered by this devoted young Levite comes to all Israel. He probably went about in circuit, from place to place, exhorting the people to obedience to Jehovah's law, seeking to encourage and win them back in allegiance to Him. He could not be expected to come into prominence about the Tabernacle as yet, owing to his youth and the presence there of Eli and his sons. God's punishment had not yet been meted out to them, while they were, doubtless, filling up the full measure of their iniquity; and Samuel would not be idle, but going about among the people, ministering to them in the humble capacity of an itinerant Levite.

We can well understand how Samuel's presence at Shiloh, about the Tabernacle, might become unwelcome to Hophni and Phinehas as he approached years of maturity; and God may have used it to send His servant out among the tribes, and thus "make the wrath of man to praise Him." This would give Samuel a thorough acquaintance with the people, and win their confidence, and so obtain that influence with them that in later years God turned to such good account. From a child, opening the doors and serving in various ways about the Tabernacle, his occupation as a teaching Levite would, in turn, prepare him and give him the necessary experience to serve his God and His people in the higher position of chief magistrate and prophet - at times even as a sacrificing priest.

It is a beautiful example of the New Testament principle of a steward in the temporal affairs of the assembly, "using the office of a deacon well, and thereby purchasing to himself a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 3:13). In the New Testament itself we see it illustrated in the case of both Philip and Stephen, who were at first chosen to "serve tables," and later developed into men of gift and greater usefulness; the former becoming known as "Philip the evangelist," and the other an able teacher and the first Christian martyr (see Acts 6:5; 7:59; 21:8). And if it be true that we must learn to obey before we are qualified to rule, it is equally true that we must have been willing to serve in little things before we can be expected to be called to serve in greater. For example, if we have never been interested in the care of the meeting-room, we can never expect to be given any important place in the government of God's house, the Church of God. If, while young, we disdain, or are too indolent or indifferent, to teach in the Sunday-school, how shall we ever, when older, become useful in teaching the assembly?

"Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Ebenezer: and the Philistines pitched in Aphek. And the Philistines put themselves in array against Israel: and when they joined battle, Israel was smitten before the Philistines: and they slew of the army in the field about four thousand men " (1 Sam. 4:1. 2).

This is the first mention made of the Philistines since the capture and death of Samson some twenty years before, if the ordinary chronology given in our Bibles be accepted as correct (Judges 16: 30). The sudden destruction of so many of their number on that occasion, including, as it doubtless did, many of their leading lords and chiefs, would have a subduing effect upon their spirits, and we hear no more of them until their mention in the chapter before us.

It would appear that it was Israel who provoked the battle; there was likely a sort of armed truce between them, and here, without one word of command from God, and no apparent provocation on the part of the Philistines, they go forth against them to battle. They took the offensive without either divine direction or support, and were made to smart for it.

The Philistines were not of the nations of Canaan devoted to destruction. Away back in the book of Genesis we see both Abraham and Isaac on friendly terms with them (Gen. chaps. 20 and 26).

We learn from Ex. 13:17 that God "led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt." It was only the "borders" of their land that they were commanded under Joshua to conquer (Josh. 13:3). Shamgar, later, slew six hundred of them with an ox goad, "and he also delivered Israel " (Judges 3:31). Then, further on, we read of Israel worshiping the gods of the Philistines, for which Jehovah sold them into their hands (Judges 10:6, 7). Their last end is utter destruction, and their pride cut off (Amos 1:7, 8; Zeph. 9:5 ; Zech. 9:5). Typically, to quote from the "New and Concise Dictionary" of Morrish, "They represent the pretension and intrusion of man in the flesh into that which belongs to God. Nazariteship in Samson is God's way of deliverance, but the Nazarite utterly failed, and in the days of Eli the Israelites were conquered by them, and they were enabled to enter into his dominions; and in a battle Saul and his sons lost their lives. It was by David, God's king, that the Philistines were really conquered, and under Solomon we find they were tributary."

Here we see Israel worsted in their self-chosen battle with them. Israel was smitten before the Philistines. No power but that of God can stand before them. He is not with Israel here, and they consequently suffer defeat. Like Samson, they are powerless in contending with them. We read nothing of their seeking God's direction or assistance before the battle; they did not have Samuel with them to pray for and encourage them, and their reliance was wholly in the arm of flesh, which, with the people of God, always fails. "Woe unto them, for they have fled from Me... they have transgressed against Me." "Yea, woe also to them when I depart from them" (Hos. 7:13; 9:12).

This is ever true; it was true of Samson; "the Lord was departed from him," and his strength was gone.   He now fell into the hands of the Philistines, whom he had never before feared, and died in bondage to them. So here Israel, without the Lord, are easily defeated by them; they are punished severely for their temerity. But instead of turning to God, as did Joshua after the defeat before Ai (Josh. 7: 6-8), they bethink themselves of the ark, hoping it would save them, and they could thereby retrieve their loss and wipe out the disgrace.

"So the people sent to Shiloh that they might bring from thence the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, which dwelleth between the cherubim: and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God " (ver. 4).

Leaderless and repulsed, they turn to that which was but a symbol to save them. True, it was the symbol of God's presence: "The ark was, by institution, the visible token of God's presence;" but of what worth was this when not accompanied by the actual presence of God Himself? Alas, they had grievously offended Him by their sins; and what help could be expected from "it" when brought out under the charge of the already condemned sons of the rejected Eli?

The Israelites evidently placed their confidence in the ark through a misunderstanding, or a wrong application, of Moses' words at the going forth of the children of Israel in their wilderness journeys: "And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee. And when it rested, he said, Return, O Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel " (Num. 10:35, 36). It is easy for man's depraved heart to appeal to scripture examples to justify unauthorized practices, when those scriptures are taken out of their connection, and thus misapplied. After they had been established in the land, there was no authority whatever to remove the ark from its settled resting-place; it was in fact forbidden (see Deut. 12:5, 11, etc. ). God's presence, symbolized by the ark, was not to come to them, but they were to go to it!

"And the Philistines were afraid; for they said, God is come into the camp. And they said, Woe unto us! for there hath not been such a thing heretofore. Woe unto us!  Who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty gods... that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness... And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirteen thousand footmen. And the ark of God was taken, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain " (vers. 7-11).

The Philistines fought," we read. Israel's defeat appears to have been sudden, and they seem to have succumbed before their enemies without scarcely striking a blow. Oh, how shameful their defeat; and, when appraised of it, the godly in Israel must have felt like crying like Joshua before Ai, "O Lord, what shall I say, when Israel turneth their backs before their enemies!" And had the elders after the first smiting of the four thousand, become exercised before the Lord, as was the warrior Joshua, and cried to God earnestly to know the cause, they might have been spared the second and worse defeat. But no, they only say, after the preliminary skirmish has ended disastrously, "Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us today before the Philistines? "It was little more than a pious expression, and was not followed by searching of heart, else they might have discovered the cause, as did Joshua; and having learned the reason of their defeat, with true penitence and prayer they might have retrieved the defeat with complete and glorious victory. "Ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. And five of you shall chase a hundred, and an hundred of you shall put ten thousand to Flight!" was the promise given them by God at the outset of their history as a nation. Later the same promise is repeated with greatly augmented force: "How should one chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight!"  Joshua, in his farewell address, recalls the animating promise, "One man of you shall chase a thousand " (Lev. 26:8; Deut. 32:30; Josh. 23:10).

But, be it noted, all these promises were conditional; they were dependent upon the faithful discharge of Israel's responsibilities. The first was, "If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them." The second was like unto it: "Oh that they were wise, that they understood this!" (the keeping of the commandments of God); and the third is of like import, "But cleave unto the Lord your God" (see context of above scripture references). But Israel had sadly failed in all this; they were therefore shorn of their strength and smitten before their enemies. The only remedy left them was the confession of their backslidings and a whole­hearted return to God. But no, this would have required "great searching's of heart." It was humiliating, and would have taken too much time, they probably would have reasoned. They were anxious to make good their initial losses, and it was much easier to say, "Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh, that it may save us out of the hand of the Philistines." The result, as we already know, was a far worse and irretrievable defeat.

There is no true power for the believer apart from obedience to God's word, just as there is no true joy or peace apart from subjection, nor abiding rest without submission to the Divine will as revealed in Scripture. There were great shootings in the camp when the ark arrived, just as in a later day, when Israel was again in conflict with the Philistines, and David came in, "They shouted for the battle"(1 Sam. 17:20). But in neither case was it "the voice of them that shout for mastery," nor the "shout of a king" in their midst but the expression of a vain and fatal confidence; in both cases there was more shouting than real or effective fighting. It was much easier to shout than it was to fight; just as to-day, it is easier to grow enthusiastic under the influence of big meetings and stirring addresses with exhilarating music, than it is to live devotedly to God, in separation from the world, crucifying the flesh, and courageously overcoming the devil.

The Philistines (like unbelieving Israel) look at the symbol of Jehovah's presence instead of to Jehovah Himself - whom they did not know. It was only the fear of superstition, and they soon rally from it, saying, "Be strong, and quit yourselves like men, O ye Philistines... quit yourselves like men, and fight." The margin reads, "Be men."

"Be strong! Be men!" is all the men of the world can say for each other's encouragement; but, relying on the Lord, the man of faith says with the apostle, " When I am weak, then am I strong."  "Ye walk as men," was the same apostle's rebuke to the worldly Corinthians who gloried of prominence in the world. "Every inch a man" is the complimentary commendation of the world as to one it approves. Men of " blue blood" (or men of "red blood," as it is now) are the pride and confidence of the natural man; but God has said, "Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord" (Jer. 17:5).

Thus, poor misguided Israel, having departed from their God, fly before the victorious Philistines, and return "every man to his tent" in humiliation and sorrow, for there was a very great slaughter, and there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen."

"And there ran a man of Benjamin out of the army, and came to Shiloh the same day with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head. And when he came, lo, Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching: for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city, and told it, all the city cried out. And when Eli heard the noise of the crying, he said, What meaneth the noise of this tumult? And the man came in hastily, and told Eli. Now Eli was ninety and eight years old; and his eyes were dim that he could not see. And the man said unto Eli, I am he that came out of the army, and I fled to-day out of the army.

And he said, What is there done, my son? And the messenger answered and said, Israelis fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken. And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died: for be was an old man, and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years" (vers. 12-18).

Poor Eli! Be it said to his praise, however, that he trembled for the ark of God; "and it was when he heard that it was taken that his heart ceased to beat, and he fell, to rise no more, while the messenger seemed least concerned about the fate of the ark, as his mentioning it last would indicate; but to the aged priest it was the most tragic event of this dark and fatal day. "Precious in Jehovah's eyes is the death of His saints;" and, however weak, Eli was one of them, surely. The report of the ark being taken was too much for him. This eclipsed all the other sorrows of that terrible day for him.

God, who loves to keep the remembrance of all that is good, has put on record the few significant words of the wife of Phinehas who, when she heard that the ark of God was taken," calls the child to which she then gives birth, "Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel." First in her thoughts is the ark of God; then her father-in-law, the aged Eli; and last, her unworthy husband, slain by the Philistines. The shock of that evil day was too great for her also who, with her dying breath gives utterance to what was rending her heart, "The glory is departed from Israel," for the ark, Israel's glory, was now in the enemy's hands. "Ichabod," the glory gone, would be a solemn reminder of that unhappy break in the priestly family, and that insults to Israel's God justly entail terrible consequences.

Eli was of the line of Ithamar, the youngest son of Aaron, and in consequence came in last in the order of priestly privilege. Their responsibilities in connection with the tabernacle were almost wholly of the Levite character (see Ex. 28:1; 38:21).

On the death of Nadab and Abihu because of their offering strange fire before the Lord, the high-priesthood fell to Eleazar, the third in order of age. How the office came to be transferred to the house of Ithamar, the fourth son of Aaron, Scripture does not inform us. God has reasons in all things, some of them being hidden from us for the present, as those unexplained transposing of the earth's crust, sometimes met with, which have proved so puzzling to geologists. How, or when the strata became superimposed, they are unable to say; they only know that they were. In some upheaval of the dim past they became inverted out of their regular order, but in what manner, or in what geologic age the cataclysm occurred is a mystery to man.

The house of Eli continued its priestly functions through the reigns of Saul and David, up to the accession of Solomon. The terrible slaughter of the Lord's priests, eightyfive in number, by Doeg the Edomite, at the command of Saul, was a part of the judgment pronounced upon Eli's family (1 Sam. 22). Only one, Abiathar, escaped and fled to David, with whom he ministered as priest during the time of his rejection. He followed him in his wanderings, and was continued in office through David's reign; but, for his part in the conspiracy of Adonijah, he was banished by Solomon to the priestly town of Anathoth, where he presumably died in disgrace. "So Solomon thrust out Abiathar from being priest unto the Lord; that he might fulfil the word of the Lord, which he spake concerning the house of Eli in Shiloh " (1 Ki. 2:27). He was the fourth high priest from Eli, and the last of the line of Ithamar to fill this office of dignity and honor.     

It was nearly a century after God's judgment upon the family was pronounced; but though not executed speedily, it was nevertheless accomplished as God had said.