After the battle was over, the army of Israel retreated to their camp, and their leaders asked, “Why did the LORD allow us to be defeated by the Philistines?” Then they said, “Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant of the LORD from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, it will save us from our enemies.” ... So the Philistines fought desperately, and Israel was defeated again. — 1 Samuel 4:3, 10
“Hophni” and “Phinehas” are not the kind of names that mothers today give to their sons. They are not particularly attractive names, and the men who bore the names were singularly unattractive men. Along with their father, the elderly Eli, Hophni and Phinehas were priests of the Lord in the tabernacle at Shiloh. They abused their privileged position by seducing the women worshipers who came to the tabernacle—actions in the modern world that would have sent them to prison for a long time. Their father, Eli, was perfectly aware of what was going on, and he rebuked them verbally, but he took no further action. He was weak, and they were disrespectful, so he did nothing.
When the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines in another of their petty wars, Israel’s military leaders determined that it was the Lord who had allowed the defeat (1 Samuel 4:3). So they determined to turn things around by removing the ark of the covenant from its sanctuary and carrying it to the battle field. The two notorious young priests not only granted the ignominious request, but they personally assisted in transporting the ark to the place of battle. The assumption on the part of Israel was that, since the Lord had clearly been absent, and now through the ark was present, thus victory was assured.
The ark belonged in the Most Holy Place—not on the field of battle—and the priests had no business taking it there. But its arrival had a partially beneficial effect. The Philistines, whose knowledge of Israelite religion left much to be desired, still understood that the ark represented the presence of God. And historically, when God had been present among His people, they had been a formidable force. But strangely, instead of folding in terror before the presence of the Lord, the Philistines fought harder, and they won! Not only did they defeat Israel, but the ark was captured. The unthinkable had happened! The ark of God had been hijacked by pagans.
Right from the beginning, the Israelites had recognized that their problem was not primarily military—it was spiritual. But their solution was all wrong. They assumed that if they went through a religious act, if they featured a religious symbol, that would solve the problem. But the ark contained the Ten Commandments. These were not symbols to be carried but laws to be obeyed. Even the priests carrying the ark were contravening these laws with impunity. Israel was rotten to the core. That was why they had lost the battle.
Religious symbolism has never cured spiritual corruption. Only repentance and a work of God’s grace does that.
For further study: 1 Samuel 4:1-11
Content taken from The One Year Book of Devotions for Men by Stuart Briscoe. Copyright ©2000. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.