The defeat of Israel to the Philistines might not have been a surprise to those who listened to and believed the word of God. Earlier, (and in yesterday’s reading), the Lord told Samuel that the house of Eli would be punished for the iniquities of his sons. Today, Eli and his sons bring the ark of the covenant (where they believed God resided – whoever held the ark, held God’s favor, too) into the battle against the Philistines. It was here that Eli and his sons not only lost the battle, but they also lost the ark of the covenant and they lost their lives. It was a difficult day for Israel, and survivors questioned whether God was still with them.
There have been many times I questioned whether God was still with me. Several times I fell into debilitating depression. People who don’t have depression may not realize that depression is not just a really bad mood. Depression affects body, mind, and spirit. During some of my worst days I was physical exhausted, had no appetite, a headache, and muscle aches to name a few. I felt hopeless and helpless, sad, confused, and lethargic. While the physical and mental symptoms were clinically predictable, the spiritual symptoms were unexpected. I wondered where God was. The emptiness that consumed me during those dark days made it nearly impossible to feel the presence of God.
The Israelites would have to wait twenty years before they recovered the ark of the covenant. Sometimes those empty, isolating experiences can last an excruciatingly long time. God won’t be absent forever. But for now, we wait.
1 Samuel 4:2-11, 6:2, 11-13
The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle was joined, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. When the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord put us to rout today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, so that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. When the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. When the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid; for they said, “Gods have come into the camp.” They also said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, in order not to become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”
So the Philistines fought; Israel was defeated, and they fled, everyone to his home. There was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died. Then the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us what we should send with it to its place.” They put the ark of the Lord on the cart, and the box with the gold mice and the images of their tumors. The cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went; they turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh. Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. When they looked up and saw the ark, they went with rejoicing to meet it.