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Pastor Matthew Fanning

May 17, 2010

The Capture of the Ark

God as a P.O.W?

Part 1

By:  Pastor Bill Randles

I believe that there is so much more to the so-called Bible stories than most Christians realize. Too often they are just relegated to children’s Sunday school felt board stories, or attempts are made to derive morality lessons from them. Jesus and the apostles treated these stories in a far more serious vein – Adam, Eve, Lot and Noah were used to teach the Gospel and especially to reveal eschatology, which is the teaching on “the end”.  As Jesus said, "As in the days of Noah, so shall be the day of the coming of the son of man…”

With that in view, let’s look at the story from I Samuel about the time that the Ark of God was captured in battle by the Philistines.

Then the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out to meet the Philistines in battle and camped beside Ebenezer while the Philistines camped in Aphek. And the Philistines drew up in battle array to meet Israel. When the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines who killed about four thousand men on the battlefield. (I Samuel 4:1-2)

The story is set in a time of profound transition for Israel. The time of being ruled by God appointed judges was coming to a close. The people had been chafing under Philistine domination for forty years, and Samson had only “began to deliver” Israel when he was killed. In their attempt to throw off the Philistine yoke, Israel had suffered a crushing defeat costing them 4000 dead!

But rather than search their hearts, seeking God as to how it was that Israel had been so defeated by Philistines, the suggestion was made to fetch the Ark of God’s covenant, and bring it into the battle. They would, by its power, crush the Philistines. Notice that they referred to the Ark as an “it”,

…Let us take the ark of the covenant of the Lord, that it may come among us and deliver us from the power of our enemies. (I Sam 4:3)

So Israel took the Ark out of the sanctuary, to use it. Note how the Ark is referred to in more personal terms, in verse 4,

So the people came to Shiloh and from there they carried the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of hosts who sits above the cherubim… (Vs. 4)

The arrival of the Ark into the camp of Israel, initially emboldened them, and deeply frightened the Philistines. Israel shouted in triumph at the arrival of the Ark, and the Philistines trembled in fear remembering what the “God of the Hebrews” had done to Egypt.

Two superstitious people squared off in battle that day. The Israelites - so backslidden and removed from true allegiance to God - brandishing the very throne of their living and holy God as some kind of a talisman. It must have amazed them that they could with impunity take the Holy Ark from its holy setting, without anyone being fried on the spot!

These were arrayed against the Philistines, who at least came by their superstitious ignorance honestly, for they were pagans! Sure they were uneasy, for the Israelites had some serious “magic” going for them, this was the Ark of the God who conquered Egypt! But being good pagans, and since they were going to die, they purposed not to die cowering before this ‘slave nation’.

Take courage and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews, as they have been slaves to you, therefore be men and fight! (Vs. 9)

So the battle commenced, but this time the disaster was even worse than the first battle. There was incalculable damage done to Israel, by the second battle of Aphek, for among the 30,000 casualties, the two sons of the high priest were killed, and the Ark of God was taken in battle.

In trembling horror, the high priest of Israel awaited news of the battle outside of the camp. Above all he feared the fate of the Ark. When the exhausted, dirt covered and tattered messenger bearing news of the battle came upon Eli he breathlessly delivered a fourfold stroke of woes,

…Israel has fled from before the Philistines, and there has been a great slaughter among the people…and your two sons Hophni and Phineas are dead… and the Ark of God has been taken. (I Sam 4:11)

This news so stunned the aged high priest of Israel that he fell off of his seat, breaking his neck, and died.

Another horror was to occur, for upon hearing the news of the defeat the high priest’s daughter-in-law went into labor and bore a son. In her labor, she went comatose and became unresponsive. When they tried to cheer her by announcing the birth of a son, she replied by naming the soon to be orphan, ”Ichabod” - which means, “the glory of God has departed” - and then she died.

The implications of the events in this story are troubling and profound. For example, how could the Ark of God become a “spoil of war”? One waits in vain for the expected ‘lightning bolt’ to shoot out of the Ark the first time a hapless Philistine dares to touch it. In fact one would have thought the corrupt priests, Hophni and Phineas would have been struck dead for daring to enter the Holy of Holies in Shiloh, pulling back the curtain and removing the holy throne of God. But they were allowed to.

It would be reasonable to expect such retribution, for the Ark is more than furniture, in fact more than holy furniture. The Ark is the very throne of God, who “Dwells between the Cherubim”. Incredibly God allowed His very throne to be captured by the Philistines!

I will go further, for the Ark is in fact a type of the Messiah. It is the ultimate teaching of the person and work of the Messiah, who would come to reconcile man to God, by being a mercy seat of propitiation! “God has set forth Jesus to be a propitiation (mercy seat)…” Romans 3:25 Therefore the Ark is a type of Christ Himself.

Why would God become a POW? When God brought Israel into the land, He warned them that if they ever departed from Him he would evict them off of the land and that they would go into exile. Faithlessness would get them put out. But this time God Himself took the rap for them, God Himself was exiled, God Himself bore the punishment that was due them. God Himself was taken into captivity long before any Israelite would go to Babylon or Assyria.

The Israelites thought that they were using God to get them a victory over their enemies. In the height of presumption and superstition, they would seize His throne, and put it out there as a talisman! On the other hand, the Philistines thought that the battle of Aphek was a clear demonstration of the superiority of their god, Dagon, over the God of Israel. To them the Ark was a trophy of the victory of their false god!

But God saw it all differently, for the thoughts of God are so much higher than man…

So That He (God) abandoned the dwelling place at Shiloh, the tent which He had pitched among men. And gave his strength unto captivity, and His glory unto the land of the adversary. (Psalm 78:60-61)

It begins to look like a familiar story now, something we have heard in another setting. We worship a God who can let Himself be taken, who can relinquish His mighty power, and by apparent weakness and defeat, affect his greatest victory.

Part 2 to come - Israel’s future history in I Samuel 4-6.