Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 4

The Church Pulpit CommentaryChurch Pulpit Commentary

Verse 21


‘The ark of God was taken.’

1 Samuel 4:21

At this hour the condition of Israel could not have been lower. Their army was defeated, their High Priest and his sons were dead, and the ark was in the hands of their idolatrous foes. In the ark were the tables of the Law; above it was the mercy seat, and when it disappeared it seemed as if God had abolished His covenant of grace with an idolatrous people. But all that the ark represented had already been abandoned by them. The tables of stone, the witnesses of what God required, had failed to remind them of their disobedience and disloyalty. The mercy seat, on which the sacrificed blood was sprinkled, testifying to mercy connected with an atonement, was no longer drawing the people towards it in penitential prayer. Though the Law was in the ark, it was not in their minds; though they bowed before the mercy seat, they did not pray for mercy. The cloudless ark was a useless ark, though it was carried by the appointed priests, and this is full of teaching for us. Note then—

I. The people of God are still summoned to conflict.—God’s enemies vary with the conditions of the social life and intellectual condition of His people, but the reality and intensity of their enmity does not diminish. Blasphemous infidelity is superseded by cynical scepticism, but the one is as dangerous as the other. Profligacy, cruelty, dishonesty, and other products of godlessness ever prevail. Against these some contend who are moved by desire for men’s temporal welfare. They go forth, as the Israelites did at first, without the presence of God, and without any symbol of it. Others have the outward sign, but not the spiritual reality, the religious organisation, without the religious spirit; and so resemble the Israelites when they went out to battle, trusting that the ark would save them. There are inward foes also to fight against (returning indifference, growing prayerlessness, evil habits, etc.), in which we shall only succeed, when we remember our Lord’s word, ‘Without Me ye can do nothing.’

II. In this conflict we may be aided both by what is outward and by what is inward.—The ark as a substitute for God’s presence was a curse, but as a sign of it was a blessing.

Our human nature requires a religion which is not purely spiritual. We are incarnate spirits. Our spirit is the lord of the body, but the body has influence over the spirit. Hence religion must find embodiments in words, in acts, in associations, etc., or else others cannot lay hold on it, nor can it lay hold on them. God provided for this in the revelations of Himself. He revealed Himself to the Jews in material things, in signs and ceremonies, in the Shechinah, in thunder on Sinai, in sacrifice and incense in the Tabernacle, and in the ark of the covenant. Under the new dispensation, too, God is revealed, not in a creed, but in the Christ, for ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ Since then He speaks through baptism, and the Lord’s Supper; through the Lord’s Day, and the church, and hymns, and forms of sacred words, which retain and perpetuate His truth. God has ordained the outward, and, therefore, we must not despise it. It is like the ark; without the Divine presence it is useless, with the Divine presence it is resistless.

III. Trust in the outward only cannot bring victory.—It might have been right to have fetched the ark from Shiloh, if the fetching had been preceded by repentance and prayer; but to get the symbol without the reality was a hideous mockery. They trusted the ark with superstitious faith in its virtues, and that was as much Paganism as the conduct of idolaters who carried their gods into battle, and wore charms to prevent wounds and death. The Pharisees in the days of Jesus Christ committed what was much the same kind of sin. They made long prayers, and gave alms, and made clean their cups and platters, as if God was pleased with such things. They would strain out a gnat lest they should be defiled by swallowing its blood, but did not shrink from crucifying the Son of God. The same sin is committed now, if we put the Sacrament in the place of Christ, or if we trust that attendance at worship will make up for our sins. For a long time after the Germans had captured Metz the French flag was flying from the spire of the cathedral, and the inhabitants were glad that no one dared climb to take it down. But it was a poor thing to keep the flag when they had lost the fortress—to have the symbol of power, when the power itself was gone. May we never know that bitter experience which the Israelites mourned over when they trusted the cloudless ark.


(1) ‘This chapter gives an account of the fulfilment of the threat of retribution which had been announced by an unknown prophet, and by Samuel, against Eli and his house. The people of Israel, too, shared in the punishment as they righteously deserved to suffer, and Samuel learnt from this dreadful defeat that there could be no deliverance from the tyranny of the Philistines till there was deliverance from the tyranny of sin; that inward change must precede outward revolution. The whole history of the Judges emphasized this, for all their bravery and skill had failed to bring any lasting advantages to Israel.’

(2) ‘They were right in attributing defeat to the withdrawal of Divine help, but wrong in supposing that God’s presence was so inseparably bound up with the sacred ark that He must of necessity be where it was. They ought to have sought God’s help in penitential prayer, and not have imagined that a mere outward symbol of the Divine presence would save them out of the hands of their enemies.’

(3) ‘Recall Edinburgh after Flodden, when Randolph Murray, the solitary horseman, arrived with the news that the flower of Scottish chivalry lay dead (Aytoun’s Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers)—

A murmur long and loud,

And a cry of fear and wonder

Bursts from out the bending crowd.

For they see in battered harness

Only one hard-stricken man.’

(4) ‘It was through the capture of the ark that Israel was led to the feet of God again. And it was when the ark was far away that they learned again how near Jehovah was. Who knows, if the ark had never been carried from Shiloh, but that Israel might have swiftly fallen to idolatry? That sacred coffer was so associated with the Lord, that it was always easy to reckon it Divine. But now the ark was lost, and God was found. They were cast on the living, invisible Jehovah. It was a truth Israel was to bless the world with, and it was graven on their hearts by this disaster.’

Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 4". The Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.