1 Samuel 4 describes how the Lord fulfilled the prophecy-warning given to Samuel about the distressing thing to be done to Israel and the removal of Eli and his sons.
The Israelites fight the Philistines and lose. (We have no idea what started this series of skirmishes.) The Israelites decide the ark of the covenant can save them if they bring it to the battleground, and they get all excited and shout. The Philistines hear and remember how the Lord plagued Egypt and their morale drops, but they decide to fight their best anyway, and they end up not just beating the Israelites but capturing the ark. In the battle, Eli’s sons are killed, since they were with the ark.
Naturally, the Israelites are beside themselves with distress at this news. There is much crying, so much so that the whole city Eli was in (Shiloh) was filled with that noise. Eli gets the message, and falls and breaks his neck and dies. When his daughter-in-law hears, she goes into early labor and dies saying the glory of Israel was departed.
Here's what the elders say in reaction to their first defeat by the Philistines, which leads them to call for the ark:
Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us to day before the Philistines? Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies. (1 Samuel 4:3)
It seems they recognized that if the Lord was allowing the Philistines to beat them, then the Lord was smiting them. But instead of taking that admittedly good reasoning to the next stage and concluding they had sinned and needed to repent, they decided to use the ark of the covenant as a religious shield. They probably reasoned that the Lord would be afraid to allow His ark to be captured, so the Israelite armies would be saved if they brought the ark with them to battle. And as we have seen, that was soooo wrong. It was like waving a flag in front of a bull for the Lord’s own people to mock the Lord that way.
Based upon the way the Israelites treat the ark, it seems pretty plain that they had an attitude of complaisance that seems to have led them to act wrongly.
The ark was a token of God’s presence, glory, and power, but they seemed to think of it as a good luck charm to bring victory regardless of their righteousness. This attitude might have built up over the period of years they saw Eli and his sons ministering in corruption with no divine judgment coming upon them. They may have concluded after a while that righteousness wasn’t necessary to have the support of God.
God would know this and would be anxious to get rid of those false notions (in addition to the wicked priests) so that Israelite worship could be purified.
The Israelites probably remembered when the ark was carried with the armies across the Jordan river that parted and when it was carried around the city of Jerico and the walls fell down when the Lord fought for Israel. Perhaps with the rarity of prophetic words in Eli’s days and the rarity of open vision it seemed as if miracles had ceased, and all had hoped to see those miracles begin again with taking the ark into battle. They probably assumed having the ark would ensure miracles happened for their armies. Yet Israel had fought many other battles with the Lord’s help when the ark wasn’t there and when the people were righteous.
How do the Israelites react to the ark’s capture?
--The messenger from the army rends his clothes and puts earth on his head to show his grief.
--The people at Shiloh cry out at the news.
--Eli falls off his stool at the gate at the news, breaks his neck, and dies.
--His daughter-in-law goes into early labor at the news and before dying, gives her baby a name conveying her sense of desolation.
The daughter-in-law of Eli gives birth to a son whom she names Ichabod, which literally translated (according to the footnote) means “Where is the glory?” It is as if she sees the defeat and loss and death as a sign that the glory of God has departed from Israel and will never return again. It is almost a cynical disillusioned throwing up of the hands, saying “What is the point?”
From one perspective, if we consider the wickedness of the priests and the people, the glory of God had departed long before that. If they had been righteous, they would have been delivered in battle, even without the ark.
The thing is, we see from the larger perspective that the whole distressing sequence was in fulfillment of the word of the Lord to Samuel. The glory of God was there. It had just departed from Eli and his house. They had refused to see it for so long that they could not see it for what it was.
The Lord had told Samuel something disastrous was going to happen. Remember that “I will make everyone’s ears tingle” and “I will perform against Eli all things which I have spoken”?
That declaration ahead of time tells us the Lord knew the errors and sins of His people, He knew what He would do about it, and He also knew exactly what everyone’s reaction would be. He wanted Samuel to know the Lord was behind it and that it was for a purpose, according to plan, and that when it happened he was not to think things were going horribly wrong, even though it would look that way.
And when you consider all the things that happened, all the circumstances that combined to bring about the fulfillment of that prophecy, you can’t help but see the Lord allowed it or was behind it.
· The wickedness of the priests contributed to the false ideas of the elders that the ark would bring them victory without needing to repent. (In this way, wickedness created a way for its own destruction.)
· The Philistines were terrified of the ark considering the history of God fighting for Israel, and even though their morale was shot, they somehow summoned the courage to fight their best anyway, capturing the ark and killing the priests. This was the hand of God using them as an instrument of chastisement against Israel and Eli’s sons.
· Eli died from a broken neck after falling backwards off a chair, a very unexpected way to die.
· And who would have thought that Eli’s daughter-in-law would suddenly go into early labor at the news and die in childbirth? Death in childbirth is not unheard of, but added to those circumstances gives her a share in the judgment as well.
God used the loss of the ark to purge the tabernacle of bad priests and even a priest’s wife. Who would have thought that the loss of the ark could have that effect?
Now, how can this story help us today?
I think it warns us to be careful not to buy into superstitions about holy things. For example, we can avoid the same sorts of complacency about the temple and its grounds. I once heard a story of someone getting shot on one of the temple’s grounds and bystanders had a hard time getting temple personnel to help because they just could not believe that violence had occurred on temple grounds!!
We believe the temple is sacred space and is divinely protected, but if people going to the temple are not pure in heart, will it be a holy place? If we profane it, can we expect protection there, spiritual or otherwise?
The temples are built to last “through the millennium,” but that doesn’t mean God can’t destroy them with natural disasters if He chooses to. And what if a temple is destroyed? The sealing power is still on the earth and temples can be rebuilt. The important thing is to stay repentant and keep a broken heart and contrite spirit.
We often hear the saying that the church will never again be taken from the earth. That's great, but that doesn't mean each of us are guaranteed to remain a part of it. If we don't keep a broken heart and contrite spirit, we will apostatize from it. Also, there are warnings in 3 Nephi from the Savior Himself that if the Gentiles do not repent after the gospel they have received--implying the Gentiles have received the gospel and converted, but sin--the gospel will be taken from them and they will be trampled underfoot by a remnant of Jacob.
So again, the important thing is to stay repentant and keep a broken heart and contrite spirit.