During the era of the judges, the Philistines became a serious threat to Israel. Seeking to expand their territory, they took land allotted to the tribe of Dan, forcing the Danites to move north (Judg. 13–16; 18:1). Today’s passage describes one confrontation with the Philistines during the period of the judges.
First Samuel 4:1 says that “Israel went out to battle against the Philistines,” and textual evidence from the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) indicates that the Philistines were the aggressors. The Philistines defeated the Israelites, killing four thousand of Israel’s fighting men (v. 2). This prompted God’s people to ask, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?” (v. 3). Such a question evidences the high view of divine sovereignty in ancient Israel. The Scriptures tell us plainly that God stands behind all that ever happens. He does not do evil Himself, but even when bad things happen to God’s people, the Lord has guided the events according to His eternal plan, working out everything according to the counsel of His will (Dan. 2:20–21; Amos 3:6; Eph. 1:11; James 1:13–15).
The Israelites rightly understood that God was involved in their defeat. Yet, they came up with the wrong answer as to how to get the Lord to fight for them against the Philistines when they called for the ark of the covenant to be taken into battle (1 Sam. 4:3–4). The ark symbolized God’s footstool and represented His presence in the tabernacle and temple of Israel (Ex. 25:10–22). Moreover, Moses and Joshua carried it into war, with Joshua winning a decisive battle at Jericho when the ark was present (Num. 10:35–36; Josh. 6). The spiritual condition of Israel during the era of the judges was so bad, however, that they thought the mere presence of the ark would guarantee victory. But God’s gifts are not magical objects, and He does not bless the kind of flagrant disobedience that Israel was involved in at that point (1 Sam. 2:12–36). Thus, the Philistines defeated Israel and captured the ark (3:5–11).
Sadly, we are not less immune to treating the things of God as magic tokens, to believing that doing the right things without the right heart can secure God’s blessing. Matthew Henry writes, “It is common for those that have estranged themselves from the vitals of religion to discover a great fondness for the rituals and external observances of it, for those that even deny the power of godliness not only to have, but to have in admiration, the form of it.”