Eli was a direct descendent of Aaron, and on the basis of ancestry, he became the high priest in Israel around 1080 B.C. Unfortunately, Eli was unfit for his high calling. He was an indulgent father and a gluttonous high priest who regularly stole choice portions of meat that belonged on the Altar of Burnt Offering. (1 Samuel 2:29) Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, also became priests and judges on the basis of ancestry and they distinguished themselves with acts of sexual immorality, accepting bribes and gluttony. (1 Samuel 2:12-17) During Eli’s tenure, the nation of Israel was in rebellion against God, and as you might expect, God was angry with Israel and its leadership.
One day the Lord sent a message to Eli through a prophet. (God would not speak directly to Eli, even though he was the high priest because of his sins.) The prophet told Eli, "....the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that your house and your father’s house [the line of Aaron] would minister before me forever.’ But now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained. The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your family line and you will see distress in my dwelling [temple]. Although good will be done to Israel, in your family line there will never be an old man. Every one of you that I do not cut off from my altar will be spared only to blind your eyes with tears and to grieve your heart, and all your descendants will die in the prime of life. And what happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, will be a sign to you – they will both die on the same day. I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in my heart and mind. I will firmly establish his house, and he will minister before my anointed one always.’ " (1 Samuel 2:30-35, insertions and emphasis mine)
Some time after the prophet spoke to Eli, a Levite woman who could not conceive miraculously had a baby. She had earnestly prayed for a son for many years, and she had promised to give up her son to God’s service if He would hear her prayer. Eventually, Hannah became pregnant and Samuel was born. When Samuel was weaned, Hannah kept her vow to God and gave her child to Eli for training. Early on, God began to speak to the "baby priest" and it soon became evident to all that little Samuel was the Lord’s anointed. "The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. (1 Samuel 3:19,20)
One night, God told young Samuel that He was about to fulfill the prophecy that had been given to Eli. (1 Samuel 3) When the time had come, the Philistines attacked Israel and killed 4,000 men. "When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, ‘Why did the Lord bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from [the temple in] Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.’ " (1 Samuel 4:3, insertion mine)
"So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim. And Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. When the ark of the Lord’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, ‘What’s all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?’ When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp, the Philistines were afraid. ‘A god has come into the camp,’ they said. ‘We’re in trouble! Nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the desert. [A warrior silenced the Philistines saying,] Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!’ So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died." (1 Samuel 4:4-11, insertion mine)
When this second battle took place, Eli was 98 years old and blind. When the news reached Eli that his two sons had died in battle and that the Ark of the Covenant had been captured, he fell backwards out of his chair, broke his neck and died. "After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from [the battlefield at] Ebenezer to [their temple city] Ashdod. Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained." (1 Samuel 5:1-4, insertion mine)
The Philistines were distressed. The chief god of the Philistines had twice fallen before the ark of the God of Israel and now, Dagon’s head and hands were broken off. The Philistines did not realize that even though they had defeated Israel and captured the Ark of the Covenant, they had not conquered the God of Israel. Then, things got much worse. "The Lord’s hand was heavy upon the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation [a plague of infectious rats] upon them and afflicted them with tumors [possibly, the bubonic plague]. When the men of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, ‘The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy upon us and upon Dagon our god.’ So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and asked them, ‘What shall we do with the ark of the god of Israel?’ They answered, [this is just a coincidence,] ‘Have the ark of the god of Israel moved to Gath.’ So they moved the ark of the God of Israel. But after they had moved it, the Lord’s hand was against that city, throwing it into a great panic. He afflicted the people of the city, both young and old, with an outbreak of [rats and bubonic] tumors. So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. As the ark of God was entering Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, ‘They have brought the ark of the god of Israel around to us to kill us and our people.’ So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and said, ‘Send the ark of the god of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it will kill us and our people.’ For death had filled the city with panic; God’s hand was very heavy upon it. Those who did not die were afflicted with tumors, and the outcry of the city went up to heaven." (1 Samuel 5:6-12)
"When the ark of the Lord had been in Philistine territory seven months, the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, ‘What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we should send it back to its place.’ They answered, ‘If you return the ark of the god of Israel, do not send it away empty, but by all means send a guilt offering to him. Then you will be healed, and you will know why his hand has not been lifted from you.’ The Philistines asked, ‘What guilt offering should we send to him?’ They replied, ‘Five gold tumors and five gold rats, according to the number of the Philistine rulers, because the same plague has struck both you and your rulers. Make models of the tumors and of the rats that are destroying the country, and pay honor to Israel’s god. Perhaps he will lift his hand from you and your gods and your land. Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When he treated them harshly, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way?’ " (1 Samuel 6:1-6)
There are five interesting points in this short study that should be thoughtfully considered.
1. God terminated the ancestry of Eli from the priesthood of Israel because he and his sons became evil beyond recovery. The moral of the story here is that God will terminate His covenant with rebellious people and destroy them. When this happens (as it did when Israel wandered in the wilderness), He raises up another group of people to enter into His covenant. Again, after the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, God redefined Abraham’s offspring. Paul wrote, "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise." (Galatians 3:29)
2. The second lesson that needs to be learned from this study is that Israel foolishly rejoiced when the Ark of the Covenant was brought onto the battlefield. They thought Jehovah would give them victory over their enemy because no one can defeat Jehovah. The problem here is that they did not realize that Jehovah was their enemy! (More about this in a moment.)
3. Then, the Philistines were elated with their victory over Israel. They had killed 34,000 of their enemies because (they foolishly thought) their god, Dagon, was more powerful than the God of Israel. In the pagan world, military superiority affirms which god is the most high god. However, the outcome of the war was not the victory the Philistines sought. God had stirred up the Philistines to destroy and humble a rebellious Israel. He empowered the Philistines to kill 34,000 of His chosen people because Israel was in rebellion against Him. There is no strength outside of God’s will. He is sovereign over the kingdoms of Earth and he sets up kings and takes them down according to His divine purposes. (Daniel 4:17)
4. When the Philistines went to the temple of Dagon and saw their chief god lying on the ground with his head and hands broken off, they should have realized that the God of Israel was more powerful than Dagon. Then, when rats, infectious tumors and death filled the cities of Ashdod and Gath, they should have realized that the God of Israel was angry with them. During the seven months the Philistines had possession of the ark, five cities were decimated by rats, tumors (probably bubonic plague) and death. Ironically, the war trophy (the Ark of the Covenant) proved to be a destroyer of the Philistines. The Philistines did not know that besides Jehovah, there is no other God, and second, He is no respecter of persons. God used the Philistines to destroy Israel, and then He used their possession of His ark to destroy thousands of Philistines. The point here is that God punished both Israel and the Philistines for the same reason! Yes, the level of accountability between the Philistines and Israel was different because Israel knew more about God’s will, but God considers man’s knowledge base and then judges and inflicts destruction fairly. (This is an eternal policy that God follows.)
5. After seven months (notice the perfect number) of rats, relentless tumors and death, the Philistines were humbled. The ark, once thought to be a trophy of victory, had to be returned to Israel. They called their priests together to see what should be done. "They answered, ‘If you return the ark of the god of Israel, do not send it away empty, but by all means send a guilt offering to him. . . ." Paganism is a religion based on fear of offense and acts of appeasement. The priests insisted that the Philistines send a "guilt offering" of five gold rats and five gold tumors with the ark as a way of saying, "Jehovah, please accept our gifts of gold and don’t hurt us any more." Consider this future parallel: When God’s judgments begin (the first four trumpets of Revelation 8), the religious leaders of the nations will convince their respective legislators that God’s wrath will only be appeased if "sin less" laws are imposed upon the people. In other words, when God’s wrath against evil is revealed, a religious reformation will sweep over the whole world like a global tsunami and its purpose will be the appeasement of God’s wrath!But, appeasement is no substitute for worship! True worship is wholehearted submission to God’s will – appeasement is an offering of something other than total submission.(Remember Cain’s offering?) After seven months of divine destruction, why didn’t the Philistines bow down and submit to the God of Israel who broke off Dagon’s head? Why will the religious leaders of the world insist that God can be appeased through the enforcement of "sin less" laws? In both cases, the answer is the same: The clergy of false religions do not know the Most High God, His will or His ways. Isn’t it amazing that a 3,000 year old story can be so relevant?
"Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart." (Psalms 119:33,34)