Trusting in the Lord Alone

Explore the Bible Series

September 21, 2008


Background Passage: I Samuel 4:1b-7:17

Lesson Passage: I Samuel 7:2-14


Introduction: The Philistines proved problematic for Israel for generations; indeed, they became a kind of by-word for troublesome, idolatrous, aggressive people.  No one knows for certain the origins of the Philistines.  It seems certain that they were not a Semitic people, and Amos 9:7 identifies them as immigrants from Caphtor, probably the Island of Crete.  If they did come from Crete, it is not clear what displaced them from their island home and brought them to the Southeast Mediterranean region.  Some older scholars identified Caphtor with Egyptian roots rather than Cretan origins.


 Whatever their origins, the Philistines were a formidable people by the time of the Conquest of Canaan.  Five cities comprised the Philistine Confederation, each with its own ruler: Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza.  Apparently, they engaged in lucrative sea and land trade with the Phoenicians, Syrians, and Egyptians. Some have speculated that the Philistines were excellent seamen, and, if so, they may have fashioned their god, Dagon, after the image of a half-fish/half-man.  Others surmise that Dagon was a fertility god, not unlike the Ba’al and Ashtaroth worship of other Canaanite peoples.  “Dagon” is very similar to the Hebrew word for “grain”, and this has led some to conclude that the Philistines worshipped an idol they believed would ensure bountiful harvests.  Other passages in the Old Testament indicate that these people worshipped gods common to the region; therefore, we should not be surprised that they took the Ark of the Covenant and tried to simply incorporate it into their pagan cultus. 


The Bible does not reveal the motives for Israel’s aggression toward Philistia, but, in all probability, the tensions continued from the time of the Judges.  The spiritual decline of Israel, under the unseemly watch-care of the house of Eli, bled into the military effectiveness and resolve of the people.  Sadly, Israel seemed oblivious to their own malaise, thus stumbling into a war they could not win.  They made matters worse, after the first loss to the Philistine army, by using the Ark of the Covenant like a good-luck charm, apparently believing that the mere presence of the Ark would reestablish their military prowess. Of course, they were sadly wrong.




Lesson Outline:


I.                   Israel’s War with the Philistines (4:1-22)

A.    The initial loss to the Philistines (vv. 1-2):  Again, I Samuel does not reveal the motives for this particular conflict, but the long-term tensions between Israel and Philistia certainly played a role.  The Hebrews went out to camp at Ebenezer (probably located in Sharon, a fertile plain between the hill country of Judah and the Mediterranean Sea), and the Philistines mustered at nearby Aphek.  Four thousand Israelites died in this battle.

B.     Israel’s alarm in the aftermath of the battle (vv. 3-4): Understandably, the Hebrew military leaders puzzled about the cause of their military reversal.  They interpreted their loss as a token of God’s disfavor, and they purposed to bring the Ark, from Shiloh, to counteract the prowess of the Philistines and court the favor of God.  Hophni and Phinehas accompanied the Ark to the battle site. 

C.     The second loss to the Philistines (vv. 5-11): The arrival of the Ark buoyed the spirits of the Israelites and struck fear in the hearts of the Philistines.  Stories about the Exodus had circulated in Canaan, and these people feared that God would champion the cause of Israel.  Instead, the backslidden Hebrews experienced a catastrophic loss, with 30,000 causalities.  Furthermore, the Philistines captured the Ark, Eli’s sons were killed. 

D.    The death of Eli (vv. 12-22):  A runner carried the news of the battle to Shiloh, where Eli awaited an account of the fate of the Ark.  Apparently the messenger announced the military loss to the city; then, he made his way to Eli to give the aged man the sad news about Hophni and Phinehas.  Eli, stricken by the message about the Ark, fell backwards from his seat and broke his neck.  Also, the tragic news came to the pregnant wife of Phinehas, just as she went into labor.  The poor woman died in child birth, but the midwife named the child Ichabod, “no glory” or “Where is the glory?”). 


II.                Philistia’s Dilemma Concerning the Ark (5:1-6:21)

A.    The Ark of the Covenant in the Temple of Dagon (5:1-5): After defeating the Hebrews in battle, the Philistines transported the Ark to Ashdod and placed it in the presence of their idol to Dagon.  As stated earlier, Ashdod was one of the five cities of Philistia, and it served as the center of the Dagon worship.  Our text describes the unusual circumstance of the idol falling before the Ark.  The second time the image fell, the hands and head of idol broke.  The Reformation Study Bible points out that ancient armies often severed the hands and heads of their fallen enemies, and this passage seems to parallel that military practice.  After this remarkable event, according to the narrative, the Philistine priests revered their temple by refusing to walk on the threshold of the building.  It’s difficult to discern the precise meaning of their reverence for the threshold.

B.     The illness of the Philistines (5:6-12): Some commentators identify these tumors with the glandular swelling that accompanied some form of plague.  Whatever the nature of the disease, the citizens of Ashdod interpreted it as the hand of Jehovah.  Desperate for relief, the Ashdodites transported the Ark to Gath, another of the Philistine cities.  The same disaease plagued the people, and, again, they took the Ark to another city, Ekron.  Finally, as the plague struck the third city, the Philistines realized they had to give the Ark back to the Israelites.

C.     The Ark returned to Israel (6:1-7:2): After seven months of suffering, the Philistines determined to return the Ark.  To compensate for their transgression these idolaters fashioned five golden images of the tumors and five golden mice (some translations say “rats”).  Again, the significance of the mice may lie in the ancient cult practices of Philistia.  They selected two milk cows to draw a cart toward the Israelite city of Beth-shemesh, about seven miles east of Ekron.  The people of Beth-shemesh, as they worked in their fields, saw the cart approaching, and the Jewish priests broke up the wooden cart and offered the cows as a sacrifice to the Lord.  Some of the Jewish men mishandled the Ark (“looked upon the Ark”), and the text says God killed seventy people.  The Ark was taken to the household of Abinadab, a citizen of Kiriath-jearim.  There the Ark remained for twenty years.


III.             Samuel’s Ministry to Israel (7:2-17)

A.    Samuel’s call to repentance (vv. 2-4): Idolatry had permeated the life the Israel, but Samuel called his countrymen to abandon Ba’al and Ashtaroth.  The people turned their hearts to Lord and served him only.

B.     The Lord’s deliverance at Mizpah (vv. 5-14): Samuel, as a part of the spiritual renewal of Israel, called the people to Mizpah, a place used as a watchtower for the security of the Jews.  The Philistines, threatened by the large gathering of the Hebrews, planned to attack God’s people.  Samuel sacrificed to the Lord and interceded for Israel, and God brought a great confusion on the Philistine army.  Israel routed their enemies.  After the battle, Samuel set a stone to mark the Lord’s deliverance and called the place Ebenezer (“stone of help”).

C.     Samuel’s work (vv. 15-17): The great judge and prophet established a settled pattern of ministry from his base in Ramah.  Each year he traveled to other cities to judge the people: Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah.