Our reading today begins with a statement that “the word of Samuel came to all Israel” (4:1). This sums up chapter 3, which began with the fact that “the word of the Lord was rare in those days” (3:1) and ended with “the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the Word of the Lord” (3:21). God has established a new priest, and a new priesthood. It is in that context that we read that Israel is attacked by the Philistines (4:2). Note that we saw how Israel was unable to evict the Philistines from the land (Josh13:1-3). They were a thorn in the side of Israel in the days of the judges (just ask Samson), and here Israel is still paying for their failure. In verse 3 Israel asks why the Lord brought them defeat instead of victory. The answer is still the same as it was at Ai: sin.
So Israel takes matters into their own hands, treating the Ark of God as a magic charm at the direction of Eli’s sinful sons (vv. 4-5). Israel was not much different from the Philistines, who saw the God of Israel as an idol like all the other gods (vv. 6-8). So Israel is defeated (v. 10), the Ark was taken by the Philistines (v. 11), and God used this occasion to fulfill what He spoke through the prophet to Eli (v. 11 – see 2:34). He would also use the occasion to fulfill what He told Samuel He would do to Eli (v. 18 – see 3:12-14). The Aaronic priesthood is cut-off. God has established a new priest, and a new priesthood.
Chapter 5 records the story of the Philistines while they had the Ark. They considered the God of Israel an idol, and inferior to their own god Dagon, the god of fertility. As was custom in the ancient world, the Philistines took the “idol” of their defeated enemies and placed it in subservience to their own god (5:2). When they wake up the next day, they find that their idol is bowing in subservience to the One true God (v. 3). The next day, they find the head and hands removed from their idol (v. 4). This was customary for a warrior to do to his vanquished enemy, leaving only an unidentifiable body, symbolizing his being forgotten in death. But God did more than destroy the Philistine’s idol, He punished the people (v. 6). Moving the Ark to another Philistine city only resulted in more punishment for them (v. 9). Indeed, God cannot but punish sin. Ultimately, God Himself orchestrates the return of the Ark to Israel.
In 6:1 we see that the punishment of the Philistines lasted seven months. Their pagan priests instruct them to send the Ark back, with an offering for sin (vv. 3-5). Note that Israel treated the Ark as an idol, and God tool it away. These foreigners immediately recognize that the God of Israel is truly God, and give Him glory (v. 5) – the glory that Israel did not give Him. Notice that Pharaoh was now infamous for his hardening of heart against God, and the story of the Exodus was well-known (v. 6). God did indeed put fear in the hearts of the peoples of the land (see Josh 2:9-10 and Psalm 33:8).
The Philistines decide to test whether or not the God of Israel was truly causing their punishment. They take nursing cows that have never been yoked (that is, never been trained to pull a cart with another cow) and hide away their calves (v. 7). Cows would naturally seek their young, so if they do not, but pull their burden, then God had to be at work. God confirms to the Philistines that their assessment of Him is correct (vv. 9-12). And when Israel sees the Ark, they rejoice (v. 13), but they do not treat the Ark with the reverence God commanded them, and they are punished for it (v. 19 – the Hebrew actually says that 5,070 men were killed). The chapter ends with the Ark going to Kiriath-jearim instead of Shiloh where it belongs because of the fear of the people (vv. 20-21). For them, it is easier to put God out of sight and out of mind than to obey Him. How true that is for so many.