1 Samuel 4-7: The Ark of the Covenant

1 Samuel 4-7 marks the first time the Israelites lost the Ark of the Covenant. We can learn a lot from this incident.


The Ark of the Covenant was perhaps the holiest object the Israelites possessed. It was very important to them and their relationship with God. Today, we know that they eventually lose the Ark, but during Samuel's day, this was probably an unheard of course of action. Yet, in their haste to force God's hand, Israel did just that, lose the Ark of the Covenant.

Warring with the Philistines

As was the case from the time the Philistines arrived, even unto today, the Israelites and the Philistines were involved in a conflict. When Samuel sent a message out to Israel, the people were inspired, so they rose up against the Philistines. We are told they heard the message of Samuel, but we aren't told that they consulted God before running off into battle. As seen in the books of Joshua and Judges, without the blessings of God, no battle is successful. In the first battle, the Israelites lost 4,000 men and were defeated. After this defeat, they thought to take the Ark of the Covenant with them to battle. Again, no actual consultation with God is mentioned. With the aid of Eli's son (big clue that this plan wasn't going to work), they took the ark to their camp. At the sight of the ark, the Israelites began to rejoice; their rejoicing was so loud they put fear into the hearts of the Philistines. The rejoicing signaled to the Philistines that God was with the Israelites. They knew that this was the God who had defeated Egypt. However, when the battle came, the Philistines successfully defeated Israel, killing 30,000 men. On top of that, they stole the ark and killed Eli's sons, fulfilling God's prophecy that Eli's sons would fall on the same day.

The Aftermath

A Benjamite who fought in the battle escapes to tell the people of Shiloh (including Eli) about their defeat and loss. Eli, who was 98 at the time, falls and breaks his neck when he hears the news. He dies from the incident, having served Israel for 40 years. We are also told of the great sorrow of the wife of Eli's son Phinehas. She gives birth to a son shortly after and names him Ichabod because the glory of God (the Ark) has departed from them. Ichabod means "no glory."[1] The rest of the town also goes into mourning.

Relating to Today

The lesson of the passage is something we all struggle with today. We often want something, assume God also wants it for us, and rush into "battle" without God's approval. Though we don't have Ark of the Covenant, we may prepare for these "battles" with the Word, our church family, or symbols such as a cross, to no avail. The key ingredient that was missing was instruction from God. This passage touches on one of the trickiest parts about being human. The Israelites likely thought they were supposed to go to battle with the Philistines simply because God had previously ordered such a battle. However, this time, the timing wasn't right. We will see how God uses this failure to spread His glory and remind Israel that they need Him. We can also learn a lot from this incident.

Not only did Israel bypass God and simply do as they pleased, they elevated the Ark of the Covenant to an idol. The Israelites thought the sheer presence of the object would grant them victory, but it was actually the presence of God they needed. Do we do this today? Absolutely. There are people who think churches are safer than regular homes, who think crosses and holy water have power over sickness or demons. These people are imbuing objects with the power of God. Only faith and God's presence can manifest such power. You are much safer in an apartment with great faith, calling on the name of God, than in a church with little faith.

We have to work hard to make sure God stays the center of our faith.

The Fall of Dagon

The Philistines took their spoils of war—the Ark of the Covenant (that's a major trophy!)—back to one of their major cities. In a the city, called Ashdod, they set the ark before one of their gods, Dagon. Dagon was a fish god, or possibly an agricultural god that had been made the head god of the Philistines pantheon.[2][3] By showing this false god the ark and leaving it with him, the Philistines were declaring Dagon's defeat over the God of Israel (at least that's what they thought). It was almost like an offering. Of course we know that the Lord is the only God and He used the Philistines to show His power.

When the Philistines came back the next day, the statue of Dagon had fallen. They may have thought something of it, or they may have brushed it to the side, but they didn't make a big fuss; they simply propped the statue back up and continued their day. The day after that, they found the statue fallen again. This time the head and palms were cut off. God was making the statement to the Philistines that they may have beaten Israel but they had not beaten Him. After this, the people of the city neither approached the Ark or their false god. Even so, they did not return the Ark, and plagues from God spread in the city.

Cities Afflicted

Knowing the plagues were a curse from God, but not wanting to admit defeat, the Philistines simply moved the Ark to Gath. I can't imagine that they didn't have an inkling the plagues would follow the Ark, so this says alot about their lack of loyalty to their own people. It was also a gamble, because nothing was to stop God from cursing both cities at the same time (after all, they still hadn't returned the Ark to Israel). The people of Gath probably didn't know what had occured in Ashdod. It's not like they had cable news or even a newspaper, word would have had to travel by mouth from someone who had journeyed from one city to the next. What they did know, however, was that this was the famous Ark of the Covenant that the God of Israel sat upon. It is unknown if God gave them a warning, like in Ashdod, but in the end, they also ended up with "emerods."

The word "emerods" made me think of hemerrhoids, which are definitely painful and still technically located on your "secret parts" as 1 Samuel 5:9 describes. The scholarly notion, however, is that emerods were some type of boils or tumors.[3] Boils on the secret parts sounds like herpes, to me. I can imagine that the city would be quick in wanting to get rid of any of the three!

Like their neighbors, the people of Gath simply pass the ark along. This time, to a city called Ekron. Once again, God poured out His wrath and plagued the people. The people of Ekron finally came to the consensus that the Ark had to go or else they would all die.

Retuning the Ark

The Philistines called upon "top-notch" diviners and priests to solve this problem of what to do with the Ark. It is difficult to tell if the events in the latter part of 1 Samuel 5, where the men of Ekron determine the Ark must go for them to live, and these events (discussed in 1 Samuel 6) are the same. If the events are not the same, it reads as though after determining what must happen, the men of Ekron did not trust their own instinct and sought out pagan priests and sorcerers to verify their conclusion. The Philistines were too proud to simply hand the Ark back over to Egypt, so even as they experienced death from its presence, they had to confer amongst each other about what to do with it. We behave like this ourselves sometimes, even today.

Photocredit: Jeanne Iliescu
The Philistines devised a plan to return the Ark that was also a test of if they should return the ark. They loaded the Ark into a wagon with a trespass offering of gold mice and gold emerods; perhaps this was a statement to God of who the offering was from since these were the things plaguing them. They hitched the wagon to two cows that had never carried a load before; such cows would not know how to work together to pull the cart. The Philistines reasoned that if God was behind the actions, He would steer the cart where He wanted the Ark to go. God delivered, and after the Philistines hitched up the wagon, the cows ran straight for Israel's city of Bethshemesh.

Relating to Today

We can be blind to our problems in this manner, too. We may want to keep something—a habit, relationship, or possession—and that something may be terrible for us, but instead of simply eliminating the object from our lives, we overthink the situation. Our overthinking is a method of searching for a way to justify keeping the object, despite what we know deep down. Sometimes it takes drastic measures (like emerods!) for us to wake up to God telling us to get something out of our life. We must remember that it is only after we obey that we can heal.

Back in Israel

The wagon came to a halt in the field of a man named Joshua (not to be confused with Joshua who succeeded Moses). The Israelites rejoiced at the return of the Ark. They used the cows as an offering to God. The Philistines must have sent spies to see what happened with the Ark, because it is recorded that when they saw what occurred, they reported back to their people.

Possibly indicated by the fact that the Israelites made offerings with out journeying to Shiloh, the men in Bethshemesh had not learned to respect the law of God. Instead of returning the Ark to its rightful place immediately, they decided to take a peek inside. This resulted in the death of 50,070 men. God had already given instruction that they were not to touch the Ark, let alone look inside. Only the priests were supposed to move the Ark, and they even had instructions for how to move it!

Wait...How Many People Died?

Scholars assert that the text has been altered in our English translated of 1 Samuel 6:19.[3][4] The original text does not render the numerals in a traditional manner and omit the "and" joining 50,000 and 70. Some suggest only 70 men died. Scholars believe the city wasn't big enough to have a population of 50,000 people to smite. In attempt to understand the passage some have suggested 50,000 was the number of people in the city and 70 was the number of men killed.

In the Right Hands

Those who where left called upon another city within the tribe of Judah to come get the Ark. There, the people sanctified a man named Eleazar to keep the Ark. The Ark was in this city for 20 years! No explanation is given for why they did not take the Ark to Shiloh. My guess would be that Shiloh was occupied by the Philistines at the time. The Israelites lament their defeat, while Samuel encourages them to give up their false gods and return to the true God. Eventually, they do.

Battling the Philistines

When the Philistines head that God's people were gathering together,they took the opportunity to seek out a battle. The Israelites clung to God this time, offering a lamb and praying for help. God hears the prayers and protects the Israelites in tis battle. The Philistines are defeated and pursued as they flee, enabling the Israelites to take back their land. For the rest of the time Samuel was living, the Lord set His hand against the Philistines.


  1. Mike Campbell. "Ichabod". Behind the Name. 1996
  2. "Who is Dagon in the Bible?". 2016
  3. Holman Bible Publishers. Holman KJV Study Bible. pg. 477. 2016
  4. "1 Samuel 6:19 Commentary". Bible Hub. 2016

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