1 Samuel 4: Death of the High Priest, Life of the Word

The prophecies of 1 Samuel 2 and 3 come to fruition in chapter 4 where the focus once again is on Samuel – that his word came to Israel.  What is the significance of his word in comparison to the words of the High Priest?  These are words which bore much implication, that would make the two ears of the Israelites tingle – that the High Priest of Israel, along with his household, would perish forever without mediation.  All the previous judges have succeeded in one sense or another in striving against Israel’s enemy and reformation of internal strife; but Eli is a fallen judge who died in this chapter as an empty shell of a priest.

At first sight, the threat seems to affect only Eli, Hophni and Phinehas.  However, the LORD’s punishment extends from the head of Israel to the body congregation.  The implication of Eli’s household being removed is fully realised in this chapter:  the physical ark inherently cannot save for it symbolises the throne room of the Father, but the Father Son and Spirit are not with Israel in their ordeal against the Philistines; 4000 Israelites die as a result of the Lord’s permission.  “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?” – indeed, even the Israelites know that the Philistines, no matter how mighty, could not strive even a moment against Israel if she is mediated by the High Priest.  The Levitical traditions laid out in the first few chapters of Leviticus, with the pinnacle of the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, represent the utter importance of the holiness of this typological Mediator.  Yet, Eli has failed – and what strikes fear in the Old Testament Church’s heart is not only how astounding it is to hear of the removal of this great priest; but that his prophesied removal is the first ever heard of – and that without mediation, Israel would be the subject of judgment.  Where is the bull offering for the anointed priest’s sin (Leviticus 4:3)?  Is Samuel the man who acts presumptuously in the place of the High Priest (Deuteronomy 17:12)?  Both answers result in the negative: there is no sacrifice, for Eli has spat upon it.  There is no high priest in the household of Eli, for Samuel is the one who now receives revelation from the Son who made and is making the Father known to him.  Eli stands far away from enemy lines (v.13), though for victory to be ensured, he must proclaim success at the head of the army:

Deu 20:1-4  “When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.  (2)  And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people (3)  and shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them,  (4)  for the LORD your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.’

Once again, where is the priest?  He is dead.  He was spiritually dead before his neck broke (v.18), but his death is to lead to the death of the congregation.  The pugilist (Hophni) and mouth of the serpent (Phinehas) were both the seed of Eli.  Is this man worthy of his name – of ascension?  By no means – he has harboured the seed of Satan and the seed of strife in his house against His will (c.f. chapter 2v.29).  And thus, Eli’s contribution as judge of Israel has not been a contribution of glory like the previous judges before him.  He did not live by the Spirit’s direction, and instead was used as an example of the fallen house of the congregation Israel.  The pain of childbirth, the immediate curse upon Eve after the fall of man, is for the first time mentioned in Scripture since Genesis 3 – and it is in the context of the descendant of the fallen High Priest, a huge contrast to the picture of doxology in Hannah’s childbirth.  Where Eli’s daughter-in-law wept because the glory has left Israel (v.22), Hannah’s weeping are tears of joy because the glory has not left Israel entirely, but that the LORD has left a remnant within Israel who are spiritually circumcised as voiced beautifully in her praise song in chapter 2.  Light has entered the world, when Israel was at its height of darkness, though this microcosm is to have a fuller display in the Assyrian and Babylonian captivity of God’s “chosen” nation.

And what of the neglected ark?  It is captured, but it does not lose its symbolism as the Father’s throne seat.  It is here that we see the glory being returned to where Israel first battled against the Philistines.  The encampment, Ebenezer, the stone of help, was the very stone of stumbling (1 Peter 2:8) which burdened the Israelites; yet by the return of the ark at the side of Samuel in 1 Samuel 7:

1Sa 7:12-13  Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the LORD has helped us.”  (13)  So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel. And the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.

Thus, true salvation came not through Eli.  Nor through the ark of the covenant.  Especially not through the might of Israel.  For Israel is weak; the ark an icon; Eli a fallen high priest – but Samuel was led by the Word of God who he met in chapter 2 – and standing tall at the beginning of chapter 4, it is by the word that Samuel conquered and rose higher than the High Priest.  Only through the complete deprivation and erasure of the household of Eli, only through the establishment of Ichabod – of no glory in this house – did the glory of the household of Yahweh return to Israel in the ark’s symbolic return; but the true power had always been the Word which even restores the ark to its purpose.  Only through the breaking of the neck of Eli could his headship be removed from that of Israel and be entirely replaced by the Head of Christ, by the true King David.  Only by the breaking of the neck of Eli could new creation birth be praised, as opposed to birth out of creation-pains of sin.  The death of the old Adam, of Eli, symbolises the born-again life in the Son by the Spirit as we are grafted into the true vine of life (Romans 11:23).

Thus, where the Israelites used the ‘ark’ superstitiously for their own glory, Samuel was used by LORD’s Word and Son to lead Israel to glory in spite of the widespread non-messianic Judaism.  It is not by Eli’s failed high-priesthood mediation that Israel is to be redeemed; but that Israel is to be condemned by the law, of the failures in fulfilling the high-priestly role, so that the Word can be the True High Priest and True and Only Mediator as established through Samuel.  So I end this chapter on the prophetic and faithful words of Job:

Job 33:23-26  If there be for him an angel, a mediator, one of the thousand, to declare to man what is right for him,  (24)  and he is merciful to him, and says, ‘Deliver him from going down into the pit; I have found a ransom;  (25)  let his flesh become fresh with youth; let him return to the days of his youthful vigor’;  (26)  then man prays to God, and he accepts him; he sees his face with a shout of joy, and he restores to man his righteousness.

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1 Samuel 4: Death of the High Priest, Life of the Word

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