A TROUBLED SUNSET
A man from the tribe of Benjamin ran from the battlefront and arrived at Shiloh later that same day. He had torn his clothes and put dust on his head to show his grief. ELI was waiting beside the road to hear the news of the battle, for his heart trembled for the safety of the Ark of God. When the messenger arrived and told what had happened, an outcry resounded throughout the town. "What is all the noise about?" Eli asked. The messenger rushed over to Eli, who was ninety-eight years old and blind. He said to Eli, "I have just come from the battlefront—I was there this very day." "What happened?" Eli demanded. "Israel has been defeated," the messenger replied. "Thousands of Israelite troops are dead on the battlefield. Your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were killed, too. And the Ark of God has been captured." When the messenger mentioned what had happened to the Ark, Eli fell backward from his seat beside the gate. He broke his neck and died, for he was old and very fat. He had led Israel for forty years. 1 Samuel 4:12-18
Mournful is it to see the life of a great and good man terminate in trouble and sorrow--to see the sun which has held on a glorious course through bright skies during a long summer day, go down at his setting, mantled in lowering clouds--a pillow of gloom and darkness.
Such is the closing scene in the life of ELI, the aged Priest, Ruler, and Judge of Israel. Ninety-eight years have furrowed his brow with wrinkles and dimmed his eye with blindness, as we see him sitting, in an agony of emotion, on the wayside near the gate of Shiloh.
The Philistines (the old enemy of his nation) had come up against them in battle on the preceding day at Ebenezer. The fight had ended in the defeat of the hosts of Israel. The news of disaster and defeat had spread. Four thousand noble Hebrews lay stretched on that bloody plain, and when the retreating host fell back on their tents, a loud wail burst from the elders of the people--"Why has the Lord smitten us today before the Philistines?" (1 Sam. 4:3)
Is there no way of retrieving their disaster? Doubtless on the morrow, the warriors of Philistia will follow up their triumph; and years of servitude and oppression may be the result of a second defeat. They bethink themselves of what should have occurred to them long before now. The Ark of God, the pledge and symbol of victory in times gone by, was not many leagues distant from their encampment, within the gates of Shiloh. Might they not send fleet-footed messengers to request of old Eli, its custodian and guardian, that the sacred symbol might be sent without delay. It might form yet a rallying point for the defeated ranks, revive drooping hearts, and nerve for the morrow's struggle.
The aged priest assents. He cannot himself accompany it--his years--his sightless eyes--his shattered frame--could not stand the hurry of the march and feverish excitements of the battle. His two sons, Hophni and Phineas, are, however, ready for the exploit. They are the bearers of the sacred chest. The old man is able only to follow them and their consecrated cargo to the city gate. There he seats himself, uttering, (perhaps, with trembling lips,) his benediction, until the noise of their footfall dies away in the distance. In other circumstances, a father's heart would have swelled with patriot-pride to see his children going forth, bearers of the great standard of their nation--that which was more to the "sons of Abraham" than the proud eagle ever was to the legions of imperial Rome, and which, in older and better times, both in the wilderness and Canaan, out of weakness had made strong, imparted valor in fight, and "turned to flight the armies of the aliens." His spirit, also, might have revived, had he listened to the frenzied shout of joy which rose from the ranks of Israel as they saw the palladium of their liberty come into their midst. "When the Israelites saw the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord coming into the camp, their shout of joy was so loud that it made the ground shake!" 1 Samuel 4:5
But ah! there were mingled thoughts in that old man's breast, as his dull ear caught the last sound of these retreating steps. Amid the wreck of memory, he could not forget that dark and solemn night when, within the hallowed curtains of Shiloh, the voice of a little child (the very child he had with fondest love adopted as his own, and like a tender lamb nestled in his bosom), the voice of that child uttered, in the name of Israel's God, accents of stern doom and disaster against his house--tidings which would "make the ears" of every one that heard them "to tingle." The substance of the Divine communication was, that the Lord "would judge the house of Eli forever, for the iniquity which he knew; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not," (1 Sam. 3:13).
Twenty years had rolled by since the first utterance of these prophetic warnings. Had the Lord become slack concerning His threatenings, because sentence against their evil works was not executed speedily? Does the old Priest and Judge imagine that God has retracted or modified His solemn threatenings? He knew better. The cloud has for years been gathering--and now in this war-tempest that is blackening the political heavens, he fancies he reads too truthfully the omens of approaching disaster. The coming event, anticipated for well near a quarter of his protracted life, now casts a deeper shadow on his path; and stinging must have been the aggravation of his woe, that he was himself the guilty cause of impending judgment, that, but for his parental neglect--culpable parental fondness--he might have transmitted an unsullied name from generation to generation, his children rising up and calling him blessed.
Other and gloomy thoughts, too; crowded upon him. "His heart trembled for the ark of God." Strong as were his feelings of parental solicitude, a deeper and intenser anxiety was gathered around that holy treasure, of which he was delegated keeper. The failing of Eli's whole character was irresolution--indecision--a facile, easy, wavering temper--"a righteous man," but he was not "bold as a lion." His weakness was manifested alike in his family and in his government. It was mainly by reason of his irresolute sway the state was now hovering on the brink of ruin. His conduct at this solemn crisis, regarding the ark, as alike High priest and Chief magistrate, illustrates his administrative incapacity. That ark either ought not to have been trusted in the battle at all, or it ought to have been there when Israel first marched to the field. It ought to have formed the rallying point of the fight of yesterday as well as of today. It was little else than an insult to Him who dwelt between its cherubims, to neglect the symbol of His presence, until the hour of disaster and defeat forced them to an acknowledgment of His hand. They went out to the first battle to meet their old enemy, confident in their own prowess; and now, it was only when their ranks are broken, that they have recourse to the consecrated shrine. They flee to God when they cannot help it. They flee to Him only when their own bruised reeds have failed--as a last resort--the forlorn hope of their demoralized and defeated squadrons.
No wonder, then, that that old man sits by the way-side tremulous and fearful, stretching out his palsied and withered hands to every passer-by for tidings of the fray. His was indeed an accumulated load of anxiety and woe.
The ARMY. Might not the uncircumcised Philistines be already rejoicing over "the beauty of Israel slain in high places?" Might not that evening sun be already setting on fields of carnage and blood, and leave a thousand Rachels weeping and refusing to be comforted?
His SONS. Once the pride of his heart--but, alas! on whom now rested the brand and curse of God--the shadows of time, followed by the gloom of a darker hereafter!
The ARK. Could it be hurried once more amid the defiled fires of Philistine altars?--polluted with the incense offered to Chemosh and Dagon?
Oh! it was a lifetime hurried into a few eventful hours. How heavily would the moments drag along until the terrible suspense was relieved! At last, the moment has come! A haggard messenger--a man of Benjamin, a fugitive from battle, supposed in Jewish tradition to be Saul--with torn garments, and dust on his head--ran to the gates of Shiloh. Had Eli's eyes been as once they were, he would not have required to ask so eagerly the fate of the day--the symbols of woe and defeat, in the torn dress and earth-besprinkled head, would have made known too truly the worst. A loud wail is carried to his ear from the city!--Stretching forth his withered arms, he exclaims--"What is the meaning of this uproar? What happened, my son?"
Touching is the reply. Bolt after bolt pierces his soul! Wave upon wave--and each succeeding one sadder than the last--rolls in upon him! It is a succession of cruel tidings rising to a terrible and significant climax.
Mark them! "And the messenger answered and said, Israel has fled before the Philistines!" That is the first, and sad enough is the announcement. Still, the old man might cling to the hope that matters might not be desperate. It might be more perhaps of a strategic movement--the messenger, in too hot haste, may have exaggerated or misapprehended; or, if a temporary repulse, at least, there might be little bloodshed, and, rallying their broken ranks, the defeat of the hour might already be retrieved!
But the next sentence of the message extinguishes these hopes. "There has been also a great slaughter among the people!" It has been a grievous defeat! "Philistia has triumphed." The pride and flower of Israel has fallen--and the cry of the orphan and the widow shall be heard in many desolate homes!
Is there not yet a ray of hope for the parent's heart? Amid these thousands whose blood is staining the plains of Aphek, is it possible that the two forms he has been following all day in anxious thought may yet be spared? that God may in mercy close His own eyes before He executes His denunciations regarding them? But this is the burden of the third portion of the message--"Your two sons also, Hophni and Phineas, are dead."
One and only one gleam still remains in this wreck of life--to one plank alone, does the old castaway still cling amid these buffeting waves. Israel may have fallen!--Rachels may be weeping!--Philistia may have conquered!--the fruit of his own body may be lying amid the heaps of gory slain. But if the Ark be still intact--unpolluted, unviolated by uncircumcised hands, he will stem the torrent of burning grief. All may yet be well. The hopes of Israel are not irretrievably annihilated. If the old symbol of God's favor be still in the hands of the feeble remnant, who can tell but it may, before the morrow's dawn, work wonders as of old; and that at the ancestral battle-cry uttered over it, "Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered"--God will prove to be "in the midst of them; they shall not be moved--the Lord shall help them, and that right early."
But the last tiding is the saddest of all. The messenger rises to a gloomy climax, "and the ark of God has been captured!" It is enough--the old man can bear up no more! He can listen with comparative calmness to the tidings of national disaster--death--family bereavement; but when the crowning woe of woes reaches his ear--that "the glory of Israel"--its jewel and crown--has ignominiously fallen--he cannot survive the shock. Like aged Jacob, he can say with an intenser bitterness, "I am bereaved!" The old palm-tree quivers at its roots. "When the messenger mentioned what had happened to the Ark, Eli fell backward from his seat beside the gate. He broke his neck and died, for he was old and very fat. He had led Israel for forty years." (1 Sam. 4:18). That sun, which for forty years had been the political and ecclesiastical light of Israel, now sets behind their mountains in the darkest shadows of death.
Let us endeavor to draw one or two practical lessons from this touching story. It contains a special lesson to parents, and a general lesson to all.
The first and most patent, surely, is a lesson to PARENTS.
What a heritage of sorrow and suffering might not Eli have warded off, by fidelity to that immortal trust confided to him. He was in many things worthy of all commendation. He was, we have reason to believe, "an Israelite indeed." He loved the God of his fathers. He was jealous for His glory. He treasured, with patriot fidelity, the symbol of His presence. As a man and a parent, also, he was not stern or repulsive or vindictive. He was evidently of a kindly nature--his tender affection for young Samuel is one of the most touching episodes in sacred story. What a proof of his meekness and childlike spirit was his conduct, on hearing from those infant lips, the doleful tidings of wrath and judgment! How many would have received the withering communication, and that too from the mouth of a child, with fierce indignation! How many would in wrath have spurned the tiny messenger of evil away, and rejected his message as a piece of childish presumption, a frightening dream of infancy! But there is no frown on his brow. This "still small voice" brings him, like the prophet of Horeb, to stand wrapped in his mantle, calm, submissive, self-convicted and self-condemned, and to say--(oh, considering such a wound in a parent's heart, how great the effort, how strong the faith to be able to say it,) "It is the Lord, let him do what seems him good."
But notwithstanding much (very much) that was laudable and loveable in his character, he had allowed youthful folly to go unchecked; he had looked on the first outbreak of vice in the young tyrants of his household with a too lenient eye; he had nestled the snake too fondly and too thoughtlessly. A few judicious words--a few loving counsels--a few firm prohibitions timeously addressed to these lawless boys, would have saved him many a bitter hour and bitter tear. But from motives of false delicacy, or indecision, or indifference, he did not repress the beginnings of evil. What was the result? Shame in Israel, dishonor to God, national disaster, a violent death!
Let parents lay these things to heart. There is among all a natural partiality for their own children. When they see family wrecks around, they cannot bring themselves to believe that it could be so with theirs. "Others," they are apt to say, "of baser natures, of wicked dispositions, ungovernable tempers; the children of profligate parents, who have been nurtured under the shadow of evil example, and who bore from their cradles the stamp of ungodliness--we wonder not at hearing of their worthlessness and ruin--but no fear of ours. Their temperament is of a different cast. We need not be so fastidious--so watchful. We can leave them very much to themselves. Restraint--too much tension--will only end in a greater rebellion. As for some early outbreaks, they are only the usual manifestations to be expected of youthful folly--they will cure themselves. We must not press matters too hard, or domineer with too high a hand."
"It is good that a man bear the yoke in his YOUTH," (Lam. 3:27). A word spoken then, in due season, how good it is! It is easy to bend the sapling--not so easy to bend the tree. "Train up" (not the youth, not when on the threshold of manhood or womanhood)--but "train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it," (Prov. 22:6). Eli, indeed, we find reasoning and expostulating with his sons, "And he said unto them, Why do you such things? for I hear of your evil dealings. No, my sons; for it is no good report that I hear--you make the Lord's people to transgress." Alas! these gentle chidings came too late. "Notwithstanding they hearkened not to the voice of their father." Unchecked and unbridled boyhood led to dissolute youth; and then the course was rapidly downward, headlong to destruction!
Yes, and the bitterest part of it all, to a heart like Eli's, must have been the second death. The words of the child Samuel are among the most dreadful in the Bible--"I have sworn unto the house of Eli, that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be purged with sacrifice nor offering forever." It reminds one of another parent in Israel in similar circumstances. What was the terrible element of David's grief in the touching lament for Absalom? It seems to lie in the middle clause of that piercing elegy, "Would God I had died instead of you!" as if he had said, "If it had been myself and not you, there would have been need of no such bitter tears. To me, it would have been a gain to die--for the God I serve has 'made with me an everlasting covenant' But, alas! 'my house is not so with God!' I have no such joyous hope hovering over your early grave. 'O Absalom, Absalom! my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for YOU, O Absalom, my son, my son!'" (2 Sam. 18:33)
There is, in a review of Eli's history and character, A GENERAL LESSON TO ALL.
There is a lesson to SINNERS. Learn from Eli's death, that God will not wink at sin. Even when He sees it in His own people, He will punish it. If He spared not this good and holy saint--this long-tried priest and judge in Israel--if He spared not "the branch His own right hand planted," take heed, sinner, lest he spare not you!
Sentence against Eli's evil works (his sins of omission) was not executed speedily. Israel, who doubtless knew the doom hanging over his house, might think and say--"The God who uttered these stern things is to have mercy on his hoary hairs. Whatever He may do to Eli's abandoned sons, He will let the old man, first of all, die in peace, and be gathered to his fathers."
No, no, aged servant of God! the thorn shall pierce your unpillowed head! the scorpions of vengeance shall yet overtake you! You shall, in your clouded sunset, be another beacon to all time, another attestation to the truth of the words, "Be sure your sin will find you out!"
And if God thus dealt with a holy, meek, gentle, childlike saint--careless one! say, how will He deal with you? "If these things were done in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?" Oh! as we see the poor, helpless, unbefriended, blind man, staggering back on his seat by the wayside; and dying, pierced with worse than a thousand Philistine arrows--as we see the venerable tree of God, which had been rooted for a century on the high hills of Israel, wrenched up by the roots in a moment by the terrible blast--may we not well exclaim, in the words of the prophet to the worthless children of the forest all around--"Howl fir-tree, for the cedar has fallen!" (Zech. 11:2)
There is a lesson to SAINTS, to Believers, to the Church! It is a lesson for imitation! Would that there were more among us who died like Eli, with a tear in our eye for the ark of God! Beautiful was that solicitude of his for the sacred symbol. It was dearer to him than home, or country, or friends. He listened to the other crushing tidings with calm magnanimity. But "the ark of God taken!" he cannot survive such a blow as this!
Have the fortunes--the welfare of the Church of Christ--any such corresponding interest to us? Do we live for it? Could we, like Eli, die for it? Alas! alas! where is the picture among us, of Christians sitting on the wayside of life, trembling for the Ark of God? See them by hundreds and thousands sitting trembling for their business; for the worldly good of their families; for their money; for the golden chest of mammon! See ten thousand swords ready to start from their scabbards for the defense of hearth and home, and the protection of civil privileges and national honor. But where is there a corresponding trembling apprehension about the war of principles, though the spiritual enemy be coming in like a flood--a rampant infidelity at our doors, and the masses of our people in crowded cities perishing for lack of knowledge!
Let us take care that we be not traitors to our great trust as custodians of the Ark, the great center of light for a dark world. The era of Scripture history, and the subsequent annals of the Church, give us significant warning that it is a possible thing for the disaster of Ebenezer to be repeated; for the Ark to fall; for the candlestick to be removed! After this sad day of old Eli's death, the ark of Israel never again returned to Shiloh. Shiloh became a desolation. Its very walls were buried. Travelers to this day tell us that it is the most "featureless" place in the Holy Land. Its site can be identified no more. The ark was carried from place to place for a hundred years, until it rested on Mount Zion, and even there also, the "Ichabod" pronounced on this fatal day is now written. Zion is desolate as Shiloh; according to God's own words, "I will make this house like Shiloh, and will make this city a curse!" (Jer. 26:6) And the same mournful tale was uttered, generations afterwards, amid the bleak ruins of the favored churches of Asia. They forgot their first love; their light was quenched in darkness; the rejected Ark had to seek kindlier shores.
If for three centuries it has dwelt in our island home, let us remember that we also, like the churches before us, enjoy it only if we remain faithful. God seems to say to us, as to Jerusalem, "Go now unto my place which was in Shiloh, where I set up my name at the first, and see what I did to IT." If we neglect His ark, or desecrate it, or leave it in unhallowed hands, God will give it in custody to others. He will never lack some people or some nation to glorify Him and hallow His name--"If these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out," (Luke 19:40).
It might, indeed, on that eventful day at Shiloh's gate, have been little to Eli whether the ark returned or no. His course was run, his sun about to set. And it may, in a selfish point of view, be little to us, the waxing and waning fortunes of the Church of Christ. We may be in our graves before the Philistines--the powers of evil--muster for the last conflict. But shall we have no thought for those who come after us? Shall we estimate so lightly the wasteful blood of a martyred ancestry who died in defense of the Ark of God? Shall we count it no sacred heirloom to hand down undesecrated to our children's children?
Let us not be mistaken. We make no allusion to championship for sect or church. See that you do not in this respect commit the very sin of Israel in Ebenezer, when the wild and frantic shout rang through the valley as they saw the ark approaching. They gazed upon it with superstitious veneration; they put the symbol in place of God. How many do so still, whose cry is, "The temple of the Lord! the temple of the Lord!" who are loud in some Shibboleth of party--guilty of the basest idolatry of man--looking to priest, or sacrament, or holy place, instead of to Him "who sits between the cherubim." Go! love the Church of God; fight for it; weep for it; if you will, die for it; but do so because you love Him who "loved that Church and gave Himself for it," and because you desire to glorify His name.
The Ark of God is now in the battlefield. Enemies outside receive encouragement from traitors within. Many an old saint with bent form is sitting weeping and trembling at the gates of Israel. When does the mother feel most anxious for her child? It is when she knows it is girdled with fire in the burning house, or far out in the tiny skiff in the midst of a roaring sea; and if God is now bringing His Church "through fire and through water," causing it to ride amid the surging sea of the nations abroad, or amid elements charged with destruction at home--let others make their political calculations, and forecast the destinies of kingdoms, but be it yours to "seat yourselves by the wayside," and, "trembling for the ark of God," to raise the prayer amid the gathering storm, "Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered."