Life of David

The Life of David Series: Losers of the Raided Ark

The young man, barely out of his teens, made himself busy at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. There was a heavy tension in the air, a sense of dread that nobody could shake. At the entrance to the common sacrifice area, a corpulent priest sat on a wooden stool. Eli had been a mentor and a father-figure to the young man since his early childhood, and now he worried for his old friend. Among other things, he worried that the fragile stool Eli insisted on using would one day be unable to hold up under the weight of its owner’s giant frame.

Off to the side, removed from the Tent of Meeting but still within sight and, more importantly, earshot, sat a small tent from which emanated the agonizing cries of a woman in hard labor. The young man could barely concentrate on anything else, yet Eli, tottering back and forth on the aging stool, seemed not to notice. Rather, his anxious eyes were on the distant horizon.

Suddenly the old man gave a start. The younger man winced as the stool creaked…then miraculously held. “Sh’muel!” Eli called him over. “My eyes aren’t as good as they once were…tell me…is that a man running towards us in the distance?”

Sh’muel went to his friend’s side and squinted in the direction he pointed. Sure enough, there was a figure running towards them, growing ever larger as he approached. Sh’muel noticed the gait of the runner. It was not the confident stride of a man bearing good news. Rather, the man ran with ragged steps that bespoke fear…desperation even.

Presently the runner staggered up to where the two men waited, and promptly collapsed to the ground in a heap. Sh’muel noted an empty scabbard at his waist. This man had fled the battle field, leaving his weapons behind. He didn’t appear to be wounded, but given that he had just run over twenty miles, Sh’muel marveled that he had not keeled over dead.

Eli didn’t wait for the man to catch his breath, nor did he order Sh’muel to fetch water. “Well?” he demanded impatiently, leaning his formidable frame forward and taxing even more the dreadfully overburdened stool, “Tell me man! What news do you bring? How went the battle?”

Obviously not well, thought Sh’muel, and wisely kept the thought to himself.

After struggling some moments to catch his breath the man let out a groan. “All is lost. All is lost.”

Eli leaned forward further. “The Ark!” he insisted. “Tell me they saved the Ark of the Covenant!”

“Captured…by…the Philistines,” was the halting reply.

Eli leaned back and put his hands on his head in despair. “Yawheh help us!” he moaned. He repeated the phrase several times, rocking back and forth in grief. Then suddenly he stopped, and his eyes widened, as if he were just remembering something. He brought the stool down with a “thud”. The exhausted soldier was just starting to crawl to his hands and knees when the old priest leaned forward once again and, with surprising strength, caught him by his scraggly beard.

“My sons!” he rasped. “What has become of Hophni and Phineas?”

This treatment seemed to put some nerve back into the soldier. He took hold of Eli’s hand, slowly removed it from his whiskers, then stood to his feet, raised himself to his full height, and looked the fat priest square in the eyes.

“Dead,” he replied. “Both of them. I saw them fall myself.”

At that moment there came a blood-curdling scream from the birthing tent. To the casual passer by it may have sounded like an inarticulate cry, but Sh’muel distinctly heard the syllables formed by the anguished woman inside.


The midwife appeared at the entrance to the tent, the front of her tunic drenched in blood. “Quick boy!” she motioned towards Sh’muel. “Get some water and some fresh…”

Before she could finish there came from behind him the sound of something large hitting the ground, hard. The woman’s face froze. Sh’muel whirled around to see Eli’s huge form stretched out in front of the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, his head at an awkward angle to his body. He wasn’t breathing.

The stool lay on its side next to him, perfectly intact.


To understand the importance of the Ark of the Covenant, one must go all the way back to the third chapter of Genesis, where we read that God used to walk with man in the Garden, in the “cool of the day”. Of course that same chapter relates how that fellowship was broken by man’s sin, and how God promised a future Redeemer.

Fast-forward to the book of Exodus, and God sets up the forms whereby His people Israel are to worship him. The Tent of Meeting He designs for them is essentially a replica of a garden, complete with representations of trees and fruits. And in the middle of this “garden” is a gold-inlayed box that represents the presence of God Himself…the Ark.

Alas, fellowship with God is not the easy, cool-of-the-day conversation of the garden. To come into his presence involves continual and bloody sacrifice for sins, and even then only one mediator is allowed into that hallowed section of the tent – called the “Holy of Holies” – and only then once a year, and then only when bearing a blood sacrifice.

And, just to make doubly sure the Israelites understood the reference to Eden, the Ark was topped off with the carvings of two cherubim, guarding the way to God’s presence as they did when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden.

And yet, despite all the barriers and restricted access, the very presence of the Ark of the Covenant in their midst was of tremendous importance to the people of Israel. It meant that, for all their sinfulness and rebelliousness, God deigned to dwell with them. It set them apart from the surrounding nations with their pagan idols, local identities and works-based religion.

Even though hardly anybody ever got to see it, the presence of that gold-plated wooden box meant that Yahweh, the creator of the universe and everything in it, had chosen to dwell with them!

The Ark remained in its place from the founding of the nation, throughout the triumphant period of the Conquest and into the dark days of the Judges. Even among the idolatrous generations that came after the time of Joshua there remained, in the back of the Hebrew mind, the notion that he was set apart from the others, the importance of the Tent of Meeting now pitched in the city of Shiloh, and the significance of that little wooden box.

Then somebody had the bright idea to take the Ark into battle.

Some context is necessary here. Due to their disobedience and idolatry God allowed various Gentile peoples to harass and oppress the Israelites over the years following the Conquest. The latest of these people, the oppressors du jour, were a warlike people with a fascinating and mysterious history, probably related to the legendary Greeks from whom spring the legends that make up the Iliad and Odyssey.

From what we can gather, these maritime cousins of Agamemnon and Achilles made an unsuccessful attempt to conquer Egypt. The victorious (but badly depleted) Pharaoh made them his vassals and sent them to colonize the southern Levant. They occupied five major cities in the region, Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron, from whence their military prowess and technological superiority allowed them to dominate the surrounding peoples, including the twelve tribes of Israel.

So it’s no wonder really that the children of Israel were looking for an edge in their ongoing war with the Philistines. But their idea of taking the Ark into battle suggests that its meaning had been lost. It had turned, in the minds of the people, from the symbol of God’s presence with them to being something of a magic amulet, guaranteed to bring success to the user. By this, they reduced Yahweh to the level of any other of the pagan gods of the surrounding nations. And Yahweh was understandably displeased with this.

The narrative in the introduction of this article is a dramatization of events described in I Samuel 4. The Ark was captured by the Philistines. Eli’s sons were killed in battle. And the desperate cry of Eli’s daughter-in-law as she died in childbirth must have reflected the thoughts of all Israel at that moment: Ichabod. The Glory has departed.

But even though Yahweh had judged his people by allowing the Ark to be captured, He was not about to let the Philistines think that it was because their god (a fish-like abomination called Dagon) was in any way superior. In what is one of the funniest portions of Scripture, we read that when the Ark was placed in the temple of that God in Ashdod, the Philistines awoke the next morning to find the idol prostrated before it. In addition to this, Yahweh brought various afflictions on the Philistines, including hemorrhoids (this would have made a much more entertaining climax to this movie…but I digress).

The Philistines get their heads together and, demonstrating a surprising knowledge of Israelite history, decide they want nothing to do with the Ark. They send it back to the Hebrews, who, interestingly, don’t seem to know what to do with it either. After the men of Beth Shemesh try to satisfy their curiosity by looking into the Ark (suffering consequences much more in line with the end of this movie), the men of Kiriath-Jearim recover it, and it stays in that city for twenty years.

It is interesting to note that there seems to be no initiative on the part of the people to take the Ark back to the Tabernacle at Shiloh. Perhaps God’s harsh judgement of the men of Beth Shemesh dissuaded them. Perhaps they were impeded in some way (we do know that the Philistines had garrisons throughout Israel at this time). And perhaps they understood that they had sinned greatly and thus felt somehow unworthy of the presence of Yahweh in the reconstructed Garden.

It is interesting to note that what follows, in the biblical narrative, is a general repentance under Samuel (the Sh’muel of our imagined introductions) and a victory over the Philistines at Eben-Ezer. God is pleased by true repentance and the rejection of idolatry, not by people using Him as a magic amulet.

So why all this talk of the Ark of the Covenant in a study on the life of David? Because it is going to be essential for us to understand the spiritual condition of the nation at the time of David’s arrival on the scene. We’ve already noted God’s blessing on the tribe of Judah, and the sorry state of the tribe of Benjamin. We’ve seen that Jerusalem, the city of peace that occupies the border between Judah and Benjamin, is in the hands of the enemies of God and His people. And in this article we’ve learned that God’s Presence has vacated His Tent of Meeting, that replica of the ancient Garden where He once communed with His creation in the cool of the day.

And in a little city called the House of Bread (Beit Lechem, Bethlehem) God has been moving to provide the right man at the right time.

But before we get to him, we’re going to have to deal with the wrong man at the wrong time.

Cover Image: The Ark of the Covenant before Dagon, from an ancient fresco found in a Jewish synagogue.


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And be sure to read the action-packed adventures of Missionary Max: Missionary Max and the Jungle Princess and Missionary Max and the Lost City.

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