So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.1 Samuel 4:10-11 NIV
When the book of 1 Samuel opens the tabernacle of God, built during the Exodus, is residing at Shiloh. Eli is the high priest at the time and his two sons Hophni and Phinehas, were also serving as priests. But as you read the first few chapters of 1 Samuel you get a picture of a priesthood that was corrupted. Hophni and Phinehas were stealing from the people and sleeping with the women who served at the tabernacle. And Eli, their father, did nothing about it.
The Philistines were a neighboring people to Israel. Conflict between the two seemed to be constant as they both vied for the same territory and resources. And that is the setting for this fourth chapter of 1 Samuel. The two armies fight, and Israel is badly beaten. So they decide to take the Ark of the Covenant into battle with them. After all, in their most legendary victory at Jericho, the ark was with the army.
So the army takes the ark, along with Hophni and Phinehas, and march into battle with the Philistines. And the result was catastrophic. Israel is defeated, losing 30,000 soldiers. And, even worse, the ark is captured by the Philistines and Hophni and Phinehas are killed. How could this happen?
The Fruit of Disobedience
It is likely that several factors contributed to this disaster. Among them is what seems to be the peoples attitude toward the ark. They seem to treat it as a good luck charm that would guarantee success in battle. And they failed to understand and reverence the things of God.
But, most importantly, in the context of the story, it is Hophni and Phinehas that seem to be the biggest problem. Their actions as priests had dishonored God and were punished for it. And their disobedience had bitter fruit, not just for them, but for the whole nation.
This was the repeated story throughout the history of Israel. When their spiritual leadership was lacking, the whole nation suffered. And I believe it is true for us today as well. When our spiritual leadership is weak or misguided, then those who look to them will suffer. The story of Hophni and Phinehas should serve as a lesson to all who provide spiritual leadership to do it in a way that honor’s God and draws people to him.