Trembling For The Ark

“And when he came, lo, Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching: for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city, and told it, all the city cried out.”
(1st Samuel 4:13)


The ark of the covenant was the visible sign of God’s presence with Israel. Made according to the pattern given to Moses in the mount (Exodus 25:10-22), it was the first piece of furniture for the tabernacle. The ark was a small box, made of enduring shittim wood, and overlaid with pure gold. Over it was a lid, made of pure gold with two cheribums made of the same piece. It was called the mercy seat. Here, on the day of atonement, the blood was sprinkled, and here was the meeting place between God and Israel. “There I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat.” (Exodus 25:22)

Inside the ark were three things: the tables of the law, Aaron’s rod that budded, and a pot of manna (Hebrews 9:4). So the ark was very sacred and very special.

Wonderful things bad been performed through the presence of the ark. When Israel came to the River Jordan (at that time overflowing its banks), when the priests carrying the holy ark stepped down into the river, the waters divided so that Israel could cross safely. When Israel came to the walled city of Jericho, after the priests carrying the ark the armed men and the people had marched round the city seven days, and seven times on the last day, the walls of Jericho fell flat. On each occasion the ark was an awesome sign of the presence of Almighty God.

But if the ark did such wonderful things for Israel, it had not to be curiously looked into, as the men of Beth-shemesh did (1st Samuel 6:19). It had not be handled, as by Uzzah (2nd Samuel 6:6). It had not to be despised, as by Michal (2nd Samuel 6:16). In each case failure to honour brought divine judgment.

In 1st Samuel chapter 4, however, we have the awful sin of treating the ark superstitiously and presumpously. Israel had been defeated by the Philistines so the second time they daringly carried the ark into battle.

“Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out if the hand of our enemies.”
(1st Samuel 4:3)

It did not. The sign of God’s presense will not save us without the reality. Israel had the sign, but God’s presence was not with them any longer. Again they suffered humiliating defeat in battle.

Let us pause. We too, have all the visible signs of God’s presence among us. We have the Word of God, we have the gospel, we have our assemblies, we have our prayer meetings; but the old question needs to be asked: “is the LORD among us or not?”

Israel had sinned. There was open wickedness in the priesthood. Verse 4 is exceedingly sad: “The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas (the wicked priests), were there with the ark of the covenant of God.” What a God- dishonouring contradiction!

But now we see Eli trembling for the ark. He was a godly man, despite all his sins (and it was exceedlingly discreditable for him to overlook open evil in the priesthood, because it was his own sons. How often this has brought God’s judgment in the congregation of God!) But look at Eli when he had the humiliation of being solemnly rebuked for his sins by a little boy, Samuel: “It is the LORD: let Him do what seemeth Him good.” (1st Samuel 3:18)

That is grace!

Again when the messenger came with news of Israel’s defeat. There were four evil tidings:

  • Israel is fled.
  • There has been a great slaughter.
  • Thy two sons are dead.
  • The ark of God is taken.

And old Eli could bear the first three, dreadful as they were, but not the last.

“And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died: for he was an old man, and heavy.”
(1st Samuel 4:18)

If ever there was a day when God’s people need to “tremble for the ark” it is today. What appalling wickedness there is in the land! What solemn departures in the professing church of God! What bringing low in our churches! John Newton says:

“The LORD, displeased, has raised His rod;
Ah! Where are now the faithful few
Who tremble for the ark of God,
and know what Israel ought to do?”

Or, as Ezekiel puts it: those “that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.” (Ezekiel 9:4)

What, then, is it to tremble for the ark of God?

To have a tender heart in the fear of God; to be deeply burdened concerning the sad and solemn state of things; to confess pur own sin. Above all to seek to wrestle in prayer that the LORD will appear.

“In wrath remember mercy.”
(Habakkuk 3:2)

“Will the LORD cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more? Is his mercy clean gone forever? doth His promise fail for evermore? Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath He in anger shut up His tender mercies?”
(Psalm 77:7-9)

One final thing. The LORD will always have the last word. He is Almighty. He is in control. The Philistines may capture the holy ark, seemingly triumph, set it up in the house of their god. But Dagon must fall before the ark of God, and whilst thw holy ark remained in the land of the Philistines, it brought them nothing but sorrow. How glad they were to be rid of it!

So we see the ark of God returning to Israel.

“And they lifted up their eyes, and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it.”
(1st Samuel 6:13)

Through mercy, may this be our favoured portion.


B.A. Ramsbottom

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