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Loss and Return of the Ark (1 Samuel 4-6)

1 Samuel 4-6 tells the story of the Ark being lost in battle to the Philistines, its time in captivity, and its return to the nation of Israel. At the beginning of this account, it is noted that Israel decided to take the Ark into battle and took it from its place in Shiloh. 1 Samuel 1-3 told the story of Samuel’s birth and early years, and this too centered around the worship of God in Shiloh. So what’s the deal with Shiloh, and why was the Ark there in the first place? The answer is both interesting and important.

Normally, when we think of the location of the Ark, we think of it being carried around by Israel during the Exodus, or we think of it as residing in the Temple in Jerusalem. Both of these are accurate historical concepts. However, between the time of moving the Ark from place to place, and when the Ark was put into the Temple in Jerusalem, it was kept in a town called Shiloh. It actually stayed there for 369 years of Israel’s history (no small portion of their story). During the time of the Judges, Shiloh was a religious and military capital. A quick look at a map of the ancient location can give us a great reason why. It was located twenty miles North of Jerusalem on a major North-South travel route. It was also on a hilltop, making it a very defensible location.

And so it was here in Shiloh where the Ark was kept for a little more than a third of a millennium (that’s more than 6% of the age of the world). It was kept in the Tabernacle during this time, but the arrangement was a bit different than during the Exodus. While Israel was wandering nomadically, the Tabernacle was the portable tent that God had prescribed the nation to build. But here in Shiloh, the Tabernacle was transformed into a strange semi-permanent structure. Apparently Israel had built onto it. 1 Samuel 1:9 notes that the structure was wooden and had door posts. Later in verse three, we see that it had doors and even places for people to sleep. Eli was the high priest there, at least until his demise described in this passage.

I mostly bring up this information about Shiloh because it’s both interesting and it isn’t something that gets talked about a lot. Theologically, there are no direct lessons for us to learn from this location, but indirectly, there are plenty of takeaways from this interesting piece of history. Shiloh is a significant piece of God’s unbroken story that stretches from the account of creation to the redemption and judgment of man. It plays a central role, being the center point of God’s work on earth in a lengthy time of transition between the Exodus and the building of the Temple.

When we think about God’s plans for us and for the world, we need to recognize that He does nothing in a vacuum. Romans 8:28 assures us that God has arranged every detail of our lives so that we have the opportunity to become better equipped to glorify Him. As such, when we find ourselves in one of these in-between situations in our lives, when God has pulled us out of something awful, like slavery in Egypt, but He hasn’t quite brought us to our Jerusalem yet, we can remember the importance of Shiloh. Significant things happened there. Generations of God-honoring people lived and died during this time. God’s plans for “right now” are simply meant to mesh with his plans from yesterday and tomorrow. In His perfect timing, God moved the Ark to Jerusalem, and in our lives, God will end the “in-between” times for us when it’s just the right time to do so.

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