When we study chapter 4, we learn that Samuel has grown up and the Lord was speaking through him. The Lord “let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground” (3:19). All Israel recognized that Samuel was God’s prophet and the Lord “continued to appear at Shiloh, and there revealed himself to Samuel through his word” (3:20-21).
But it is a time of war — war between the Israelites and the Philistines. The initial battle resulted in 4000 Israeli casualties (4:2). The elders of Israel describe their loss as “the Lord bring[ing] defeat on us today.” (v. 3). So they came up with an idea: Let’s bring the Lord’s ark of the covenant from Shiloh “so that he may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies” (v. 3).
And that’s what they did — and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark. The Israelites rejoice so loudly at the presence of the ark that the Philistines believe they are doomed, saying that “these are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all those plagues!” (v. 8).
Instead of instilling them with fear of defeat, the presence of the ark galvanized the Philistines and they rallied around the cry, “Be men, and fight!” (v. 9).
The Israelites are defeated — “every man fled to his tent” (v. 10). Israel lost 30000 foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died (v. 11).
God didn’t want the symbol of His presence used as a good luck charm. And the elders of the people should have consulted Samuel — God’s prophet — for wisdom before they made such a rash decision. But they didn’t. And God’s “will to put [Eli’s sons] to death” (2:25) was fulfilled. Such superstitious use of the symbol of the very presence of God doomed the Israelites!