In an article called Death Reigns — Death Defeated, I briefly covered the experience of Eli, but his experience warrants further examination because it speaks to our modern situation. Too many young people are getting cancer and dying, and the church seems to be powerless to prevent it. The actions of Eli, the High Priest of Israel in Samuel's time, seem to provide an explanation of this problem.

Eli represented God to the people and the people to God. He was the leader of the Levites, who were responsible for teaching the people what God required. You could say that Eli was the senior pastor of Israel. His role is similar to anyone who takes up the role of pastor in the church, using the examples of Peter or Paul to justify their ministries. Modern pastors take responsibility for teaching their people how to serve God.

Eli's sons and their colleagues were wicked. They used threats to get the people to do what they wanted them to do. They said something like, "If you don't go along with us, you could lose your salvation". They treated the people with a lack of respect: as expendable, convenient, serviceable. They also treated the Lord's gifts with contempt (1 Sam 2:12-17).

A prophet spoke to Eli, the senior pastor and said that the shepherds of Israel had scorned God's instructions about how the tabernacle sacrifices should operate. They have honoured other pastors more than the people.

Those who honour Me I will honour, and those who despise Me will be insignificant (1 Sam 2:30).
The prophet warned, "Your strength will be cut off. You will see distress in your church".
You will live long only to have eyes blinded with tears and a heart full of grief. Your descendants will die in the prime of life (1 Sam 2:33).
This is the curse on Eli. He will live long but will be filled with sadness and grief because the children he cares for will be cut off in the prime of life. Eli did nothing. He ignored the prophet and pretended not to see what his sons and their colleagues were doing. His eyes were weak and he could barely see (1 Sam 3:1,11).

Modern Parallel

In many ways, the behaviour of the executive-pastors of the modern church parallels that of Eli. They have ignored God's instructions about how the church should be built and followed the plans of other men. Some have treated their sheep as expendable, taking their finances, but not giving them life in return.

The pastors have mostly ignored the prophets. Like Ahab, they hate prophets who say bad things about them. They only like those who promise good things (1 Kings 22:8). Prophets are the eyes of the church. It is a terrible thing when prophets are silenced.

We are given no signs from God; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be (Psalm 74:9).
A church without prophets is in a dangerous situation. Eli's weak eyes represent the dearth of true prophets in the church.

The prophet announced that the Lord would do something that will make the ears of everyone tingle. The pastors will be totally shocked by what the Lord does. They will be so surprised that they are forced to listen to the prophets (1 Sam 3:11). The consequence of putting loyalty to their colleagues ahead of the call of the prophets will lead to their people being cut off during the "prime of life".

Defeat by Death

When the Israelites went into battle against the Philistines, they suffered a terrible defeat, and four thousand soldiers were killed in battle. Instead of seeking the Lord to find out why he had not been with them, the people decided to take the covenant box in battle with them (1 Sam 4:3-7). They confused God with the box over which he met with them and spoke to them. They believed that if they took the covenant box, God would have to go with them.

Despite having the covenant box with them, the armies of Israel were defeated and it was taken captive by the Philistines. Thirty-thousand soldiers were killed.

The slaughter was very great (1 Sam 4:10).
This was the result of Death being given greater freedom. Taking the covenant box out of the tabernacle weakened the effectiveness of the tabernacle sacrifices because the place where God dwelt was broken. The human decision was made contrary to the instructions given to Moses on the mountain. The undermining of the process for offering animal sacrifices meant that Death was no longer constrained by the law. Death seems to have a free hand in the modern Church too.

Eli was old and heavy and he heard about the covenant box being captured, he fell off his stool and broke his neck (1 Sam 4:18). His body was cut off from his head. This represents the body of Christ cut off from Jesus, because the pastors have trained their people to listen to them, rather than the Holy Spirit, and coached them to watch God working through them at the front of the meeting, rather than sending them out into the world in the power of the Spirit to do great things for Jesus.

Eli's daughter in law died young following childbirth, but she named her son Ichabod before she died because the glory of God has departed from Israel (1 Sam 4:19-22). The glory of God has departed from the modern church in a similar way.

Idols Fall

Once the Philistines had carried the covenant box to Ashdod, Death had the freedom to work there. God's wisdom had been rejected, so his presence was gone from the covenant box. I presume that the spirit called Death went with it because he wanted to be the spirit that controlled the box once the people had made it into an idol.

The Philistines put the covenant box in a temple beside their god called Dagon. That night he fell off his stand. They put him back, and the next night the same thing happened. Dagon's arms and head broke off (1 Sam 5:1-5). The Philistines symbolise the people of the world who oppose God's work in the world. They have set up false gods and philosophies, and tried to make them equal with him, but they are ineffective (no arms), because they cut people off from God (the head).

Because they rejected God, the Philistines were vulnerable to the spiritual powers of evil. The writer of Samuel says that God's hand was heavy on them, but this is a two-agent world view. It was actually the hand of the spiritual powers of evil that was hard on them, because they had no spiritual protection.

The spiritual powers of evil brought devastation upon them and struck them with tumours (1 Sam 5:6) (the Hebrew word is also used for a mound of earth or fortress). The covenant box was sent to Gath, but the same thing happened there. The spiritual powers of evil were heavy on that city too. The city was thrown into a great panic. The people of the city, both young and old, were afflicted with an outbreak of tumours (1 Sam 5:9). These cancers affected young people. This is why it was so shocking. However, this is consistent with the prophecy to Eli warning that lives would be cut off in their prime.

When the covenant box was sent to Ekron, the same thing happened there.

Death filled the city with panic/confusion; his hand was very heavy on it. Those who did not die were afflicted with tumours, and the outcry of the city went up to heaven (1 Sam 5:11-12).
"Death" is the name of a powerful spiritual being (Cosmos Dominator) who loves killing and destroying people. He gained a hold on the city and released a pestilence amongst the people. Those who were not killed by the plague were afflicted with terrible cancers. (Interestingly, the Philistines seemed to know that the plague was spread by rats (1 Sam 6:4)).

Ignored Instructions

When pastors-leaders fail to apply God's instruction for building the church, the spirit of Death gains access to their people, and the people of the world in the place where they live. This is probably the reason that cancer is currently rampant amongst younger people in the western world. The covenant box was built according to the plan revealed by God on the mountain, whereas Dagon was a creation of humans. An idol made according to the wisdom of men was made equivalent to a box built according to a plan revealed by God.

God wants his church built according to the plan that he revealed in the New Testament. Pastors have rejected that plan and built according to human wisdom. The statement that "the hand of God was heavy on Dagon" (1 Sam 5:7) implies that the spiritual powers of evil will be heavy on a church built according to human plans.

I presume that the plague of cancers that is currently attacking young people is the result of the failure of the pastors to follow Jesus' instructions for building the church and the failure of the prophets to challenge them. This failure has allowed the spirit called "Death" to establish a stronghold in the church and the nation, and is doing his evil work.

Jesus gave his disciples clear instructions to his disciples about how he wanted his church to operate, and the Holy Spirit taught them how to do it. The early church applied Jesus' instructions and had amazing success in reaching the world. However, once the church was successful, it gave up some of Jesus' ways and replaced them with human ideas about how it should operate, but in the process, we have lost the spiritual protection that Jesus' instructions provided.

We make excuses for our defeat, but we have not realised that our failure to follow Jesus' and the Holy Spirit's instructions has allowed Death to establish a stronghold because we have undermined the spiritual protection that is provided when we do things his way. Five human practices, which are contrary to Jesus' instructions for the church, have undermined our spiritual protection.

  1. The church in the book of Acts was led by elders (always plural) (Acts 13:1; 14:23). They guarded the flock which the Holy Spirit had called them to oversee and shepherded (verb) the people that Jesus had bought with his blood (Acts 20:28). Yet, the modern church had decided that the church should be managed by professional executive-pastors. They are given different titles: apostle, senior pastor, senior leader, but this is irrelevant because the role simply does not exist in the New Testament. Having a paid professional running programs to support the members of the church leaves them, and the people under them, vulnerable to attack by the spiritual powers of evil.

  2. Jesus prayed that his people would be one, as he and the father are one (John 17:21). Paul said that there is one body, one spirit and one hope (Eph 4:4). He prayed that the elders would equip the people so that the body of Christ would be built up until we all reach unity in the faith (Eph 4:12-13). Yet modern churches are happy to perpetuate divisions by organising into different demonisations, and post-denominational churches brand themselves to distinguish themselves from other churches. Unfortunately, this division leaves the church vulnerable to the spiritual powers of evil. Real spiritual protection comes through unity.

  3. The modern church tells people to come to church at least once a week, ideally on Sunday, for their entire lifetime. In contrast, Jesus told his disciples to go into the world and share the gospel in the way that he had taught them. They expected the people of the world to see what the Holy Spirit was doing amongst them and be drawn to Jesus. The early church always took the gospel into the streets and market places and the Holy Spirit confirmed their words with signs and wonders. This public visibility is why the gospel spread so quickly and the church grew so fast.

    The modern church has rejected the "go strategy" and does all the important stuff at the front of the meeting on Sunday. The worship service has become the focal point of all its efforts. If people want to see God at work, they have to come to church to see the Holy Spirit moving through the pastor or guest preacher at the front of the meeting. Most of the people of the world never see the Holy Spirit working, because they will never go to a church meeting. (Strangely enough, Jesus never commanded his followers to hold worship services. Rather he expected their entire lives to be an act of worship).

    The church says come.
    Jesus says go.
    He also said wait;
    until you have received power from on high.
    We cannot go into the world without the fulness of the Holy Spirit in our midst. If we are not able to go out in his strength, we should wait together and cry out for him to fill us afresh. We should ask him to show us any obstacles that we need to remove. Gathering together to wait for the Holy Spirit is the only reason for not going into the world as Jesus commanded.

  4. Jesus never suggested that disciples could be trained by sitting and listing to a weekly sermon, as it rarely changes a person's behaviour and seldom changes their attitudes or character. Jesus had a different way of training disciples.

    • He took people with him and did the things that he wanted them to do while they were with him observing. Sometimes they would get bold and join in.

    • Afterwards, he explained what he had done and why it was effective.

    • Once they understood his approach, he sent them out in pairs to do what he had shown them how to do.

    • Once these people were confident in doing his work, the pair could spilt and take two less experienced people out with them to learn how to do Jesus' work.

    Jesus' method of discipleship frequently multiplied the number of his followers who knew to share the gospel in the same way as he did. It also provided spiritual protection because everyone had someone watching their back.

  5. Individualism is so pervasive in western culture that we don't realise how much we have been entrapped by it. Jesus worked the other way round. When he sent his disciples to do even the most trivial tasks, he sent them in pairs. He did this so they could provide spiritual protection for each other. Too many Christians are defeated by the spiritual powers of evil because they are trying to serve God on their own. We can only reach our true fulfilment in Jesus if we are part of his body. That can only happen if we are joined together with other members of his body as the fingers are joined to the hand. This joining together cannot be achieved by meeting for an hour on Sundays; it will require the interaction of living life together. The fullness of the Spirit can only be experienced in a group of people who love and trust each other. The best protection from spirits like Death comes from being part of a thriving body of believers.

We cannot expect to defeat a powerful spirit like Death if we are unwilling to follow Jesus' instructions for spiritual protection.

Philistine Solution

The Philistines seemed to understand spiritual reality better than the Israelites. The tabernacle was a place of spiritual warfare. Evil spirits hung around their demanding the blood of sacrifice in return for leaving the Israelites. When the covenant box was taken out of the tabernacle and sent into battle, they naturally went with it, because they assumed that warfare would produce plenty of blood and guts for them to enjoy. When the Philistines took the covenant box to their cities, the spiritual powers of evil went with it, looking for people to kill and destroy, and they found what they wanted.

As noted, the Philistines represent the people of the world. When the church is defeated by the world due to the failure of pastors, the spirit called Death a free hand to do evil in the nation. One of the things his team loves to do is to inflict cancers on young people in accordance with the curse of Eli.

The Philistines had amazing spiritual insight, because they knew how to put the situation right. They knew that they needed to get rid of the spiritual powers of evil that had attached themselves to the covenant box. Their pastors knew that they had to make a guilt offering to attract and appease these evil spiritual powers. They made five gold tumours and five gold rats representing the rulers and people of the five cities that had come under attack. Sickness had attacked the rulers and people alike, so a solution that covered both was essential (1 Sam 6:4-5).

The Philistines knew that Pharoah was destroyed because he hardened his heart against God when plagues came upon Egypt. They did not want to make the same mistake, so they wanted to get the covenant box out of their territory (1 Sam 6:6).

When the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines, they needed a miracle, but they tried manipulation and witchcraft instead. Instead of getting a miracle, they suffered an even greater defeat. In the face of terrible attacks of sickness, the modern church desperately needs miracles, but when it does not get them, it falls back on a method of manipulation and control (a form of witchcraft) that are anathema to God.

In contrast, the Philistines had faith for a miracle. To return the covenant box, they loaded it on a wagon and hitched up to cows with calves that had not been weaned. Separating a cow from the calf it is feeding is incredibly difficult, so if these two cows headed away from their calves and back to Israel, it would be a miracle.

If it goes up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then the LORD has brought this great disaster on us. But if it does not, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us but that it happened to us by chance." (1 Sam 6:9).
This test would confirm the cause of their misery. If the cows stayed near their calves, the Philistines would know that their suffering was the result of chance. However, God caused the cows to pull the covenant box back to Israel, confirming that their troubles were spiritual.

The Philistines wanted the covenant box to return to its own territory (1 Sam 5:6; 6:9; 6:12). Understanding the spiritual control of territory is important for spiritual protection. The Philistines understood the significance of territory more clearly than many Christians.

The cows stopped by a large rock, which was in the field of Joshua (saviour). This rock represents Jesus. He is the rock the church must build on in obedience to the Holy Spirit.

Once the miracle had occurred, the Philistines knew that the Lord had allowed the disaster to come on them, because they had stolen the covenant box. They understood that the plague of cancer had not come about by chance.

Israelite Response

When the Israelites offered the gold tumours and gold rats as a sacrifice, along with the two cows pulling the wagon, the spiritual powers of evil had to be satisfied and could not demand any more blood and death. This brought to an end the pestilence and plague of tumours that Eli had inadvertently released by remaining silent.

Death ended this incident with one last flourish. Some of the Israelites looked into the covenant box, something they were forbidden to do. They ignored God's instructions and did what they wanted to do for their own benefit. Seventy men died. They were struck down by the spirit called Death, who was hanging around the covenant box looking for someone to destroy. This made the Israelites afraid, so they sent the covenant box to Kiriath Jearim. Eleazer was sanctified to guard it, so Death was unable to do harm (1 Sam 7:1).

The people of Israel wept and sought after God (1 Sam 7:2). Losing the covenant box, and then having it returned by a miracle must have shocked them into repentance. Samuel the prophet spoke to the people and challenged them to get rid of their foreign gods and commit themselves to serving only Yahweh. He promised that if they did, God would deliver them from the Philistines. The nation assembled together and fasted and confessed their allegiance to him (1 Sam 7:5-6).

When the Philistines attacked Israel, the prophet called out to the Lord. God "thundered loud thunder" against the Philistines and threw them into a panic, so they were routed by the Israelites (1 Sam 7:10). The Philistines were subdued.

Unfortunately, this season of blessing did not last long, because when Samuel got old, the Israelites asked for a king so that they could be like the other nations (1 Sam 8:4-9). The modern equivalent is the common cry of God's people. Give us a leader who will tell us what to do, so we can pay him and his team to do God's work on our behalf.

Church Response

Two options are available for responding to the stronghold that Death has established in the church.
  1. The Philistines understood that they had made a mistake and needed to get rid of the called Death, so they did what they had to do to get rid of him. God's miraculous power was released, and they were delivered.

  2. After a slow start, the Israelites listened to Samuel and agreed that they would only serve Yahweh. This brought blessing, and the Philistines were defeated. Yet, they did not put the covenant box back to the Tabernacle where it needed to be, so they did not re-establish their spiritual protection from Death. Worse still, they began to cry out for a King like the other nations.
I worry that the response to any setback for the church will be a half-hearted response that might bring some small victories, but like the Israelites, they will continue to cry out to God, "Give us an executive pastor that is as our competitor churches so that we can be successful too. That approach will not defeat Death.

Christians who are concerned about the increased incidence of cancer amongst young adults should be asking if their church or its leaders have given the spirit called Death a place in their city or nation. This is a tough question to face but we need the courage to ask it honestly. Instead of patiently accepting every evil that strikes us, we should be seeking the cause of his attacks and looking for solutions that will bring about his defeat. Eli's experience provides an important clue.

See Healing.