1 Samuel Chapter 4


1 The Israelites are overcome by the Philistines at Eben-ezer. 3 They fetch the ark unto the terror of the Philistines. 10 They are smitten again, the ark taken, Hophni and Phinehas are slain. 12 Eli at the news, falling backward, breaketh his neck. 19 Phinehas’ wife, discouraged in her travail with I-chabod, dieth.

Verse 1 And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines, and encamped beside Ebenezer; and the Philistines encamped in Aphek

The word of Samuel. Most commentators agree that the first sentence of verse 1 belongs to the last verse of chapter 3, for it was not Samuel’s counsel that Israel go to war with the Philistines.

Inasmuch as Samuel is not mentioned again till after the ark had been in Kirjath-jearim for many years, it may be that the princes of Israel had refused to consult the newly recognized prophet (ch. 7:3).

The prophet of God would never have counseled sending the ark away from Shiloh (see on v. 3).

But those who had rejected the instruction of the Lord regarding the worship to be offered Him would come to look upon the ark with superstitious fear and to think of it as a talisman whose magic qualities assured them blessings of every kind.

All Israel, however, recognized the difference between Samuel and the sons of Eli, and those who were spiritually-minded came to the new prophet for counsel and help.

They knew of his prophecy against Eli and his house, and were convinced that his call was of the Lord.

When leaders err, many permit the moral tone of their own lives to fall. But there are always a few who are not turned away from the path of right by the conduct of their social superiors.

The Philistines. The book of Judges states that Israel was in bondage to the Philistines for 40 years (Judges 13:1), during which time Samson judged the land for 20 years (Judges 15:20; 16:31).

Eli’s judgeship either followed or overlapped Samson’s. Eli functioned as judge for 40 years (1 Sam. 4:18).

When Eli became so old as to lose control over state affairs, the Philistines may have felt that the time had come for them to secure control of the hill country.

Knowing that the center of government was at Shiloh, they would naturally send their army toward it.

Encamped in Aphek. Aphek, “fortress,” or “enclosure,” is from a verb meaning “to force,” “to compel,” “to hold.”

The city has been identified with Antipatris, a town in the Plain of Sharon, about 11 1/4. Miles (18 kilometers) northeast of Joppa.

This would be less than 25 mi. (40 km.) from Shiloh, whence the ark was carried to the battlefield (ch. 4:10, 11).

Except for Antipatris, no definite site is known that might be identified with Aphek. Aphek in the tribe of Asher (Joshua 19:30, 31) is too far north to merit consideration.

In view of the fact that Aphek means “fortress,” the name might have been applied to various fortified sites, either permanent or temporary.

Verse 2 Then the Philistines put themselves in battle array against Israel. And when they joined battle, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men of the army in the field.

Israel was defeated. Upon numerous previous occasions God had directed that the armies of Israel go forth into battle with their enemies, and when they did so in response to His command victory was theirs.

This time, however, the circumstances were different. The fact that they carried the ark of the covenant into battle (v. 3) and that the Philistines captured it is evidence that the people of Israel, motivated by a false confidence in their own strength, had initiated the attack and expected an easy victory.

(There is no quick fix)

They went forth into battle, not in humble faith trusting in God, but with pride in their own cleverness and power. When God was with them no enemy could stand before them; when He was not, defeat was certain.

Verse 3 And when the people had come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord from Shiloh to us, that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies.”

Why. When reverses came to the polytheistic peoples of the Near East, they usually concluded that their gods were angry with them and should be more earnestly placated to avoid worse afflictions in the future.

Considering the low religious condition of Israel at this time, it is little wonder that Israel had much the same attitude toward the Lord (see PP 584).

Probably past victories during Eli’s judgeship had led to a feeling of self-confidence that blinded their eyes to their need of God.

Because the leaders had willfully forsaken Him for the gods of the nations about them, God could do nothing but permit them to reap the harvest of their own seed sowing.

Instead of humbling their hearts before God, they gave evidence of their superstitious attitude toward Him by thinking of the ark merely as a talisman guaranteeing success.

Without any counsel from on high the princes suggested, and the people agreed to, something never before thought of.

They were only a few miles from the sanctuary, and if the ark were in their midst, surely victory would be theirs.

This precious symbol of God’s presence was covered with its cloth shroud, and the attendant Levites carried it out from its resting place within the veil (Num. 4:5, 6).

Considering the past actions of Eli’s sons, one would not be surprised if they forgot all reverent formalities, and hastened the few miles to the army, hoping that further slaughter might be avoided.

But the ark was the symbol of God’s presence, and since the leaders had rejected divine direction, God could not place His restraining hand over them for good.

Had the leaders humbled their hearts and turned from their sinful ways, they would have been guided by the prophet, as in later years.

In Christ’s day crowds followed blindly the leadership of their priests, crying out, “His blood be on us, and on our children.”

So likewise the army of Israel at Ebenezer, facing disaster, and grasping at the straws of their own imagination, cried out that victory was now assured.

The woe or weal of organized groups of society, whether political or religious, is largely determined by the attitude and conduct of the leaders.

Verses 4-7 So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who dwells between the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

5 And when the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth shook.

6 Now when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, “What does the sound of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” Then they understood that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp.

7 So the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “God has come into the camp!” And they said, “Woe to us! For such a thing has never happened before.

God has come. The Philistines, who had many gods, clearly recognized the difference between the God of Israel and their gods.

Though in v. 7 the word for God is in the plural, ’Elohim, the verb is singular. But in v. 8 the verb is plural—a clear contrast between the true God and the gods in their temple at Ashdod.

Verse 8 Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness.

These mighty Gods. The word for “mighty” is ’addirim, “majestic,” which implies the additional idea of the nobility of God’s power, which had been recognized by the Philistines as they learned of His dealings with various nations and peoples in the past.

Almost ready to give up in despair, they were nerved with a bitter determination to resist to the death the fate of being made slaves to those who a few years previously had been slaves to them.

Verses 9-11 Be strong and conduct yourselves like men, you Philistines, that you do not become servants of the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Conduct yourselves like men, and fight!”

10 So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent. There was a very great slaughter, and there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers.

11 Also the ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

The ark of God was captured. Speaking of this event, the psalmist says,

“He forsook the tabernacle at Shiloh, … and delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy’s hand. … Their priests fell by the sword” (Ps. 78:60–64).

Though Israel’s prospects for victory were superior to those of the enemy, and though they went into battle confident of victory, they failed so completely that every survivor fled, not to the camp, as in v. 3, but “into his tent.”

The word for tent is ’ohel, meaning “dwelling,” “habitation,” and carries the thought that the defeat was so great that every man had to shift for his own safety, making his way home as best he could.

Hophni and Phinehas. Josephus says that Eli had at this time resigned his high priesthood in favor of Phinehas, but as the ark left Shiloh, he instructed his sons that “if they pretended to survive the taking of the ark, they should come no more into his presence” (Antiquities v. 11. 2).

Had the two young men been as zealous to follow the guidance of the Lord in days past as they were now to defend the material symbol of His presence before the enemy, the subsequent history of Israel might have been vastly different.

They had refused God’s guidance again and again, and were now brought to realize that even life itself is dependent on a full surrender to Him. But they learned their lesson too late

Verses 12-15 Then a man of Benjamin ran from the battle line the same day, and came to Shiloh with his clothes torn and dirt on his head. 13 Now when he came, there was Eli, sitting on 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. 14 When Eli heard the noise of the outcry, he said, “What does the sound of this tumult mean?” And the man came quickly and told Eli. 15 Eli was ninety-eight years old, and his eyes were so dim that he could not see.

Verses 16,17 Then the man said to Eli, “I am he who came from the battle. And I fled today from the battle line.” And he said, “What happened, my son?”

17 So the messenger answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has been a great slaughter among the people. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead; and the ark of God has been captured.”

Israel has fled. How different would the history of Israel have been had there only been a leadership that sought the face of God.

Still, despite selfish leaders who seek their own glory rather than that of God, and thus open the way for defeat, He does not close His ears to the cry of any individual who earnestly seeks His face.

The fact that Jerusalem was depopulated by Nebuchadnezzar did not prohibit Daniel and his companions from living so close to the Lord as to bring the gospel to many of their captors.

Light shines brightest in the darkest night, and the best characters are often developed amid the worst possible environments.

God has the power to turn moments of dire humiliation into periods of glorious opportunity, not only for Israel but also for all men.

Verses 18-22 Then it happened, when he made mention of the ark of God, that Eli fell off the seat backward by the side of the gate; and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years.

19 Now his daughter-in-law, Phinehas’ wife, was with child, due to be delivered; and when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed herself and gave birth, for her labor pains came upon her.

20 And about the time of her death the women who stood by her said to her, “Do not fear, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer, nor did she regard it.

21 Then she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband.

22 And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

The glory has departed. The word “Ichabod” comes from two Hebrew words, ’i kabod, meaning literally, “not glorious,” or “inglorious.” It was defined by the wife of Phinehas: “The glory is departed [literally, ”gone into exile“] from Israel.” The chapter closes with the description of a young woman who, though married to a wicked and selfish high priest, did not partake of his nature.

Her concern for the death of her husband and her father-in-law was evidence of natural affection; but her much greater concern for the loss of the ark was an evidence of her pious devotion to God and sacred things.

Even the deaths in the family did not give her the concern the loss of the ark did. Small comfort could she have of a child born in Israel, in Shiloh, when the ark was lost to the Philistines.

Living in corrupt times, the wife of an ungodly man, yet truly devout—what greater courage could be known in days of national perplexity?

The presence of God should always be accounted the greatest blessing, and the loss of His presence and restraining power over evil should be dreaded as the direst calamity

The conditions of life are hopeless only when, like Judas, one deliberately refuses to be led by the Holy Spirit.


1–22 PK 415, 416; PP 583-585

1–9 PP 583

1, 2 SR 185

3–11 SR 186

9 5T 584

10, 11 PP 514, 583, 591, 622; 1T 119

12–22 PP 585; SR 187

17, 18 4T 166, 200, 516

18 1T 119

Updated on 21st Mar 2022

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