1 Samuel 4


The Ark in Exile (4:1b-7:17)

The Philistines Capture the Ark

        • Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They camped at Ebenezer and the Philistines camped at Aphek. The Philistines lined up in battle formation against Israel, and as the battle spread, the Philistines defeated Israel, killing about 4,000 men on the battlefield.

          • ESV Archaeology Study Bible writes, “The location of Ebenezer has not been identified with certainty, but nearby Izbet Sartah, 2 miles east of Aphek, is a good candidate. Excavations show that the site was occupied in the late thirteenth to early twelfth centuries BC, when the events of 1 Samuel 4 likely took place. The Aphek mentioned here (there are several sites with this name in the OT) has been indentified with Ras el-Ain, also known as Aphek-Antipatris. Its location is a major highway through the plain of Sharon made Aphek an ideal location from which the Philistines could invade the Israelite hill country to the east…”

        • When the troops returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did Yahweh defeat us by the Philistines today? Let’s bring the ark of the covenant of Yahweh from Shiloh so that it can come among us and save us from the hand of our enemies.”

        • Those comparing Bible versions will see a translation discrepancy here which NET notes explains, “The translation understands the ark to be the subject of the third masculine singular verbs, although it is possible to understand the Lord as the subject. In the latter case, one should translate, “when he is with us, he will save us.”

        • NLT Illustrated Study Bible says, “The Israelites were often defeated in war because of sin of one individual or the entire nations (Josh 7). In this defeat, no one inquired whether sin was the cause; apparently no one had even asked the Lord whether they should engage the Philistines in the first place (cp 1 Chr 14:13-16). Instead, the Israelites treated the Ark, the most sacred symbol of the Lord’s presence, as a charm to ward off misfortune. Carrying the Ark into battle wasn’t necessarily wrong (cp. Josh 6:2-21), but neither would this act ensure God’s blessing and victory.”

        • Guzik cites Ellison in his commentary, “They believed the presence of the ark would make God work for them. ‘Their idea was that God should be forced to fight for them. If He was not willing to do it for their sake, He would have to do it for His honour’s sake.’”

        • So they sent men to Shiloh to bring back the ark of the covenant of Yahweh of hosts, who is enthroned between the cherubim. Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were with the ark of the covenant of God. When the ark of the covenant of Yahweh arrived at camp, the Israelites shouted so loudly that the ground shook.

        • As a refresher on the ark of the covenant, the ESV Archaeology Study Bible adds, “The tabernacle housing the ark of the covenant functioned during the wilderness wanderings as the Lord’s throne room and mobile command station. This is indicated by the arrangement of the tribes around the tabernacle in Numbers 2. It also explains the ark’s role in the battle of Jericho and why the elders of Israel wanted it brought from Shiloh to the Israelite camp at Ebenezer…The ark is identified elsewhere in Scripture as King Yahweh’s royal footstool (Ex 25:22; 1 Chron 28:2; Ps 99:5; 132:7; Lam 2:1) above which he sat, flanked by cherubim, on his royal throne.”

        • The same source continues, “Inside Ramesses’s tent, his cartouche, a symbol of the pharaoh himself, stood between two representations of the falcon god Horus, each with wings outstretched in a protective gesture over the cartouche. Similarly, the ark, a potent symbol of God’s presence among his people (Num 10:35) was covered by the outstretched wings of two cherubim. These parallels demonstrate that God revealed himself both as divine warrior par excellence and sovereign king in ways the Hebrews and Egyptians would both understand.”

          • Guzik writes, “Someone passing by Israel’s camp would think something tremendous was happening. Certainly, this would be considered a great church service, and many would think Israel really trusted God. But for all the appearances, it was really nothing. All the noise and excitement meant nothing because it wasn’t grounded in God’s truth. The Israelites probably felt they were better than the Philistines because the Philistines were pagans, worshipping false gods. Yet the Israelites thought and acted just like pagans, thinking they could manipulate God and force Him into doing what they wanted Him to do.”

        • Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges makes this textual note, “It seems best to follow the Sept. and Vulg. in omitting the word ‘there.’ The narrative requires the statement that Hophni and Phinehas accompanied the Ark, not merely that they were at Shiloh, which we know already.”

        • Hearing the noise of the shouting, the Philistines said, “What does this shouting coming from the Hebrew camp mean?” When they learned that the ark of Yahweh had come into the camp they were afraid and said, “The gods have come into their camp! Woe to us! Nothing like this has ever happened to us before. Who can save us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods that struck the Egyptians with all sorts of plagues in the wilderness. Take courage and act like men you Philistines, or you will end up serving the Hebrews just like they served you. Be men and fight!”

          • ESV Archaeology Study Bible writes, “The Philistines’ reaction to the presence of the ark in their camp suggests they understood the ark not as a mere representation of God’s presence but, rather, as a divine manifestation of Yahweh himself. This is consistent with the way pagan idols were treated in the ancient Near East. Texts from Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt known as the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ and “Washing of the Mouth’ describe the ritual transformation of a manufactured image into what was understood to become a living manifestation of a god or goddess. The Philistines’ identification of the ark as…’gods’ suggests they falsely understood the ark to be an ‘idol’ of Yahweh. This is even more apparent in ch. 5.”

        • Guzik adds, “Even though they did not understand much about God, the Philistines recognized the superiority of the God of Israel. Yet, they did not submit to God, but simply determined to fight against Him all the more. If they really believed their gods were greater than the God of Israel, they should not have been worried. If they believed the God of Israel was greater than their gods, they should have submitted to Him. We, like them, often know God is greater and deserves our submission. Yet we often resist God as well, instead of submitting to Him. Knowledge wasn’t their problem. Submission to God was.”

        • So the Philistines fought and defeated the Israelites, every man ran back to his tent. The slaughter was massive- 30,000 Israelite foot soldiers were killed. The ark of God was captured and both of Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were killed.

          • Guzik notes, “Not only did Israel lose, they lost far worse than they did before taking the ark into battle. The loss which prompted them to take the ark resulted in the death of about four thousand men of Israel (1 Samuel 4:2). With the ark more than seven times as many men of Israel were killed…This was worse than just losing a battle. The very “thing” they thought would win the battle was captured. Israel made an idol of the ark and God often deals with our idolatry by taking the idol away. We can make good things idols. There was nothing wrong with the ark itself. God commanded them to make it. It was important to Israel. He told them to put the tablets of the law, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, in the ark. Yet, even a good thing like the ark can be made an idol, and God won’t tolerate our idols. The ark of God was captured, but the God of the ark was still on the throne in heaven and guiding these circumstances for His glory. Israel thought they could ignore the God of the ark and find deliverance in the ark of God. God showed He was greater than the ark. The priests who were supposed to supervise the ark were killed in the battle. God promised the two sons of Eli would die on the same day as proof of His ultimate judgment on the house of Eli (1 Samuel 2:34). Now the proof of judgment came.”

The Death of Eli

        • That same day, a Benjaminite ran from the battle to Shiloh with torn clothing and dirt on his head. When he arrived, Eli was sitting on his seat beside the road, watching, because his heart was anxious about the ark of God. When the man entered the city and reported what had happened, the whole city cried out. Eli heard the outcry and asked, “What is this uproar?” Then the man came quickly and reported to Eli, who was now ninety-eight years old and blind, “I am the one who has run from the battle. I ran from the battle today.” And he asked, “What happened, my son?” The man who had brought the news answered, “Israel has fled from the Philistines; the troops have suffered heavy losses. Your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.”

          • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible writes, “The Benjaminite messenger’s appearance leaves no doubt that he brings bad news. Grief and distress are often indicated in the Bible (both OT and NT) by actions such as fasting, wailing, breast-beating, tearing of one’s garments, putting on sackcloth or throwing dirt (dust or ashes) on one’s head.”

        • ESV Archaeology Study Bible adds, “City gates and their adjoining plazas functioned not only as entrances and exits but also as business centers, courtrooms, assembly halls, and news outlets. Thus, Eli was ideally situated to…receive his reports from the battlefield as soon as he arrived…”

        • When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell backward off his seat by the city gate. Since he was old and heavy, his neck was broken and he died. He had judged Israel for forty years.

          • Guzik says, “Eli was rightly more concerned about the fate of the ark than the fate of his sons. Why was he so nervous? Eli knew he let the ark go on an unwise, superstitious errand, and his conscience made him fear it would end in disaster. Eli fell over and died at the news of the ark (when he made mention of the ark of God). It wasn’t the news of Israel’s loss in battle, or the slaughter of the army, or even the news of the death of his own sons that killed him. It was hearing the Ark of the Covenant of God was captured…God promised that Eli’s two sons would die on the same day as a sign of judgment on the house of Eli (1 Samuel 2:34). God did not announce that Eli would also die the same day. God tells us much in prophecy, but not everything. Some is only seen in its fullness after it is fulfilled. According to other passages, after the Philistines defeated the Israeli army they went on to destroy the city of Shiloh itself (Psalm 78:60-64, Jeremiah 7:12 and 26:9).”

        • Now his daughter-in-law, Phinehas’s wife, was pregnant and near time to give birth. When she heard that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and husband were dead, she went into labor and gave birth. As she was dying in childbirth, the women attending her said, “Don’t be afraid, you have given birth to a son.” But she didn’t answer or pay attention. She named the boy Ichabod saying, “The glory has departed from Israel,” referring to the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and husband. She said, “The glory of Israel has departed because the ark of God has been captured.”

          • NET notes writes, “The name Ichabod may mean, ‘Where is the glory?’”

        • Guzik concludes his commentary on this chapter saying:

          • Poor wife of Phinehas! Pregnant, she heard of the death of her husband, her brother-in-law, her father-in-law, a slaughter among the soldiers of Israel, a lost battle, and the capture of the Ark of the Covenant all on one day. The anguish was too great, and labor pains came upon her. For a Jewish woman, the birth of a son was wonderful news – but not for the wife of Phinehas on this day. To reflect her anguish and the national tragedy upon Israel she named the child Ichabod…Her grief was so great, it overcame her maternal joy at the birth of her son. To her, the loss was total, and she even lost the desire to live.”

          • How could God allow something so terrible to happen? First, He allowed it as a righteous judgment upon Israel as a nation and the family of Eli. They simply received what they deserved. Secondly, God allowed it as a correction to the nation, so they would not trust in the ark of God, instead of trusting in the God of the ark. Finally, though it seemed so terrible to man, was it all that terrible to God? At that moment, did God wring His hands in heaven, worried about how things would turn out? Worried about His reputation? Worried about the Philistines and their gods? Looking at it this way, the glory had not departed at all. Instead, God was just beginning to show His glory. Many circumstances that we regard as a calamity, God uses in a marvelous way to glorify Himself. Israel was right to be sad at the loss of life and the ark on that day. But they should have been confident, knowing God was well able to take care of Himself.”

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