1 Samuel 4
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

(1Samuel 4:1-22) Last Days of Eli. Defeat of Israel at Aphek. The Ark leaves the Shiloh Sanctuary. The Battle in which the Ark is taken. Hophni and Phinehas are Slain. The Death of Eli.

And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Ebenezer: and the Philistines pitched in Aphek.
(1) And the word of Samuel.—To which portion of the narrative does this statement belong? Is it part of that account of the Lord’s dealings with Samuel which closed the preceding chapter? Does it close that brief narrative which tells of the Divine voice which called to, and the vision seen by, the young chosen servant of the Highest, with a note simply relating how the word of the boy-prophet was received through the varied tribes of the people? Or does it tell us that at Samuel’s word—that is, acting under his advice—Israel commenced this new disastrous war with the Philistines? By adopting the first supposition, which understands the words as a general statement respecting Samuel’s influence in Israel, the grave difficulty of supposing that Samuel was mistaken in his first advice to the people is, of course, removed; but then we have to explain the separation of this clause from the preceding section in chapter 3, to which it would appear so naturally to belong; we have also to account for the exceeding abruptness with which the announcement of the war with the Philistines follows the clause respecting the “word of Samuel.” The Speaker’s Commentary attempts to solve the problem by suggesting as “the cause of the abruptness” that the account of the battle probably is extracted from some other book in which it came in naturally and consecutively, and that it was here introduced for the sake of exhibiting the fulfilment of Samuel’s prophecy concerning Eli’s family. Evidently, however, the Hebrew revisers of Samuel did not so understand the clause. They have placed the notice of Samuel’s words coming to all Israel as introducing the narrative of the battle.

The compiler of the book, in his relation of the young prophet’s error, touches upon an important feature of his great life. Anarchy and confusion had long prevailed throughout the tribes, and none of the hero Judges who had as yet been raised to power had succeeded in restoring the stern, rigid form of theocracy which had made the Israel of Moses and Joshua so great and powerful. The high qualities which in his prime had, no doubt, raised Eli to the first place in the nation, in his old age were almost totally obscured by a weak affection for his unworthy sons. A terrible picture of the corruption of the priesthood is presented to us during the last period of Eli’s reign. We can well imagine what the ordinary life of many among the people, with such an example from their religious guides and temporal governors, must have been. Individual instances of piety and loyalty to the God of their fathers, such as we see-in the house of Elkanah, even though such instances were not unfrequent of themselves, would have been totally insufficient to preserve the nation from the decay which always follows impiety and corruption. In this period of moral degradation the Philistines, part of the original inhabitants of the land, a warlike and enterprising race, taking advantage of the internal jealousies and the weaknesses of Israel, made themselves supreme in many portions of the land, treating the former conquerors often with harshness, and even with contempt.

Samuel grew up to manhood in the midst of this state of things. He was conscious that the invisible King, forgotten by so many of the nation, had chosen him to be the restorer of the chosen people. The boy-prophet, as he passed out of childhood into manhood, does not appear at first to have recognised the depth of moral degradation into which Israel had sunk, or to have seen that it was utterly hopeless to attempt to free the people from the yoke of their Philistine foes until something like a pure national religion was restored. Samuel and the nobler spirits in Israel, who thirsted to restore their nation to freedom and to purity, needed a sharp and bitter experience before they could successfully attempt the deliverance of the people; so the first call to arms resulted in utter disaster, and the defeat at Aphek—the result, we believe, of the summons of Samuel—was the prelude to the crushing blow to the pride of Israel which soon after deprived them of their leaders, their choicest warriors, and, above all, of their loved and cherished “Ark of the Covenant,” the earthly throne of their unseen King, the symbol of His ever-presence in their midst.

And pitched beside Eben-ezer.—“The stones of help.” The name was not given to the place until later, when Samuel set up a stone to commemorate a victory he gained, some twenty years after, over the Philistines.

In Aphek.—With the article, “the fortress.” Perhaps the same place as the old Canaauitish royal city Aphek.

And when the people were come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, Wherefore hath the LORD smitten us to day before the Philistines? Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies.
(3) Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us?—The people and the elders who, as we have seen above, had undertaken the war of liberty at the instigation or the young man of God, amazed at their defeat, were puzzled to understand why God was evidently not in their midst; they showed by their next procedure how thoroughly they had gone astray from the old pure religion.

Let us fetch the ark of the covenant.—Whether or not Samuel acquiesced in this fatal proposition we have no information. It evidently did not emanate from him. but, as we are expressly told, from the elders of the people.” Probably the lesson of the first defeat had deeply impressed him, and he saw that a thorough reformation throughout the land was needed before the invisible King would again be present among the people.

It may save us.—It was a curious delusion, this baseless hope of the elders, that the unseen God was inseparably connected with that strange and beautiful symbol of His presence, with that coffer of perishable wood and metal overshadowed by the lifeless golden angels carved on the shining seat which closed this sacred Ark—that glittering mercy seat, as it was called, round which so many hallowed memories of the glory vision had gathered. Far on in the people’s story, one of the greatest of Samuel’s successors, Jeremiah, presses home the same truth the people were so slow in learning, when he passionately urges his Israel, “Trust ye not in lying words, saying The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these. For if ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings, then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that 1 gave to your fathers, for ever and ever” (Jeremiah 7:4-5; Jeremiah 7:7).

Wordsworth here, with great force, thus writes:—“Probably David remembered this history when, with a clearer faith, he refused to allow the Ark to be carried with him in his retreat before Absalom out of Jerusalem; and even when the priests had brought it forth, he commanded them to carry it back to its place, saying, ‘If I shall find favour in the eyes of the Lord, He will bring me again, and show me both it and His habitation.’ (2Samuel 15:25.)

“David, without the Ark visibly present, but with the unseen help of Him who was enthroned on the mercy-seat, triumphed, and was restored to Jerusalem; but Israel, with the Ark visibly present, but without the blessing of Him whose throne the Ark was, fell before their enemies, and were deprived of the sacred symbol, which was taken by the Philistines.”

So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from thence the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, which dwelleth between the cherubims: and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
(4) So the people sent to Shiloh.—There was, no doubt, in the minds of the elders, the memory of many a glorious victory gained in the old heroic days of Moses and Joshua in the presence of their sacred Ark; but then God was with His people, and the sacred Ark of the Covenant served as a reminder of His ever-presence with them; now they had been disloyal to their unseen King, His very sanctuary had become infamous as the centre of vice, and His ministers were chiefly known as the prominent examples of covetousness and immorality, and the Ark had become only a symbol of the broken covenant.

It was in vain that the grand battle hymn of Israel was raised as in the old days when the Ark set forward: “Rise up, Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee” (Numbers 10:35).

Were there with the ark.—This Note respecting the guardians of the Ark is sufficient to account for the terrible discomfiture of Israel. The conduct and general life and example of their priestly leaders have already been indicated. What a contrast the writer of the Book bitterly puts down in his memoirs here—the glorious but now deserted earthly throne of God, and its guardians, the wicked, abandoned priests!

And when the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again.
(5) And when the ark . . . came into the camp.—As far as we know, this was the first time since the establishment of the people in Canaan that the Ark had been brought from the permanent sanctuary into the camp. The shout of joy represented the confidence of the army that now the Ark, which had witnessed so many splendid victories of the chosen race, was among them, discomfiture was out of the question.

And the Philistines were afraid, for they said, God is come into the camp. And they said, Woe unto us! for there hath not been such a thing heretofore.
(7) God is come into the camp.—The joy manifested by the Israelites at the arrival of the Ark from the sanctuary made the Philistines suspect that their enemies’ God was now present with the defeated army.

The city of Aphek, near to which the camp of Israel was pitched, was close to the western entrance of the Pass of Beth-horon. The two defeats of Israel are termed in this Commentary the Battles of Aphek. The name of Eben-ezer, by which the scene was known in after days, was only given to the locality some twenty years later, on the occasion of the victory of Samuel near the same spot.

Philistines and Israelites, then, were equally superstitious in their belief both supposing that Deity was in some way connected with the lifeless gold and wood of the symbol Ark and Cherubim. But the Philistines had some excuse for their fears. Tradition was, no doubt, current among the old inhabitants of Canaan how this sacred Ark had been carried before the conquering armies of Israel in many a battle and siege in those bygone days, when the strange shepherd hordes under Joshua had. first invaded and taken possession of their beautiful land. The next verse explains more clearly some of the reasons for their fear.

Woe unto us! who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty Gods? these are the Gods that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness.
(8) These are the Gods that smote the Egyptians.—No doubt the compiler of these “Memoirs of Samuel” has given us the very words of the Philistines, preserved in their national traditions of this sad time. They are the expression of idolaters who knew of “Gods” and dreaded their malevolent influence, but who had no conception of the One Most High God. The plural form Elohim, so often found in the sacred record for God, is used here; but whereas the inspired compilers would have written their qualifying adjective in the singular, the Philistine idolaters write theirs in the plural—Elohim addirim: Mighty Gods.

It is noticeable that the Philistine exclamation of awe and terror is based outwardly upon the Egyptian traditions of the acts of the Lord. They studiedly ignore what they were all in that camp painfully conscious of—His acts in their own land of Canaan. The Septuagint and Syriac Versions, and some commentators, add “and” before the words “in the wilderness,” to make the Philistine exclamation more in harmony with history, seeing that the plagues were inflicted before the Israelites entered the wilderness; but the very vagueness of the exclamation of fear speaks for its truth. They were little concerned with exact historical accuracy, and were simply conscious of some terrible judgment having fallen on the foes of this Israel, a judgment they not unnaturally connected with the Ark of the Covenant just arrived in the enemy’s camp: that Ark their ancestors remembered so often at the head of the armies of this Israel in their days of triumph.

Be strong, and quit yourselves like men, O ye Philistines, that ye be not servants unto the Hebrews, as they have been to you: quit yourselves like men, and fight.
(9) Be strong, . . . O ye Philistines . . .—The ring of these striking words—part of the same Philistine tradition of their splendid success—probably embodied in some well-known hymn of victory, was evidently in St. Paul’s mind when he wrote his stirring words of exhortation to his loved Corinthian Church, “Quit ye like men; be strong.”

And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen.
(10) And Israel was smitten.—The result was strictly in accordance with those immutable laws which have ever guided the connection of Israel and their God-Friend. As long as they clave to the invisible Preserver, and served Him with their whole heart and soul, and kept themselves pure from the pollution of the idol nations around them, so long was He in their midst, so long would they be invincible; but if, as now, they chose to revel in the impure joys, and to delight themselves in the selfish, shameless lives of the idolatrous world around them, and only carried the Ark on their shoulders, with no memory of Him whom the mercy-seat and the overshadowing cherubim of that Ark symbolised, in their hearts, then—to use the solemn words of the hymn of Asaph—“Then God was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel, and forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, and delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy’s hand.” (See Psalm 78:59-61, where the crushing defeat of Aphek and the signal victory of the Philistines is recounted in detail.)

And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.
(11) And the ark of God was taken.—The bare fact, without comment or note, is given of this, the greatest calamity that had yet happened to Israel. All the people would know by this terrible sign that their invisible King had withdrawn His countenance from them; but the loss of the Ark to the heathen taught another lesson, not merely for the Israel of the days of Eli and Samuel—the eternal truth that “the living God does not bind His presence to a dead thing” (Erdmann). But though it was a dead thing, it was inexpressibly precious to the patriot Israelite. Was it not the ark “which Moses had made by God’s command at Sinai, and on which the Divine presence was enshrined in the Holy of Holies; and which had accompanied Israel in their marches through the wilderness, and before which the waters of Jordan had fled backward, and the walls of Jericho had fallen down?—that ark was taken by idolaters.”—Bishop Wordsworth.

The two sons of Eli . . . were slain.—This was in strict accordance with the saying of the man of God. (See 1Samuel 2:34.)

And there ran a man of Benjamin out of the army, and came to Shiloh the same day with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head.
(12) And there ran a man of Benjamin.—The Rabbinical tradition relates that this messenger was Saul, who snatched from Goliath the tables of the Law taken out of the Ark, in order to save them. The whole of this account is so vivid, and is so full of detail that it must have come from some eye-witness—probably from Samuel himself. These swift runners are still employed to carry news in war time in the East. In the sacred story we possess several important instances of such messages: for instance, in the account of Absalom’s death, Cushi and Ahimaaz bring the tidings from Joab to King David (2Samuel 18:21-27). Asahel, the son of Zeruiah, the sister of David, is mentioned as being famous for his running (2Samuel 2:18). Elijah, again, we hear, once outran the chariot of Ahab between Carmel and Jezreel. Phidippides, when sent to urge the people of Sparta to come to the help of the Athenians against the Persians, arrived at Sparta on the second day after his departure from Athens (Herodotus, 6:105, 6). Running seems to have been an exercise specially cultivated among the athletes of old times.

The rent clothes and the earth upon the head were the usual indications that the news brought by the messenger were tidings of evil.

And when he came, lo, Eli sat upon 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.
(13) Eli sat upon a seat.—The text here is a little confused, but the sense is perfectly clear. The best and most accurate rendering would be, Eli sat by the side of the way of the watchers: i.e., the street or way in Shiloh, so named probably from the watch-tower which was situated in it. (See Speaker’s Commentary here.) The LXX. renders it, “by the side of the gate watching the way.”

The old judge was naturally anxious for news from the army. It must be remembered the people had already (1Samuel 4:2) suffered a great reverse in the first battle of Aphek, when 4,000 fell, but his chief anxiety was for that sacred Ark which he had allowed—no doubt against his better judgment—to leave the sanctuary. All had gone wrong lately, and the high priest was deeply conscious that he, for his part, with his culpable weakness, and his priestly sons, with their flagrant wickedness, had broken the covenant with the invisible King. Eli knew too much of the Eternal Guardian of Israel to put any real trust in the power of the lifeless Ark. It was a long time, the high priest well knew, since the glory had rested on its golden mercy-seat between the silent cherubim. Had that mysterious light shone in the dark Holy of Holies since the night when the Divine voice spoke to the child, telling him the doom of the house of Ithamar? So he waited with sorrowful forebodings the advent of the messenger, asking himself, Would the Ark ever return to Shiloh?

And when Eli heard the noise of the crying, he said, What meaneth the noise of this tumult? And the man came in hastily, and told Eli.
(14) What meaneth the noise?—The blind old man, we must suppose, was seated on his chair of state, surrounded by priests and Levites, who were in attendance on him as high priest and judge. As the runner drew near, and the torn dress and the dust sprinkled on his head—the symbols of disaster—became visible, the wail of woe would soon run through the place. The cry of sorrow was the first intimation to the blind Eli: he was soon to hear the details. His question was probably, in the first place, addressed to the little court standing by his throne. The narrative is so vivid we seem to hear the sound of the cries of grief and terror which Eli heard, and to see the scene of dismay and confusion which those sightless eyes were prevented from looking on.

Now Eli was ninety and eight years old; and his eyes were dim, that he could not see.
(15) Ninety and eight years old.—The LXX. here reads “ninety” years, the Syriac Version “seventy eight.” In the sacred text, where numbers are concerned we usually find these varieties of translation and interpretation. The present system of numerals was invented by the Arabs. The Hebrews use the letters of the alphabet to express numbers. Such a system was naturally fruitful in errors of transcription, and thus numbers, and dates especially, in the earlier books of the Old Testament are frequently confused and uncertain. Many of the difficulties which have given so much trouble to commentators have arisen out of the confusion of copyists substituting, through inadvertence, in Hebrew one letter for another. Instead of “his eyes were dim,” the more accurate rendering would be his eyes were set—were stiff, so that he could no longer see. This, as Keil observes, is a description of the so-called black cataract (amaurosis), which not unfrequently occurs at a very great age from paralysis of the optic nerves.

And the man said unto Eli, I am he that came out of the army, and I fled to day out of the army. And he said, What is there done, my son?
(16) I fled to day out of the army.—The fatal battle had taken place very early that same morning. The utter rout, the awful slaughter, the death of Hophni and Phinehas, and the loss of the Ark of the Covenant, all this the messenger knew, and with this terrible news had hasted to the seat of the government—the now empty sanctuary.

The very words of the runner were remembered. The whole vivid scene was evidently related by a bystander—some have even suggested that it was Samuel who stood by Eli’s side.

And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died: for he was an old man, and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years.
(18) He fell from off the seat backward.—The compiler of these books was actuated by no feeling of friendship to the high priest Eli. In composing this history of the events which led to the elevation of Samuel to the judgeship, he simply puts together the materials he possessed of the records of these days, and gives us a vivid picture of the calamities of the rule of Eli. As he never spares his weakness, or attempts to veil his blind nepotism, we feel here the perfect truth of this touching incident which closed the old man’s life. He loved the Ark, because of its close connection with his God, better, after all, than his two sons. We have seen already that he could bear the stern announcement of the ruin and degradation of the fortune of his proud house, for which he toiled only too faithfully; he could bear to see another—the boy Samuel—preferred before him, the high priest and judge of Israel; he could endure to hear of the defeat and ruin of the country over which he had so long ruled, and which he loved so well; even the news of the death of his sons he could listen to with sad resignation; but when his ears caught the words “the ark of God is taken,” the old man s heart broke, and he died. The chronicler of this period, who certainly never favoured Eli, leaves upon us the impression that with all his faults and imperfections he was still a servant of God. Wordsworth quotes here Psalm 137:5-6 : “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth: if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.”—The dying words of Archbishop Whitgift were, “Pro ecclesils Dei,”—“For the church of God.”

And he had judged Israel forty years.—“When I read of Eli the priest, of the sons of Aaron, judging Israel forty years, and of Samuel, certainly a Levite, though not a priest, going circuit as a judge itinerant in Israel (1Samuel 7:16), and of others of the families of Levi appointed by King David to be judges and officers, not only in all the business of the Lord, but also for the outward business of Israel (2Samuel 15:35; 1Chronicles 26:29-32)—when I observe in the Church stories, ever since the world had Christian princes, how ecclesiastical persons have been employed by their sovereigns in their weightiest consultations and affairs of state, I cannot but wonder at those who inveigh against courts, power, jurisdiction, and the temporalities of bishops and other ecclesiastical persons. I speak it not to justify abuses of men, but to justify the lawfulness of the tiling.”—Bishop Sanderson, quoted by Wordsworth.

And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband.
(21-22) The glory is departed from Israel.—This singular and circumstantial account of the death of the widow of Phinehas, the evil warrior-priest, the son of Eli, which follows directly after the story of the great national disaster, is introduced from the records of that sad time, not from any special interest in the hapless woman and her sad fate, but solely for the purpose of showing how deeply the heart of Israel was penetrated with a love for their God, His Tabernacle, and its sacred contents. It was not the intelligence of her husband’s bloody end on the field of battle, or of her father-in-law’s death on his throne, or the downfall of her house, which stirred her so painfully; she could have borne all this better than the news that the Ark of the Covenant was in the hands of the idolatrous enemies of God. Von Gerlach remarks that “the wife of this deeply corrupt man shows how penetrated the whole people then was with the sense of the value of its covenant with God.”

The meaning of the term I-chabod is much disputed, owing to the doubt which hangs over the first syllable—“I” followed by “chabod.” It is usually taken to mean a simple negative; “not:” chabod signifying “glory:” I-chabod thus represents “not glory:” i.e., there is no glory. Others render the “I” syllable as a query, “Where?” “Where is the glory?” the answer, of course, being, “It is nowhere.” But the best rendering seems to be to understand the syllable “I” as an exclamation of bitter sorrow, “Alas !” The name then could be translated, “Alas! the glory.”

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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