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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 4

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verse 1


First Samuel begins by contrasting Israel’s last two judges (Eli: a failure; and Samuel: a success) and then Israel’s first two kings (Saul: a failure; and David: a success).

The first major section of Samuel sharply contrasts obedience and disobedience to the will of God as God expressed that for Israel in the Mosaic Covenant. This contrast is clear in all seven major sections of 1 and 2 Samuel. The events in this section took place during Eli’s 40-year judgeship (1 Samuel 4:18; 1 Samuel 1144-1104 B.C.). [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, "Paul’s Use of ’About 450 Years’ in Acts 13:20," Bibliotheca Sacra (July-September 1981):247, dated Samson’s death about 1085 B.C.] First Samuel overlaps Judges chronologically.

Verse 1

C. God’s First Revelation to Samuel 3:1-4:1a

This chapter records how God’s blessing of and through Samuel continued and grew as a result of his faithful commitment to God. This is a revelation of another call to ministry that God extended to His servants the prophets (cf. Exodus 3; Isaiah 6; Jeremiah 1; Ezekiel 1; et al.). [Note: See John E. Johnson, "The Old Testament Offices as Paradigm for Pastoral Identity," Bibliotheca Sacra 152:606 (April-June 1995):182-200.] It is also another instance in which God revealed Himself to someone audibly in a dream. [Note: See Robert K. Gnuse, The Dream Theophany of Samuel: Its Structure in Relation to Ancient Near Eastern Dreams and Its Theological Significance.]

2. Samuel’s ministry 3:19-4:1a

These verses summarize Samuel’s continuing ministry as a prophet (Heb. nabbi’) in Israel. Though the Hebrew word nabbi’ describes Samuel only here (1 Samuel 3:20) and in 2 Chronicles 35:18, the Hebrew word ro’eh ("seer") describes the same office and refers to Samuel in 1 Samuel 9:11; 1 Samuel 9:18-19; 1 Chronicles 9:22; 1 Chronicles 26:28; and 1 Chronicles 29:29. When the word "prophet" appears it usually emphasizes the proclamation aspect of the individual’s ministry, and when "seer" occurs the emphasis is usually on his or her ability to perceive messages from the Lord.

Samuel qualified for this privilege by his faithful obedience to God’s will, as he knew it. God sovereignly chose Samuel for this ministry, but his disobedience could have disqualified him, as the disobedience of Eli and his sons disqualified them and as King Saul’s disobedience disqualified him.

The phrase "let none of his words fail [lit. fall to the ground]" is a metaphor taken from archery (cf. Joshua 21:45; Joshua 23:14; 1 Kings 8:56). The arrow that falls to the ground fails to reach its target. In contrast, all of Samuel’s words hit their mark. They were effective because God found him to be a reliable "bow" that delivered His words. [Note: For further study of this verse, see W. T. Claassen, "1 Samuel 3:19 - A Case of Context and Semantics," Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 8 (1980):1-9.]

The phrase "from Dan to Beersheba" became proverbial during the united monarchy and described all the land of Israel (cf. Judges 20:1; 2 Samuel 3:10; 2 Samuel 17:11; 2 Samuel 24:2; 2 Samuel 24:15; 1 Kings 4:25). Dan stood on the northern border about 150 miles from Israel’s southernmost major town, Beersheba.

The Lord’s word (1 Samuel 3:21) is what Samuel communicated to the people as His prophet. He did this so consistently that Samuel’s word amounted to the Lord’s word (1 Samuel 4:1 a; cf. Jeremiah 1:2; Jeremiah 1:4; Jeremiah 1:11; Jeremiah 1:13; Hosea 1:1; Micah 1:1).

Moses called Abraham (Genesis 20:7), Aaron (Exodus 7:1), and himself (Deuteronomy 34:10) prophets. Samuel became a prophet in a new sense. He was the first of those "servants of the Lord" who became primarily, not secondarily, as the former prophets had become, God’s mouthpieces. Samuel also established a company or school of prophets that he trained to serve God in this capacity. He did not, of course, train these men to get revelations from God. God gave new revelations sovereignly. He probably did, however, train his students in the general functions of the prophets that included studying God’s Word, communicating it effectively, and leading God’s people in worship. Schools of the prophets continued through the tenth century B.C. (cf. 2 Kings 2:3). After that time we have no record of their existence. Individual prophets ministered throughout the history of Israel, though some generations saw none, others some, and others more prophets. The great writing prophets who have given us the prophetic books of the Old Testament began their ministry in the ninth century. Moses and the other writers of the historical books of the Old Testament were also prophets. There were no prophets who gave new revelation from God in Israel between Malachi and our Lord’s days, a period of about 400 years.

"It seems plausible . . . to attribute to Samuel the development of the prophetic movement in a formal sense. Certainly it was always God who raised up the true prophet, but the structure itself had its inception with Samuel and was developed further by Elijah." [Note: Heater, pp. 129-30. Cf. Acts 3:24.]

The literary structure of chapter 3 focuses on the Lord’s sentence of destruction on Eli’s house. This was very significant for the whole nation of Israel.

"A. Absence of divine oracles (1 Samuel 3:1)

B. Eli’s fading powers (1 Samuel 3:2)

C. Three divine calls to Samuel (1 Samuel 3:3-9)

D. A divine oracle to Samuel (1 Samuel 3:10-15)

C’. Eli’s request for Samuel’s report (1 Samuel 3:16-18)

B’. Samuel’s growing stature (1 Samuel 3:19 a)

A’. Return of divine oracles (1 Samuel 3:19 to 1 Samuel 4:1 a)" [Note: Youngblood, p. 592.]

Another writer believed that the chiastic structure of chapter 3 focuses emphasis on Yahweh.

"A1 Samuel’s career in the shadow of Eli (1 Samuel 3:1)

B1 Eli and Samuel in darkness (1 Samuel 3:2-3)

C1 Yahweh breaks through (1 Samuel 3:4-10)

C2 . . . and speaks (1 Samuel 3:11-14)

B2 Samuel and Eli in light (1 Samuel 3:15-18)

A2 Samuel’s career as a prophet (1 Samuel 3:19-21)" [Note: Donald Wiebe, "The Structure of 1 Samuel 3 : Another View," Biblische Zeitschrift 30:12 (1986):256.]

This chapter also shows that God rewards faithful obedience to His word with further ministry opportunities (cf. 1 Timothy 1:12). Samuel became the source of God’s revelations to Israel. He continued to receive revelations from God and to represent God on earth because he remained faithful. He became the most powerful man in Israel-even anointing the nation’s first two kings. Like Moses, Samuel became an excellent leader of the Israelites (cf. Jeremiah 15:1). He functioned as judge, priest, and prophet. Yet he glorified the kings he appointed, who were the Lord’s anointed, above himself. In many respects he foreshadowed the Lord Jesus Christ.

Chapters 1 through 3 prepare us for the rest of 1 and 2 Samuel historically and theologically. They teach us that God responds to the faith of people, even insignificant people. A barren and therefore despised woman became the mother of Israel’s most powerful man because she trusted and obeyed God. This was a complete reversal of what one would naturally expect. These chapters also show that God blesses with fertility those who commit to His revealed will contained in His Law, but He cuts off those who do not.

"The birth of Samuel was God’s means of dealing with His chosen people. The rest of the narrative deals with a similar theme. The righteous ones who are chosen by God will prosper while the ones who are chosen by the people and oppose God’s rule will be cut off. This is true even if those who oppose God’s rule (i.e., Eli and his sons) are a part of the covenant community." [Note: John A. Martin, "Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel," Bibliotheca Sacra 141:561 (January-March 1984):32.]

There are four conflicts and reversals of fortune in these chapters: Peninnah and Hannah (ch. 1), the arrogant and the innocent (1 Samuel 2:1-10), Eli’s sons and Samuel (1 Samuel 2:11-36), and Eli’s line of priests and Samuel’s line of prophets (1 Samuel 3:1 to 1 Samuel 4:1 a). God decides who will prosper and who will perish. The basis of His judgment is His faithfulness to what He has said He will do when people respond to His will (Deuteronomy 28).

Verse 1


Many serious students of 1 Samuel have noted the writer’s emphasis on the ark of the covenant that begins here in the text. Critical scholars have long argued that 1 Samuel 4:1 b to 1 Samuel 7:1 and 2 Samuel 6 are the only remaining fragments of an older and longer ark narrative, which was a source document for the writer here. Of the 61 references to the ark in 1 and 2 Samuel, 36 appear in 1 Samuel 4:1 b to 1 Samuel 7:2. More recently some scholars have come to believe that the old ark narratives were somewhat shorter. Conservative scholars generally believe that the ark narratives were not necessarily independent documents but may simply reflect the writer’s particular emphasis on the ark here. [Note: For a discussion of this subject, including a bibliography of books and articles dealing with it, see Youngblood, pp. 593-94.] One writer believed that their purpose was to explain Israel’s demand for a king, as well as the reasons for the end of Eli’s branch of the Aaronic family. [Note: Merrill, "1 Samuel," p. 208.]

Verses 1-11

1. The battle of Aphek 4:1-11

The Philistines, as we have already seen in Judges, were Israel’s primary enemy to the west at this time. Samson, too, fought the Philistines (Judges 13-16). [Note: For a good, brief history of the Philistines, see Edward Hindson, The Philistines and the Old Testament.] There are about 150 references to the Philistines in 1 and 2 Samuel. They originally migrated from Greece primarily by way of Crete (Caphtor, cf. Genesis 10:14; Jeremiah 47:4; Amos 9:7). Their major influx into Canaan occurred about 1200 B.C., about 100 years before the events recorded in this chapter. However there were some Philistines in Canaan as early as Abraham’s day (Genesis 21:32; et al.). [Note: For further study, see Trude Dothan, The Philistines and Their Material Culture, especially pp. 13-16, 21-24, and 289-96.]

The town of Aphek (cf. 1 Samuel 29:1; New Testament Antipatris, Acts 23:31) stood on the border between Philistine and Israelite territory. It was about 11 miles east and a little north of Joppa (and modern Tel Aviv). Archaeologists have not yet located Ebenezer, but it was obviously close to Aphek and on Israel’s side of the border. It may have been the modern Izbet Sarteh about two miles east of Aphek on the road to Shiloh. [Note: Moshe Kochavi and Aaron Demsky, "An Israelite Village from the Days of the Judges," Biblical Archaeology Review 4:3 (1978):19-21.]

In Israel’s first encounter with the Philistines in 1 Samuel, the enemy slew 4,000 Israelite soldiers (1 Samuel 4:2), and in the second, 30,000 Israelites fell (1 Samuel 4:10). Between these two encounters the Israelites sent to Shiloh for the ark. The ark had always been the place where God dwelt in a special way among the Israelites. It contained the tablets of the Decalogue and the mercy seat where the high priest atoned for the sins of the nation. It was for these reasons a symbol of God and His presence. During the long period of the judges the Israelites as a whole had adopted an increasingly pagan attitude toward Yahweh. They felt that they could satisfy Him with simply formal worship and that they could secure His help with offerings rather than humility. They were treating the ark the same way they treated God; they believed the ark’s presence among them in battle would ensure victory.

"We eventually all learn what Israel discovered in battle against the Philistines. Having the paraphernalia of God and having God are not the same." [Note: Kenneth L. Chafin, 1, 2 Samuel, p. 54.]

The paraphernalia that modern believers sometimes rely on in place of God include a crucifix, a picture of Jesus, or a family Bible positioned conspicuously in the home but seldom read. Others base their hope of spiritual success on a spiritually strong spouse, regular church attendance, or even the daily reading of the Bible. These things, as good as they may be, are no substitute for a vital personal relationship with God.

Perhaps the elders of Israel remembered that in Joshua’s conquest of Jericho, the ark played a very important and visible part in the victory (Joshua 6:2-20). Nevertheless, back then the people trusted in Yahweh, not in the ark as a talisman (good luck charm). The custom of taking idols into battle so their gods would deliver them was common among ancient warriors (cf. 2 Samuel 5:21; 1 Chronicles 14:12). Obviously the Israelites were wrong in thinking that the presence of the ark would guarantee success.

"The offenses against the ark as pledge of Yahweh’s presence appear to be mainly of two kinds: (1) a misplaced reliance on the ark, and (2) an irreverent disregard for the ark." [Note: Marten H. Woudstra, The Ark of the Covenant from the Conquest to Kingship, p. 55.]

The Hebrew word eleph, translated thousand (1 Samuel 4:2), can also mean military unit. Military units were of varying sizes but considerably smaller than 1,000 soldiers. [Note: For more information concerning the problem of large numbers in the Old Testament, see R. E. D. Clark, "The Large Numbers of the Old Testament," Journal of Transactions of the Victoria Institute 87 (1955):82-92; and J. W. Wenham, "Large Numbers in the Old Testament," Tyndale Bulletin 18 (1967):19-53.]

Ancient Near Eastern artists sometimes pictured a king sitting on a throne supported on either side by a cherub, which the artist represented as a winged lion (sphinx) with a human head. [Note: W. F. Albright, "What Were the Cherubim?" Biblical Archaeologist 1:1 (1938):1-3.] This may have been the image of the Lord of hosts (armies) "who sits above the cherubim" that the writer had in mind here (1 Samuel 4:4).

The fact that the people shouted loudly when the ark arrived at Ebenezer from Shiloh (1 Samuel 4:5) may be another indication that they were hoping to duplicate the victory at Jericho (cf. Joshua 6:20). Likewise the response of the Philistines when they heard the cry recalls Rahab’s revelation of how the Canaanites feared Yahweh (Joshua 2:9-11). These allusions to the victory at Jericho contrast the Israelites’ present attitude toward God with what it had been at that earlier battle.

The fact that the Israelites suffered a devastating slaughter (Heb. makkah, 1 Samuel 4:10), many times worse than their earlier recent defeat (1 Samuel 4:2), proved that victory did not come from the ark but from the Lord. Defeat was due to sin in the camp, including Hophni and Phinehas’ sin (cf. 1 Samuel 2:25). Israel had suffered defeat at Ai about 300 years earlier for the same reason: sin among the people (Joshua 7:11). Trying to duplicate previous spiritual victories by going through the same procedures is no substitute for getting right with God (cf. Judges 16:20; Matthew 23:25).

God did not record the destruction of the tabernacle at Shiloh, but some writers assume the Philistines razed it after they captured the ark. [Note: E.g., Joyce Baldwin, 1 & 2 Samuel, p. 71; and Charles Pfeiffer and Howard Vos, The Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands, p. 143.] The town probably did suffer destruction then (cf. Jeremiah 7:12; Jeremiah 7:14; Jeremiah 26:6). [Note: See John Bright, A History of Israel, p. 165.] However, the writer of Chronicles mentioned that the tabernacle still stood in David’s day (1 Chronicles 21:29) and when Solomon began to reign (2 Chronicles 1:3). The writer of Samuel showed less interest in the sanctuary structure than in the ark. The Philistines may have destroyed the town of Shiloh, but it "revived sufficiently to produce a few worthy citizens in later generations (cf. 1 Kings 11:29; Jeremiah 41:5)." [Note: Gordon, p. 96.]

The Two Tabernacles and the Ark
Moses’ Tabernacle at:The Ark at:David’s Tabernacle at:
Gilgal (Joshua 5:10; Joshua 10:15; Joshua 10:43)Gilgal (Joshua 6:12)
Shiloh (Joshua 18:1; Joshua 18:9-10)Shiloh (Joshua 18:10)
Bethel (Judges 20:18-28; Judges 21:1-4)Bethel (Judges 20:27)
Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:3)Shiloh (1 Samuel 4:3)
Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4:4-5)
Ashdod (1 Samuel 5:1)
Gath (1 Samuel 5:8)
Ekron (1 Samuel 5:10)
Bethshemesh (1 Samuel 6:12-14)
Kiriath-jearim (1 Samuel 7:1)
Mizpah ? (1 Samuel 7:9-10)
Gilgal ? (1 Samuel 10:8; 1 Samuel 13:8-10; 1 Samuel 15:10-15)
Nob (1 Samuel 21:1-9; 1 Samuel 22:9-19)
Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39-40; 1 Chronicles 21:29; 1 Kings 3:4; 2 Chronicles 1:3)
Perez-uzzah (2 Samuel 6:2-11; 1 Chronicles 13:5-14)
Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 15:1)
Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:12-17; 1 Chronicles 15:2 to 1 Chronicles 16:6, 1 Chronicles 16:37-38)

Verses 1-22

A. The Capture of the Ark 4:1-22

A new subject comes to the forefront in this section and continues to be a significant motif throughout the rest of Samuel. It is the ark of the covenant. The writer drew attention to the ark in this chapter by mentioning it seven times, including a notation at the end of each text section (1 Samuel 4:4; 1 Samuel 4:11; 1 Samuel 4:17-19; 1 Samuel 4:21-22). Following the reference to Samuel the prophet in 1 Samuel 4:1, the writer did not mention him again until 1 Samuel 7:3.

"The purpose of the story in 1 Samuel 4-6 of the ark’s imprisonment in Philistia and its travels to different Philistine cities, as well as to Beth-Shemesh, is to give an historical background for the Philistines’ rule over the whole country prior to the emergence of the Israelite state which could still accentuate Yahweh’s supremacy as an unconquerable deity. The story explains how Yahweh finally became superior to his captors." [Note: G. W. Ahlstrom, "The Travels of the Ark: A Religio-Political Composition," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 43 (1984):143. See also Antony F. Campbell, "Yahweh and the Ark: A Case Study in Narrative," Journal of Biblical Literature 98:1 (1979):31-43.]

The major historical element of continuity in this section is the fate of Eli’s sons (1 Samuel 4:9-11). The theological theme of fertility continues to be the primary unifying factor in the narrative.

Verses 12-18

2. The response of Eli 4:12-18

The deaths of Hophni and Phinehas, who accompanied the soldiers into battle, were the sign God promised Eli that He would remove the priestly privilege from Eli’s descendants eventually (1 Samuel 2:34). The writer carefully recorded that it was the news that the Philistines had captured the ark, not that his two sons had died, that shocked Eli and caused him to die (1 Samuel 4:18). Eli’s primary concern, to his credit, was the welfare of Israel.

There is a word play in the Hebrew text that helps us understand the significance of the departure of God’s glory. The Hebrew word for "heavy" (1 Samuel 4:18) is kabed, and the word for "glory" (1 Samuel 4:21) is kabod. Rather than Israel enjoying glory from God’s presence through Eli’s priesthood, Eli himself had received the glory, as his heavy weight implies. Eli’s apparent self-indulgence was responsible for the departure of God’s glory from Israel and from his line of priests. [Note: See John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, p. 400-401.]

The battle of Aphek recorded in this chapter took place in 1104 B.C. Since Eli was 98 years old when he died on hearing the news that the Philistines had taken the ark in this battle, he must have been born in 1202 B.C. [Note: See the "Chronology of 1 and 2 Samuel" earlier in these notes.]

Verses 19-22

3. The response of Phinehas’ wife 4:19-22

Likewise the news of the loss of the ark is what distressed Phinehas’ wife more than the news of the deaths of her husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law (1 Samuel 4:21-22). "Ichabod" is usually translated, "The glory has departed," but it may mean, "Where is the glory?"

"With the surrender of the earthly throne of His glory, the Lord appeared to have abolished His covenant of grace with Israel; for the ark, with the tables of the law and the capporeth [mercy seat], was the visible pledge of the covenant of grace which Jehovah had made with Israel." [Note: C. F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, pp. 56-57.]

Phinehas’ wife’s words may also reflect a pagan viewpoint to some extent, that because the Philistines had stolen what represented Yahweh, the Lord Himself had abandoned the nation. In view of God’s promises and revealed plans for Israel, she should have known that He had not totally abandoned His people (Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 12:7; cf. Matthew 28:20). Furthermore the Israelites knew that the true God is omnipresent. Israel’s pagan neighbors typically believed that their gods were limited geographically. On the other hand, she may have had Deuteronomy 28:47-48 in mind: "Because you did not serve the LORD your God . . . you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD shall send against you . . . and He will put an iron yoke on your neck until He has destroyed you."

Most of the Israelites evidently thought that since Israel had lost the ark she had lost God. [Note: For a further discussion of the role of the ark at this time in Israel’s history, and how Samuel’s ministry related to it, see Clive Thomson, "Samuel, the Ark, and the Priesthood," Bibliotheca Sacra 118:417 (July-September 1961):259-63. For a more critical study of the ark, see P. R. Davies, "The History of the Ark in the Books of Samuel," Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 5 (1977):9-18.] However, because the people had not lived in proper covenant relationship with Him, Israel had only lost God’s blessing, not His presence. They were disregarding God’s Law, so God’s glory had departed from Israel (1 Samuel 4:22; cf. Exodus 19:5-6; Ezekiel 10). His people could not enjoy fertility.

Someone has said that if you feel far from God, you need to remember that He is not the one who moved. God has promised that if His people will draw near to Him He will draw near to them (2 Chronicles 7:14; James 4:8; Hebrews 10:22).

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-samuel-4.html. 2012.
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