Attention!
Take your personal ministry to the Next Level by helping StudyLight build churches and supporting pastors in Uganda.
Click here to join the effort!

Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

1 Samuel 4

Introduction

SECTION 1. The Birth, Rise, Prophetic Ministry And Judgeship of Samuel (1-12).

This first section of the book covers the life of Samuel from his birth to the setting up of Saul as king in response to the people’s request. The first three chapters deal with the birth and spiritual growth of Samuel. This is then followed in chapter 4 by the Philistine invasion in which the Ark of YHWH of hosts is lost to Israel, something which takes place while Samuel is still a youth. That loss indicates YHWH’s demonstration of the fact that He no longer sees Himself as king over an Israel that has forsaken Him. However, He then goes on to demonstrate His authority over the gods of the Philistines by bringing disaster on them, so that His Ark is restored to Israel by the Philistines, who also pay Him generous tribute. The Ark is then placed with due honour (after a previous unfortunate incident) in the house of Abinadab where it will remain for many years. It is a recognised symbol that YHWH is still present as King over His people, and will therefore, once they turn back to Him, act on their behalf through His appointed deliverers.

This will firstly be through Samuel in this section, then through Saul before he is finally rejected, in the next section, and then through the young David in the final section, until he is outlawed and then exiled as a result of Saul’s activities. As a result of his exile there will be a lull, and the Philistines triumph. But in the second part of the book David will become the Spirit inspired king, the Philistines will be defeated, and then the Ark will be restored for public worship, having been ‘purified’ by its period spent in the house of Abinadab. The Kingship of YHWH has triumphed.

A). The Birth, Call and Establishment of Samuel the Prophet (1:1-4:1).

This opening subsection of the book commences with a description of the events that led up to the birth of Samuel. That is then followed by a description of the spiritual growth of Samuel which is interwoven with a description of the sinfulness of the sons of Eli, the High Priest of Israel, and leads up to a prophetic denunciation of the priesthood of the house of Ithamar. After that we have a description of how Samuel is called to be a prophet and a summary of what follows, ending with the fact that Samuel takes the word of YHWH to all Israel.

a The birth of Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-9.1.28).

b The prophecy of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-9.2.10).

c Samuel ministers to YHWH (1 Samuel 2:11).

d The failure of Eli’s sons (1 Samuel 2:12-9.2.17).

e The blessing of God on Samuel and on the house of Elkanah (1 Samuel 2:18-9.2.21).

d The failure of Eli’s sons (1 Samuel 2:22-9.2.25).

c Samuel grows in favour with YHWH and men (1 Samuel 2:26).

b The prophecy of the man of God (1 Samuel 2:27-9.2.36).

a The call and establishment of Samuel as a prophet (1 Samuel 3:1 to 1 Samuel 4:1).

Note that in ‘a’ we have described the miraculous birth of Samuel, and in the parallel his establishment as a Prophet of YHWH. In ‘b’ we have the prophecy of Hannah, and in the parallel the prophecy of a man of God, both including reference to YHWH’s ‘anointed one’.

B). The Ark As The Focal Point Of The Kingship Of YHWH (4:1b-7:14).

The emphasis in this subsection is on the Kingship of YHWH as revealed by the Ark which is the symbol of His Kingship. Because of His people’s disobedience and sinfulness as revealed through their priesthood YHWH refuses to act to deliver Israel, and allows the Ark to be taken. But when the Ark is brought to Ashdod the idol Dagon falls before YHWH and is smashed to pieces. Thus even in Ashdod YHWH is revealed as King. Then through plague, and a multiplying of vermin, YHWH brings His judgment on them because of the disrespect that they have shown to the Ark, so that in the end the Philistines recognise that they must return it to Israel along with suitable homage in the form of Gifts.

But those who receive it in Israel also treat it with disrespect, even though they are priests, demonstrating that their hearts are not right towards YHWH, and they too are therefore smitten and punished, and the Ark is then placed in a household where it is respected and honoured, and where it will remain for many years.

The King being therefore once again among His people they learn, after a twenty-year period of mourning during which He is silent, that if they will turn from their idols and seek Him, He will deliver them from the Philistines. And, as a result of the prayers of His prophet Samuel, the Philistines are then driven from the land.

We are not to see the Ark as forgotten. It is its very presence in Israel that evidences the fact that YHWH has not finally deserted His people, and the writer intends us to see its presence as indicating that YHWH is still there as Israel’s King, overseeing their future both for good and bad.

Analysis.

a The Philistines defeat Israel and capture the Ark of God (1 Samuel 4:1-9.4.22).

b The Ark of God is taken to Ashdod and the idol Dagon falls before YHWH and is smashed in pieces (1 Samuel 5:1-9.5.5).

c The Ark of God brings misery and plague on the Philistines who disrespect it (1 Samuel 5:6-9.5.12).

d The Ark of God is returned to Israel with reparations (1 Samuel 6:1-9.6.16).

c The Ark of God brings misery on the Israelites who disrespect it (1 Samuel 6:17 to 1 Samuel 7:2).

b The Ark of God is suitably re-established in Israel and they are promised that if they return to YHWH and put away their idolatry they will be delivered from the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:3-9.7.4).

a The Ark having been restored, Israel defeat the Philistines through the prayers of Samuel (1 Samuel 7:5-9.7.14).

Note that in ‘a’ the Philistines defeat Israel and the Ark of God is defiled, while in the parallel the Ark of God is re-established and Israel defeat the Philistines. In ‘b’ the Ark is taken to Ashdod and the idol Dagon falls before it and is smashed in pieces, and in the parallel, on the restoration of the Ark Israel are called on to denounce their idols. In ‘c’ the Ark bring misery on the Philistines who disrespect it and in the parallel it brings misery on the people of Israel who disrespect it. In ‘d’ the Ark of God returns in triumph to Israel, being duly honoured by the Philistines.

Chapter 4.

There can be little doubt that in this chapter we are being brought back to a period before Samuel’s full influence began to be felt. Eli was now even more infirm, and his sons were no doubt in full command. Samuel as a youth was still serving faithfully in the Tabernacle. Israel was now once again experiencing powerful pressure from the Philistine overlords who were wanting to carve out an empire for themselves. The Philistines had seemingly got over their losses brought about by Samson’s martyrdom. And Israel had no one to look to but two decadent priests.

The Battle of Aphek: The Philistines Defeat Israel And Capture the Ark of God (1 Samuel 4:1-9.4.22 ).

Not long after God had spoken to the young Samuel the Israelites rose against the dominance of their Philistine masters in order to cast off their yoke. This may have occurred around the time of the death of Samson, when the Philistines would be in some disarray at the loss of many of their leaders, an event which may well have stirred Israel to think that it could free itself. It is noteworthy that they did not consult the young Samuel. His reputation was not yet established. Nor did they seek to YHWH. They were acting on their own initiative. Whatever their outward profession they were not in submission to the Kingship of YHWH.

The call to the tribes would go out from the central sanctuary at Shiloh, and the consequence was that Israel gathered an army in order to gain their freedom from having to submit to the Philistines and pay tribute. But Israel had no experienced military leader and were mainly farmers gathered together to defend their lands, and worst of all at this stage, they had no one to guide them in their decisions, for the young Samuel was still developing, and Eli’s sons ruled in the Tabernacle. The Philistines on the other hand were an experienced military aristocracy who had arrived from Crete and from the Aegean a hundred or so years before and had settled in the Coastal Plain and they were accompanied by Canaanite farmers over whom they ruled and whom they had conscripted to service, the Canaanites probably hoping for a share in great booty.

It will be noted that there was no preparation of heart on the part of Israel, no seeking to YHWH. Their priests were not the kind who genuinely sought YHWH’s guidance about anything. They simply had a vague hope that YHWH would help them, and a superstitious trust in the Ark.

The chapter divides into two parts, the first part describes the actual battle itself and the bringing into service of the Ark, followed by its capture, the second part describes the after effects on Israel.

Verses 11-17

News Is Brought To Shiloh Of The Capture Of The Ark Of YHWH And The Death Of Eli’s Two Sons (1 Samuel 4:11-9.4.17 ).

The devastating news now comes to Shiloh of the capture of the Ark of YHWH and the deaths of the two sons of Eli. The prophecy in 1 Samuel 2:34 had been fulfilled. It was all inconceivably dreadful for Israel. Their most sacred object, the very throne of YHWH, was now in the hands of their enemies, and that could only mean that YHWH would be humiliated before the gods of the Philistines, just as Samson had been. And at the same time both of the heirs to the High Priesthood had been killed

In this passage the main purpose is to bring out the total humiliation of the house of Eli, and the depths to which Israel had fallen because they did not seek YHWH. But the reader also sees it as in contrast with the previously described glorious rise of Samuel. He recognises that it is the young Samuel who now ‘sees’, and that the corrupt and blind house of Eli has necessarily withered and died. And because of Israel’s folly God had allowed the Ark of YHWH to be taken by the enemy. The priests had proved themselves not to be fit keepers of the Ark. But underneath the reader is aware, not of despair but of hope. For while he sees the humiliation of the house of Eli, he knows that out of the ashes of defeat God will bring victory through the man whom He has raised up, through Samuel. He already knows that YHWH has a man available whom he has chosen. He also knows that YHWH is well able to look after the Ark.

Analysis.

a And the ark of God was taken, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain (1 Samuel 4:11).

b And there ran a man of Benjamin out of the army, and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn, and with earth on his head. And when he came, lo, Eli was sitting on his 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 (1 Samuel 4:12-9.4.13).

c And when Eli heard the noise of the crying, he said, “What does this tumultuous noise mean?”

d And the man ran hurriedly, and came and told Eli.

e Now Eli was ninety eight years old, and his eyes were set, so that he could not see (1 Samuel 4:14-9.4.15).

d And the man said to Eli, “I am he who came out of the army, and I fled today out of the army” (1 Samuel 4:16 a).

c And he said, “How went the matter, my son?” (1 Samuel 4:16 b).

b And he who brought the tidings answered and said, “Israel is fled before the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:17 a).

a “And there has been also a great slaughter among the people, and your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken” (1 Samuel 4:17 b).

1 Samuel 4:11

And the ark of God was taken, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.’

The humiliation of the house of Eli continues. God’s judgment is being wrought upon them to the full. The Ark of God for which they were responsible is now in the hands of the enemy, and the two blasphemers are dead. The house of Eli is in total disarray because of their deep sin and blasphemy.

1 Samuel 4:12

And there ran a man of Benjamin out of the army, and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn, and with earth on his head.’

Meanwhile a messenger, a man of Benjamin, flees from the battlefield and prepares to take the news of the lost battle to Shiloh. He tears his clothes and puts earth on his head so that as he approaches they will know that the news is bad. The distance from Shiloh was about twenty miles, a distance that he was therefore able to accomplish ‘on the same day’.

1 Samuel 4:13

And when he came, lo, Eli was sitting on his 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.’

As the messenger approached Shiloh the aged Eli was sitting on his usual seat outside the gate of the Temple, trembling with apprehension at what might happen to the Ark of God. He had clearly not been happy at its being taken, but had presumably been overruled. Then he heard the cries that rang throughout the city when the messenger had told them the woeful news.

1 Samuel 4:14

And when Eli heard the noise of the crying, he said, “What does this tumultuous noise mean?” And the man ran hurriedly, and came and told Eli.’

When the blind old man heard the tumultuous cries he called out and asked what the noise meant. Meanwhile the man was making all speed to come to Eli to inform him as High Priest of the bad news.

1 Samuel 4:15

Now Eli was ninety eight years old, and his eyes were set, so that he could not see.’

The sad state of Eli is brought out in that he was now ninety eight years old and blind. His blindness was a true portrayal of his house. They were all worn out and spiritually blind.

1 Samuel 4:16

And the man said to Eli, “I am he who came out of the army, and I fled today out of the army.” And he said, “How went the matter, my son?” ’

The messenger explains to Eli that he is the one who has caused the tumult. He had that very day left the army and fled from the battlefield. Trembling the old man, who in his blindness could not see his dishevelled state, asked the question that was weighing so heavily on his mind. Perhaps there was still hope of something good coming out of the battle?. He was soon to be disillusioned.

1 Samuel 4:17

And he who brought the tidings answered and said, “Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there has been also a great slaughter among the people, and your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken.”

The one who brought the news did not mince matters. He knew that things could hardly be worse. He informed Eli that Israel had fled before the Philistines, and that there had been a great slaughter. That Hophni and Phinehas were dead, and that the Ark of God had been taken. It was the worst of all possible news. All was lost. Note the order in which the information is given. For Eli each blow was worse than the last, and the last was the worst of all. Judgment had come on his house to the full, and the Tabernacle was bereft of its most sacred object, the very symbol of their covenant with YHWH.

Verses 18-22

The Tragic Aftermath Of The News From The Battlefield (1 Samuel 4:18-9.4.22 ).

The shattering news from the battlefield caused the blind old man to fall backwards and break his neck, while his daughter-in-law, who was pregnant, went into premature labour at the news, bearing a son, and then dying after first naming the child Ichabod because ‘the glory had departed’ from Israel. The reader would note the contrast between the name of Ichabod (‘where is the glory’ or ‘no glory’) and the name of Samuel (Shemuel), ‘name of God’ or ‘God hears’. It will be noted that in both cases the news that disturbed them most was that the Ark of God had been taken. That was something that was almost inconceivable to them. The most sacred possession in the Tabernacle, the very throne of YHWH and guarantee of His presence, and it had been lost to the enemy. What was Israel to do now? (The readers know the answer. It lies in God’s new prophet Samuel. They know that he is the one who will still bring the word of YHWH to Israel).

Analysis. .

a And it came about that when he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell from his seat backwards by the side of the gate, and his neck broke, and he died. For he was an old man, and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years. (1 Samuel 4:18).

b And his daughter-in-law, Phinehas’ wife, was with child, near to the time of delivery, and when she heard the news that the ark of God was taken, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed herself and bore her child, for her labour pains came on her (1 Samuel 4:19).

c And about the time of her death the women who stood by her said to her, “Don’t be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer, nor did she regard it”.

b 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 (1 Samuel 4:20-9.4.21).

a And she said, “The glory is departed from Israel, because the ark of God is taken” (1 Samuel 4:22).

Note that in ‘a’ Eli dies because the Ark of God is taken, and in the parallel the dying wife of Phinehas declares that ‘the glory is departed because the Ark of God is taken’. In ‘b’ the wife hears that the Ark of God was taken and that her father-in-law and husband are dead, and bows herself and bears a child, and in the parallel she names the child Ichabod because the Ark of God is taken and because her father-in-law and husband are dead. In ‘c’ and centrally she is in such trauma at the news that she finds no joy in the birth of her son.

1 Samuel 4:18

And it came about that when he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell from his seat backwards by the side of the gate, and his neck broke, and he died. For he was an old man, and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years.’

When the old man heard the news about the Ark he fell backwards at the side of the gate, and because he was an old man and heavy he broke his neck and died. He had judged Israel for ‘forty years’, that is, for over a generation. Presumably his father, the previous High Priest had died when Eli was around sixty to seventy years of age.

1 Samuel 4:19

And his daughter-in-law, Phinehas’ wife, was with child, near to the time of delivery, and when she heard the news that the ark of God was taken, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed herself and bore her child, for her pains came on her.’

When the pregnant wife of the dead Phinehas heard the news that the Ark of God was taken, and that her father-in-law and husband were dead, it was all too much. She went into premature labour and bore a son. She had lost everything she had lived for at one go. But the nature of the birth was such that it killed her. She survived just long enough to name the child.

1 Samuel 4:20

And about the time of her death the women who stood by her said to her, “Don’t be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer, nor did she regard it.”

The women around her tried to encourage her. They pointed out that she had borne a son, the dream of every Israelite woman. But she was so traumatised that it meant nothing to her. She was totally unmoved.

1 Samuel 4:21

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.

Her last act was to name the child ‘Ichabod’ which means ‘no glory’ or ‘where is glory?’ declaring that the glory was departed from Israel. This was for a threefold reason. Firstly because the Ark of God was taken. Secondly because the High Priest was dead. And thirdly because her own husband was also dead.

1 Samuel 4:22

And she said, “The glory is departed from Israel,” for the ark of God was taken.’

The writer then draws attention to what was for Israel the most dreaded news of all. She had said ‘the glory is departed from Israel’ BECAUSE THE ARK OF GOD WAS TAKEN. The ‘glory’ of a nation indicated its most treasured possessions (see Isaiah 17:3). And it had lost its most treasured and revered possession. Israel must have been stunned at this news. It was now clear that YHWH had deserted them. He had preferred to go with the Philistines. All was lost.

But what was the truth of the matter? Why has YHWH removed the Ark from Israel? Surely it is because the priesthood, who gained such prestige from the Ark and the worship related to it, had proved to be unworthy. Thus YHWH has removed the Ark from Israel as an indication that He is no longer their King because of their evil ways, while being at the same time about to demonstrate to the Philistines His essential superiority as Lord over all.

But He will eventually replace it with another symbol of His presence, the mighty prophet Samuel. The glory has not departed. It is growing up amongst them. And YHWH will also restore the Ark to Israel in order to demonstrate that His offer to be their King is still open, awaiting its due time, although it will be put into suitable storage until that time comes.

For Samuel will eventually be followed by the true king of Israel, archetype of the coming everlasting King. It is thus only once Samuel has brought the people back to God and to true faith in YHWH, and when the true archetype of God’s future blessing is on the throne, that the Ark will be reinstated for public worship. Meanwhile it will still be the symbol of YHWH’s Kingship over His people, demonstrate practically by the Spirit anointed deliverers that He will provide for them.

And there is another reason for what has happened here. And that is that YHWH wants to bring home to the Philistines the terror of YHWH. This terror must have shaped their attitude towards Israel and its God for a long while to come.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 4". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/1-samuel-4.html. 2013.