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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 4

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 3-11


1 Samuel 4:1. “And the word of Samuel,” etc. Commentators are divided in their opinions whether this clause is connected with the rest of the chapter, and whether it signifies that Israel went out to battle by the command of Samuel. Many think they entered into the conflict without Divine direction; but Keil says, “The two clauses, ‘The word of Samuel came to all Israel’ and ‘Israel went out,’ etc., are to be logically connected together in the following sense: ‘At the word or instigation of Samuel, Israel went out against the Philistines to battle.” There is no doubt that the Philistines were ruling over Israel at this time. “Ebenezer.” This name was not given to the place until a later period (see 1 Samuel 7:12). “Aphek.” As this word means strength, or firmness, it is applicable to any fort or fastness; and there were several places so named in Palestine. According to 1 Samuel 7:12 this Aphek must have been near Mizpeh, probably the Mizpeh of Benjamin mentioned in Joshua 18:26, and identified by Robinson as the present Neby Samwil, five miles north-west of Jerusalem.

1 Samuel 4:2. “Joined battle.” “This word describes the sudden mutual assault of the opposing lines.” (Lange’s Commentary.)

1 Samuel 4:3. “Let us fetch the ark,” etc. “In recommending this extraordinary step, the elders might recollect the confidence it imparted to their ancestors (Numbers 10:35; Numbers 14:44), as well as what had been done at Jericho. But it is more probable that they were influenced by the heathenish ideas of their idolatrous neighbours, who, in order to animate their soldiers and ensure victory, carried the statuettes of their gods in shrines, or their sacred symbols to their wars, believing that the power of those divinities was inseparably associated with, or residing in, their images.” (Dr. Jamieson.)

1 Samuel 4:4. “The people.” “It was the army that here acted, rather than the people in a political capacity, but the word ‘people’ perhaps points to the absence of a regular army.” (Tr. of Lange’s Commentary.)

1 Samuel 4:7. “God is come into the camp.” “The ark is called by the sacred writer ‘The ark of the Lord (Jehovah)’, but the Philistines, being heathens, say that ‘Elohim is come into the camp;’ and they speak of God in the plural number—‘These mighty gods.’ ” (Wordsworth.) “Just as all the heathen feared the might of the gods of other nations in a certain degree, so the Philistines also were alarmed at the might of the God of the Israelites.” (Keil.) “There hath not been such a thing heretofore.” “The ark was always carried by the priests in the van (Numbers 10:33; Joshua 3:14), and, with one solitary exception, when the attack upon the Amalekites and the Canaanites was made in spite of an express prohibition of Moses, it was invariably carried with them in their early wars. But when they had become settled in Canaan, and the ark was established in Shiloh, the practice of carrying it into the field was discontinued, till now that ignorance and superstitious fear revived it.” (Dr. Jamieson.)

1 Samuel 4:10. “There fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen.” “The slaughter in ancient warfare seems, from the record of profane as well as sacred history, to have been often immensely greater than in modern times, since the introduction of gunpowder and artillery. And in the nature of the case it must have been when the soldiers of opposing armies met in close combat—man engaged in mortal strife with man; and when the weapons, too, were tipped with poison, the result could not be otherwise than a fearful carnage. The great numbers, then, of the Israelites who are recorded in this passage (as well as in similar ones) to have fallen in battle, and which have called forth the sneers of the infidels as gross exaggerations, are, from the character of the context, perfectly credible, and the statements of the sacred historian are not only in the present instance corroborated by the testimony of Josephus, but harmonise with the recital of Herodotus, and other historians, as to the vast mortality that frequently marked the battles of antiquity.” (Dr. Jamieson.)



I. Here is failure in a lawful enterprise. If a man finds himself so oppressed by a stronger power that his moral nature suffers in consequence, it is both lawful and right to endeavour to free himself from the yoke of the oppressor. Especially if he finds himself the slave of habits which tend to his moral degeneration, he is bound, out of regard for his own real interests, to use every means within his reach to obtain his freedom. The enterprise against soul-oppression, whether individual or national, is always lawful. If a nation is under such a yoke of bondage, and can find no way to liberty except through strife—if it finds that by reason of its oppression it is sinking in the moral scale, and sees no possibility of bettering its condition, except by the sword—such a nation is justified in resorting to the use of such means. Israel was so oppressed by the Philistines. The yoke of the heathen was not only injurious to them materially but spiritually. It was not only a national humiliation but it tended to national degradation of soul. Therefore they were fully justified in using every lawful effort to be free, and they were not defeated because they were engaged in an undertaking which was in itself displeasing to God.

II. Here is failure in a lawful enterprise because undertaken in a wrong spirit. As we have seen in considering the first defeat recorded in this chapter, Israel undertook to throw off the yoke of the Philistines without submission to the yoke of God, and this was altogether contrary to the Divine revealed will concerning them. They must first submit to Jehovah, and then their enemies would submit to them. “O, Israel, if thou wilt hearken unto me, there shall no strange god be in thee; neither shalt thou worship any strange god.… Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways! I should soon have subdued their enemies, and turned my hand against their adversaries. The haters of the Lord should have submitted themselves unto Him; but their time should have endured for ever (Psalms 81:8-15). But they were not willing to lend an obedient ear to the Word of the Lord, and therefore the Lord’s hand was turned against them in their day of need. This subject is full of teaching for the individual man. The soul of every man is by nature more or less enslaved by appetites and passions which will degrade him if he does not war against them. But there is but one way to do this successfully. There must be submission to the yoke of God before we can cast off the yoke of sin and Satan. Man’s will in its present condition is not strong enough to overcome the evil within his own heart. “To will” may “be present with him, but how to perform that which he wills he finds not” (Romans 7:18). There must be submission to a higher will before the Philistines of the heart can be brought into subjection. We are “made free from sin” by becoming “servants to God” (Romans 6:22)—by falling in with His method of salvation by the death of His Son, and thus receiving from Him the Divine help by which alone we can conquer sin within us. The man who sets out to free himself from the bondage of any sinful habit in any other way will find himself in the condition of Israel at this time—he will be baffled and beaten on every side, and will have to give up the contest in despair. The evil spirit may go out for a time, but when he returns he will find the house unoccupied by any stronger power, and “then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first” (Matthew 12:43-45).

III. Failure in any lawful enterprise demands inquiry into the cause of the failure. Even Israel said, “Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us to-day?” (1 Samuel 4:3). He who has failed to overcome any sinful habit within himself, or has been defeated in his efforts to lessen the power of evil in the world, should ask himself why it is so. If he knows that the end for which he strives is for the glory of God, he will do well to suspect that the cause of the failure rests with himself, and a searching and sincere inquiry into the state of his own heart may lead to some wholesome discoveries, and prevent defeat in future efforts. Israel here admits that the hand of God was behind the hand of the Philistines, and that it was Jehovah who had smitten them by the sword of their enemies; but their inquiry lacked earnestness and sincerity. They admit that their failure demands investigation, but they stop short without arriving at the real cause of their defeat. They were unwilling to push the question to its final issue; but such a question asked with a desire to find the real answer cannot fail to bring instruction to the man who asks it.

IV. Unwillingness to admit the real cause of failure will probably lead to the use of means which will end in greater disaster. The inhabitants of a house which is built upon a sandy foundation may blame the thunder when the walls rock and crack beneath the storm, and they may seek to render themselves secure by making the walls thicker and the roof more firm. But all such efforts are only making more certain the ultimate fall of the building—all that is added to a structure upon such a foundation is only hastening its downfall and the destruction of its inhabitants. They have entirely missed the real root of the mischief. The thunder may be the occasion of the damage, but it is not the cause. That is to be found in the nature of the soil upon which the house is built, and their failure to find it leads them to use means which end in greater disaster. So it was with Israel in their first defeat. They did not search deep enough to find the real cause of their discomfiture. The Philistines under God were the occasion, but their own sin was the cause of their misfortune, and failing to find it they rushed to the use of means which resulted in a more shameful defeat and a more terrible humiliation. To send for the ark of God into the field was useless, because that state of heart was wanting which made the symbol of God’s presence anything more than a chest of wood—it was but to cast greater dishonour upon the God whose favour alone made the ark a sacred thing, and thus to add another sin to the many which already stained their national history. And God demonstrates the uselessness and unlawfulness of their effort by permitting this most sacred symbol to fall into the hands of the uncircumcised Philistines.

V. Relationship to the victories of the past without the character of the victors may lead to wrong inferences and fatal results. There are many men of the present day who have a special relationship to the great events of the past, because they are descendants of those who were the actors in those events. But if they infer from their mere relationship that they are as fit to accomplish great things as their forefathers were, they fall into an error which may be fatal to themselves and others. They must first make sure that they possess the mental and moral qualities by which their ancestors became so renowned. It is not enough to be bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh unless they partake of their spirit. The children of the great and good must be great and good themselves if they would do the great deeds of their fathers. If they venture upon great enterprises, looking for success to their descent from some hero of the past, they will find that it will avail them nothing to bear his name if they lack his courage, his self-denial, his fortitude and his faith. Priests bearing the ark of God had in the past history of Israel made a way by which they had advanced to glorious victory. There had been a memorable day in their history when “as they that bare the ark were come unto Jordan, and the feet of the priests that bare the ark were dipped in the brim of the water, that the waters were cut off and the people passed over right against Jericho” (Joshua 3:16). And perhaps both priests and people hoped for some such interposition of God on the present occasion. But then the ark was borne by men who had faith in God—the feet of those by whose touch under God Jordan was driven back, were cleaner feet that those of Hophni and Phinehas. The priests who stood firm in the midst of Jordan—the first to descend into its bed and the last to leave it—had confidence in the living God, and their courage and faith spread itself throughout all the ranks of Israel, and inspired them with a like faith and courage. But although the same ark of God was in the midst of Israel to-day it was borne upon the shoulders of men who had only a bodily kinship to their ancestors, and who, instead of inciting the people to confide in the God of their fathers, had brought His name and His worship into contempt. It was an act of the highest presumption on their part to bring the ark of God into the field, knowing, as they did, that though they belonged to a priestly family, they had none of the qualifications for the priestly office. If they relied upon their relationship to the victors of the past they were soon to become examples to all succeeding ages of the futility of such a reliance.

VI. When superstition is the foundation of joy, the joy will soon be turned into sorrow. It is superstition to attach any value to the symbol when that which makes the symbol worth anything has departed. The human body is a goodly and precious object, while it is tenanted by a living soul; but without the soul it is only dead matter. So is it with a symbol, and that which it signifies. When that which it symbolises is gone it is as a body without life. The ark was intended to be a sign to the Israelites of the presence in their midst of the invisible God. The mercy seat, upon which the blood of atonement had been sprinkled, and over which the glory of God had been visibly manifested, had been a token of the favour of Him to whom Israel had bound themselves to render obedience. But the covenant had been broken by their faithlessness, and the presence in their midst of the symbol of what had for a time ceased to exist, was of as little worth as the presence of a corpse in the place of a living man. To attach any value to it was an act of ignorant superstition, and the hope founded upon such a basis must end in disappointment. “When the ark of the covenant came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout” (1 Samuel 4:5), but their triumph was of short duration because it was founded upon a superstition. Joy springing from such a source only increases the bitterness of the disappointment when the true state of things is revealed, and men should look well to the foundation of their hope and joy and see that it is founded upon the truth of God, or the false hope will be but as the lightning flash which is gone in the twinkling of an eye, and makes the darkness all around seem deeper than it was before. The shout that now rang through the Hebrew camp was a terrible contrast to the cry of despair that ran through the host when the ark of God was taken.

VII. Men will fight as valiantly for a bad cause as for a good one. The Philistines fought as valiantly as the Israelites (1 Samuel 4:10). History furnishes us with abundant testimony to the fact that courage is born of error as well as of truth. He who believes a lie may contend for it as valiantly as he who fights for the very truth of God. The Israelites, fallen as they were, had more of right and truth on their side than their enemies had, yet the Philistines were at least as bold and brave as they were. Though the heathen believed that they were opposed by the mighty gods that smote the Egyptians, they resolved to quit themselves like men, and fight even unto death rather than become servants to the Hebrews. And the issue of the battle shows that their resolution did not falter. The courage of the battle-field is to a large degree of an animal nature, hence the savage will stand and die at his post with as much fortitude as the citizen soldier, and he who fights without knowing what he fights for, or for the worst of causes, will be as brave as he who fights from the purest and most patriotic motives. No men ever fought in a more unjust cause than the Spaniards who sought to crush the liberties of the Netherlanders, and yet their bravery was on many occasions equal to that of their opponents, who were engaged in the holiest of all struggles—the struggle for religious freedom.


1 Samuel 4:3. The voice of many of us now is like to the voice of the Jews in the time of their distress. “Bring us the ark,” say they, “that it may save us,” when, alas, they were destroyed by the Philistines for all their ark. So thou, reader, when conscience frighteth thee, or death comes nigh thee, probably speakest in thine heart, Come, bring me the ark that may save me, bring me the sacrament that shall save me; thou runnest to thy baptism, to thy sabbath, to privileges, and thence concludest that thou canst not be condemned; when, alas, thou mayest go to hell fire for all thy font-water, and to eternal torments, though thou hast often been at the Lord’s table (Matthew 7:22). Baptismal water is not the laver of regeneration. Many sit at the Lord’s table which do not taste of His supper.… Spiritual privileges always commend God to us, but not us to God.—Swinnock.

“Trust ye not in lying words,” says the prophet (Jeremiah 7:4), “saying, The temple of the Lord;” but if ye thoroughly amend your ways, “then will I cause you to dwell in this place for ever and ever” (1 Samuel 4:7). It is observable that God there refers to this history, and says, “Go ye now to Shiloh, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people. Probably David remembered it, when he refused to allow the ark to be carried with him in his retreat before Absalom out of Jerusalem (2 Samuel 15:25).—Wordsworth.

As Israel became acted on by the system which prevailed under Eli, superstition succeeded to the fear of God. Now superstition is the refuge of the conscience when it has lost the sense of God’s personal presence. You may measure by its prevalence the absence of God from men’s hearts. It will be natural that in an age of mere outward respect for religion, superstition should be advancing and regaining its hold.—Alford.

It will often happen that those who are least affected by the overwhelming sense of God’s abiding presence with His Church, the authority of her ministry and the power of her ordinances, will be found, and that too because of their little inward affection, most forward on all occasions to talk about, and in argument to contend for, the high privileges with which Christ has endowed her. Such men, like the Israelites when defeated by the Philistines, in the hope of victory scruple not at every conflict with their enemies to lay bare, as it were, the veiled glories of the tabernacle, and at their own will to bring forth the ark of the covenant, as if that alone were wanting to strike dismay into the opposing ranks and ensure success.… But to make war in the name of the Lord against others only, and not against our own sins and iniquities, is to pollute the name of God and cause His offering to be abhorred.—Bishop Fulford.

1 Samuel 4:4. Jehovah as covenant-God is more properly designated in a twofold manner, corresponding to the situation, in which the Israelites desire His Almighty help, which they think to be externally connected with the ark. As Jehovah Sabbaoth (Lord of Hosts), He is the Almighty ruler and commander of the heavenly powers. As Jehovah who “dwells above the cherubim,” He is the living God, the God of the completest fulness of power and life, who reveals Himself on earth in His glory, exaltedness, and dominion over all the fulness of the life which has been called into being by Him as Creator. This designation of God is never found except in relation to the ark, which is conceived of as the throne of the covenant-God, who dwells as King in the midst of His people. The cherubim are not representatives of the heavenly powers, since they are, as to form, made up of elements of the living, animate, earthly creation which culminates in man. Representing this, they set forth, in their position on the ark, the ruling might and majesty of the Living God, as it is revealed over the manifoldness of the highest and completest life of the animate creation. In these two designations of God, then, reference is had to the glory and dominion of God, which embraces and high exceeds all creaturely life in heaven and on earth, and whose saving interposition the Israelites made dependent on the presence of the ark. In sharpest contrast to this indication of God’s loftiness and majesty, stands the mention of the two priests, Hophni and Phinehas, whose worthlessness has been before set forth, and who represent the whole of the moral corruption and sham religious life of the people.—Lange’s Commentary.

1 Samuel 4:5. When the ark was brought into the host, though with mean and wicked attendance, Israel doth, as it were, fill the heaven and shake the earth with shouts, as if the ark and victory were no less inseparable than they and their sins. Even the lewdest men will be looking for favour from that God whom they cared not to displease, contrary to the conscience of their deservings; presumption doth the same in wicked men which faith doth in the holiest. Those that regarded not the God of the ark think themselves safe and happy in the ark of God. Vain men are transported with a confidence in the outside of religion, not regarding the substance and soul of it, which only can give them true peace.—Bp. Hall.

1 Samuel 4:9. Observe the Philistines crying, “God is come into the camp; woe unto us!” etc. Yet they settle, hearten, harden themselves to fight against Him.… Refractory and perverse affections make a man frantic. There may be a sober knowledge, that the patient may say, “I see better things,” and a faith (but such as is incident to devils) “I allow of them,” but where the whole man is tyrannised over by the regent-house of irrefragable affects, he concludes his course with, “I follow the worse.”—T. Adams.

1 Samuel 4:10. It is just the same now, when we take merely a historical Christ outside us for our Redeemer. He must prove His help chiefly internally by His Holy Spirit, to redeem us out of the hands of the Philistines; though externally He must not be thrown into the shade, as accomplishing our justification. If we had not Christ, we could never stand. But if we have Him in no other way than merely without us, and under us, if we only preach about Him, teach, hear, read, talk, discuss, and dispute about Him, take His name into our mouth, but will not let Him work and show His power in us, He will no more help us than the ark helped the Israelites.—Berlenberger Bible.

It is one of the weightiest laws in the kingdom of God, that when His people, who profess His name, do not show covenant fidelity in faith and obedience, but, under cover of merely external piety, serve Him in appearance only, being in heart and life far from Him, He gives them up for punishment to the world, before which they have not magnified the honour of His name, but have covered it with reproach.—Lange’s Commentary.

1 Samuel 4:11. “The ark of God was taken.” Why did God permit this? I. In order to show that His presence had forsaken Israel, because they had forsaken Him. II. In order to show that visible ordinances of religion only profit those who have the spirit of religion within them. III. In order to show that though men are bound to use the means of grace which God has instituted for the conveyance of His blessings to them, yet God’s presence and working are not tied to those means. He can act without them.—Wordsworth.

Instead of bewailing a nation’s sins, and preaching public repentance and interceding for mercy from a forgiving God, Hophni and Phinehas had joined in the superstitious desire to take the ark into the field of battle, and they met with a bloody and ignominious death as the price of their perilous temerity and open profanity. It is ever dangerous for ministers of religion to mix in the strife of war. Not that it is foreign to their duty to become pastors of soldiers—that is a duty incumbent upon them.… But it ill becomes the minister of peace to mix in the clang of arms. It was an evil day for Hophni and Phinehas when they took the ark of the covenant from Shiloh, and sought to work on the fanaticism of the people by unveiling the Holiest of all. They provoked the judgment which shed their blood. It was an evil day for Zwingle when he left his chaplain’s post to wear a helmet, a sword, and a battle-axe: covered with wounds, insulted, killed, he lay under a tree at Cappel; not yet forty-eight years of age, his body cut and burned, and his ashes driven to the winds. “He had wielded an arm that God had forbidden,” says D’Aubigné; “the helmet had covered his head, and he had grasped the halberd. His more devoted friends were themselves astonished, and exclaimed, ‘We knew not what to say—a bishop in arms.’ The bolt had furrowed the cloud, the blow had reached the reformer, and his body was no more than a handful of dust in the palm of a soldier.”—Steele.

The ark of God was taken. These words record the most disastrous event that had till then befallen the children of Israel.… Even in the worst times, when the revolt might seem universal, there were always some, however few, who constituted the Church, the true Israel, who never bowed the knee to a false god; and to all such, Shiloh, with the tabernacle, the altar of burnt offering, and the ark of the covenant, would be a precious spot, towards which their thoughts would turn in every season of distress and disaster.… So long as there was no visible intimation that God had deserted Shiloh, true believers in Israel would still cherish the hope that, however severe might be the judgments with which God visited them, He had not finally given them up.… But now what could every thoughtful man in Israel conclude, but that all the wonderful deliverances in connection with the ark of which their fathers had told them, were at an end?… The state of the people of God at the time here referred to, as well as the immediate cause of their being brought into that state, reminds us of another period in which the Church must have been in great darkness and perplexity. I refer to the time when our Lord was delivered into the hands of ungodly men, when He was crucified, and remained for a time under the power of death. I do not say that the one is designedly typical of the other. But we know that the ark was in various respects a remarkable type of Christ, and the passage before us naturally suggests, at least, his humiliation and death.—B. Gordon.

Rather than God will humour superstition in Israelites, he will suffer His own ark to fall into the hands of Philistines: rather will He seem to slacken His hand of protection, than He will be thought to have His hands bound by a formal mis-confidence. The slaughter of the Israelites was no plague to this; it was a greater plague rather to them that should survive and behold it. The two sons of Eli, who had helped to corrupt their brethren, die by the hand of the uncircumcised, and are now too late separated from the ark of God by Philistines, who should have been before separated by their father; they had formerly lived to bring God’s altar into contempt, and now live to carry His ark into captivity.—Bishop Hall.

Verses 12-22


1 Samuel 4:13. “Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside.” “This sitting on the side of the way by which the first message must come answers precisely to the intense expectation in which Eli, though blind, had taken this position, so as, if not with the eyes, yet with the sense of hearing, to learn straightway the arrival of the first messenger. He sits, as in 1 Samuel 1:9, at the inner, so here at the outer, gate of the sanctuary, on his seat, and, as appears from 1 Samuel 4:18, on the side of the gate, which was also, therefore, the side of the adjacent way.” (Erdmann.)

1 Samuel 4:14. “When Eli heard the noise of the crying.” “His blindness explains the fact that he failed to observe the messenger who ran hurriedly by without noticing him.” (Erdmann.)

1 Samuel 4:15. “His eyes were dim,” literally, “his eyes stood.” “This is a description of the so-called black cataract (amaurosis), which generally occurs at a very great age from paralysis of the optic nerve.” (Keil.)

1 Samuel 4:21. “Ichabod,” i.e., Not-glory. The narrator has in mind her words upon which she based that ejaculation, but does not state them as hers till afterward; here he states beforehand the fact contained in them as a historical explanation. We must note, however, the difference between his explanation and her reason for that exclamation in 1 Samuel 4:22. While he mentions the reference to the two dead, she bases the name on the one thing only, the capture of the ark.” (Erdmann.)



I. All God’s promises become histories. In the natural world there is promise of what shall be, and in due time there is the history of its having been. The green blade of spring is a promise of the harvest that is by and by a fact in the history of the world. The cloud no bigger than a man’s hand upon the horizon is the promise of the storm that may be presently set down in the catalogue of destructive visitations that have devastated the earth. In the days of Noah a promise of judgment hung over the people of his day for one hundred and twenty years. So long was it before the cloud burst that the terror which was perhaps aroused at the first announcement of its appearance passed away long before the storm burst. But it came, and the flood is now a fact in the history of the world. God had foretold the judgment which is described in this chapter some years before. If the message which had been sent to the house of Eli had ever caused the hearts of Hophni and Phinehas to quake, the delay in the execution of the sentence had probably only hardened them in their sin, and perhaps even Eli himself might have begun to hope that it would not be so terrible as it had seemed to him at first. But on this memorable day God gave a demonstration to all coming ages that all His promises, whether of judgment or mercy, will one day become facts in the history of the universe. A promise was made to Isaiah concerning the deliverance of his nation from Babylon long before it went into captivity, but both captivity and deliverance, with all the circumstances foretold concerning the latter in Isaiah 45:0, have long ago become well-known historic facts. The great fact in which all history centres—the incarnation of the Son of God—was for ages only a promise. The dim outline given to our first parents in Eden was like the tiny germ bursting from the seed which grew into the blade and ear as the ages rolled, until the promise became the great historic event of the world. And there are promises now waiting to become histories, and they will as surely have their fulfilment as those that have gone before. What has been is a pledge of what will be. Men say, concerning Christ’s second advent, “Where is the promise of His coming?” But that promise of the Lord will one day as surely be a fact of past history as those that have gone before.

II. The effects produced by the fulfilment of this promise of judgment. There was not a family in the land who was not smitten with a sense of national calamity. A stab at the heart sends a pain through all the frame, the extremities of the body feel a blow aimed at the seat of life. In countries where the army is drawn from the fields and workshops of the people, the strength of the nation is often found gathered upon the battle-field, and a defeat there is a blow at its very heart and sends a thrill of anguish into every home. Such was the—nature of the blow which Israel had now sustained, and the entire body of the nation felt the shock. Wherever there was a child of Abraham the news of the defeat pierced him through like a stab of cold steel. But the calamity was more intensely felt by some households than by others. In any time of national calamity the leaders of the nation have to bear a larger portion of the sorrow than the masses. They lose more in every way. They have more to lose—more in substance—more in honour; as their position has been higher, their fall is greater, and as more responsibility has rested upon them, so their disgrace is heavier. Although all the families of Israel suffered on this day none suffered so much as the house of Eli. Even if it had not been the execution of a special judgment upon them, their position would have made them the greatest sufferers, but the consciousness that the calamity was mainly due to the sins of their house intensified a thousand-fold the severity of the blow. The effect that the news had upon the aged high-priest shows how severely he felt it. In felling an aged oak many a stroke of the hatchet may be dealt before there is any sign of its fall, but at length the woodman gathers all his strength for a final stroke, which, following upon all that have gone before, lays it even with the ground. So it is with men and the strokes of adverse providence—they stand upright after having received many a heavy blow, but one may come at last which, finding their courage and patience weakened by the trials of the past, crushes them altogether. Job bore up manfully against repeated and heavy blows, but at last a stroke fell which laid even this brave and patient man prostrate like a fallen tree. Eli had seen many a sad day in the course of a life which covered nearly a century, but he had never seen a day like this. Even now he bore calmly the news of Israel’s defeat, and even that of the death of his sons, but the tidings that the ark of God was taken was too much to bear and live—this stroke killed him.

III. Calamity often reveals excellencies which are hidden in prosperity. There are many men in the Church of God living in ease and comfort who do not seem to possess any extraordinary heroism. But very often such men, under circumstances of special trial, reveal a nobility of character that men never knew before that they possessed. Like spices, they must be crushed before they yield their fragrance. What is recorded of the life of Eli does not leave the impression that he was a very exalted character; but the fact that it was the loss of the ark of God that killed him, and not the news of his own personal bereavement, shows that there was much latent patriotism in him, notwithstanding his grave shortcomings. We should never have known how much he really prized the hallowed tokens of God’s covenant-relation to Israel if this calamity had not befallen him. The thought that God had departed from his people broke his heart before he fell and broke his neck. It is the same with his daughter-in-law. We should never have known of this woman’s piety if this blow had not fallen upon her. It was not the death of her father, or of her husband, that made her refuse to be comforted and to go down to the grave with Ichabod upon her lips, but “she said, The glory is departed from Israel; for the ark of God is taken.”


1 Samuel 4:13. There be four reasons why the people of God are so much troubled when the ark of God is in danger.

I. Because of the great love they bear to it. As “God loved the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob” (Psalms 87:2), so the people of God love the ordinances of God, and the faithful ministers of Christ. “Lord, I have loved the habitation of Thy house, and the place where Thine honour dwelleth” (Psalms 26:8). Now love stirreth up the affections, as young Cresus, though he were dumb, yet seeing his father like to be killed, cried out “Do not kill my father!” Such is the love of the saints of God to the ark; they cannot but tremble when they see the ark in danger, and for Sion’s sake they cannot hold their peace, and they cannot be silent until the Lord make the righteousness thereof go out like brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth.

II. Because of the interest they have in the ark of God. Interest stirreth up affection as when another man’s house is on fire; as you had a lamentable and sad providence this last week, and it is not to be forgotten how suddenly in all our feastings may God dash all our mirth. Now consider, how were they affected that had an interest in those that were burned; so the people of God have an interest in the ark. God is the haven of a child of God, his portion and inheritance, and when God begins to forsake them they cannot but be troubled. The ordinances of God are the jewels of a Christian and the treasure of a Christian, and the loss of them cannot but trouble them.

III. Because of the mischiefs that come upon a nation when the ark is lost. Woe be to that nation when the ark is gone. For when the ark of God is taken then the ways of Zion mourn, and none come to her solemn assemblies. That is matter of sadness. Then the ministers of Christ are driven into corners. This is matter of heart-trembling. Then the souls of men are in danger. There is cause of sadness. Then do the enemies of God blaspheme, and then is Jesus Christ trampled under foot.

IV. Because of their accessariness to the losing of the ark. And this was that which made Eli so much troubled, because he knew that for his sin God suffered the ark to be taken. And there is none of us so holy but our consciences must accuse us. We have done something that might cause God to take the ark from us.—E. Calamy, 1662.

1 Samuel 4:22. 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, was the visible pledge of the covenant of grace which Jehovah had made with Israel.—Keil.

The glory is departed from Israel—so it seemed in the eyes of men. But with God there is “no variableness or shadow of turning” (James 1:17); and in that dark night of sorrow to the Hebrew Church and nation His glory shone forth most brightly. There is no Ichabod to God. His sovereign power and Divine independence were seen to work more gloriously and graciously even when the visible Church appeared to be overthrown.… He inaugurated a new era in Samuel, and prepared the way for the Gospel. He showed that the Aaronical priesthood was only parenthetical and provisional; that the Levitical ordinances were not necessary to God’s gracious dealings with His people; that they were shadows which would one day pass away; that they were like a scaffold for building up a house—the Church of Christ.… God thus gave a prophetic foreshadowing of what was more fully displayed to the world when the material temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, and the universal Church of Christ was raised up in its stead.—Wordsworth.

The union of the heart with God in the deepest foundation of its being reveals itself in times of great misfortune and suffering in this, that the sorrow and mourning is not restricted to the loss of earthly human possessions, but directs itself chiefly to the loss and lack of God’s gracious presence, and thus shows that for the inner life the glory of God and blessedness in communion with Him is become the highest good. So here, in this refraining from grief over the loss of what to the flesh was the nearest and dearest, and in the outspoken sorrow only over the violence done to God’s honour and the contempt cast on His name, is verified the Lord’s word, “He who forsaketh not father or mother, or brother, etc., is not worthy of me.” Lange’s Commentary.

What cares she for a posterity which should want the ark? What cares she for a son come into the world of Israel, when God was gone from it? And how willingly doth she depart from them, from whom God was departed! Bishop Hall.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 4". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/1-samuel-4.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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