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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 4

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

Verse 1

1. The word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out against the Philistines Some have thought that the first sentence of this verse belongs to the narrative of the preceding chapter, and the English version gives countenance to this view. But let the words and and now (in the Hebrew the same word, וי ) be transposed, and the meaning of the sacred writer will be more readily seen. Now the word of Samuel came to all Israel, and Israel went, etc.; that is, Israel went out to battle in accordance with the word of Samuel, or by reason of his word. Perhaps they were encouraged by the appearance of the prophetic gift in Israel. Hence their wonder and surprise on being defeated. 1 Samuel 4:3. The Israelites had now for a long time been under the yoke of the Philistines, and it seems to have been the same subjection from which Samson began to deliver them, (Judges 13:5,) but from which they were not entirely freed until the time of Samuel. 1 Samuel 7:13-14. The severe losses of this battle were doubtless providentially designed to teach Israel important lessons, and the captured ark, by its effect upon the Philistines and their gods, magnified the name of Jehovah among the heathen more than its remaining in the tabernacle could have done. Therefore we need not wonder that the word of God, through Samuel, counselled Israel to go forth even to this disastrous battle.

Eben-ezer This name was given to the place at a later day, after Jehovah had given Israel a signal victory over the Philistines. 1 Samuel 7:12. Its mention here, and in 1 Samuel 5:1, before the place had received the name, would naturally be made by an author writing at a later period, when this had become the common and well-known name of the place. Both Eben-ezer and Aphek must have been situated some few miles north or northwest of Jerusalem, but their exact locality has not been decided.

Verses 1-11


This section records the beginning of the downfall of Eli’s house, and that bitter affliction of the tabernacle the loss of the sacred ark. See note on 1 Samuel 2:32. Led by Jehovah’s word, as communicated through Samuel, Israel goes out to battle with the Philistines; but it is that it may be made to feel its utter weakness without Jehovah’s constant aid. The impiety of the nation demanded a signal chastisement, especially in the persons of its religious leaders, and Divine Wisdom saw fit to inflict it in the way here recorded. In the first engagement four thousand Hebrews are left dead upon the field. The survivors hasten to their camp, and whilst all hearts are quaking with terror, or quailing under a sense of bitter loss, the elders hold a speedy consultation. It was probably a midnight conference. They feel that Jehovah is not with them as he had been with their fathers, but they vainly imagine that to have the ark of the covenant among them will be to have a talisman against all possibility of failure. Delusive trust! They had yet to learn that in a wicked age, and under the ministry of a flagitious priesthood, Jehovah’s presence may forsake even the sacred symbols. The ark was brought, and with it Eli’s sons, but Jehovah came not.

Verse 3

3. Wherefore Having undertaken the battle at the word of the Lord by Samuel, they had not dreamed of defeat, for why should God counsel them to go to war, and then deliver them over to defeat by a heathen foe?

Let us fetch the ark Their fathers conquered the Midianites when they carried with them into the war “the holy instruments,” (Numbers 31:6,) and Jericho fell when the ark was carried around it, (Joshua 6:0,) and they now vainly suppose that the same ark will surely save them from the hand of the foe. Previous to this, at the time of the Benjamite war, the ark had been removed from Shiloh, and abode for a time at Beth-el. Judges 20:27. Then, as now, the Israelites were counselled of God to go to war, but were nevertheless defeated. But then, as now, they were also themselves not without sin, and their arrogance and self-confidence needed to be deeply humbled.

Verse 4

4. Between the cherubim The word cherubim is plural, and needs not the final s, as some Bibles have. For the allusion, see Exodus 25:22.

Verse 5

5. All Israel shouted As many a modern army has done, and must naturally do in time of peril, at the sight of a mighty reinforcement. They felt confident now that victory would perch upon their banners.

Verse 8

8. These mighty Gods These Philistines speak the language of polytheists, not knowing that the God of Israel is ONE LORD.

Smote the Egyptians with all the plagues The word rendered plagues means literally smiting, slaughter, and special reference is made to the destruction of Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, which was on the border of the desert. In Exodus 13:20; Exodus 14:3; Exodus 14:11-12, the Egyptian shore of the Red Sea is called the wilderness. The other plagues of Egypt may also be included, and the phrase the wilderness need not be pressed, as though these Philistines in such an allusion must needs make precise statements.

Verse 10

10. Fled every man into his tent That is, to his own home. A large proportion of the Israelitish people dwelt in tents. Compare Joshua 22:7; 1 Kings 12:16. The Israelites were utterly routed, and fled pellmell from field and camp an army completely panic-stricken and demoralized.

Verse 12

12. His clothes rent, and… earth upon his head Usual signs of calamity and grief. Compare Jos 7:6 ; 2 Samuel 13:19; 2 Samuel 15:32.

Verses 12-22

THE BITTER TIDINGS, 1 Samuel 4:12-22.

We might search the fields of literature in vain to find a more touching picture of human calamity and distress than these ten verses give us. The aged Eli, feeble and decrepit under the weight of eight and ninety years, goes forth from his place in the tabernacle and sits down by the wayside, where he may catch the first message from the battle. All the city is waiting the result in breathless expectation, and his heart is trembling for the safety of the ark. Perhaps it was taken away from Shiloh without his counsel or against his will. But though his anxiety to hear the first message leads him out by the wayside, the messenger seems to have rushed by him, intentionally, perhaps, knowing that the awful tidings would break the old man’s heart. But he soon hears the bitter wail of lamentation that rises from the city, and the messenger, coming into his presence, rapidly but impressively tells his woful tale. Eli’s trembling bosom throbs with wild intensity, but he still bears up until he hears it said, “The ark of God is taken!” Then burst the heart that had so long been sorrow-stricken, and, falling backwards from his seat, the venerable priest and Judge expired.

Then followed in another part of Shiloh another scene of woe. It was the mournful death of the wife of Phinehas. The bitter tidings brought on her travail pains, and these ended in death. No comforting words of surrounding friends could inspirit her, and with her dying breath she gave her child a name that would forever suggest to the memory of the living the bitter losses of that dreadful day.

Verse 14

14. The man came in Into some place by the gate of the city to which Eli seems to have hastened when he heard the crying.

Verse 15

15. Eyes were dim Literally: And Eli (was) a son of ninety and eight years, and his eyes stood, that is, became fixed; “spoken of a person afflicted with a disease of the eye, in which the pupil becomes fixed, so as no longer to contract and dilate.” Gesenius.

Verse 17

17. The messenger answered and said The simple, direct, and yet climacteric way in which the messenger tells his tale of sorrow has attracted the notice of all critics. How few the words used to relate all the items of this thrilling message! How each successive statement rises in the announcement of a still severer loss! First he says:

Israel is fled before the Philistines This was the beginning of sorrows.

A great slaughter among the people This was worse than flight, and the cause of lamentation in thousands of Israelitish homes.

Thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead Most terrible tidings for a devoted father! And perhaps those sons had gone forth to the field of battle despite the father’s prayer and entreaties. Thus was fulfilled the prophecy of the man of God who had before announced the downfall of his house, (1 Samuel 2:34,) and this was to be for Eli the sign of yet heavier woes.

The ark of God is taken This was the calamity of the tabernacle in that which was Israel’s highest hope and glory. 1 Samuel 2:32. The ark was the symbol of the Divine Presence, and its loss foreshadowed, in Eli’s mind, the utter destruction of his nation and the abolishment of Jehovah’s covenant with them. In Judges 18:30, this capture of the ark is called “the captivity of the land,” so deeply was it, from the theocratic standpoint, identified and associated with the highest interests and holiest hopes of all Israel. And the wickedness of his sons had been largely the cause of all this woe! All these thoughts, and many more, rushed in upon his mind as the last terrible announcement fell upon his ear, and his enfeebled constitution and trembling heart could not endure the shock.

Verse 21

21. She named the child Though unable to answer or regard the words of comfort given by the bystanders, (1 Samuel 4:20,) she sufficiently aroused herself at the last moment to give her child a name.

Ichabod אי כבוד , Where the glory? equivalent to a negative statement, no glory, inglorious. Sad name for one to bear through life, a constant reminder of Israel’s shame and woe! This dying mother shows an example of profoundest affection for the cause of God. Though Israel’s armies fly, and thousands are slain, and among them her own husband, yet, like Eli, her grief is rather that the ark of God is taken.

The preceding chapters present to us the character of Eli in three different aspects: (1.) The devoted high priest. He takes particular interest in Hannah when he understands her sorrows, and bestows upon her his priestly benediction, (1 Samuel 1:17; 1 Samuel 2:20;) he tenderly reminds his sons of their awful responsibilities before God, (1 Samuel 2:25;) he bows in humble submissiveness to the prophecy of his downfall, (1 Samuel 3:18,) and shows his profound devotion to God by his anxiety for the ark, and his sudden fall and death at the tidings of its capture. We can find in him no indication of hypocrisy, or lack of faith in God. (2.) The partial judge. He judged Israel forty years, and, on the whole, was probably careful and just. We first meet with him sitting on his throne at the door of the tabernacle, where he appears quick to discern and reprove improprieties, (1 Samuel 1:14,) and this may be regarded as a fair example of his usual administration. But his partiality appears when his own sons are the offenders. Though their sins are black and dreadful, defiling the holy place and making even the offerings an abomination, yet he deals with them only by counsel and reproof. 1 Samuel 2:22-25. He should have used his power and authority as judge to correct such flagrant abuses and punish the impious offenders, even though they were his own flesh and blood. But they were his darling sons, and he forbore, (3.) The unduly affectionate father. Eli let his paternal love run away with his judgment; his fondness for his sons restrained him from the exercise of proper parental authority. We quote with admiration the excellent remarks of Adam Clarke: “Many fine families have been spoiled, and many ruined, by the separate exercise of these two principles. Parental affection, when alone, infallibly degenerates into foolish fondness; and parental authority frequently degenerates into brutal tyranny when standing by itself. The first sort of parents will be loved without being respected; the second sort will be dreaded, without either respect or esteem. A father may be as fond of his offspring as Eli, and his children be sons of Belial; he may be as authoritative as the grand Turk, and his children despise and plot rebellion against him. But let parental authority be tempered with fatherly affection, and let the rein of discipline be steadily held by this powerful but affectionate hand, and there shall the pleasure of God prosper; there will he give his blessing, even life for evermore.”

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/1-samuel-4.html. 1874-1909.
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