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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 4

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verse 1


“And the word of Samuel came to all Israel”

This statement actually belongs to the preceding chapter where it appears in a number of ancient versions.(F1) We believe that C. F. Keil was mistaken in his interpretation that these words were a summons by Samuel for all Israel to go to war against the Philistines. God’s true prophet would not have led Israel into such a disastrous defeat.

Verses 2-4


“Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines; they encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who slew about four thousand men on the field of battle. And when the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord put us to rout today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.”

“Ebenezer… Aphek” There were a number of Apheks in Palestine, but the mention of nearby Ebenezer indicates that this one was in the south near the entrance of Beth-horon near the Philistine border.(F2) The mention of “field of battle” (1 Samuel 4:2) appears to indicate that the skirmish was on relatively level ground, thus enabling the Philistines to use their chariots of iron to their great advantage.

This conflict with the Philistines was no new thing at all; it had been going on for centuries. For a brief history of the Philistines, we refer to my dissertation on this subject in the Book of Judges.

“The Philistines slew about four thousand men” We reject the fulminations of critics charging that the figures concerning casualties in Samuel are “grossly exaggerated.” If the critics know what the casualties actually were, why do they never tell us what they were?

“The ark of the covenant of the Lord” This, like countless other instances of the same phenomenon, indicates a complete familiarity on the part of the elders of Israel with the appearance and utility of the ark of the covenant as revealed in the Pentateuch. The cherubim were symbolical representations of supernatural creatures adorning the top of the mercy seat located as a covering for the ark of the covenant; and the conception that God was “enthroned above the cherubim” was derived from the Mosaic revelation that the Presence of God Himself was associated with the ark of the covenant. The ark of the covenant here is exactly the same as “the ark of God “mentioned in 1 Samuel 3:3.

The notion advanced by the elders of Israel that the presence of the ark of the covenant in their midst would assure them of victory could not possibly have been derived from any other source than the earlier Book of Moses (the Pentateuch) and that of Joshua. Their fatal mistake in this was that God was leading Israel in those earlier victories, but, in this case, they were not following any divine commandment. They had consulted no prophet. They merely decided to utilize the ark of the covenant as a talisman or fetish in exactly the same superstitious manner that the pagans used similar devices supposed to represent their pagan deities. It is no wonder that it proved to be a futile maneuver.

“So the people brought… the ark of the covenant; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God” The exclamation point here is our own. The passage certainly deserves it. There could not possibly have been any more incongruous and contradictory elements than: (1) the sacred ark of the covenant and (2) the scandalous reprobate sons of Eli serving there as its custodians. There could not have been anything accidental about the manner in which the inspired author placed these two OPPOSITE elements in such an eloquent juxtaposition.

Verses 5-9


“When the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean”? And when they heard that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid; for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who smote the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and acquit yourselves like men, Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; acquit yourselves like men, and fight.”

“The Philistines heard the noise of the shouting” This indicates the close proximity of Ebenezer and Aphek, the respective camps of Israel and their Philistine foes.

“Every sort of plague in the wilderness” “The words in the wilderness do not compel us to refer all of the plagues against the Egyptians to the wilderness.”(F3) The expression “every sort of plague” surely indicates that the Philistines were well informed about the history of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. It is unbecoming of writers to make a “big deal” out of alleged “mistakes” like this in the language of the Philistines. We reject the assertion that, “The writer here… put mistakes or deliberate falsehoods into the mouths of his characters.”(F4) The Philistines doubtless said exactly what is written here! In apparently ascribing all of the plagues to the wilderness, there was a natural inclusion with “the wilderness” of the nation of Egypt which lay directly beyond it. This type of speech is common.

“Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods” The Philistines held the ancient belief that there were many gods, each one of which was particularly interested in the land where such a god was worshipped. Such pagan deities were called in each case, “the god of the land.” The great mission of the Chosen People was to bring the knowledge of the One True and Eternal Almighty God to the pagan nations around them, but that sacred mission was very poorly served by the foolish action of Israel’s elders in this episode.

“Acquit yourselves like men, and fight” The conviction of the Philistines that they would now have to fight, not merely against the men of Israel, but also against “the god of their land,” only challenged them to a more courageous and desperate attack against Israel.

The fulfillment of God’s prophecies against the house of Eli began to be executed on this occasion.

Verses 10-11


“So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home; and there was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. And the ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.”

Verses 12-18


“A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line, and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes rent and with earth upon his head. When he arrived, Eli was sitting upon his seat by the road watching, for his heart was troubled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out. When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “what is this uproar”? Then the man hastened and came and told Eli. Now Eli was ninety-eight years old, and his eyes were set, so that he could not see. And the man said to Eli, “I am he who has come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” And he said, “How did it go, my son”? He who brought the tidings answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great slaughter among the people; your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate; and his neck was broken, and he died, for he was an old man, and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.”

“A man… ran from the battle… came to Shiloh the same day… clothes rent… earth on his head” This quick news of the disaster was possible because the battle occurred only about eighteen miles from Shiloh.(F5)

“(And when the messenger arrived) Eli was sitting upon his seat by the road, watching” There is no excuse for calling “the road” in this passage the road that led to the scene of the battle as did G. B. Caird who wrote that, “Eli was sitting… by the road along which the messenger must come, and yet the messenger reached the city without encountering him”!(F6) To remedy this “impossibility” as he called it, we are advised to accept the Septuagint (LXX) in this place. however, the Septuagint (LXX) is no better than what we have here.

The truth is that Eli was in “his seat,” the location of which was near the entrance to the tabernacle (1 Samuel 1:9), and it was not by the side of the road along which a messenger from the battle-scene would have had to travel. Quibbles regarding matters of this kind can be multiplied without any profit whatever. “The gate by which Eli was sitting was not the gate of the city but the gate of the temple area.”(F7)

“Eli’s eyesight had begun to grow dim… His eyes were set, so that he could not see” We are indebted to Dr. John Willis for pointing out the progression in these statements, indicating the absolute unity of the whole narrative.(F8) Professor Willis also rejected the critical assertion that 1 Samuel 4:15 is a “later insertion.” “1 Samuel 4:15, which tells of Eli’s blindness, is necessary, because it explains why Eli had to ask the messenger the outcome of the battle. If Eli had not been blind, he would have known from the messenger’s torn clothing and the earth on his head that the battle had been lost.”(F9)

The progression in the revelation regarding Eli’s blindness also indicates the lapse of a considerable time period. At the time of Samuel’s call to the prophecy, Eli’s eyesight was failing. The episode here came when he was totally blind. Evidently, a number of years might have passed, and Samuel had probably reached maturity at this point.

“Eli judged Israel forty years” This is the first mention that Eli was a judge of Israel. The Septuagint (LXX) has “twenty years” here instead of “forty years,” but as Keil said, “The Septuagint (LXX) reading does not deserve the slightest attention. It is perfectly incredible that Eli would have been appointed Judge in Israel at the age of seventy-eight (He was ninety-eight when his judgeship was terminated by his death).”(F10)

“When he mentioned the ark… Eli fell… his neck was broken… he died” Throughout the narrative here, Eli’s chief concern, his greatest anxiety, had centered in the ARK. Even the defeat of Israel, the great slaughter of the people and the death of his two sons did not affect the aged judge with the terrible degree of sorrow and mental anguish that came with the word of the loss of the ark of the covenant. That disastrous news utterly destroyed him.

The implications of the loss of the ark were indeed profound. By the use of the same terminology (“the ears… shall tingle”) in his prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah equated the loss of the ark and the destruction of Shiloh with the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of the Chosen People to Babylon (Jeremiah 19:3). Keil described the significance of the ark’s loss thus:

“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 [~kaporeth], was the whole visible pledge of the covenant of grace which God had made with Israel.”(F11)

Indeed, there seems to be a terrible prophecy in this loss of the ark, pointing to the ultimate hardening and rejection of the racial nation itself, a disaster that culminated in their rejection of the Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Verses 19-22


“Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was with child, about to give birth. And when she heard the tidings that the ark of God was captured and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth; for her pains came upon her. And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Fear not, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or give heed. And she named the child Ichabod, saying, `The glory has departed from Israel’! because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. And she said, `The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.’“

It is amazing to this writer that commentators boldly contradict what the text of God’s Word plainly declares as a fact. For example:

“If she (the wife of Phinehas) was already unconscious, so that she `did not answer’ or `give heed,’ it can hardly have been the mother who gave the name to the baby… They (the attending women) gave the name to the baby.”(F12)

It is not the Sacred Text which is in disorder here; it is the mind of any scholar who fails to understand the style of ancient writers. There are countless instances in the Bible of groups of statements which appear without strict regard to chronological arrangement. For example, the apostle Peter charged men of his generation saying, “God raised up Jesus… whom ye slew and hanged on a tree” (Acts 5:30, KJV). Ancient writers often violated many of our so-called “modern” rules of grammar and rhetoric, counting on the intelligence of the reader to aid in the art of communication.

Is there any person who should really have any trouble understanding what is said in a paragraph like this? The wife of Phinehas named the baby. Who could imagine that she did so after she became unconscious?

“About the time of her death” This is the phrase that fixes the time approximately for the events mentioned, and the word about indicates the lack of chronological precision in the order of the things mentioned.

Willis declared that, “The end of 1 Samuel 4:21 indicates that the wife of Phinehas named her newborn son Ichabod, shortly BEFORE her death.”(F13)

“Ichabod” There may be some uncertainty with regard to the exact meaning of this name, for there are several meanings given by different writers. Henry Wallace gave it as INGLORIOUS;(F14) the Douay Version footnote defines it as WHERE IS THE GLORY?; Lockyer has THE GLORY IS NOT;(F15) and the Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia gives the meaning as NO GLORY.

It is this writer’s opinion that the wife of Phinehas and mother of the baby gave the best explanation of what the name actually means, i.e., THE GLORY HAS DEPARTED.

“The glory has departed from Israel” Laurence E. Porter, quoting Driver, wrote that, “The word `departed’ is an ominous word in the Hebrew, expressing the thought gone into exile.”(F16) This strongly supports the view of this episode as a prophetic event signaling the ultimate captivity of the nation. In a similar manner, the overthrow of Jonah into the sea was a typical event signifying the ultimate casting off of racial Israel.

Porter also suggested that this defeat of Israel was the occasion when Shiloh itself was destroyed. This is a reasonable postulation, because the tremendous defeat of Israel recorded here took place within eighteen miles of Shiloh, and it would appear to be very probable that the Philistines took advantage of their opportunity and destroyed Shiloh.

“A Danish expedition directed by H. Kjaer and A. Schmidt excavated parts of ancient Shiloh in 1926-1932; and the results seemed to show that Shiloh was destroyed about 1100 B.C.”(F17)

Willis pointed out that a number of Biblical statements support the view that the Philistines destroyed Shiloh on this occasion or at a time not long afterward. Later in First Samuel, Samuel appears not at Shiloh but at his hometown of Ramah (1 Samuel 7:17). The next reference to the priestly descendants of Eli places them at Nob (1 Samuel 21:1; 1 Samuel 22:9; 1 Samuel 22:11), which at that time was called the `city of the priests’ (1 Samuel 22:19).(F18)

Ben F. Philbeck writing in the Teacher’s Bible Commentary summarizes the disaster recorded in this chapter thus:

“The heart of Israel’s religious and political life was destroyed, and the Philistines were the “de facto” rulers of most of the country. The burden of the leadership of Israel now fell to Samuel. The ark of the Lord was the focal point of Israel’s national existence. It represented God’s presence among his people. It called to mind His protection of Israel during the wilderness wanderings. It reminded them of the glorious victories of the wars of conquest under Joshua, and therefore its loss to the Philistines in that terrible battle was especially serious. It looked as if GOD was unable to protect His people, or even His own personal throne among them. However, in the larger context, God was working in history to purge His corrupt priesthood and to bring His people again under His leadership.”(F19)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 4". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/1-samuel-4.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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