Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 4

Garner-Howes Baptist CommentaryGarner-Howes

Verses 1-11

First Samuel - Chapter 4

Philistine War, vs.. 1-11

The judgment of the Lord on Eli and on Israel is about to fall. Perhaps many do not see the significance of the opening words, "the word of Samuel came to all Israel." This certainly indicates that he had not neglected to preach to them God’s Word. Yet in the war which ensues with the Philistines it is also evident that many had not learned the real being of God and were not correctly worshipping Him. The judgment now about to befall the priest’s family is also on Israel, for they have not rejected the wicked religious leaders, and have no real understanding of, nor appreciation of, the power of their God.

The Philistines camped with their forces at Aphek which was on the Mediterranean slopes of western Ephraim. Israel camped at Ebenezer, a very short distance east of the Philistine camp.

This place did not get its name until a later rout of the Philistines here under Samuel, but had been so called, perhaps, for many years when the inspired writer recorded the battle (see 1 Samuel 7:12).

These opposing forces represented opposing religions. Israel was the people of the Lord, by the Philistines were pagans. It seems that Israel expected to win the first battle because they were the people of the Lord. Well they might, had they been obedient to the Lord (see De 20:1 ff).

However, they suffered a heavy defeat in the battle, losing four thousand men. Back in camp they raised the question as to why the Lord had allowed them to be beaten and consulted the elders about it.

Their question was timely, but the elders did not give them the proper answer. They instructed them to bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord from Shiloh, that the Lord might be with them. This showed they believed the presence of the Lord was in the ark of the covenant, and that to have it in their midst would be to have the Lord with them in the battle. That the majority of the people also believed this is apparent from the joyous shout which went up when the ark was brought into the camp, borne by the wicked priests, Hophni and Phinehas.

So loud was the shout of Israel that the ground seemed to quake and ring back with the mighty shout, and the Philistines were greatly alarmed. Now the two armies had the same opinion about the ark.

When the Philistines heard the reason for the shout they remembered all they had heard, how long ago this mighty God of Israel had overthrown the Egyptians and delivered the Hebrews. They feared the might of this great God, which they also thought was in the holy box, called the ark, which contained the tablets of the testimony of the Lord.

They felt they were doomed, but their hearts did not melt as had those of the Canaanites (Joshua 5:1), for the Lord was not with Israel this time. Instead they challenged themselves to stand fast, to re-double their efforts lest they fall into servitude to the Hebrews as Israel had been to them. They determined to fight bravely, and that is what they did.

Israel was totally, and disastrously, and decisively beaten. Those who survived the battle fled away to their homes hoping to escape from the Philistine swords. But thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel were left dead on the battlefield. The ark was captured, and Hophni and Phinehas both were slain, as was foretold (1 Samuel 2:32; 1 Samuel 2:34).

Verses 12-22

Beginning of Prophetic Fulfillment, vs. 12-22

Shiloh lay across the mountains from the battle ground, possibly thirty straight-line miles. One of the fleeing soldiers, headed for his home by way of Shiloh, brought the news of the disaster to Eli and the townspeople. Eli had taken his seat by the gate of the tabernacle on the roadside awaiting news of the battle. The Scriptures say, "his heart trembled for the ark of God." Well it might, for he doubtless knew that the ark should not have been carried into battle under the circumstances. After the information revealed to young Samuel he surely had a premonition of impending doom. Surely his heart smote him for his own part in bringing such a condition about in Israel. He was very much repentant, it seems, but it was too late. Judgment must fall.

Eli heard the noise of grief and weeping in the city and inquired for the cause. The messenger was brought to him, and Eli personally inquired of him what had occurred in the battle. The answer was given in four steps, each of which must have sunk the old priest’s heart further, until the last, and he could not withstand that. First, Israel had fled, meaning they had lost the battle; second, there had been a great slaughter, indicating that the Philistines had won a decisive victory; third, Hophni and Phinehas had been killed, which Eli must have expected; finally, the Philistines had captured the ark of the covenant of the Lord.

At news of the ark’s capture El,’ fainted He was ninety-eight years of age and had grown very fat, so that when. he fell backward from his seat his neck was broken. A summary statement here dives the time of Eli’s judgeship over Israel at forty years. It was equal to that of other judges of Israel. as Gideon and Othniel. but he does not appear to have been accorded such honors as they were. for he had miserably failed the Lord and Israel.

The scene shifts to the home of Phinehas. His wife was about to reach the term of childbirth, and when she heard the news of the battle she was so distressed she went into premature delivery. From what is here told it would seem that she was more concerned for the ark and the things of the Lord than were the priests. Though she was grieved for their deaths she was most concerned for the loss of the ark, which loss she paralleled with the departure of Israel’s glory.

Phinehas’ wife died in childbirth, lamenting the departed glory of Israel because the ark was taken. The women attending her tried to cheer her by telling her that her baby was a boy, but she paid no heed but to give the child the name, Ichabod. Ichabod means "inglorious." Surely the child, born an orphan, came into the world at a sad time, for Israel was out of the will of God, had no priest in the tabernacle, the ark ­symbol of the Lord’s presence was in Philistine hands, and the land was under the domination of pagan people. But Samuel was in Shiloh, still preaching the message of the Lord, and after a long time the people will repent and seek his leadership and be delivered.

Learn from chapter four: 1) God cannot be contained in a house, or otherwise; He is to be worshipped in the spirit; 2) the Lord will not give victory to those who insist on their own way rather than His; 3) those who know they have failed the Lord must face the consequences of chastisement; 4) when the Lord’s people are dominated by the world there remains no more glory in their churches.

Bibliographical Information
Garner, Albert & Howes, J.C. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 4". Garner-Howes Baptist Commentary. 1985.