Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 4

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-22

The Ark of God

1Sa 4:3

IN order to understand the full import of these words, we must carefully study the idea which the ark of the Lord was intended to represent. The twenty-fifth chapter of the Book of Exodus gives a most minutely detailed account of the making of the tabernacle. God gave Moses a special description of the proposed sanctuary. He did not consult Moses, nor did he make suggestions which Moses was to submit to the consideration of the people of Israel. God laid down the whole plan, and no more left anything to be settled by the taste of Moses than he left Noah to determine the colours of the rainbow. As he said to Job, "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?" so he might have said to Moses, "Where wast thou when I designed the tabernacle?" There was not a ring, a knop, a socket, a coupling, or a pin which God himself did not specially design. Was it not like him? Is there anywhere one sprig of moss which owes its humble beauty to any hand but his own? As the tabernacle was built for the sake of the ark, and not the ark for the sake of the tabernacle, it becomes most important to know what the ark was, and what spiritual meaning the symbol was intended by Almighty God to signify. We read in the holy word: "Thou shalt make an ark; thou shalt overlay it with pure gold; thou shalt make upon it a crown of gold round about; thou shalt put into the ark the testimony which I shall give thee; thou shalt make a mercy seat of pure gold; thou shalt put the mercy seat above the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. And there will I meet thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel."

The ark is called by various names. In Exodus it is called the ark of the testimony; in Deuteronomy it is called the ark of the covenant; in the first of Samuel it is called the ark of the Lord; and in the same book it is called the ark of God. What was this ark? Looked at materially, the ark of the covenant was a box or chest, fifty-four inches long, about thirty inches broad, and about thirty inches high. The box was overlaid with pure gold. The lid or cover of the ark was called the mercy seat. Upon the mercy seat were two golden cherubim, one at either end, facing each other, and covering the mercy seat with expanded wings. At the mercy seat the lid of this box God promised to meet Moses and commune with him. Hence, God was said to dwell between the cherubim. The ark contained the two tables of stone on which God had written the ten commandments. "I will write on the tables the words that were written on the first tables which thou brakest, and thou shalt put them in the ark." In the first of Kings we read there was nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone which Moses put there at Horeb. The ark was placed in the holy of holies; indeed it is called in the first book of Chronicles, "the house of the mercy seat."

Let us now stand beside that box and consider its meaning, that we may be prepared to consider the text. In the box you find the commandments of God. The box is not merely in the holy house, it is in the holiest place of the holy house. In the very midst of that box you find only the written law of the Most High. Keep that picture before you, if you would understand the spiritual significance of the symbol. As with the box in the tabernacle in the holy of holies, containing the written law of God, so with creation today. The great moral idea never changes. The chest is destroyed, the golden cherubim may no longer be found; but the moral purpose, the moral intent, is the same now and for ever. Penetrate into the highest place in the universe go higher than the clouds, higher than the sun, higher than the farthest star pass, if you may, into the secret solitudes of God, where human strife and din are never heard and there, at the very centre, in the great solemn heart of all systems and powers, you find, What? The law of God! This is at once a terror and a security. The spirit of judgment quickens all creation. Out of everything there comes a fire which scorches the bad man's hand. Wherever a good man goes a blessing approves and confirms his steps. For a moment the bad man may seem to bend things according to his own will: but "the Lord shall laugh at him: for he seeth that his day is coming," when "he shall fly away as a dream, and shall not be found: yea, he shall be chased away as a vision of the night." Some men could not live but for this reflection. Life would be a constant temptation to them, unmingled with any element of mercy. It is something to know, and deeply to feel, that all things are bound together by law, that at the heart of the universe there is a written statute and covenant. It gives steadiness to life; it defines relations, rights, consequences; it enables a man to view with composure all the flutter and dust of the little day, and to draw himself forward by the power of an endless life. This, then, is part of the teaching of the symbolic ark. In the holy of holies we find the sacred chest covered with gold, watched by the cherubim, and in that hallowed chest is hidden the law written by the finger of God. That law is subtle as life. You are assured of its presence; you are encompassed by a mystery which is never withdrawn for a moment; you cannot explain it; you are punished when you resent it; you are at rest when you obey it, your very liberty is but a phase of restraint!

Happily, this is but part of the teaching of the ark. Over the ark there is a lid. Very special were the instructions given to Moses respecting it. The lid was the mercy seat, the propitiatory. It was there not on the tables of stone graven with the law of God but on the lid, the covering of the ark, that God promised to meet Moses. Now see how the case stands when you put both sides of it together. There you have the sovereign, unchangeable, inexorable law of God; and over it you have the covering of God's tender mercy. When we look at the law, we look at it through the mercy, because the mercy covers it. When the law comes to us, it comes up through the mercy, because the mercy overlies it. All law now comes to us through the mediation of mercy. "The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works." What then? At the very centre of the human system we have law and mercy, righteousness and love, sovereignty and sacrifice. Creation says, "My song shall be of mercy and judgment." Society is not a chaos; creation is not an aggregate of unrelated fragments. Amid all the din, confusion, stress, and upset of life, there is, at the heart of things, a law unchanging as God, a mercy ever enduring, ever pitiful.

This brief sketch of the ark of the covenant, and its spiritual significance, will enable us to follow with intelligence the varying fortunes of Israel, which have ever been associated, more or less directly, with this ark. We want a book written upon the ark of the Lord. Seek out its history; see what becomes of the people according to their treatment of this ark; see how one little thing rules all things, how the heart-beat palpitates to the extremities of the universe! We give this counsel to youthful students: Make this your subject, the ark of the covenant; its structure, its typified doctrine, its relation to the history of a nation, and the eternal principles which come out of this symbolical representation of God.

In the case before us, the Philistines had slain of the men of Israel about four thousand. When the people came into the camp, the elders of Israel said, "Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us today before the Philistines?" This is an inquiry which men should always put to themselves in times of disaster and failure. "Why has God withdrawn me from the crowd and made an invalid of me, and shut me up in this shaded chamber? Why has God sent a blight upon my wheat-fields and oliveyards, so that there should be no produce? Why hath God barked my fig tree and taken away from me my one ewe lamb spoiled the idol of my love? Is there not a cause?" So far, Israel was acting upon a principle of common sense. Every effect has its cause. Four thousand dead men of Israel are lying upon the field, slaughtered by the sword of the Philistines. Why? Admire sagacity, common sense, wherever you find it.

But observe what a mixture is presented by the text. "Let us," said the elders of Israel, "fetch the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hands of our enemies." The ark had been at Shiloh from the days of Joshua, during the ministry of all the Judges. And now suddenly the leaders of Israel, with four thousand dead men lying about them, say, "Let us fetch the ark." They brought the ark, and when the ark of the covenant came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again! The Philistines said, "What is this? they are bringing their god into the field!" and the Philistines trembled. Nothwithstanding this, the Philistines gathered together their courage, came against Israel, and Israel was smitten, and the ark of God was taken.

There must be some lessons here. Learn that the formal is useless without the spiritual. There is the ark, made as God dictated, a sacred thing: the law is there; the mercy seat is there. Yet Israel falls by the arms of the Philistines, and the sacred shrine is taken by the hands of the idolaters. There is nothing strange in this. The formal never can save men; the institutional never can redeem society. A mere observance, a ceremony, a form, can never touch the dead heart of the world. This is, emphatically, the day of bringing in arks, societies, formalities, ceremonies. You have in your house an altar; that altar will be nothing influential in your life if you have it there merely for the sake of formality. A man who cannot altogether throw away the traditions of his lifetime, who hears, it may be, a parent's voice, saying to him in secret, again and again, "You promised me to do so and so," and in fulfilment of that promise he may snatch up the ark of the covenant, the law of God, hastily read through a few verses, shut up the book, and run away, has he read the Word of God? He has insulted the divine testimony! True, he opened the book, he uttered to himself the words. Yet the service was no use in his life, it was a mere formality. God will not be trifled with. Holy words will have no holy effect, if read in that manner.

Learn that religion is not to be a mere convenience. The ark is not to be used as a magical spell. Holy things are not to be run to in extremity, and set up in order that men who are in peril may be saved. The reasoning of the Israelites was subtle, but intensely selfish. "That it may save us." That sounds like a modern expression! To be personally saved, to be delivered out of a pressing emergency or strait that seems to be the one object which many people have in view when identifying themselves with religious institutions, Christian observances and fellowships. We shall never have a robust, imperial piety till we get out of all these little, personal, narrow considerations, and identify ourselves with the very life of God the infinite love of his eternal heart. We are, verily, more or less all guilty of this very thing. We have done as long as possible without the ark. We have gone a-warfare at our own charges; we have defied the hosts of the alien in our own strength; and when we have been worsted, overthrown, and brought to the very brink of ruin, a lucky idea has seized us, we have said, "Fetch the ark!" When the ark was brought, it was nothing but a wooden box: fetched by unworthy hands, its inspiration and glory ceased from it. "If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness." Men have lived lives of practical atheism year after year; and when there has been a panic in the market, they have bethought themselves of old memories, early vows, first Christian oaths; and they have turned pious because there was a panic barking at them like a mad wolf, they have begun to pray, and Heaven sent back their voice unanswered, unblessed! We must not play with our religion. We might guarantee that every place of worship would be filled at five o'clock in the morning and at twelve o'clock at night under given circumstances. Let there be a plague in the city let men's hearts fail them for fear let them feel that all that is material is insecure that nothing is real but the invisible and the spiritual and they will instantly flock to churches and chapels by the thousand, and be very humble in the presence of God. That will not do! God is not to be moved by incantations, by decent formalities, and external reverence. He will answer the continuous cry of the life. The man who prays without ceasing may ever count upon the interposition of God.

We learn that the Philistines took the ark of the covenant But though they had captured the ark, that sacred shrine made itself terribly felt. The Philistines took the ark to Ashdod, and put it into the house of their god Dagon. You see there was a good deal of religiousness in these men. They took away the box out of the battlefield; they unlocked the door where they kept their pagan god, and put the box in beside him. They set the Right beside the Wrong. What a night's work there was! "When they of Ashdod rose on the morrow, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the Lord!" That might have been an accident. Perhaps in going into the house and moving the ark carelessly, they might have injured Dagon's position, and so he might have come down, as it were, by haphazard. So they set Dagon up again, made his position secure and respectable, and left him in his solitude. Next morning they came, and Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord; and the head of Dagon, and both the palms of his hands, were cut off upon the threshold. A terrible night's work there was in this case! What communion hath light with darkness? What fellowship hath Christ with Belial? When Right and Wrong come face to face, there must always be a sharp collision. When the Right goes down, as it does occasionally, it will be only as the ark of the Lord went down in the case before us, to plague its very captors and throw down the idol of their hearts. Would to God we could learn this doctrine, that in some cases success is defeat! We need to learn this lesson, that in some cases victory is loss, and that gain stings the winner night and day.

Here let us ask young readers to consider this part of the story diligently. We know of nothing equal to it in modern writing for excitement, for that singular romantic element which always spell-binds young readers. Read the history of the ark again. The Philistines took the ark, but they wanted to get clear of it, if anybody would take it away. What! you have won the ark, keep it. They took it from place to place, and could make nothing of it; it was a torment to them. Last of all they said, "Let us send a present along with it, and by all means get clear of it!" Aye, it will even be so with ill-gotten results; with undeserved, unrighteously attained gain, be it wealth or influence, or what it may. It will not rest with the individual; it will say, "Send me away!" Judas took the thirty pieces of silver, but they had become so hot in his hand as to boil his blood, and he said to those who had bought him: "Take them away!" But the buyers said, "No!" The bad man has a hard lot of it; when he wants to get clear of his gain, he cries and begs that somebody will relieve him of his very victories. The Lord's sword is two-edged; touch it where you like, it cuts clear away to the bone!

Learn that the false relation of things always brings torment. Be it in the family: if the heads of the house are disagreed concerning great spiritual truths and realities, there cannot be peace in the house. Be it in business: one partner is a righteous man, and another is careless about moral obligations. There cannot be peace; there may be success, sharp practice, keen fencing, and methods of doing things that look very successful; but there will be a stinging process, after all, a sting that will pierce the heart and fill it with pain and anguish. You cannot rub right and wrong together, and make them cohere. It is so in a man's own heart. If half of the man is going one way and the other half wants to go the other way, the man's life is a most agonising, distressing struggle. Everywhere this great law is written. If it had never been spoken by Jesus, it might have been spelled out by scholars in the world's school, "Ye cannot serve God and Mammon."

The great spiritual application and the significance of the ark is undoubtedly Jesus Christ. We have no sacred chest; we have no box covered with pure gold; no tables of stone; no manufactured seat of mercy. All the great spiritual significance and application of these things we find in Christ. What the ark was to Israel, Jesus Christ is to the Church. In Jesus Christ we find law. Some Christians find that a difficult lesson to learn. They speak of Jesus as being all love, gentleness, and compassion, tenderness exceeding, and pity infinite. He was more than that. Whenever he spoke of law, he spoke of it as the Lawgiver. "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but this law must be fulfilled." Jesus never trifled with equity, with righteousness, with probity, with moral obligation. Jesus Christ was not all mere sensibility. His was the sensibility that comes out of justice, righteousness, truth, purity, as well as tenderness, mercy, compassion. In Jesus Christ we find all the mercy of God! Observe that form of expression. By it we intend to signify that nowhere else can you find an element of mercy that is wanting in the character and spirit of Jesus Christ. He is at the head of all things. As the ark was in the tabernacle, in the holy of holies, so he is the Head over all things. He is highly exalted. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. He was not made for creation; creation was made for him. The ark was not built for the tabernacle, but the tabernacle was built for the ark. All things are in Christ and for Christ. One day this will be seen. He must reign until he hath put all enemies under his feet The last enemy that shall be destroyed is Death; and in the resplendent universe there shall be everywhere life, immortality. "He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied." When he is satisfied, who shall be discontented? When he says, "It is enough," who shall require any addition? When he who came up from unbeginning time God the Son, lived and died, and rose again suffered all Bethlehem, Gethsemane, Golgotha when he shall say, "I am satisfied," who shall be able to suggest that one thing is wanting to complete the happiness of his redeemed family?

Selected Note

" Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh " ( 1Sa 4:3 ). We cannot attempt to define the object of the ark. It was the depositary of the Tables, and thus of the great document of the covenant. It seems also to have been a protest against idolatry and materialism. The mercy-seat was the place where God promised his presence, and he was, therefore, addressed as dwelling between the cherubim. On this account the ark was of the utmost sanctity, and was placed in the Holy of Holies, both of the tabernacle and of the temple. When the Israelites were moving from one encampment to another, the ark was to be covered by Aaron and his sons with three coverings, and carried by the sons of Kohath (Numbers 4:4-6 , Num 4:16 ). Joshua placed the tabernacle at Shiloh, and the ark does not seem to have been removed thence until the judgeship of Eli, when the people sent for it to the army, that they might gain success in the war with the Philistines. Yet the Israelites were routed and the ark was taken ( 1Sa 4:3-11 ). After seven months, during which the majesty of God was shown by the plaguing of the inhabitants of each town to which it was brought, and the breaking of the image of Dagon, the Philistines hastened, on the advice of their priests and diviners, to restore the ark to the Israelites. These incidents and those of the coming of the ark to Beth-shemesh, where the people were smitten for looking into it, show its extremely sacred character, no less than does the death of Uzzah, when he attempted to steady it, on the journey to Jerusalem, an event which caused David to delay bringing it in. It is noticeable that it was carried in a cart both when sent from Ekron, and, at first, when David brought it to Jerusalem, though after the delay on the latter occasion, it was borne by the Levites in the ordained manner (1 Chronicles 15:11-15 ; 2Sa 6:13 ). It was then placed on Mount Zion, until Solomon removed it to the temple. From the statement that Josiah commanded the Levites to place the ark in the temple, and to bear it no longer on their shoulders ( 2Ch 35:3 ), it seems probable that Amon had taken it out of the sanctuary, or else that the Levites had withdrawn it from the temple then or in Manasseh's time, and the finding of the book of the Law under Josiah favours this idea (2 Kings 22:8 ; 2Ch 34:14 ). A copy of the Law was deposited with, or, as some suppose in the ark, and it seems that this was the copy from which the king was required to write his own ( Deu 17:18-20 ). But perhaps the ark was only removed while the temple was repaired. It is generally believed that it was destroyed when the temple was burnt by the Babylonians, and it is certain that it was not contained in the second temple.


Almighty God, thou settest up and thou bringest down, as servants of thy Church and ministers of thy will, whom thou pleasest, according to a counsel we cannot understand. Thou hast made the stone which the builders refused the head stone of the corner; thou hast passed over the wise and the mighty, the noble and the great, and thou hast revealed thy secret unto babes. Who can resist the call of the Lord? Who shall answer, but with all his love, the appeal and challenge of the Most High? Impress each of us with a deep sense of personal responsibility, which can be measured only by the gifts which thou hast bestowed upon us and the opportunities with which thou hast blessed us. May the servant entrusted with five talents, and the servant entrusted with but one, each do his Lord's will with simplicity, diligence, and all the homage of the soul! Save us from all uncharitableness in regard to one another; from all envy and malice; from all censoriousness and unfriendliness. May each esteem other better than himself; may the strong bear the infirmities of the weak; may the aged prophets be gentle and tender towards thy young servants; and may those who are youthful in the Church of Christ have within them sense of veneration, confidence, and respect in regard to those who have borne the burden and heat of the day. Establish us all in the counsel and service of Christ. May we love the Saviour with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. May the supreme joy of our life be to uphold the rights of his crown and to explain the mystery of his cross. Let thy blessing now descend upon us, that we may have life more abundantly, that our peace may pass understanding, that our joy may be unspeakable and full of glory. Shed light where there is darkness. Send the delivering word to souls held in the captivity of the enemy. Turn those whose faces are turned away from the living God and the eternal light. Now may our hearts lift themselves up towards their Father in praise, in thankfulness, in hope! Amen.

Verse 7

"And the Philistines were afraid, for they said, God is come into the camp." 1 Samuel 4:7 .

Even those who do not openly believe in God dread his power. Theoretically the Philistines would have laughed at God, but when they were sure that the God of the Hebrews had come into the camp their interest wakened and all their armour seemed to be of no avail; they were clothed with straw, and a great fire was advancing upon them. The Philistines were not afraid of the Hebrews as such, for the Hebrews were but ordinary men: but when the Hebrews were associated with their God, and God had shown himself ready to operate on their behalf, then the whole earth as represented by the Philistines was afraid, and fell down in uttermost despair. So it will be with all the enemies of God everywhere. They are not afraid of literature, of science, of philosophy, of eloquence, of money, of mechanism: but when the Church is inspired, when it lives and moves and has its being in God, when it arises to a due apprehension of its function, then men begin to feel that the Church is invested with an influence that is not earthly, and therefore is not measurable. Our whole hope is in God. We can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth us. If God is not in our camp we can do nothing but make a vain display of impotent resources; but when God comes into the camp, then our little is turned into much yea, our very nothingness is magnified into an infinite force.- Let us cry mightily for God. Let us say, "Why standest thou afar off, O God?" Let us exclaim with our whole heart, "Help, Lord, for the godly man ceaseth." When we call thus for God he will not turn a deaf ear to us, if so be our hearts are pure, and our spirit marked by candour, earnestness, and love.

Verse 21

"I-chabod." 1 Samuel 4:21 .

When the daughter-in-law of Eli, the wife of Phinehas, heard that the ark of God was taken, and that her brother-in-law and her husband were dead, she called the child that was born in that hour "I-chabod," saying, "The glory is departed from Israel." Thus children are born into distressing circumstances. Men come into the world when the world's history is deeply shadowed, when there is indeed little to be seen but cloud and storm. How fortunate, as we say, have some men been in the time of their birth; they came into the world when everything was budding with promise, when the vernal air was awakening the whole earth, and beauty was about to clothe every plant that grew. Others are born under circumstances that depress the spirit; everything is backward, disheartened, utterly without hope as to the future; nothing answers the touch of fire or the cry of inspiration; there is no contagion in enthusiasm, and prayer itself is an empty vessel. We have no control, of course, over the times when we come into the world, but we should take their character into account in estimating our influence. He may do a great work who comes into the world in a dark hour, though it may contrast but poorly with the work which is done by men who were born under radiant advantages. The thought that applies to the matter of birth in relation to an age applies also to all positions of trust and usefulness; ministers come to churches under infinite disadvantages; merchants undertake the conduct of businesses that have been blighted or complicated and thrown into the most uncontrollable disorders; men are called upon to discharge the duties of life who have been born into bodies that are heavily afflicted, all these things ought to be taken into account in estimating the work which we are doing in our day and generation. Herein it is well that God himself is judge, and not man. He knows our parentage, our difficulties, our disadvantages, our constitution, the peculiar conditions in which we have begun our work, and in adding up all these, and assigning our reward, he will be just with the justice of love.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 4". Parker's The People's Bible. 1885-95.