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Bible Commentaries

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

1 Samuel 4

Verses 1-22

1 Samuel 4:5 . Israel shouted. But why had they not put away their sins? And why had they not enquired of God? Alas, these priests, like Saul in his last moments, were not fit persons to enquire of God. Their guilty consciences augured that God was about to inflict the punishment their father had failed to do. They lost the ark; they lost their country; they lost themselves!

1 Samuel 4:17 . The ark of God is taken, by hands less profane than those of the two Hebrew priests. With Joshua and holy men, the ark had divided the Jordan, and had thrown down the walls of Jericho. What a lesson, not to trust in exterior privileges while our hearts are profane.

1 Samuel 4:18 . His neck brake. The Septuagint, which is followed by many, says, He brake his back.

1 Samuel 4:21 . I-chabod. Josephus writes αδοξια . But the Latin versions turn the word interrogatively, where is the glory? Elisha asked, where is the Lord God of Elijah. He is nigh to them that fear him; but here the glory is departed, and shame attends the nation.


In the hands of Eli, a soft, quiet, corpulent man, and in the hands of his two sons, consummate in wickedness, neither the civil nor the religious affairs of the people could prosper. The Philistines, long emboldened by Israel’s supineness, and having now recovered from the terrors Samson inflicted upon them at his death, venture once more to invade the land. The Israelites assembled to repel the aggression; but knowing the character of their priests, they never dream of consulting God. The piety found in Greece and in Rome at the worst of times, is now not to be found in Israel: defeat is the consequence. God is ever faithful in his promises of support to the righteous, and in his menaces of punishment to the wicked. Next, the ark of God must be fetched, for it had divided the Jordan, and thrown down the walls of Jericho, therefore it is called the ark of his strength. But shall God glorify a priesthood which had not glorified him? Shall he defend a people who had not put away their sins, nor deigned to ask counsel at his throne, nor victory at his hand? And what was the ark, already dishonoured, to him, when the hearts of the people were departed from his law? For those causes the Lord had no delight in his inheritance. Mark well: that man who forsakes God cannot be saved in the day of trouble by privileges and opinions.

While thirty four thousand of Israel fall in disobedience and error, the two sons of Eli did not escape. This ark, this hallowed ark, they had long profaned with crimes; and now they fall, perhaps holding it by the staves, that they might purge their crimes with blood. Ah, if the zealous Phinehas had been there, God would have been there also. But now the guilty priests bleed, and the profaned ark is captured by the heathen. Thus Christ, the ark of the everlasting covenant, in the hands of profane priests, was delivered over to the gentiles, to be insulted and put to open shame.

These were calamities hitherto unknown in Israel; but they stopped not in the field of defeat; the tidings quickly reached Shiloh. Eli could not see, but he could hear the voice of weeping, therefore he required to be informed of the calamities which the people would have wished to conceal a little longer. He sat on his seat of judgment, and bore with fortitude the news of Israel’s defeat, and the closer intelligence that both his sons were dead: but when the messenger added, “And the ark of God is taken,” down dropped the venerable priest, and finished together his life and his woes. He lived not to bewail his own errors. He had not power to say, I neglected to punish my sons, and now the Lord has taken the heavier vengeance into his own hands. But though dead, let him still speak to all supine and effeminate fathers who honour their sons above the laws of heaven, and above the gospel of Christ.

Death stopped not here. The wife of Phinehas, more worthy than her husband, travailed in premature labour, and named her son I-chabod, for the glory was departed from Israel. Ah, no; it is only eclipsed. There is yet a Samuel in the land; and God has neither forsaken his ark, nor lost sight of his covenant. He has permitted these calamities for the punishment of the wicked, and for the instruction of his people; but he will yet raise Israel to greater glory than the nation has hitherto known. Let us therefore hope at the worst of times, and never despair while we have a God to chasten and to save.

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Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 4". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. 1835.