Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 4

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Verses 1-2

The Philistines Defeat Israel

The first part of 1 Samuel 4:1 still belongs to the last verse of 1 Samuel 3. The LORD reveals Himself to Samuel through His word. This word is passed on by Samuel to Israel. Yet it is called here “the word of Samuel”. The people hear him speak, but he only passes on what the LORD has spoken to him.

As Levite he teaches the people the law (Deuteronomy 33:8-2 Samuel :; 2 Chronicles 17:8-1 Samuel :; 2 Chronicles 30:22). His service concerns all the people who as itinerant Levites he teaches from place to place and exhorts to obey God’s law.

When Samuel is confirmed in his service, we get the history of breaking down the old situation. This history we see happening in the going ‘into captivity’ of the ark. God in His providence allows the ark to be captured by the enemies of His people, which otherwise would never have happened, but the people are responsible for it. The main enemies in this history are the Philistines. In the book of Judges, they have come forward more and more clearly. In this first book of Samuel, it is the first mention of the Philistines since the capture and death of Samson, about twenty years ago.

It is important to remember anew what these enemies present. The most remarkable thing is that they live in the same land as the Israelites, a land that God promised to Israel and now belongs to them. However, there is a big difference between the ways along which both peoples ended up there. There is a short way from Egypt to Canaan and that is “the way of the land of the Philistines” (Exodus 13:17). By this way, the Red Sea and the wilderness can be avoided, as well as the Jordan, while Israel came into the promised land via the Red Sea, the wilderness, and the Jordan.

In the spiritual application we can learn a lot from this. The Philistines represent the nominal Christians. These are people who confess to belong to God’s people, but who do not find it necessary to believe that Christ died and rose up for them, and that they died and rose with Him (in the picture the Red Sea and the Jordan). Nor did they get to know the experiences of the wilderness. They came into the land without having realized these truths in their hearts and experienced them in practice. According to their confession they no longer belong to the world (Egypt). In name they belong to God’s people, but they are not born again.

The Philistines do not belong in the land of God. God’s people, however, have failed to expel the Philistines from the land and precisely they get the ark in their hands, as we will see in the following verses. The ark is in the Old Testament one of the most beautiful pictures of the Lord Jesus. The gold of the ark speaks of His Godhead and the wood of His Mankind, who are united in one Person (the ark). In the mercy seat of the ark we see a picture of His work of atonement and in the cherubs of His government. The ark stands in the most holy place in the immediate presence of God. It is also the throne of God. In Christ “all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).

It seems that Israel is taking the initiative in the fight because they are first mentioned. They go to war without a command from God or a threat from the Philistines. There is no priest who comes to encourage them (cf. Deuteronomy 20:1-Numbers :). Nor is there any indication that they consulted Samuel for this fight. It seems to be a sudden outbreak of violence, possibly a sudden outburst of violence because of the humiliations suffered.

They camp besides “Ebenezer”, which means “stone of help”. This name is already mentioned here, although the place will receive this name from Samuel only twenty years later after a victory over the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:12). It is as if this already indicates that the place where the defeat is suffered will become the place where the LORD gets the honor.

The first battle is won by the Philistines, because God is not here with Israel. Just like Samson, they are powerless, because they did not remain separated to God. Nor do we read of any action of Samuel in prayer for their benefit. They rely solely on their own strength, while their hearts have departed from God (Jeremiah 17:5). If the people of God do that, they always fail. God departs from those who depart from Him (Hosea 9:12). The LORD also departed from Samson (Judges 16:20), because Samson first departed from Him.

Verses 3-5

The Ark Is Taken Into the Camp

When the people have returned to the camp, the elders wonder why the LORD has made them suffer the defeat. The question is a pious expression, but without any working of conscience. They are not waiting for an answer, but they themselves give the answer. Therefore, this answer is not from the LORD, but comes from their own heart. They accept that the defeat is from the LORD, possibly because they realize that He did not go with them. A fair conclusion but followed by a wrong reaction.

The effect of the defeat should have been general humiliation (cf. Joshua 7:6-Ruth :). Then they would have known that it is by their sin, their unfaithfulness to the LORD. However, they resort to a foolish act. Now they want to force the LORD to go with them. They want to take the ark with them, that it may redeem them.

The leaders have some knowledge. However, a little knowledge is life-threatening if you imagine that you know everything. They remember that the ark was once with them and then gave them the victory. That was when they were at Jericho and the walls fell (Joshua 6:3-Proverbs :). Only they forget that the walls of Jericho fell “by faith” (Hebrews 11:30). Here the faith is lacking. This is an act of superstition that the ark wants to use as a mascot. God has not given any command to do so. What they want, borders on magic.

The same happens in Christianity with statutes such as baptism and supper. These symbols, when used independently of faith, are attributed a magical effect in their mere use. As soon as external customs are separated from a living relationship with God and Christ, they become idolatry. In this way, the cross becomes a sign of victory, while it means defamation.

Prayer and Bible reading can also become inanimate habits, as well as visiting a Christian meeting. This happens when these things happen from a thought that God will be happy with them and not from an inner desire to have fellowship with Him. There can only be fellowship with Him if the whole life is subjected to His will. Otherwise it is a fetching of the ark of the covenant, while the heart is not directed toward the God of the covenant.

God’s presence is only where there is obedience to His Word. Therefore, Moses was able to count on God’s presence when he let the ark go ahead (Numbers 10:35-Zephaniah :; cf. Joshua 3:10-1 Kings :). Perhaps Hophni and Phinehas remembered that event when they let the ark come.

It is easy for man’s corrupt heart to invoke examples from Scripture to justify wrong practices. Therefore, these examples are then taken out of their context. Once the ark has arrived in the land, there is no indication that it can be removed from its resting place when certain events happen. All the time the people must go to the ark as the place of God’s presence (Deuteronomy 12:5-2 Chronicles :). Never may they pick up the ark to come to them.

It is customary for all peoples of the earth to take their gods and sacred materials with them in the war. This is what the Persians, Romans and Greeks do, for example. In our modern age we find remnants of this ancient superstition in the dedication and blessing of crosses and the sanctification of national colors and flags.

The ark is taken to be used in battle. At that moment, the Holy Spirit gives a detailed description of the ark. The ark is “the ark of the covenant of the LORD”. This indicates the connection between God and His people. It is also “the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts” (cf. 1 Samuel 1:3). That is His Name as the Prince of His hosts. Finally, it is mentioned that He “sits [above] the cherubim”, indicating that He rules in righteousness.

According to God’s thoughts this is all connected to the ark. For faith, the ark is the glory and honor of Israel (1 Samuel 4:22). However, there is no faith with the people and even less with the two sons of Eli who are with the ark. The connection of the ark with the two wicked sons of Eli is a connection that God cannot accept.

It is not the priests who let the ark be taken, but the people who send to take the ark. The people rule and do what is good in their own eyes. The whole people cheer, but it is a hollow, vain cheering without any real reason. So much they have been misled. Their cheers prove their religious error. Seeing a symbol enraptures them while they deny its truth. Cheering is always easier than fighting. It is easier in mass meetings to become enthusiastic under the influence of the mass than in daily life to live devoted to the Lord. A high degree of religious excitement is no proof of God’s favor and blessing.

Verses 6-11

The Ark Taken by the Philistines

The Philistines also lack insight, which is understandable. For them, the ark is also a mascot, nothing more. Just like the unbelieving Israel, they interchange the symbol with the true God. The cheering of the one and the fear of the other are both the result of unbelief and ignorance.

The Philistines speak of “the Hebrews”, not of “the Israelites”. The Israelites were among the foreign peoples known as “Hebrews” (Exodus 1:15; Exodus 2:6). What the Philistines say further shows that they are familiar with the history of the ark and God’s people. They know what happened about three hundred years ago. Yet they are not accurately informed. They connect the plagues with which God plagued the land of Egypt with the wilderness and not with the land of Egypt.

In any case, they are extremely impressed by the power of God, Who, by the way, with their idolatrous view they see as several mighty gods. The only thing they can say to each other as people of the world to encourage each other is: “Be men.” The man of faith speaks differently. He does not trust in his own human strength, but in the Lord.

The Philistines are fighting with all their strength, while it seems as if there is no battle on the part of Israel. They may have been surprised because they trusted their mascot and thought in their folly that God would fight for them because of the ark. They lose because the LORD is not with them and gives them into the hand of the Philistines. Superstition makes a person blind to the real danger and powerless against the enemy. Israel do like the sons of a certain Sceva who, out of pure self-interest, call the name of Jesus to be successful (Acts 19:13-Esther :).

God will not be forced to fight for us if our heart is not with Him. The use of holy words, the citation of venerable leaders, relying on sanctified substances such as baptismal water and bread and wine is all worthless. It is about purity of heart and hands. No external privileges, no previous experiences of God’s presence, no correctness of position or doctrine can take the place of truth in the heart of God. God “desires truth in the innermost being” (Psalms 51:6).

The slaughter is large. Around the ark, the corpses must have piled up because they desperately wanted to protect the ark as the symbol of their belief. The defeat is insulting and extensive. God uses this war to liberate the ark from the hands of wicked men who boast to be His people. Eli’s sons have disappeared from the stage forever. The ark is going into captivity. At the same time, the way it goes is a triumphal march, as we will see.

Verses 12-18

Message of the Losses Suffered

A man of Benjamin manages to escape. With great speed he reaches Shiloh. There Eli is beside the gate. The messenger runs by Eli. This is not the man he thinks first of to bring his sad message. Apparently, Eli is not involved in what is happening in the lives of the people. The man of Benjamin brings his message to the city. His torn clothes are a sign of the torn and divided and scattered people. The earth on his head points to the humiliation of the people. His appearance indicates that he is a messenger with bad tidings.

After the message there is a lot of crying in the whole city. All inhabitants will have family or friends in the army about whom they are in care. Especially the message about the ark will have landed hard. In any case, that is Eli’s greatest concern, greater than the concern for his sons. What would happen to his sons is told him (1 Samuel 2:34).

Eli is blind, but not deaf. He cannot see the torn clothes and the earth on the head of the messenger, but he does hear the effect of the message. Although he does have an idea, he wants to know the right reason for the crying. Then the messenger also comes to Eli and tells him what happened. The report Eli gets is not from second hand, but from an eyewitness. Nor is it a report of an event in the far past, but of something that has happened this same day.

In a friendly way Eli invites him to report. He uses the fatherly “my son”, so that the messenger will tell him everything that has happened, freely and openly, without omitting anything (cf. 1 Samuel 3:16-Job :).

In his report, the messenger briefly and forcefully mentions four cases, of which each is more serious than the previous one:

1. Israel has fled for its enemies. The fact that Israel has had to turn its back on its enemies is proof of the presence of a great evil. It points to a serious deviation from the LORD, Who promised the opposite if the people were faithful.

2. There has been a great massacre among the people. They could also have been defeated without much loss. Of the combative men, however, there are not many left.

3. His two sons are dead. As a father, it will have affected him even more than the thirty thousand others dead. Especially since there is little hope that they died in the peace of God.

4. The ark of God is captured. This is the most feared and most terrible message of all. Now God has left Israel and there is no hope for Israel to restore.

Only when there is mention made of the capture of the ark, Eli falls off his chair and dies. No matter how weak he may have been in maintaining the rights of the LORD, there was with him sincere care for the symbol of God’s presence.

Verses 19-22


In Eli’s house is a God-fearing woman, the wife of the wicked Phinehas. Also to her the ark is the most important. The women around her do not understand her, just as Hannah was not understood. They do not understand what is going on in her with respect to the honor of God’s people. Her God-fearing heart knows what the ark means to Israel. For her, the ark represents the presence of God, which is now gone (Psalms 78:60-2 Peter :).

What is happening here, is definitive. The ark has gone into captivity and will never return to the tabernacle in Shiloh. Shiloh has been destroyed and the tent has not been used as a shelter for the ark anymore. The ark gets its place in the coming temple.

There are four captivities of Israel, which means that they are in captivity outside their country. Three times that is literally the case and once symbolic and that is here.

1. The first captivity is in Egypt. During this captivity, the people have deviated from God. Moses, raised by God, takes the people out of captivity, and brings them to the promised land. This will happen again to the people in the future.

2. In 1 Samuel we see the second case. The people are given in captivity because of their unfaithfulness, this time in the ark that comes into Philistine hands. In the ark the people are symbolically captured. God leaves His people. History is then continued in what happens to the ark in the land of the Philistines. All the time the ark is gone, nobody seems to have cared about it. Only when David cares about it, the ark is brought back from captivity and brought to Zion.

3. The third captivity is the Babylonian, as the judgment over the decay among the kings. The glory of the LORD departs from Jerusalem, be it in phases (Ezekiel 9:3; Ezekiel 10:18-Psalms :Ezekiel 11:22-Isaiah :). The restoration – albeit a partial one – takes place under the high priest Jeshua and the prince Zerubbabel, who together are a picture of the Lord Jesus. This restoration is described in the book of Ezra (Ezra 1:1-Leviticus :; Ezra 2:1-Exodus :Ezra 3:2).

4. The fourth captivity – the scattering of Israel among the nations – is the result of the rejection of the Lord Jesus and continues still. This will be ended by the coming of the Lord Jesus Himself. Then comes the kingdom of peace, with no chance of a new captivity.

It is not just a prophetic history for Israel. The prophetic meaning is also important to us. Philistines are a picture of the nominal Christians. It is what we see especially in the church of Sardis (Revelation 3:1-Joshua :). It presents Protestantism, as it has developed since the Reformation. We see as never before that the ark has ended up in the dirty hands of the Philistines. It is the time of the bible criticism and the false teaching about the Lord Jesus. In Protestantism these errors are greater than in Roman Catholicism.

Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op 1 Samuel 4". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.