Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 4

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-22

The Fortunes of the Ark (4:1-7:1)

The Loss of the Ark (4:1-22)

Defeated by the Philistines at Aphek, a location not definitely identified but probably in the Plain of Sharon near Hydda, the Israelites staged a comeback by sending to Shiloh for the Ark. The way the decision is phrased (1 Samuel 4:3) indicates that, for them, the presence of the Ark in their midst meant the presence of the Lord himself, the God who had covenanted with them on Sinai’s height and whose personal being was extended in this visible symbol of his kingship over his people. When the Ark arrived, the Israelite host uttered a loud cry of exultation. The cry may actually have been the customary war cry in all the wars of the Lord — "Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee" (Numbers 10:35). The tumultuous cry seems to have struck fear into the Philistines, who remembered how the Israelites’ God had fought for them before. The Philistines declared that nothing like this had happened before, the reference apparently being to the presence of the Ark in battle. This enigmatic utterance is not supported by the evidence. Either by intention of the author or through corruption of the text, the Philistines are recorded as locating the plagues on the Egyptians as having taken place in the wilderness. The Philistines recovered their courage at the point of desperation and routed Israel decisively, capturing the Ark and slaying Eli’s two sons.

The fact that a man of Benjamin carried the tragic news to Shiloh (1 Samuel 4:12) would suggest that tribes other than Ephraim were involved in this battle; it was probably a united Israelite effort. The messenger’s encounter with the blind Israelite leader, Eli, is dramatically told. The message realistically recounts the disasters that have befallen Israel, with their climax in the loss of the Ark. Eli and Phinehas’ wife, who was in the throes of childbirth, were successive victims of the tragic news. The latter’s son was named Ichabod, a name which indicated that the glory of the Lord, his visible presence among his people, had departed with the capture of the Ark.

The word "glory" is a characteristic term in Hebrew idiom for expressing the honor or splendor of a subject; it is that which evokes response and lends weight to a person or thing. The Ark was the special dwelling place of God’s glory, his manifest presence in Israel, and as such it was also itself the glory of Israel, for God’s presence in it gave Israel its pre-eminence. What finally caused Eli’s collapse was the news, not that his sons were dead, but that the Ark was captured. God’s glory had departed from his people and, with that departure, Israel’s glory had gone too. Israel had nothing left to elevate it above its neighbors, for its glory was not in its man power or its riches but in the presence of its God. In the New Testament, Christ in us is said to be the "hope of glory," since it is the presence of his Spirit which gives significance to our lives and assures our future (Colossians 1:27).

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 Samuel 4". "Layman's Bible Commentary".