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Verse 1 shows that Samuel did not conceal the word that God gave to him, but communicated it to all Israel. But it is not said that it was this word that called them to battle with the Philistines. It seems the battle was initiated by Israel, however. They pitch near Eben-ezer, which means "the stone of help," evidently confident of God's help apart from His word and apart from the recognition of His rights among His people. The Philistines pitch in Aphek, meaning "restraint," which perhaps indicates that they were not so self-confident as Israel. Yet they gained a decisive victory, with a great slaughter of 4000 men.
This surely ought to have brought Israel down to their knees in broken humiliation, and with honest enquiring of God. They do not think of Samuel, the man of God, just as we too often forget to think of Christ and His word at times of facing serious problems for which only He is sufficient. The elders recognize that it is the Lord Himself who has smitten them before their enemies, but instead of seeking His face, they resort to mere fleshly planning, considering that if they bring the ark of the Lord to the battle, it would be a sacred charm to influence the Lord on their behalf! The ark was of course symbolical of Christ, the true Center of His people Israel, but on this occasion Israel thinks of it merely as an idol with magical powers to save them from their enemies.
Eli's sons, Hophni and Phinehas, came with the ark from Shiloh, having the official position of being in charge of it. The elders, though they knew well the moral corruption of the young men, were blinded to the fact that the living God could not possibly approve of their public identification with the ark, which we are reminded here was "the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts who dwells between the cherubim." This very expression insists on the absolute holiness of God.
The men of Israel were as blind as the elders: they remembered only that in the past the ark had led the nation into the land in conquest of their enemies, but they depend on past experience while harboring gross moral evil among them at present. Their great shout sounds like that of victory, but their loud noise does not influence God, though it alarmed the Philistines.
When the Philistines hear that Israel has shouted so loudly because the ark had come into the camp, their fear is increased, for they were idolaters, mere formal religion being very familiar to them. They assume (practically as did Israel at this time) that the ark was Israel's god, and are most apprehensive. For Israel had not used this before when fighting the Philistines, at least since their entrance into the land. They remember that God, whom they call "gods" had sent numerous plagues upon Egypt, but did not know that the ark had not even been in existence at that time! Thus men are often so dense that they can conceive of no god but one this is visible to their eyes, though it is a lifeless, inanimate thing!
Could the Philistines fight against the living God and expect to win? But they stir themselves to fight to the utmost against this mere immobile god. This was unnecessary, for God had already decided that Israel would badly lose. The Philistines gain a far more decisive victory than at first. 4000 men killed was a great loss for Israel, but 30,000 is over 7 times as many! The loss of life among the Philistines is not mentioned: it was likely small. But God will make Israel feel the results of their dishonoring Him.
Far more serious than the defeat, however, was the fact of the ark of God being captured by the Philistines. God's prophecy concerning Hophni and Phinehas is fulfilled too, both of them being killed. God has used the idolatrous Philistines as a rod to punish His people Israel, who had lapsed into an idolatrous state themselves.
A man of Benjamin brings the sad news to Shiloh, his clothes rent and earth on his head in token of repentant mourning. At this time Eli is again sitting, not at the temple door, but by the wayside for he was fearful of the whole matter, and specially for the ark, for which he felt some responsibility. The man's message causes a noisy tumult in the city, which stirs the questioning of Eli. In response the messenger tells him personally of his fleeing from the battle, and that Israel had suffered defeat and great slaughter Then he adds that Eli's sons had been killed and the ark of God taken.
The death of his sons did not have the same effect on Eli as did the loss of the ark. This was such a shock to him that he fainted and fell backward and broke his neck. Certainly it was serious that the ark had been captured, but Eli's mere formal religion placed more emphasis on the ark that on obedience to God's word: since the ark was taken, it was to him as though God Himself had been taken away! but God was caring more for His own glory than Eli was. Subsequent history tells us too that He was able to care for the ark among the Philistines when they had full possession of it. Meanwhile, however, it was necessary for God to shock the nation Israel to its depths by removing the three priests and the ark at the same time. Though Eli had lived 98 years, his end was sad, and he was the last of his family to live long. God had patiently borne with the evil of the priestly family for long time, but now Israel must be given the clear evidence that God's patience is far from indulgence. The sudden swiftness of God's judgment was intended to put the fear of God into the hearts of all Israel. True indeed were God's words to Samuel that the ears of every hearer would tingle at what would transpire -- the three prominent priests of Israel all killed in one day as well as the ark of God lost to the enemy!
Yet this was not all. The wife of Phinehas, having neared the time of childbirth, when she heard the news that the ark was taken and her husband and father-in-law killed, was so affected that this induced birth pains. Then she lived only long enough to name her child Ichabod (meaning "where is the glory?"). In her case it is sad too that it seemed a worse thing to her that the ark was captured than that her husband and his brother had made a practice of dishonoring God in connection with the ark and the temple. To her, as to the many in Israel, the ark itself was actually "the glory,": but it was really only a symbol of the glory. Not only had the symbol departed, but how could God's glory itself remain complacently among the people? As a general rule people have more abhorrence of God's righteous discipline on account of their sins than they have of their sins themselves. Such is the perversity of man's sinful nature! How much better if we feel our guilt and accept its results.
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Grant, L. M. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 4". Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany