Bible Commentaries

Wells of Living Water CommentaryWells of Living Water

1 Samuel 4

Verses 1-22

The Ark Taken by the Philistines

1 Samuel 4:1-22


We would like to suggest something of the history of the Ark of the Covenant.

1. The Ark was symbolical of Christ Jesus our Lord. The shittim wood stood for the body of our Lord, and linked Him to humanity. The wood overlaid with pure gold within and without, demonstrated how Christ was very God of very God; God the Son, and Son of God; God manifested in flesh.

The staves of wood covered with gold, with the rings where the staves were to be placed for the purpose of carrying the Ark, showed how Christ in the flesh was circumscribed and dependent upon others.

The mercy seat was all of gold, pure gold. It made clear the fact that Christ who knew no sin, did no sin, and in whom there was no sin, made the sacrifice for sinners, the Just for the unjust. Anything other than God in flesh; God, a Lamb spotless and pure, could not become God's mercy seat for sinners.

The two cherubim made of pure beaten gold, which overlooked the mercy seat, showed that God could look down upon the sinner only through the mercy seat where the shed blood was sprinkled.

2. The Ark was the place where the Lord dwelt. We read: "And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat."

However, that sacred place of meeting was not apart from the shedding of blood. Not only the Ark itself was to have the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat, but the approach to the Holy of Holies was possible only by way of the altar of burnt offering, in the outer court.

There is also a place of meeting for the saint of today. It is at the altar of prayer that He promises to meet with us; however, Christ plainly said, "No man cometh unto the Father, but by Me." His presence chamber is closed to all, therefore, unless they come by the way of the cleansing Blood, all-clothed in the imputed righteousness of God. in Christ,

3. The Ark in the midst of Israel spoke victory to God's people. They knew that when the Ark was there, power was there; victory was there.

Here is a lesson that needs to be emphasized just now among God's people. If the Lord is not in the house, they labor in vain who build it; if God is not with us, we are a defeated, disheartened people.


1. A sad spectacle. We remember how Joshua was overcome with grief when Israel was smitten at Ai. He said: "What shall I say, when Israel turneth their backs before their enemies!" Then Joshua added, "And what wilt Thou do unto Thy great Name?"

Were ever words more true than Joshua's? He felt that Israel's defeat was God's defeat. That was correct in the days of Joshua, and it is correct unto this day. Israel's downfall meant, in the eyes of men, God's downfall.

Our God is so inseparable from His people that what happens to the one must, of necessity, affect the other. Did God not call Israel that they might be unto Him for a people, and for a name, and for a praise, and for a glory? He did. Therefore, if Israel fails, their failure drags the Name, the praise, and the glory of God into their defeat.

God has also said to the Church, "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness into His marvellous light." We are * * that we may.

2. A solemn result. Whenever there is a defeat on the part of one side of the battle, there is a glorying on the part of the other side. In this case the Philistines most assuredly gloried over the Israelites. If that had been all, it had not been so bad; they, however, also gloried over the Lord, Israel's God.

In the life of the Christian this is always true. No Christian liveth a separated life, a life unto himself alone. He is linked and interlinked, woven and interwoven into the life of his Lord. The fact is that the believer and his Lord have one life. Everything that he is or does, affects not only himself, but his Lord also.

II. A SOLEMN QUESTION (1 Samuel 4:3 )

1. Seeking for the cause of defeat. When Israel found herself beaten in battle, she inquired, "Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us to day before the Philistines?"

In this Israel did well. We, too, whenever there is defeat, should seek the reason why. Surely the Lord would not leave us in the shame of failure, especially when His own holy Name is involved, unless there was some just reason for it all,

2. The great decision. I suppose they thought that they had discovered the cause of their defeat. Their decision was that the cause lay in their failure to take the Ark of the Covenant with them. They seemed to have no thought that their own sins had caused their slaughter. Beyond doubt it is necessary to have God with us, and yet, can an outward display of God suffice?

The church, in many places, has a form of godliness but they have no power. The church, no doubt, imagines that this vain carrying of the emblems of the Lord with them, will assure them of victory. Let us see how it worked out in the case of Israel.

3. The Ark brought forth. 1 Samuel 4:4 tells us, "So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from thence the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of Hosts, which dwelleth between the cherubims." Thus they had God with them once more at least they did so far as the outward semblance thereof was concerned.

4. Hophni and Phinehas were there with the Ark. They had the Ark, but they had men under God's curse carrying it. Suppose a church does formally have God with them, yet, in their pulpit they have men associated with their worship who are altogether unacceptable with God; or, suppose they have God with them in form, but their officers are men of the world, wholly unacceptable to the Lord, should they expect victory?


1. The shouts of Israel. When the Ark was brought up out of Shiloh, the Children of Israel "shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again." It was the sound of the shout and the noise of great rejoicing in the camp of the Hebrews, that caused the Philistines to fear. They supposed that the Lord was, in fact, with His people.

2. The despair of the Philistines. 1 Samuel 4:7 tells us that the Philistines were afraid and they said: "God is come into the camp. And they said, Woe unto us! * * who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty Gods? these are the Gods that smote the Egyptians." They might well have been afraid, for had the God of Israel truly been with the Israelites, the gods of the Philistines and all their armies would easily have been overthrown. It has been said,

"The devil fleeth when he sees,

The praying Christian an his knees."

The devil, however, does not always need to fear, for it is not everyone that goes through the form of prayer that prays. Whenever there is sin, there is always defeat.

3. The appeal. The leaders of the Philistines cried out to their soldiers: "Be strong, and quit yourselves like men, O ye Philistines, that ye be not servants unto the Hebrews." In the New Testament we read almost these very same words: "quit you like men." This is God's call to saints.

IV. SMITTEN AGAIN (1 Samuel 4:10 )

1. Wherein a false hope faded. As Israel went forth to battle, they went forth in all seeming confidence. This time they carried the Ark with them. Perhaps they said within themselves, "If God be for us, who can be against us?" They knew that when God lifted up His hand, victory was sure.

It is in the time when victory seems certain, that defeat seems so disastrous. Israel thought she would win, but she lost.

2. Wherein there was a great slaughter. "There fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen. And the Ark of God was taken; and the sons of EH, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain."

Here was a defeat that was more than a defeat. It was a threefold disaster.

1. Thirty thousand footmen were slain.

2. The Ark was taken.

3. The two priests of Israel were killed.

How could so terrific a defeat have happened when the Children of Israel had gone up to battle with their eyes upon the Ark of the Covenant? That Ark certainly stood for victory. It signified that God was with them, for He Himself had said that He would dwell between the cherubim.

3, The true cause.

(1) The people had taken the Ark of God, but they had not cleansed their hearts from sin. They had not put away their false gods. They had an idea that God would work, even though they themselves were wrong. They forgot the instructions of the Almighty to Moses (Deuteronomy 23:14 ).

Think you that a church that is disobedient, and carnal, can have victory simply because it carries with it the "Ark of the Lord"?

(2) Hophni and Phinehas were wicked men men under the curse of the Almighty. They were exploiting God's people. They were serving for filthy lucre, and God could not bless as long as they were there.

V. WHAT MEANETH THIS NOISE? (1 Samuel 4:14 )

1. The great slaughter. The Philistines who had slaughtered 4,000 men before the Ark was brought, now slew 30,000; the Ark was captured, the two sons of EH were slain. So great was the victory of the enemy of Jehovah. The havoc wrought could hardly be measured. It seemed impossible. Yet, there it was ruin and wreckage on every hand.

2. What meaneth this noise? The aged seer sat by the wayside watching. It was he, even Eli, who said, "What meaneth the noise of this tumult?" Perhaps he knew full well; perhaps he had deceived himself. In any event, we know what the tumult meant. We know the meaning of the great defeat.

Eli, the priest, was as much to blame as was anyone. He had condoned the sins of his sons. He had sat quietly by while his two sons held the place of power in the priesthood, although he had been sufficiently warned of God.

The two sons, likewise, had their part in the meaning of Israel's overthrow. They had been untrue to both God and man. They were corrupt in every way.

The sins of Israel had a part in their defeat. There was sin in the camp. Not that alone, but they had gone so far as to drag God into their midst. They had thought to take the Ark of the Covenant into a place where God could not dwell.

VI. THE DEATH OF ELI (1 Samuel 4:18 )

1. Eli was a "good" man. Forty years he judged Israel. He lived to a good old age. He was not aggressive for the Lord, but he was "good." He was good to the lack of firmness. He was good to the exclusion of rebuking sin.

Eli was, we fear, as many preachers and pastors are today. No one could, perhaps, charge him with any evil way or word. But no one could charge him with any outstanding conflict with sin.

Shall ministers who find themselves environed with a careless, carnal, and ofttimes corrupt membership, be just good and kind, and passive, when words of condemnation and judgment are needed? God forbid. We need to rebuke evil in our own church or home, just as much as we need to approve of righteousness. We need men who are not for sale.

2. Eli was a God-fearing man. He did love God, he did love the Ark of God. When he heard that the Ark was taken by the Philistines, it was then that he fell backwards from off the seat where he sat, and broke his neck. The death of his sons was bad, but the capture of the Ark was the thing that broke his heart.


When the wife of Phinehas heard the tidings that her husband was dead, that Eli was dead, and that the Ark was taken, she died in childbirth, naming her son, as she died, Ichabod, and saying, "The glory is departed from Israel: because the Ark of God was taken."

1. The glory has departed from Israel even today. The people who of yore knew God and who walked in His statutes and in His ways, are now scattered and driven forth among all nations.

Jeremiah the wailing Prophet cried out, "She that was great among the nations, * * is * * become tributary"! "Her adversaries are the chief, her enemies prosper."

Hosea said, "As for Ephraim, their glory shall fly away like a bird." Christ said, "Your house is left unto you desolate."

2. The glory has departed from the church. No, not altogether, thank God. However, for a great part, her glory is gone. I sit writing in the very heart of India. Even here, in the mission fields, where the church should find its most spiritual leaders, it is Ichabod in many places. Modernists are bringing the glory of God our Saviour, Jesus Christ, down to the level of mere man; they are turning away from a message of salvation by faith in Christ's redemptive, Calvary, substitutionary work, unto a mere social gospel which centers in no more than an ethical conception of the Gospel.


"It is true that, 'Our present social troubles are only the outward symptoms of a deep-seated disease a false view of the very ends of life.' Again, it has been well said, 'The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.' But men have become possessed of the idea that personal pleasure and enjoyment constitute the chief end of life, and have largely yielded to the siren's seductive charms.

The world has been offered a 'play-spell.' Life is largely judged by the display of scenery and the glare of the footlights on the stage of life. The poet has said,

'Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal,'

but man's response is, 'That is old poetic fogyism, "On with the dance, let joy be unconfined." 'Do we wonder why we have a 'World Depression'? Why not wonder, rather, why it has been so long delayed. Has it any moral lesson for the world at large? Let the wise understand. Wisdom lifts her voice in the streets, but she is unnoticed, unheard, ignored, scorned. But God is not mocked, whatsoever is sown will surely be reaped. The wind has been sown, and now the harvest the whirlwind.

But the sad, solemn truth is, the professing church has not escaped; the suction has drawn her into the whirlpool of social pleasure and stage acting. The solemn truths about sin and salvation, and God's world-wide program must be 'played out,' and consequently they are 'played at.' We would be surprised at the number of church deserters, could we know it. A sailor boy enlists in the navy. A few nights later he slinks over the side of his ship, a deserter. What is the matter? He came in with a false idea of sailor life. He thought it meant to just board the vessel, sit in the sunlight, and sail, sail, sail on to some distant port of enchantment. And lo: what have they done, but set him to scrubbing the deck and washing dishes! A false idea has ruined his sailor life. The number of people that has come into the church with ideas equally false, is legion, and they have slunk over the side of the old ship Zion deserters. Many have become church tramps in their eager pursuit of pleasure, entertainment, and sensuous delight, and wherever that abounds, there is their resort."

Bibliographical Information
Neighbour, Robert E. "Wells of Living Water Commentary on 1 Samuel 4". "Living Water".