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Deeper Commentary

1Sa 4:1 Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle and encamped beside Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped in Aphek-
"Ebenezer" is "rock of help", but Yahweh was no longer the rock for Israel. Eli epitomized Israel; Jeshurun like Eli (:18) had "become fat" and despised Yahweh as their rock (Dt. 32:15), and so He was not a rock of defence for them (Dt. 32:30,37). Israel found no help from God there. The theme of religious hollowness continues, for mere tokenism cannot save.

1Sa 4:2 The Philistines put themselves in position against Israel; when they joined battle Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand Israelite soldiers-
The description of the drawing up of battle lines and camps recalls the description of the conflict with the Philistines when David saved Israel by slaying Goliath. The contrast seems intentional. God's plan through Samuel and David was to salvation, whereas Eli and his sins led Israel to defeat and their own destruction. 

1Sa 4:3 When the people had returned to the camp the elders of Israel said, Why has Yahweh struck us today before the Philistines?-
They realized that this was no mere bad luck, but that God was working through the Philistines. To be smitten by enemies was part of the curse for disobedience to the covenant. That was the answer, but rather look at themselves self critically and perceive their sins, the people blamed a lack of external religion- in that they blamed what had happened instead upon not having the ark with them. The ark was never presented as a talisman nor was there a command to take it with them into battle. This was purely their assumption.

Let us bring the ark of the covenant of Yahweh out of Shiloh that it may go with us and save us out of the hand of our enemies-
This is the language of Yahweh personally going with Israel and saving them out of the hand of their enemies. But as so many do today, Israel had replaced content with form, personal relationship with God with a hollow trust in wooden formalism and mere religion. For no gold box could save Israel. Instead of speaking of Yahweh going with and saving them, they speak of "that it [the ark] may go with us and save us". They were making God equal to a religious item. Just as so many do. They were misapplying Biblical precedent; “Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee” (Num. 10:35) was being taken to mean that enemies would flee before the physical ark, whereas this passage is nuanced by the blessings and cursings for faithfulness to the covenant; only a covenant compliant Israel would experience their enemies fleeing before them. They likely also recalled how the Ark had preceded them in the victory against Jericho (Josh. 6:6). The Biblical precedent for Israel was in Josh. 7:6-9 and Jud. 20:26-28 – where both times the people were humbled by their defeat before the ark and sought a word from their God. Both times their sins were revealed, the people repented and were then given victory. But here they just assume that the ark's physical presence would guarantee victory. There was no sense of personal sin nor relationship with their God. Instead they were treating the ark just as the Gentiles treated their gods, taking them into battle with them. Israel's victory against the Philistines in their next recorded battle, in 1 Sam. 7, was not because they had the ark with them- but because Samuel called them to repent and destroy their idols.

In 2 Sam. 5:21 we read of David destroying the images of the Philistines after defeating them in battle, so it's quite possible the Philistines had brought their idols with them to battle. And Israel wanted to do likewise by bringing the ark with them. But they were making the classic religious error of confusing symbol with actual Divine presence. This error is widespread; religious people think that God's presence is only in a building, or only mediated through relics or symbols. Presence and physical symbol are different, although mere religion conflates them. It is the same essential error of Holy Spirit-less Christianity, wherein the physical external forms and appearances of worship are relied upon rather than the actual presence of God through the Spirit. This is surely why the ark fades from view in Israel's history and nobody knows where it ended up. No ark features in the restored temple of Ezekiel. Likewise the temple was destroyed, as a judgment intended to actually help God's people relate to Him on a spiritual level rather than in terms of mere religion and externality. And this is surely why when the ark does literally return to Judah in 1 Sam. 6:19, the men of Beth Shemesh are judged rather than blessed by its presence. They likewise wrongly assumed that having the ark with them would guarantee them blessing; they repeated the same error of the people when they thought that having the ark with them would bring them victory.

David later brings the ark to Zion in 2 Sam. 6, but this was without any Divine command to do so and without consultation with Him;  and there was the disaster with Uzzah the first time he attempted it. He clearly also veered towards seeing the ark as a talisman. It was almost as if he wanted to underwrite his own enthronement in Jerusalem by having Yahweh enthroned there also over the ark. Likewise David's desire to permanently locate the ark in a physical temple in Jerusalem can be seen as a desire to legitimate the enthronement of his dynasty in that city. As Adele Berlin noted, "temple-building is crucial to the dynastic promise. The link between the two is common in ancient Near Eastern temple-building literature, where the builder of the temple receives a divine blessing for dynastic stability". God's response was that He needed no temple, but He would build David's "house" or dynasty. But on the other hand, David often 'gets it' about the lack of need for the ark's physical presence. His psalms speak of how he lived permanently beneath the shadow of the cherubic wings, as if he lived on the mercy seat, on the sprinkled blood. In 2 Sam. 15:24-29 he flees from Absalom, and refuses the suggestion he take the ark with him. In fact he initially wants to take it but re-thinks. But, so true to real spiritual life, he also had tendencies towards needing the physical and religious when it came to the ark. Just as we pine for the religious at times, whilst also rejoicing in God's presence in our hearts quite regardless of religious context. David wrote at least two Psalms about bringing the ark to Zion, Ps. 68 and Ps. 132. Ps. 68 clearly expects God to bring victory to Israel because of the ark's presence in Zion, and Ps. 132 seems to reason that once the ark is in Zion it will be there forever. This wasn't to be the case. But we see in David's reasoning that he still considered the ark as some kind of physical guarantee of God's presence, and the legitimization of his own enthronement in Jerusalem- and that of his dynasty after him, as he imagined. He was proven wrong- the ark disappeared, his dynasty was cut off from being the kings of Judah, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. But God's spiritual presence in human hearts continued and became the stronger after these things. We marvel at how God works through human weakness to achieve His wider purposes.

1Sa 4:4 So the people sent to Shiloh and they brought from there the ark of the covenant of Yahweh of Armies, who sits above the cherubim; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God-
There is a juxtaposition between the presence of Yahweh at the ark, and the corrupt sons of Eli being present "with" the ark. The opposition may be between their being "with" the ark, but Yahweh being "above" it. Being in the presence of the ark had done those men no spiritual good, and so it was vain to suppose that being "with" it would provide salvation. His presence "above" the ark may also suggest that Yahweh and the ark were not the same thing at all.

"The ark of the covenant of Yahweh of Armies, who sits above the cherubim" is a lengthy title for the ark; again we have the impression of them trusting in the religious rather than the spiritual.

1Sa 4:5 When the ark of the covenant of Yahweh came into the camp all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth resounded-
Such was the depth of their belief in mere religion. This is the language of deep religious joy (1 Kings 1:45; Ezra 3:12,13; Mic. 2:12). One lesson we learn is that religious passion, deep faith in the external symbols of the religion (the ark, in this case) is absolutely nothing to do with really knowing God in relationship. I have suggested that the historical records of the Bible were rewritten under inspiration in Babylon, with special reference to the events of the restoration. In this case the connection would be with the great shout and echoing land of Ezra 3:12,13 when the rebuilt temple was dedicated. But some wept at that time; for it had not been built according to the commandments of Ez. 40-48, and therefore the more spiritually minded wept as they realized that the temple and kingdom had not been restored as potentially possible. The connection of the language is in that here again the people had shouted with passion and the earth had echoed- but Yahweh was not among them, and they were slain. The ark was for them just a box and not the real presence of God. They wrongly equated God with the symbolism of Him, assuming that God was with them if the ark was with them (:7).

1Sa 4:6 When the Philistines heard the noise of the shout they said, What does the noise of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews mean? When they understood that the ark of Yahweh had come into the camp-
Note the parallel in :7 between the ark coming into the camp, and God coming into the camp [as they understood it]. Like Israel, they wrongly equated God with the symbolism of Him, assuming that God was with them if the ark was with them. Form replaced content. The externalities overshadowed and then eclipsed the essence.

1Sa 4:7 they were afraid, for they said, God has come into the camp. They said, Woe to us! Nothing like this has happened before-
God's experience with Israel led to His humiliation before the nations. Seeing the ark represented the very presence of God, the capture of the ark was in a sense the capture of God (1 Sam. 5:7,11 cp. 4:7). Ps. 78:61 comments: "He delivered his power to captivity, his glory to the hand of the foe". And likewise at the cross, crucifixion meant humiliation in some sense for God.

"God has come into the camp" reflects how they viewed the ark as the 'god' of Israel. And that was clearly how Israel themselves viewed the ark. They came to view their God as if He were just the same kind of god as the surrounding nations had, whose presence was in a symbol, which gave victory if carried into battle. In fact the shekinah presence of Yahweh was over the ark, on the blood sprinkled mercy seat or lid of the ark, between the cherubim. The presence was not the ark itself.

1Sa 4:8 Woe to us! Who can deliver us out of the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods that struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness-
They refer to Yahweh in the plural, and we wonder if this too was how Israel conceived of their God. For Aaron had made the gold calf and told them that "these be your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt" (Ex. 32:4). The desire to believe in a plurality of gods somehow beneath the banner of "one God" is a basic human tendency in all religious systems, and came to term in the false doctrine of the Trinity. And yet we see how jumbled was the message which had come down to the Philistines- that the Egyptians had been plagued "in the wilderness" by the multiple gods of Israel. It is a sign of Divine inspiration and purpose that the basic message about Yahweh has been accurately preserved in His word. 

We have here the fulfilment of the Song of Moses at the Red Sea: "Fear shall take hold of the inhabitants of Palestina [Philistia]" (Ex. 15:14).

1Sa 4:9 Be strong, and behave like men, you Philistines, so that you will not be servants to the Hebrews as they have been to you. Strengthen yourselves like men and fight!-
These words are quoted about our call to likewise bravely fight against apparently impossible odds- and win (1 Cor. 16:13). This indicates how context [contrary to what is often claimed] is not always the critical issue in interpretation. For typical of Hebrew midrash, the New Testament quotations of Old Testament phrases are often without any attention to context, just taking phrases of Old Testament scripture and applying them to some other context. When you go back and look at the surrounding context of the Old Testament quotation, there is often no relevance nor appropriacy at all (although sometimes there is).  

1Sa 4:10 The Philistines fought and Israel was defeated and they fled every man to his tent and there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand Israelite foot soldiers were killed-
The Hebrew word translated "thousand" doesn't literally mean 1,000 in every occurrence; it can refer to a grouping or family, and in a military context, to a regiment or military subdivision. But the slaughter was far greater than at the first battle. This was clearly punishment for misusing the ark of God as mere religious tokenism and as a totem for good luck and success. With what hurt must God view the similar usage of the symbol of the cross, and the taking of His Name in vain today.

1Sa 4:11 The ark of God was taken, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were killed-
As discussed on :7, the taking of the ark of God into captivity was in a sense God going into captivity. It seems the ark was taken before the men were killed. But the order is reversed in :17 to reflect how much the ark meant to Eli. And yet his love of external religion didn't mean he was thereby spiritual nor saved from his condemnation. 

1Sa 4:12 A man of Benjamin ran out of the army that day and came to Shiloh with his clothes torn and earth on his head-
There may be some significance to this in that it was Benjamin who were chosen by God through Samuel as the first kingly tribe. Why mention he was from Benjamin? The "man of Benjamin" who features throughout the books of Samuel is Saul. So we wonder whether this was Saul, and yet he failed to discern the warning from the death of Eli and his sons at the hand of the Philistines. For the circumstances of the end of Saul and Eli were so similar. We note how the birth of Ichabod is very similar to that of Benjamin, with the death of their mothers in depression and despair.

1Sa 4:13 When he came, Eli was sitting on his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God-
The paramount importance given to the ark is continually stressed. He was worried far more about the ark than about his sons. And yet his lack of discipline of his sons led to his condemnation. His love of the religious externalities didn't save him. "By the road" is LXX "by the gate"; he was watching, but he was a blind watchman (:15), 'watching' for the external religious symbol of the ark, when he was blind to real spirituality. Recall how he had no conception that a woman could pray to God in her heart.

When the man came into the city and reported what had happened, all the city cried out-
The record emphasizes Eli’s love for the ark; even after the shock of hearing that his sons had been killed, it was only when he heard that the ark had been taken that he had a stroke and died (:18). Likewise his daughter in law died with mourning for the ark on her lips (:22). But this love of the external things of one’s religion (see on :10) wasn’t the same as true spirituality. For all Eli’s love of the things associated with the true God, he was severely condemned for not having the glory of God and care for His people at heart (see on 1 Sam. 3:13). It’s not difficult to love the external trappings of our religion- the church hall, the social events, the regular activities, the general ambience. But this isn’t the same as true spirituality.  

1Sa 4:14 When Eli heard the noise of the crying he said, What does this noise mean? The man hurried and told Eli-
The historical records were rewritten under inspiration in exile, with the Babylonian captivity presented as having been experienced in essence in Israel's earlier history. This is a parade example, for the phrase "the noise of the crying" is used in Jer. 25:36 of how the shepherds of Israel (cp. Eli and his sons) would make a noise of crying at the Babylonian invasion (also in Zeph. 1:10).

1Sa 4:15 Now Eli was ninety-eight years old, and his eyes were bad so that he could not see-
We noted on 1 Sam. 3:2,3 that at that point Eli's eyes had begun to grow dim, and this is associated with the waning and extinction of the oil lamp which was intended to burn always before Yahweh. Now, Eli is completely blind. The light has gone out within him and within the tabernacle.

1Sa 4:16 The man said to Eli, I am the one who came out of the army, and I fled today from the battle. He said, What happened, my son?-
Fleeing before enemies was a sign Israel had broken covenant. This is the point of the history here. Mere possession of the ark and ritual obedience was just mere religion, and was not at all associated with the real, saving presence of God amongst men. This was all so relevant to the exiles, for whom these histories were later rewritten and presented.

"What happened, my son?" is literally 'What is the word?'. Eli used the same term in 1 Sam. 3:17 where he again asks "my son" Samuel 'What is the word?'. And it had been a word of condemnation. And now in response to the same question, he hears the fulfilment of it, in the news of the death of his sons. But even personal condemnation, the fulfilment of the threat of judgment upon him, meant less to him than the loss of the ark. We see reflected here how personal relationship with God, even the issues of personal salvation or condemnation, can be subsumed in human psychology beneath the obsessive burden of religion and religious symbolism.

1Sa 4:17 The man who brought the news answered, Israel has fled before the Philistines and there has been a great slaughter among the people. Your two sons Hophni and Phinehas are dead, and the ark of God has been captured-
1 Sam. 2:34 had given Eli this very sign: "This will be the sign to you which will come on your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas: in one day they shall both die". The idea of a prophetic sign to Eli was surely that he was to take note of it and then repent. But it seems the die the sons died, he also died. It was as if he refused to respond to it, and therefore was slain the same day. And so the idea of the "sign" was that it was to be immediately responded to. Eli died at a great age; God had been so patient with him, giving him so many opportunities to repent, and then at the very end of his life , on the very last day of it, he was given the fulfilment of this sign to urge him personally towards repentance. And still he refused, being concerned merely about the loss of the ark as a religious symbol.

1Sa 4:18 When he made mention of the ark of God-
Eli, although apparently righteous himself in many ways and loving the ark of God above all, was rejected specifically because "he frowned not" upon his sons' apostasy; he personally was counted as 'kicking' at God and profiteering from His sacrifices, even though he himself seems to have truly loved God (1 Sam. 2:29; 4:18). Because Eli wouldn't exercise discipline, he was somehow seen as committing those very things which he failed to rebuke. The man who wouldn’t discipline his wayward ox was to be treated like as if he had committed the crime the ox did, and therefore must die if the ox killed a man (Ex. 21:29).

Eli fell off his seat backward by the side of the gate and his neck broke and he died, for he was an old man and heavy. He had judged Israel for forty years-
He honoured his sons above God, to make himself “fat with the chiefest of all the offerings”. The description of Eli as being fat surely reflects his guilt (1 Sam. 2:29; 4:18). And yet he appeared on the surface to run his family life on a spiritual footing.

1Sa 4:19 His daughter-in-law, Phinehas’ wife, was pregnant, near the time of delivery. When she heard the news that the ark of God was taken and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she went into labour and gave birth, but was overcome by her pains-
If Eli was 98 (:15) and his daughter in law was young enough to have a child, we can conclude that she was much younger than Phinehas, who was likely in his 70s. He was known for sleeping with other women, so we can assume he had had a number of relationships.

1Sa 4:20 As she was dying the women attending her said, Don’t be afraid, for you have given birth to a son. But she didn’t answer, neither did she pay any attention-
The possibility of future things continuing through her son was unimportant to her. For her, the present glory of being in the High Priestly family, even though that family had been condemned to destruction, was everything. And the ark likewise was everything for her, the quintessence of her religion, without which all was meaningless. She is similar to Eli in that the ark meant more to her than anything else (:18).

1Sa 4:21 She named the child Ichabod saying, The glory has departed from Israel, because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father-in-law and her husband-
Phinehas' wife honestly thought that her apostate husband and father-in-law were "the glory of Israel". But she was not without some spirituality, or at least religiosity, because she considered the ark to be the even greater glory of Israel (:22). As noted on :18, like Eli, she considered the ark more important than anything else, even her family. And yet this is the point- that mere love of religious symbolism is nothing at all in spiritual terms.


Eli's daughter in law had died muttering "Ichabod", 'the glory is departed', because of the loss of the physical ark. But she saw things only in terms of physical visible religion. Glory was in fact given to God even in the loss of the ark, because the Philistines decide they must give glory to God by returning the ark to Him with offerings (their wise men advised "you must make images of your tumours and your mice that are destroying the land, and give glory to the God of Israel", 1 Sam. 6:5); He was to be given glory, kabod, heaviness, so that He would lighten His hand. It was a magnificent defeat; Israel on earth lost, but Yahweh won, hence Dagon falling mutilated and defeated before Yahweh.

1Sa 4:22 She said, The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God is taken
The relevance to the exiles is that the shekinah glory had literally departed from Jerusalem when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and Judah went into captivity; "departed" is the word used for the exile. The visions Ezekiel showed progressive departure of "the glory of the God of Israel" (Ez. 8:4) from the temple to the East of Jerusalem and then further away to Babylon. And the painful thing for Judah was the ark was apparently lost. But the spiritually minded would have seen from the connection with the ark's previous captivity that actually the presence of God and the ark were two different things. The ark was not to be seen as a mere piece of religious and nationalistic symbolism. The loss of it was not to be mourned unduly because personal relationship with God was still possible, and that is of paramount value. The physical glory of Yahweh which dwelt between the cherubim had departed. We marvel that it was still there through all the years of abuse by Eli and his sons. Her grief should have been for the reasons why that glory departed. But like many religious people, she was focused merely upon the external. However the record will describe the return of the ark, and this would've given hope to the exiles. The Philistines knew the story of the Exodus, and in 1 Sam. 5 will perceive that the ark represents Israel; they reason that they should let it go, and give it gold and silver, lest they suffer the fate of the Egyptians who refused to let Israel go.

"The glory is departed from Israel" is literally, "Where is the glory?". Sharing the spiritual blindness of Eli, she could not conceive of God's glory as being anywhere but over a wooden box. This gives depth and perspective to David's frequent observations that he saw God's glory in all the earth. This woman saw it solely over a box.