And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Ebenezer: and the Philistines pitched in Aphek.1 Samuel 4:1. The word of Samuel came to all Israel — The revelation of God’s mind and will, which had been very rare among them in former days, (1 Samuel 3:1,) now became frequent and plentiful. For as Samuel himself was ready to instruct every one that came to him, so he instituted schools or colleges of prophets, (as we read in the following parts of this book,) which, in time, were settled in divers parts of the country, for the better preserving and spreading the knowledge of God among the people, 1 Samuel 10:5; 1 Samuel 19:18-20. Israel went out against the Philistines — Some have thought they did this at the word of Samuel, and that he was commanded by God to direct them to go, in order that they might be humbled and punished for their sins, and so be prepared for deliverance. But we are not told that they went by Samuel’s direction, and it is more likely that they were induced to take this step by the death of the lords of the Philistines, and the great slaughter which Samson had made of them at his death, Jdg 16:27; Jdg 16:30. Or, perhaps the Philistines, having recruited themselves from that loss, and wishing to be revenged of the Israelites, had made an inroad into their country, which they might the rather be induced to do at this time, in consequence of receiving intelligence that an eminent prophet had arisen in Israel, by whom they were likely to be united and assisted, and so to be rendered more formidable, unless they were crushed in the very beginning of their hopes and efforts.
And the Philistines put themselves in array against Israel: and when they joined battle, Israel was smitten before the Philistines: and they slew of the army in the field about four thousand men.
And when the people were come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, Wherefore hath the LORD smitten us to day before the Philistines? Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies.1 Samuel 4:3-4. Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us? — This was strange blindness, that when there was so great a corruption in their worship and manners, they could not see sufficient reason why God should suffer them to fall by their enemies. Let us fetch the ark — That great pledge of God’s presence and help, by whose conduct our ancestors obtained success. Instead of humbling themselves for, and purging themselves from their sins, for which God was displeased with them, they take an easier and cheaper course, and put their trust in their ceremonial observances, not doubting but the very presence of the ark would give them the victory. That they might bring the ark — This they should not have done without asking counsel of God.
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: and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
And when the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again.1 Samuel 4:5. All Israel shouted — From their great joy, and confidence of success. So formal Christians triumph in external privileges and performances; as if the ark in the camp would bring them to heaven, though the world and flesh reign in their hearts.
And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, What meaneth the noise of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews? And they understood that the ark of the LORD was come into the camp.
And the Philistines were afraid, for they said, God is come into the camp. And they said, Woe unto us! for there hath not been such a thing heretofore.1 Samuel 4:7. God is come into the camp — Thus these ignorant idolaters termed the mere symbol of God’s presence God, imagining, no doubt, that the Israelites worshipped it. They said, Wo unto us — The name of the God of Israel was formidable even to those that worshipped other gods, and some apprehensions even the infidels had of the danger of contending with him. And, indeed, those are in a woful condition who have God against them. There hath not been such a thing heretofore — Not in our times; for the fore-mentioned removals of the ark were before it came to Shiloh. And in all the battles which they or their neighbours had fought with the Israelites, they had never heard of such a thing as this. They thought, therefore, that it must produce some extraordinary effects.
Woe unto us! who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty Gods? these are the Gods that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness.1 Samuel 4:8. Who shall deliver us, &c. — They had fought with men before; but now they thought they should have to fight with God, before whom none could stand. Here we see their unreasonableness and folly. They secretly confess the Lord to be greater than their gods, and yet presume to oppose him! That smote the Egyptians in the wilderness — They seem to have had but a very imperfect and incorrect knowledge of the Israelitish affairs, and to have supposed that all those plagues which are recorded in their history had fallen on the Egyptians while the Israelites were in the wilderness, where they were when the last of these plagues befell them, and they were drowned in the Red sea. But it is not strange that these heathen should mistake some circumstances relating to the affairs of another people, with whom they had no friendly intercourse, but were in a state of almost continual hostility, especially as some hundreds of years had now elapsed since these events had taken place.
Be strong, and quit yourselves like men, O ye Philistines, that ye be not servants unto the Hebrews, as they have been to you: quit yourselves like men, and fight.1 Samuel 4:9. Be strong, and quit yourselves like men — When they were recovered out of the fright which had at first seized them, they considered that they had made the Israelites subject to them notwithstanding the power of their God, and had also overthrown them in a late battle. Probably the words of this verse were spoken by some of their commanders, or they spoke thus to encourage one another.
And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen.1 Samuel 4:10. They fled every man to his tent — They were so routed that they did not flee to their camp as before, with an intent to renew the fight, but each man to his habitation, here called by the ancient name of tent. There fell — Before, they lost but four thousand; now, in the presence of the ark, thirty thousand, to teach them that the ark and ordinances of God were never designed as a refuge to impenitent sinners, but only for the comfort of those that repent.
And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.1 Samuel 4:11. The ark of God was taken — Which God justly and wisely permitted, to punish the Israelites for their profanation of it; that, by taking away the pretences of their foolish confidence, he might more deeply humble them, and bring them to true repentance: and that the Philistines might by this means be more effectually convinced of God’s almighty power, and of their own impotency, and of that of their gods, and so a stop might be put to their triumphs and rage against the poor Israelites. Thus, as God was no loser by this event, so the Philistines were no gainers by it; and Israel, all things considered, received more good than hurt by it. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain — If Eli had done his duty, and put them from the priesthood, they might have lived, though in disgrace. But now God takes the work into his own hands, and chases them out of the world by the sword of the Philistines.
And there ran a man of Benjamin out of the army, and came to Shiloh the same day with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head.1 Samuel 4:12. With his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head —
According to the manner of those who bewailed any great calamity, Joshua 7:6; Job 2:12; Ezekiel 27:30. From which last place it appears it was a custom among other nations.
And when he came, lo, Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching: for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city, and told it, all the city cried out.1 Samuel 4:13. His heart trembled for the ark of God — Whereby he discovered a public and generous spirit, and a fervent zeal for God, and for his honour, which he preferred before all his natural affections, not regarding his own children in comparison of the ark, though otherwise he was a most indulgent father. All the city cried out — And well they might, for besides that this was a calamity to all Israel, it was a particular loss to Shiloh; for the ark never returned thither. Their candlestick was removed out of its place, and the city sunk and came to nothing.
And when Eli heard the noise of the crying, he said, What meaneth the noise of this tumult? And the man came in hastily, and told Eli.
Now Eli was ninety and eight years old; and his eyes were dim, that he could not see.
And the man said unto Eli, I am he that came out of the army, and I fled to day out of the army. And he said, What is there done, my son?
And the messenger answered and said, Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken.
And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died: for he was an old man, and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years.1 Samuel 4:18. He fell from his seat backward — Being so oppressed with grief and astonishment that he had no strength left to support him. Though he was much to be blamed for his too great indulgence and lenity toward his sons, yet it was highly commendable in him that he was not so much affected by their death, and the slaughter of the people, as with the loss of the ark of God. By the side of the gate — At the entrance of the city, where his chair was set; the most convenient place for receiving speedy information of all occurrences. For he was an old man, and heavy — Old, and therefore weak, and apt to fall; heavy, and therefore his fall more dangerous. So fell the high-priest and judge of Israel! So fell his heavy head, when he had lived within two of a hundred years! So fell the crown from his head, when he had judged Israel forty years: thus did his sun set under a cloud. Thus was the wickedness of those sons of his, whom he had indulged, his ruin. Thus does God sometimes set marks of his displeasure on good men, that others may hear and fear. Yet we must observe, it was the loss of the ark that was his death, and not the slaughter of his sons. He says, in effect, Let me fall with the ark! Who can live when the ordinances of God are removed? Farewell all in this world, even life itself, if the ark be gone!
And his daughter in law, Phinehas' wife, was with child, near to be delivered: and when she heard the tidings that the ark of God was taken, and that her father in law and her husband were dead, she bowed herself and travailed; for her pains came upon her.
And about the time of her death the women that stood by her said unto her, Fear not; for thou hast born a son. But she answered not, neither did she regard it.1 Samuel 4:20. Fear not — Indeed, the sorrows of her travail would have been forgotten, for joy that a child was born into the world. But what is that joy to one that feels herself dying? None but spiritual joy will stand us instead then. Death admits not the relish of any earthly joy: it is then all flat and tasteless. What is it to one that is lamenting the loss of the ark? What can give us pleasure, if we want God’s word and ordinances? Especially if we want the comfort of his gracious presence, and the light of his countenance?
And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband.1 Samuel 4:21-22. I-chabod — Where is the glory? The glory is departed — That is, the glorious type and assurance of God’s presence, the ark, which is often called God’s glory, and which was the great safeguard and ornament of Israel, which they could glory in above all other nations. For the ark of God is taken — This is repeated to show her piety, and that the public loss lay heavier upon her spirit than her personal and domestic calamity.
And she said, The glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken.