1 Samuel 4
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
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.
Ch. 1 Samuel 4:1-11. Defeat of Israel by the Philistines and Loss of the Ark

1. Now Israel went out] The Sept. and Vulgate contain an additional clause, which softens the abruptness of the transition: “And it came to pass in those days, that the Philistines gathered together to fight against Israel.”

The abruptness of the narrative may be explained (1) because the historian only wishes to give an account of the war so far as it bears upon his main subject, the fulfilment of the prophecies against Eli’s house: (2) because probably the account of the battle with the Philistines is extracted from some other book, in which it came in naturally and consecutively.

The last mention of the Philistines was in Judges 13-16. In Jdg 13:1 we read that “the Lord delivered the children of Israel into the hand of the Philistines forty years,” and the best solution of the difficult question of the chronology of the Judges is to suppose that we are now at the middle of this period of Philistine oppression. The first twenty years of that oppression will then coincide with the last half of Eli’s judgeship, and probably with Samson’s judgeship of “twenty years in the days of the Philistines” (Jdg 15:20). There is no difficulty in supposing that Eli, who was a civil judge during this time and permanently resident at Shiloh, was contemporaneous with Samson, the military leader of a guerilla warfare on the frontiers of Philistia. The second half of the period of Philistine oppression coincides with the twenty years during which the Ark remained at Kirjath-jearim (ch. 1 Samuel 7:2).

Might we not conjecture that the present renewal of the war was connected with Samson’s death? Either the Israelites took the aggressive to avenge their champion, or the Philistines thought to profit by the opportunity and reduce them to more complete subjection.

the Philistines] See Note IV. p. 238.

Eben-ezer] = “the stone of help.” The name is used by anticipation. It was not given till twenty years afterwards, on the occasion of the great defeat of the Philistines, ch. 1 Samuel 7:12.

Aphek] = “stronghold,” the name of several places in Palestine. This Aphek was close to Eben-ezer (1 Samuel 4:6), in the neighbourhood of Mizpeh of Benjamin, near the western entrance of the pass of Bethhoron, and probably distinct from the Aphek of ch. 1 Samuel 29:1.

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.
2. of the army] Rather, in the battle array, (Lat. in acie). In the first encounter the Israelites, though defeated with severe loss, were not put to flight, but retired to the camp (1 Samuel 4:3).

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.
3. And when, &c.] Connect closely with 1 Samuel 4:2 by rendering, And the people came to the camp, and the elders, &c. The use of the term people for army is characteristic of the time when there was no standing army, but a levy of all the men capable of bearing arms in time of war.

the elders of Israel said] The officers of the army held a council of war, and resolved to fetch the Ark. On the Elders see note on 1 Samuel 8:4.

3. Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us] The Israelites assume that their defeat came from Jehovah. Cp. Joshua 7:7-8. But instead of enquiring the cause of His displeasure, they fancy that His aid can be secured by the presence of the Ark. They may have recollected the words which Moses used when the Ark set forward, “Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee” (Numbers 10:35): and how the Ark had led them to victory against Jericho (Joshua 6:6).

Possibly the Philistines, as upon a later occasion (2 Samuel 5:21), had brought the images of their gods into the field, and this suggested the idea of fetching the Ark. The superstition which confused the Symbol with the Presence was the natural result of the decay of religion.

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.
4. that they might bring] Rather, and brought.

the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, which dwelleth between the cherubims] Or, who sitteth enthroned upon the cherubim. The full title is chosen to describe the Ark (a) as the symbol of the covenant between Jehovah and Israel, in virtue of which they expected his help unconditionally; (b) as the seat of the presence of the Lord of Hosts, which they thought would infallibly accompany it, and ensure victory to the armies of Israel. Cp. note on 1 Samuel 4:21.

the two sons of Eli … were there with the ark] It seems best to follow the Sept. and Vulg. in omitting the word ‘there.’ The narrative requires the statement that Hophni and Phinehas accompanied the Ark, not merely that they were at Shiloh, which we know already.

rang again] Cp. 1 Kings 1:45.

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.
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.
6. the Hebrews] This name is used (a) by foreigners, as here (cp. ch. 1 Samuel 29:3): (b) by the Israelites in speaking of themselves to foreigners (Exodus 2:7): (c) when the Israelites are contrasted with foreigners (1 Samuel 13:3, note, 7). It is either (1) a derivative from eber, a word meaning beyond, and was originally applied to Abraham as coming from beyond the Euphrates: or (2) a patronymic from Eber (Genesis 10:21; Genesis 10:24), signifying the descendants of Eber.

6–9. Observe how vividly the successive emotions of the Philistines are painted: astonishment, when they heard the triumphant shout of the vanquished army: dismay, when they learnt its cause: manly resolution, when they had recovered from the first panic.

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.
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.
8. these mighty Gods] The heathen polytheists naturally suppose that Israel like themselves had ‘gods many.’

with all the plagues] Better, with an utter overthrow, lit. ‘with every kind of smiting.’ The word used is the same as that rendered slaughter in 1 Samuel 4:10, and the allusion is to the overthrow of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, the shores of which are called wilderness in Exodus 13:20, not to the ten plagues, for which a different word is used in Exodus. The effect of the news of the destruction of Pharaoh upon the Philistines is alluded to in the Song of Moses, “Sorrow shall take hold upon the inhabitants of Palestina” (Exodus 15:14): and Rahab speaks of it as inspiring the Canaanites with terror (Joshua 2:9-11).

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.
9. quit yourselves] i.e. behave. Cp. 1 Corinthians 16:13. “To quit oneself” = “to acquit oneself,” to release oneself from obligation by meeting the claims upon or expectations entertained of oneself. It is derived from Lat. quietare, through Fr. quitter. Cp. Milton, Samson Agonistes, 1709,

“Samson hath quit himself

Like Samson.”

servants] Tributary vassals. See Jdg 13:1. The Philistines appear to have had some Israelites as actual slaves (ch. 1 Samuel 14:21).

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.
10. they fled every man into his tent] The battle ended in a sauve qui peut, every man who could escaping to his own home. The use of the word tent is a relic of the nomad life in the wilderness. Cp. 2 Samuel 20:1.

And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.
11. Hophni and Phinehas were slain] The “sign” given by the man of God that the whole doom pronounced against Eli’s house would be executed (ch. 1 Samuel 2:34).

The Psalmist’s account of the catastrophe should be compared, Psalm 78:56-64.

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.
12. there ran a man of Benjamin] Cp. 2 Samuel 18:19. The distance from Ebenezer to Shiloh was probably not more than twenty miles, so that a swift runner could easily arrive the same evening. Cp. to-day in 1 Samuel 4:16.

There is a strange Jewish tradition that the man was Saul, who seized the tables of the law out of the hand of Goliath and fled!

out of the army] Out of the battle-array, as in 1 Samuel 4:2.

with his clothes rent and with earth upon his head] Signs of the deepest mourning. Cp. Joshua 7:6; 2 Samuel 1:2; Homer, Il. XVIII. 23, and an exact parallel in Virg. Aen. XII. 609–611, describing the mourning of Latinus on the suicide of his queen Amata:

“It scissa veste Latinus

Coniugis attonitus fatis urbisque ruina,

Canitiem immundo perfusam pulvere turpans.”

“Bowed to the earth with woe on woe,

His consort dead, his town brought low,

The hapless king his raiment tears,

And soils with dust his silver hairs.”

12–18. The Death of Eli

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.
13. Eli sat upon a seat] Was sitting upon the seat, (or, his seat). We must imagine him sitting upon his official seat by the outer gate of the tabernacle enclosure (1 Samuel 4:18, cp. 1 Samuel 1:9, note), not by the town gate on the road by which the messenger entered, for the news does not reach Eli until after it has been published in the town (1 Samuel 4:14).

The Sept. represents a slightly different text, “Eli was on his seat by the side of the gate, watching the way.”

all the city cried out] The opening stanzas of Aytoun’s ballad “Edinburgh after Flodden” in Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers give a vivid picture of the effect of the news of a defeat.

“A murmur long and loud,

And a cry of fear and wonder

Bursts from out the bending crowd.

For they see in battered harness

Only one hard-stricken man …”

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.
14. he said] The Sept. adds ‘to the men that stood by him.’

came in hastily] Made haste and came through the town to the tabernacle enclosure which stood on a slight eminence.

Now Eli was ninety and eight years old; and his eyes were dim, that he could not see.
15. his eyes were dim] Were set, a different word from that of ch. 1 Samuel 3:2, found again in this sense only in 1 Kings 14:4. Eli was now totally blind.

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?
16. I am he] He has to announce himself to the blind old man who cannot see the tale of disaster which his dust-soiled, blood-stained garments tell all too plainly to the people.

the army] Better, as in 1 Samuel 4:12, the battle-array.

What is there done] Lit., What was the affair? Vulg. quid actum est? David uses the same phrase to the Amalekite in 2 Samuel 1:4.

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.
17. Observe the climax. Each blow is heavier than the preceding one. The rout of the army, the slaughter of the people, Eli’s personal bereavement, the loss of the most precious treasure of Israel. The last blow is more than the aged High-priest can bear.

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.
18. the ark of God] National defeat and disgrace, family bereavement, were but trifles compared to the loss of the Ark, which seemed to prove that Jehovah had forsaken the people of his choice. “Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God?”

he had judged Israel forty years] See note on 1 Samuel 4:1.

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.
19–22. Death of Eli’s Daughter in Law

19. his daughter in law] Her death is recorded (a) as being a further fulfilment of the doom of Eli’s house: (b) for the sake of her pathetic dying words about the Ark.

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.
20. Fear not] Cp. Genesis 35:16-19. But the attempt to comfort her was vain. The loss of the Ark so absorbed her mind, that even a mother’s greatest joy (John 16:21) could not rouse her.

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.
21. I-chabod] The name means No-glory, or Where is glory? Cp. Rachel’s significant name for Benjamin, Ben-oni = “Son of my sorrow” (Genesis 35:18).

The glory is departed from Israel] In Exodus 16:10; Exodus 40:34-35, and many other passages, “the glory of the Lord” denotes the visible manifestation of the Presence and Majesty of Jehovah, known in later times as the Shechinah. The promise in Leviticus 16:2, “I will appear in the cloud on the mercy seat,” (cp. Exodus 25:22; Numbers 7:89), connects this manifestation specially with the Ark, and though it does not appear that the Cloud rested continually between the Cherubim, yet along with the Ark the Glory which was the pledge of Jehovah’s Presence ‘had departed from Israel.’ In Romans 9:4 St Paul mentions the glory as one of the special privileges of his nation.

21, 22. The connexion will be made clearer by a literal translation as follows. And she called the child I-chabod, (saying, [The] Glory is departed from Israel), with reference to the ark being taken, and with reference to her father in law and her husband. And she said, [The] Glory is departed from Israel, because the ark of God was taken. Thus 1 Samuel 4:22 is not mere tautology. In 1 Samuel 4:21 the narrator connects the name I-chabod with the triple loss, and inserts her words “Glory is departed from Israel” parenthetically. In 1 Samuel 4:22 he repeats them with an explanation. The E. V. appears to be wrong (though the Hebrew is not decisive) in regarding “for the ark of God is taken” as the words of Phinehas’ wife.

And she said, The glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken.
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