1 Samuel 4
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
1 Samuel 4:1-11. (EBEN-EZER and APHEK.)
Israel was smitten,... and the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain (vers. 10, 11). The law of retribution which prevails in the world is, more especially in the outward life, often slow in its operation, inexplicable, and sometimes apparently partial and imperfect. But in many instances it is manifested in a sudden, clear, and most equitable manner. One of these instances is here described. Hophni and Phinehas were warned in vain, and pursued their evil way. The influence which they exerted on others was pernicious, and their sin was largely shared in by the people. At length the hour of judgment struck. "Israel went out against the Philistines to battle" - not, probably, according to the counsel of Samuel, but according to their own will, and to repel a fresh attack of their most powerful foes and oppressors (ver. 9). They were defeated with a loss of about 4000 men; but instead of humbling themselves before God, the elders expressed their surprise and disappointment at the result. They were blinded by sin, and assumed (as others have often done) that because they were the acknowledged people of Jehovah they would necessarily receive his help according to his covenant, whether they fulfilled their part of the covenant and obeyed his commandments or not. To insure his help more effectually, they sent to Shiloh for "the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, which dwelleth between (is enthroned upon) the cherubim." They looked for deliverance from the ark of the Lord rather than from the Lord of the ark. Hophni and Phinehas, its appointed guardians, readily consented to go with it, not knowing that they were going to their doom; and the aged high priest was too weak to oppose the presumptuous enterprise. The exultation of Israel was speedily turned into humiliation, and the fear of their enemies into triumph; and one of the greatest calamities Israel ever experienced occurred. These events suggest the following reflections: -


1. When those who have been chosen to be separate from and superior to the ungodly have learnt their ways, it is just and appropriate that they should be given up to chastisement at their hands.

2. The chastisement which is thus inflicted upon them is the most severe they can experience. "Let us not fall into the hand of man" (2 Samuel 24:14). "The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel" (Proverbs 12:10).

3. In fulfilling their own purposes the wicked are subject to the control of God; they can go no further than he pleases, their designs are overruled for good, and when they have done their work they are broken and cast aside like useless saws and axes (Isaiah 27:7, 8; Acts 5:28). This is the case with Satan himself. "Satan is a very important element in the Divine economy. God needs him, and he therefore keeps him until he shall have no more use for him. Then will he be banished to his own place. The Scriptures call the wicked heathen tyrant Nebuchadnezzar a servant of God. They might give Satan the same name" (Hengstenberg).

II. How VAIN IS THE POSSESSION OF THE FORM OF RELIGION WITHOUT ITS SPIRIT (vers. 3, 4). Israel had a great though superstitious reverence for the ark, and expected that it would "save them out of the hand of their enemies."

1. Excessive devotion to the outward forms and ceremonies, and dependence upon them, is commonly associated with the absence of spiritual life (Matthew 5:20; 2 Timothy 3:5).

2. Reliance upon such forms arises from the delusion that they insure the presence and working of God apart from the spirit in which they are employed. They are, however, neither the necessary, nor the exclusive channels of Divine grace (John 6:63), and no benefit formerly received through them (Numbers 10:35) is to be expected, unless there be a right relation to him who has appointed them.

3. The vanity of it is clearly shown in the day of trial. "If progress to perfection is placed only in external observances, our religion, having no Divine life, will quickly perish, with the things on which it subsists; but the axe must be laid at the root of the tree, that, being separated and freed from the restless desires of nature and self, we may possess our souls in the peace of God" (A Kempis).

III. How NEAR ARE THOSE WHO ARE ELATED IN FALSE CONFIDENCE TO THEIR SIGNAL DOWNFALL (ver. 5). There was a shout in the camp at the arrival of the ark. It struck consternation into the Philistines, who had heard of the wonders wrought by Jehovah in former times (1 Samuel 6:6), and who, like Israel, supposed that his presence was inseparably connected with the symbol thereof (vers. 6-8). But they speedily regained courage, and obtained a second and greater victory (ver. 9).

1. False confidence is blind to its own weakness and danger.

2. It is generally associated with neglect of the proper means of safety.

3. Nothing is more displeasing to God than pride and presumption; nothing more frequently condemned or more severely punished (1 Samuel 2:3; Proverbs 16:18; Isaiah 2:11). "By that sin fell the angels." "We must therefore bear this in mind throughout our whole life, every day, every hour, and every moment, that we never indulge so much as a thought of confidence in self" (Scupoli).

IV. How SURE IS THE FULFILMENT OF THE DIVINE THREATENINGS AGAINST THE IMPENITENT (vers. 10, 11; 1 Samuel 2:30, 34). In mercy it may be long delayed; but mercy has its limits, and judgment comes at last (Proverbs 29:1; Romans 2:5).

1. The priests, who had so grossly abused their power in many ways, and now exposed the ark of the Lord in battle, were struck down by the sword of his enemies.

"Wisdom supreme! how wonderful the art
Which thou dost manifest in heaven, in earth,
And in the evil world, how just a meed
Allotting by thy virtue unto all"

(Dante, 'Inferno ')

2. The elders and people, who "asked not counsel at the mouth of the Lord," were abandoned to their own devices, and 30,000 of them were slain.

3. The whole nation, which had forsaken the Lord, was deprived of the sign of his presence (ver. 11); the place of the sanctuary, which had been defiled, was made a perpetual desolation (Psalm 78:59-64; Jeremiah 7:11, 12, 14; Jeremiah 26:6); and they who would not serve the Lord with gladness were compelled to wear the heavy yoke of their oppressors (Deuteronomy 28:47, 48; 1 Samuel 7:2, 14).

"The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small;
Though he stands and waits with patience, with exactness grinds he all."
God's judgments are the expressions of his opinion about our guilt .... But there is this difference between man and God in this matter: - A human judge gives his opinion in words; God gives his in events. And God always pays sinners back in kind, that he may not merely punish them, but correct them; so that by the kind of their punishment they may know the kind of their sin (C. Kingsley). - D.

The inquiry of the afflicted. Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us? (ver. 3). Men are accustomed to meet affliction in various ways.

1. Some meet it lightly, and endeavour to laugh at it. But this is possible only when it is not very severe.

2. Others exaggerate it, lose their self-possession, and sink under it into despondency and despair.

3. Others quarrel with it as with an enemy, become embittered and cynical.

4. Others, still, endure it with philosophical (stoical) fortitude, accounting it not an evil, and resolving not to feel it. But this method breaks down in actual experience, and leaves the character unimproved. The truly wise, whilst fully sensitive to its natural influence, and confessing it to be an evil, seek to understand its meaning and purpose, and act in accordance therewith. They adopt this inquiry of the elders of Israel, though in a somewhat different spirit. The inquiry pertains to -

I. THE HAND FROM WHICH IT COMES. "Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us?"

1. His dominion is supreme and universal.

2. His operations are often indirect, and to our view intricate and perplexing. Adversity is not the less under his direction and control because it comes by the hand of man.

3. All he does is done in perfect wisdom, justice, and benevolence. It must be so, even when it appears otherwise (Psalm 77:19, 20). The mystery which beclouds his ways is itself adapted to beget in us proper feelings toward him. The first necessity in affliction is to settle it in our hearts that "it is the Lord."

II. THE CAUSE TO WHICH IT IS DUE. Whence? Suffering is the result and penalty of violating the natural or moral order which God has established in the world.

1. It may be often traced to the transgression of the sufferer, but not always. Those who are greater sufferers than others are not necessarily greater sinners (Luke 13:1-5).

2. It is often due to the transgressions of others with whom we are intimately associated, and in the effects of whose conduct we necessarily have part.

3. It is connected with the sinfulness of the heart, and implies participation in the fallen and corrupt nature of humanity. "This is the key both to the sufferings of the righteous and to many other secrets." Human suffering points, as with the finger of God, to human sin, and should ever lead to self-examination and profound humiliation.

III. THE PURPOSES FOR WHICH IT IS SENT. Herein the fatherly love of God appears; and to those who love him punishment is transformed into chastisement and a means of blessing (Hebrews 12:11). It is designed -

1. To manifest the presence and evil of sin, which would not be otherwise properly felt. The consequences of transgression often quicken the conscience to its "exceeding sinfulness," and lead to godly sorrow (Isaiah 27:9).

2. To restrain, and prevent future disobedience (Psalm 119:67).

3. To educate and improve the character - by instructing the soul in spiritual truth, working in it submission and patience, disposing it to sympathy, etc. (Psalm 94:12; Romans 5:3; 2 Corinthians 1:4). "All things work together for good," i.e. for the perfecting of the character in conformity to "the image of his Son" (Romans 8:29).

4. To prepare for the experience of higher joy, here and hereafter (2 Corinthians 4:17).

5. To promote the holiness and happiness of others in many ways.

6. To bring glory to God (John 9:3; John 11:4). What is naturally a curse has thus hidden within it a priceless blessing; which, however, is not attained without human cooperation and Divine grace. Affliction has not in itself the power to purify, strengthen, and save.


1. Humility and penitence (Job 40:4; Job 42:6).

2. Filial trust; entering into fellowship with Christ in his sufferings, and receiving his Spirit according to his promise.

3. The hope of heaven, where there shall be "no more pain" (Romans 8:18).

"Whatever thou Host hate,
Whatever thou wouldst cast away and scorn
As profitless - Affliction never lose;
Affliction never cease to venerate.

For sorrow sanctified bears fruit to God,
Which, in his heavenly garner treasured up,
Shall feed his own to all eternity." D.

And the ark of God was taken. The ark was a Divinely appointed symbol or material sign of spiritual truth, and especially of the presence and majesty, the holiness, mercy, and protection, of the invisible King of Israel. It was a part of a system of symbolical worship which was adapted to an early stage of human culture, and formed an important element in a dispensation introductory and preparatory to "the ministration of the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:8). But even under the new dispensation symbolism is not absolutely done away, for Baptism and the Lord's Supper are both symbolic. With special, though not exclusive, reference to the ancient symbol, notice that -

I. THE SYMBOL SERVES IMPORTANT PURPOSES IN RELATION TO THE TRUTH OR SPIRITUAL REALITY WHICH IT REPRESENTS. Its need arises from our being constituted of body and soul, the dependence of thought and feeling on sensible impressions, and the necessary influence of imagination in religion; and it serves -

1. To make its nature more conceivable. "In the symbol proper, what we can call a symbol, there is ever, more or less distinctly and directly, some embodiment and revelation of the infinite; the infinite is made to blend itself with the finite, to stand visible and, as it were, attainable there" (Sartor Resartus).

2. To make its presence more certain; not, indeed, in itself, but in the convictions of the soul.

3. To make its influence more powerful, constant, and universal. It should, however, be observed that only the symbols which have been appointed by God may be authoritatively used in his worship; that these should be regarded with due reverence; not improperly exalted, not altered, not despised, not handled by unworthy hands; and that no others should be introduced, or only such as do not inculcate error, and do not conduce to superstition or formalism.


1. When the symbol receives an undue share of attention in comparison with the truth, which is distinct from it and incomparably more important; when it centres thought upon itself, and hinders rather than helps the soul in its spiritual aspirations.

2. When there is a moral indisposition and dislike, on the part of those who possess the symbol, toward the truth.

3. When, in consequence of such dislike, and the lowering of the idea of the truth, the sign is confounded with the thing signified, identified with it, and substituted for it. This is ever the chief danger attending the use of symbols in Divine worship.


1. It fails of its purpose; is a means of grace no more; an empty cistern; a meaningless, unreal, and hollow form. Nehushtan (a piece of brass - 2 Kings 18:4).

2. It fills men with false confidence, and increases their error, formality, and corruption.

3. It woefully disappoints the trust which is reposed in it, and often leaves them to despair (Galatians 5:1, 2).


1. Its correction of fatal error. In the case of Israel, teaching that the ark was not the same as the Divine presence, and did not necessarily insure it.

2. Causing deep humiliation.

3. Leading to earnest inquiry and prayer. "They lamented after the Lord" (1 Samuel 7:2), not after the ark, which had long been restored, and lay in a private dwelling without public honour, and appears to have exerted no influence whatever in the revival of spiritual truth and life that followed. Conclusion: -

1. Symbols are useful when rightly used and held in subordination to spiritual truth.

2. The course of the Divine dealings with men (like that of men with children) is less and less symbolical, more and more spiritual. "They shall say no more, The ark of the covenant," etc. (Jeremiah 3:16; Colossians 2:17: Hebrews 9:23).

3. Symbols will completely vanish away in the light of perfect knowledge (1 Corinthians 13:10-12). - D.

The elders of Israel were chagrined at the defeat suffered by the national army in its attempt to throw off the yoke of the Philistines. But, instead of seeking the Lord by repentance, they fell on a device to compel him, as they supposed, to give them a victory. Had not the ark been carried round the walls of Jericho, when Israel had no engines of siege to bring against a fortified city; and had not the walls fallen flat to the ground? Why not try its power again? "Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of Jehovah unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies."

I. A SACRED SYMBOL MISUSED. Forthwith the ark was brought into the camp, and the people in their foolish confidence shouted till the earth rang again. A superstitious fear ran through the ranks of the Philistines, but it did not unnerve them for the battle. They gained a signal victory, "and the ark of God was taken." At such a cost had Israel to learn that the ark ought not to be used as a charm or talisman, and that, if so regarded and employed, it could not save them, could not save itself, while the face of God was turned away from the wicked priests and the degenerate nation. It is a lesson for all times. Men are often tempted to rely on religious symbols and appointments, not so much to glorify God therewith as to protect themselves. It is much easier to shout over these than to break off sins by righteousness. So the cross has been worn in many an evil enterprise, and carried into many battles, to defend cruel and rapacious men. So, also, men shout over their Church, their English Bible, their prayer book, or their sabbath, in a vain confidence that their relation to one of them, or to all of them, will secure the Divine favour, or, at all events, Divine defence, though in character and life they be no better than others who boast of none of these things. But it is all delusion, and they who go into some hard battle of life with no better security are destined to a thorough defeat. The ark of God itself could do nothing for men who by their sins had driven away the God of the ark. What a selfish man wants in religion is to have God bound to take his part and fight on his side, instead of his studying to be on God's side, which is the side of righteousness. Such was the thought of the heathen nations of the East. Each of them had its guardian deity or deities, who were worshipped and propitiated at any cost, in order that they might befriend that particular nation or tribe, and injure its enemies. The gods were expected to give strength and victory to their own people, taking their part whether their cause were just or unjust. The Hebrews sometimes fell into the same way of thinking of Jehovah. He was their national God, and bound as such to fight for them. He was to be praised if they succeeded, to be reproached if they failed in whatever enterprise they undertook. Have not many Christians similar thoughts of God? Almost every great act of rapine has been perpetrated, and every war, however unjust, has been waged, with grave appeal to heaven, and gross usurpers and tyrants have had "Te Deum" sung for their infamous victories. But in vain do unrighteous men claim religious sanctions. God defends the right, and his face is against the wrong doer. The ark of his covenant, brought into the din and dust of battle by those who were full of sin unrepented of, went into the enemy's hand, and the priests who stood beside it were slain.

II. FOREBODING OF EVIL. The aged Eli sat in his chair of office by the gate of Shiloh, watching the road, eager for early tidings from the army, his heart trembling for the ark of God. The natural fearfulness of old age was aggravated in this case by a reproaching conscience, which told Eli that he ought not to have permitted the ark to be taken without any warrant from the Lord into the turmoil of battle. So he sat foreboding calamity; and when the heavy tidings came to him of the discomfiture of Israel, the death of his sons, and the capture of the ark by the Philistines, Eli fell to the earth without a word, and died. We do not present the pathetic figure of the old priest trembling for the ark as a model for servants of God. The right and noble thing for Eli to have done would have been to resist the desecration of the sacred ark, and to call the people to repentance, that so they might be strong in God before they encountered the Philistines. But he had governed so weakly that he had no moral influence or authority; and his great age, which ought to have brought him reverence, only brought him feebleness; so Eli could but tremble and die. We have seen such feeble saints in our own time; they are always foreboding evil; they are in great alarm about the dangers which beset Christian truth; they sit trembling for the ark. Popery is about to swallow us up! Or, Infidelity is carrying all before it! Alas for the ark of God! So they wail and lament, and spread misgivings among all who listen to them. But they do little else; they have no vigour in counsel or action to prevent or to remedy spiritual disaster. It is a poor spirited, ineffective style of Christian character. We want something much firmer and bolder for the defence and propagation of the gospel. We want repentance insisted on, righteousness preached and practised, wrongs redressed, abuses cast out of the Church, and then we need not fear the Philistines. Granted that the times are perilous; there is cause of anxiety, and there is need of prayer. But prayer itself will not gain any victory for those whose hearts and lives are not right with God. Hophni and Phinehas went to the battle field reeking from their sins. How could God fight by or for them? And the people of Israel, following the bad example in high places, were quite demoralised. Why should they have a victory? Let repentance begin at the house of God. Let iniquity be abhorred and forsaken. So God will be with us, and we need not fear the foe. We shall tremble at his word, but we shall not tremble because of the Philistines. "Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear." - F.

1 Samuel 4:12-18. (SHILOH.)
And he had judged Israel forty years (ver. 18). The life of Eli was lengthened out to ninety-eight years, during the last forty of which he judged Israel. In him we see that -

1. The highest official position may be held by one who is destitute of the qualities which it demands.

2. Much excellence is sometimes associated with grave defects.

3. Sins of omission have a ruinous effect on others - the family, the Church, the nation.

4. A good man is not spared when he is guilty of disobedience. The judgment of Heaven is impartial. The last hour of his long life has now come, and in it we see the old man -

I. WATCHING WITH ANXIETY FOR THE ARK (ver. 13). Why does his heart tremble? He has truly an affectionate regard for it. But -

1. He has been accessory to its exposure in the battle field.

2. He is doubtful about its safety.

3. He dreads the consequences of its loss. Already he experiences the evil effects of his sin.

II. RECEIVING THE TIDINGS OF DISASTER (vers. 12, 14-17). "Woe upon woe."

1. The defeat of Israel with a great slaughter.

2. The death of his two sons.

3. The capture of the ark. "With the surrender of the earthly throne of his glory the Lord appeared to have abolished his covenant of grace with Israel; for the ark, with the tables of the law and the Capporeth, was the visible pledge of the covenant of grace which Jehovah had made with Israel" (Keil).


1. After long and merciful delay.

2. Directly connected with his sin.

3. "Suddenly, and without remedy." Nevertheless, it was his dismay at the loss of the ark that caused his trembling heart to cease to beat; and his love for the sacred symbol lightens up the gloom of his melancholy end. - D.

The glory is departed' (ver. 22). Ichabod =

(1) Where is thy glory? (It is departed);

(2) The Inglorious; or,

(3) Alas! the glory. The last words of the wife of Phinehas. Her piety was -

1. Genuine. She called the ark the glory," and, doubtless, had regard not merely to the symbol, but also and chiefly to the Divine presence which it represented.

2. Peculiar. Living in corrupt times, the wife of an ungodly man, yet truly devout; a pearl among pebbles, a rose among thorns, a grain of wheat in a heap of chaff.

3. Eminent. Her grief at the loss of the ark surpassed her sorrow at the death of her husband and her father-in-law, and swallowed up her joy at the birth of a son.

4. Early perfected by death amidst the righteous judgments of Heaven. From her dying utterance learn that -


1. Their real dignity.

2. Their internal prosperity.

3. Their external influence.

In vain do we look elsewhere for these things. "Thy God" (shall be) "thy glory" (Isaiah 60:19; Isaiah 62:2).

II. THE TRUE GLORY OF A PEOPLE MAY DEPART. This takes place when the presence (i.e. the favour and protection) of God is withdrawn.

1. It is caused by human sin of various kinds. He is not desirous of leaving men, but they are unwilling to fulfil the conditions according to which alone he can dwell among them.

2. It is often held out as a warning.

3. It has actually occurred (Ezekiel 10:18). "Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that in the first place they felt a quaking and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, 'Let us depart hence.'" (Joseph., 'Wars,' 6:5, 3). The warnings given to the seven Churches of Asia (Revelation 2., 3.) were neglected, and the evils predicted came to pass. The candlestick was removed out of its place (Revelation 2:5), and darkness and desolation succeeded. "But though particular Churches may fall, our Lord's promise will never fail the Catholic Church: 'Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world'" ('Sp. Com.'). Conclusion: -

1. The presence of God should be accounted by us the greatest blessing, and his departure dreaded as the greatest calamity.

2. Whatever contributes to his departure must be zealously renounced or corrected (Lamentations 3:40).

3. No condition is altogether hopeless. "If from thence thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him," etc. (Deuteronomy 4:29). The glory of Israel, which, it was thought, had gone forever, was restored; and out of the night of sorrow a new day was born. - D.

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