corner graphic

Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

1 Samuel 4



Verse 1


Many serious students of1Samuel have noted the writer"s emphasis on the ark of the covenant that begins here in the text. Critical scholars have long argued that 1 Samuel 4:1 b to 1 Samuel 7:1 and2Samuel6 are the only remaining fragments of an older and longer ark narrative, which was a source document for the writer here. Of the61references to the ark in1,2Samuel, 36 appear in 1 Samuel 4:1 b to 1 Samuel 7:2. More recently some scholars have come to believe that the old ark narratives were somewhat shorter. Conservative scholars generally believe that the ark narratives were not necessarily independent documents but may simply reflect the writer"s particular emphasis on the ark here. [Note: For a discussion of this subject, including a bibliography of books and articles dealing with it, see Youngblood, pp593-94.] One writer believed that their purpose was to explain Israel"s demand for a king, as well as the reasons for the end of Eli"s branch of the Aaronic family. [Note: Merrill, " 1 Samuel ," p208.]

Verses 1-11

1. The battle of Aphek4:1-11

The Philistines, as we have already seen in Judges , were Israel"s primary enemy to the west at this time. Samson, too, fought the Philistines ( Judges 13-16). [Note: For a good, brief history of the Philistines, see Edward Hindson, The Philistines and the Old Testament.] There are about150 references to the Philistines in1,2Samuel. They originally migrated from Greece primarily by way of Crete (Caphtor, cf. Genesis 10:14; Jeremiah 47:4; Amos 9:7). Their major influx into Canaan occurred about1200 B.C, about100 years before the events recorded in this chapter. However there were some Philistines in Canaan as early as Abraham"s day ( Genesis 21:32; et al.). [Note: For further study, see Trude Dothan, The Philistines and Their Material Culture, especially pp13-16 , 21-24 , and289-96.]

The town of Aphek (cf. 1 Samuel 29:1; New Testament Antipatris, Acts 23:31) stood on the border between Philistine and Israelite territory. It was about11miles east and a little north of Joppa (and modern Tel Aviv). Archaeologists have not yet located Ebenezer, but it was obviously close to Aphek and on Israel"s side of the border. It may have been the modern Izbet Sarteh about two miles east of Aphek on the road to Shiloh. [Note: Moshe Kochavi and Aaron Demsky, "An Israelite Village from the Days of the Judges ," Biblical Archaeology Review4:3 (1978):19-21.]

In Israel"s first encounter with the Philistines in1Samuel, the enemy slew4 ,000 Israelite soldiers ( 1 Samuel 4:2), and in the second, 30 ,000 Israelites fell ( 1 Samuel 4:10). Between these two encounters the Israelites sent to Shiloh for the ark. The ark had always been the place where God dwelt in a special way among the Israelites. It contained the tablets of the Decalogue and the mercy seat where the high priest atoned for the sins of the nation. It was for these reasons a symbol of God and His presence. During the long period of the judges the Israelites as a whole had adopted an increasingly pagan attitude toward Yahweh. They felt that they could satisfy Him with simply formal worship and that they could secure His help with offerings rather than humility. They were treating the ark the same way they treated God; they believed the ark"s presence among them in battle would ensure victory.

"We eventually all learn what Israel discovered in battle against the Philistines. Having the paraphernalia of God and having God are not the same." [Note: Kenneth L. Chafin, 1 , 2 Samuel , p54.]

The paraphernalia that modern believers sometimes rely on in place of God include a crucifix, a picture of Jesus, or a family Bible positioned conspicuously in the home but seldom read. Others base their hope of spiritual success on a spiritually strong spouse, regular church attendance, or even the daily reading of the Bible. These things, as good as they may be, are no substitute for a vital personal relationship with God.

Perhaps the elders of Israel remembered that in Joshua"s conquest of Jericho, the ark played a very important and visible part in the victory ( Joshua 6:2-20). Nevertheless, back then the people trusted in Yahweh, not in the ark as a talisman (good luck charm). The custom of taking idols into battle so their gods would deliver them was common among ancient warriors (cf. 2 Samuel 5:21; 1 Chronicles 14:12). Obviously the Israelites were wrong in thinking that the presence of the ark would guarantee success.

"The offenses against the ark as pledge of Yahweh"s presence appear to be mainly of two kinds: (1) a misplaced reliance on the ark, and (2) an irreverent disregard for the ark." [Note: Marten H. Woudstra, The Ark of the Covenant from the Conquest to Kingship, p55.]

The Hebrew word eleph, translated thousand ( 1 Samuel 4:2), can also mean military unit. Military units were of varying sizes but considerably smaller than1 ,000 soldiers. [Note: For more information concerning the problem of large numbers in the Old Testament, see R. E. D. Clark, "The Large Numbers of the Old Testament," Journal of Transactions of the Victoria Institute87 (1955):82-92; and J. W. Wenham, "Large Numbers in the Old Testament," Tyndale Bulletin18 (1967):19-53.]

Ancient Near Eastern artists sometimes pictured a king sitting on a throne supported on either side by a cherub, which the artist represented as a winged lion (sphinx) with a human head. [Note: W. F. Albright, "What Were the Cherubim?" Biblical Archaeologist1:1 (1938):1-3.] This may have been the image of the Lord of hosts (armies) "who sits above the cherubim" that the writer had in mind here ( 1 Samuel 4:4).

The fact that the people shouted loudly when the ark arrived at Ebenezer from Shiloh ( 1 Samuel 4:5) may be another indication that they were hoping to duplicate the victory at Jericho (cf. Joshua 6:20). Likewise the response of the Philistines when they heard the cry recalls Rahab"s revelation of how the Canaanites feared Yahweh ( Joshua 2:9-11). These allusions to the victory at Jericho contrast the Israelites" present attitude toward God with what it had been at that earlier battle.

The fact that the Israelites suffered a devastating slaughter (Heb. makkah, 1 Samuel 4:10), many times worse than their earlier recent defeat ( 1 Samuel 4:2), proved that victory did not come from the ark but from the Lord. Defeat was due to sin in the camp, including Hophni and Phinehas" sin (cf. 1 Samuel 2:25). Israel had suffered defeat at Ai about300 years earlier for the same reason: sin among the people ( Joshua 7:11). Trying to duplicate previous spiritual victories by going through the same procedures is no substitute for getting right with God (cf. Judges 16:20; Matthew 23:25).

God did not record the destruction of the tabernacle at Shiloh, but some writers assume the Philistines razed it after they captured the ark. [Note: E.g, Joyce Baldwin, 1 & 2 Samuel , p71; and Charles Pfeiffer and Howard Vos, The Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands, p143.] The town probably did suffer destruction then (cf. Jeremiah 7:12; Jeremiah 7:14; Jeremiah 26:6). [Note: See John Bright, A History of Israel, p165.] However, the writer of Chronicles mentioned that the tabernacle still stood in David"s day ( 1 Chronicles 21:29) and when Solomon began to reign ( 2 Chronicles 1:3). The writer of Samuel showed less interest in the sanctuary structure than in the ark. The Philistines may have destroyed the town of Shiloh, but it "revived sufficiently to produce a few worthy citizens in later generations (cf. 1 Kings 11:29; Jeremiah 41:5)." [Note: Gordon, p96.]

The Two Tabernacles and the Ark

Moses" Tabernacle at:

The Ark at:

David"s Tabernacle at:

Gilgal ( Joshua 5:10; Joshua 10:15; Joshua 10:43)

Gilgal ( Joshua 6:12)

Shiloh ( Joshua 18:1; Joshua 18:9-10)

Shiloh ( Joshua 18:10)

Bethel ( Judges 20:18-28; Judges 21:1-4)

Bethel ( Judges 20:27)

Shiloh ( 1 Samuel 1:3)

Shiloh ( 1 Samuel 4:3)

Ebenezer ( 1 Samuel 4:4-5)

Ashdod ( 1 Samuel 5:1)

Gath ( 1 Samuel 5:8)

Ekron ( 1 Samuel 5:10)

Bethshemesh ( 1 Samuel 6:12-14)

Kiriath-jearim ( 1 Samuel 7:1)

Mizpah ? ( 1 Samuel 7:9-10)

Gilgal ? ( 1 Samuel 10:8; 1 Samuel 13:8-10; 1 Samuel 15:10-15)

Nob ( 1 Samuel 21:1-9; 1 Samuel 22:9-19)

Gibeon ( 1 Chronicles 16:39-40; 1 Chronicles 21:29; 1 Kings 3:4; 2 Chronicles 1:3)

Perez-uzzah ( 2 Samuel 6:2-11; 1 Chronicles 13:5-14)

Jerusalem ( 1 Chronicles 15:1)

Jerusalem ( 2 Samuel 6:12-17; 1 Chronicles 15:2 to 1 Chronicles 16:6, 1 Chronicles 16:37-38)

Verses 1-22

A. The Capture of the Ark4:1-22

A new subject comes to the forefront in this section and continues to be a significant motif throughout the rest of Samuel. It is the ark of the covenant. The writer drew attention to the ark in this chapter by mentioning it seven times, including a notation at the end of each text section ( 1 Samuel 4:4; 1 Samuel 4:11; 1 Samuel 4:17-19; 1 Samuel 4:21-22). Following the reference to Samuel the prophet in 1 Samuel 4:1, the writer did not mention him again until 1 Samuel 7:3.

"The purpose of the story in1Samuel4-6 of the ark"s imprisonment in Philistia and its travels to different Philistine cities, as well as to Beth-Shemesh, is to give an historical background for the Philistines" rule over the whole country prior to the emergence of the Israelite state which could still accentuate Yahweh"s supremacy as an unconquerable deity. The story explains how Yahweh finally became superior to his captors." [Note: G. W. Ahlstrom, "The Travels of the Ark: A Religio-Political Composition," Journal of Near Eastern Studies43 (1984):143. See also Antony F. Campbell, "Yahweh and the Ark: A Case Study in Narrative," Journal of Biblical Literature98:1 (1979):31-43.]

The major historical element of continuity in this section is the fate of Eli"s sons ( 1 Samuel 4:9-11). The theological theme of fertility continues to be the primary unifying factor in the narrative.

Verses 12-18

2. The response of Eli4:12-18

The deaths of Hophni and Phinehas, who accompanied the soldiers into battle, were the sign God promised Eli that He would remove the priestly privilege from Eli"s descendants eventually ( 1 Samuel 2:34). The writer carefully recorded that it was the news that the Philistines had captured the ark, not that his two sons had died, that shocked Eli and caused him to die ( 1 Samuel 4:18). Eli"s primary concern, to his credit, was the welfare of Israel.

There is a word play in the Hebrew text that helps us understand the significance of the departure of God"s glory. The Hebrew word for "heavy" ( 1 Samuel 4:18) is kabed, and the word for "glory" ( 1 Samuel 4:21) is kabod. Rather than Israel enjoying glory from God"s presence through Eli"s priesthood, Eli himself had received the glory, as his heavy weight implies. Eli"s apparent self-indulgence was responsible for the departure of God"s glory from Israel and from his line of priests. [Note: See John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, p400-401.]

The battle of Aphek recorded in this chapter took place in1104 B.C. Since Eli was98 years old when he died on hearing the news that the Philistines had taken the ark in this battle, he must have been born in1202 B.C. [Note: See the "Chronology of1,2Samuel" earlier in these notes.]

Verses 19-22

3. The response of Phinehas" wife4:19-22

Likewise the news of the loss of the ark is what distressed Phinehas" wife more than the news of the deaths of her husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law ( 1 Samuel 4:21-22). "Ichabod" is usually translated, "The glory has departed," but it may mean, "Where is the glory?"

"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 [mercy seat], was the visible pledge of the covenant of grace which Jehovah had made with Israel." [Note: C. F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, pp56-57.]

Phinehas" wife"s words may also reflect a pagan viewpoint to some extent, that because the Philistines had stolen what represented Yahweh, the Lord Himself had abandoned the nation. In view of God"s promises and revealed plans for Israel, she should have known that He had not totally abandoned His people ( Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 12:7; cf. Matthew 28:20). Furthermore the Israelites knew that the true God is omnipresent. Israel"s pagan neighbors typically believed that their gods were limited geographically. On the other hand, she may have had Deuteronomy 28:47-48 in mind: "Because you did not serve the LORD your God ... you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD shall send against you ... and He will put an iron yoke on your neck until He has destroyed you."

Most of the Israelites evidently thought that since Israel had lost the ark she had lost God. [Note: For a further discussion of the role of the ark at this time in Israel"s history, and how Samuel"s ministry related to it, see Clive Thomson, "Samuel, the Ark, and the Priesthood," Bibliotheca Sacra118:417 (July-September1961):259-63. For a more critical study of the ark, see P. R. Davies, "The History of the Ark in the Books of Samuel," Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages5 (1977):9-18.] However, because the people had not lived in proper covenant relationship with Him, Israel had only lost God"s blessing, not His presence. They were disregarding God"s Law, so God"s glory had departed from Israel ( 1 Samuel 4:22; cf. Exodus 19:5-6; Ezekiel 10). His people could not enjoy fertility.

Someone has said that if you feel far from God, you need to remember that He is not the one who moved. God has promised that if His people will draw near to Him He will draw near to them ( 2 Chronicles 7:14; James 4:8; Hebrews 10:22).


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 4:4". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". 2012.

Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology