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The Blue Letter Bible

David Guzik :: Study Guide for 1 Samuel 4

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Capture of the Ark of the Covenant

A. The Ark is captured.

1. (1Sa 4:1-2) Israel is defeated before the Philistines.

And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines, and encamped beside Ebenezer; and the Philistines encamped in Aphek. Then the Philistines put themselves in battle array against Israel. And when they joined battle, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men of the army in the field.

a. Israel went out to battle against the Philistines: During this time there was no great world power (such as Egypt or Assyria) seeking to dominate the region. So, Israel’s battles were waged against her near neighbors, such as the Moabites, the Ammonites, or as here, the Philistines.

i. Israel competed on more equal terms with Moab and Ammon but the Philistines had Greek military equipment (such as helmets, shields, chain mail armor, swords and spears) making the Philistines more formidable opponents. The Philistines were the first people in Canaan to process iron and they made the most of it.

ii. The Philistines were an immigrant people from the military aristocracy of the island of Crete (Amos 9:7). Small numbers of Philistines were in the land at the time of Abraham, but they came in larger numbers soon after Israel came to Canaan from Egypt. They were organized into five city-states.

iii. This was a difficult period for Israel. “Never did time seem more hopeless than when Samuel arose. The Philistines, strengthened not merely by a constant influx of immigrants, but by the importation of arms from Greece, were fast reducing Israel to the condition of a subject race.” (Smith, Pulpit Commentary)

b. The word of Samuel came to all Israel... now Israel went out to battle: This doesn’t mean the battle was initiated by Samuel. Some manuscript traditions (evident in the Septuagint) make it clear the Philistines started this conflict. Nevertheless, the battle ended in disaster: Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men.

2. (1Sa 4:3-4) The elders of Israel respond with a superstitious trust in the ark.

And when the people had come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh to us, that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies.” So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from there the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of hosts, who dwells between the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the Ark of the Covenant of God.

a. Let us bring the Ark of the Covenant... it may save us from the hand of our enemies: The elders of Israel, after the battle with the Philistines, decided the next battle could be won if they took the Ark of the Covenant with their soldiers.

i. The Ark of the Covenant was the representation of the throne of God in Israel. Kept in the most holy place of the tabernacle, the people never saw it. Only the high priest entered and saw the ark, and only once a year. The elders wanted to take this representation of the throne of God out of the holy of holies (it could be moved when the tabernacle was to be moved), cover it, and bring it into battle with them. They hoped it would give confidence that God was really with them.

ii. The ark went into battle before. The ark went in front of the marchers around the city of Jericho (Joshua 6:6-8). Moses told the priests to lead the ark into battle against the Midianites (Numbers 31:6). Later, Saul brought the ark into battle (1 Samuel 14:18), as did David (2 Samuel 11:11).

b. It may save us: The elders rightly sensed they needed God’s help to win the battle. But they were wrong in the way they sought help. Instead of humbly repenting and seeking God, they turned to methods that God never approved. They only cared if it worked.

i. They believed the presence of the ark would make God work for them. “Their idea was that God should be forced to fight for them. If He was not willing to do it for their sake, He would have to do it for His honour’s sake.” (Ellison)

ii. No doubt, it seemed like a brilliant suggestion. They were probably pleased to arrive at such a great solution.

c. That it may save us from the hand of our enemies: They regarded the ark as the ultimate “good luck charm” and believed they could not lose with it there. They looked to the ark to save them, not to the Lord.

i. “Instead of attempting to get right with God, these Israelites set about devising superstitious means of securing the victory over their foes. In this respect most of us have imitated them. We think of a thousand inventions; but we neglect the one thing needful... They forget the main matter, which is to enthrone God in the life, and to seek to do His will by faith in Christ Jesus.” (Spurgeon)

ii. “There are plenty of Christians, like these elders, who, when they find themselves beaten by the world and the devil, puzzle their brains to invent all sorts of reasons for God’s smiting, except the true one, – their own departure from Him.” (Maclaren)

d. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were with the Ark of the Covenant of God: Instead of trusting in the ark, they should be more concerned that the ark was served and carried by priests who had forsaken the Lord.

3. (1Sa 4:5) Israel’s confidence in the Ark of the Covenant.

And when the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth shook.

a. All Israel shouted so loudly that the earth shook: Someone passing by Israel’s camp would think something tremendous was happening. Certainly, this would be considered a great church service, and many would think Israel really trusted God. But for all the appearances, it was really nothing. All the noise and excitement meant nothing because it wasn’t grounded in God’s truth.

i. The Israelites probably felt they were better than the Philistines because the Philistines were pagans, worshipping false gods. Yet the Israelites thought and acted just like pagans, thinking they could manipulate God and force Him into doing what they wanted Him to do.

ii. “Had they humbled themselves, and prayed devoutly and fervently for success, they would have been heard and saved. Their shouting proved both their vanity and irreligion.” (Clarke)

b. The earth shook: “Now, beloved, when you are worshipping God, shout if you are filled with holy gladness. If the shout comes from your heart, I would not ask you to restrain it. God forbid that we should judge any man’s worship! But do not be so foolish as to suppose that because there is loud noise there must also be faith. Faith is a still water, it flows deep. True faith in God may express itself with leaping and with shouting; and it is a happy thing when it does: but it can also sit still before the Lord, and that perhaps is a happier thing still.” (Spurgeon)

4. (1Sa 4:6-9) The Philistines’ fear of the Ark of the Covenant.

Now when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, “What does the sound of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” Then they understood that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp. So the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “God has come into the camp!” And they said, “Woe to us! For such a thing has never happened before. “Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness. Be strong and conduct yourselves like men, you Philistines, that you do not become servants of the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Conduct yourselves like men, and fight!”

a. God has come into the camp! We should compliment the Philistines for understanding that the Ark of the Covenant represented the presence of God, and on their knowledge of Israel’s history.

i. They knew it was unusual – even unheard of – for the Israelites to bring the ark into battle (For such a thing has never happened before), and they knew the God of Israel defeated the Egyptians (who struck the Egyptians with all the plagues).

b. These mighty gods: Even though they did not understand much about God, the Philistines recognized the superiority of the God of Israel. Yet, they did not submit to God, but simply determined to fight against Him all the more. If they really believed their gods were greater than the God of Israel, they should not have been worried. If they believed the God of Israel was greater than their gods, they should have submitted to Him.

i. We, like them, often know God is greater and deserves our submission. Yet we often resist God as well, instead of submitting to Him. Knowledge wasn’t their problem. Submission to God was.

c. Be strong and conduct yourselves like men, you Philistines: The presence of the ark did not make the Philistines feel like giving up. Instead, it made them feel they had to fight all the harder to overcome the odds. They had the courage of desperate men.

i. Godless Philistines can teach us something. Christians need to show more of this courage. Instead of giving up when things look bad we should trust the Lord and fight all the harder and decide we will not give up. Courage and persistence win many battles, even sometimes for the wrong side.

5. (1Sa 4:10-11) The ark goes into battle and Israel is defeated worse than before.

So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent. There was a very great slaughter, and there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. Also the ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

a. Israel was defeated: There were three reasons for this great defeat. First, the Philistines fought with the courage of desperate men. Second, the Israelites felt the battle would be easy with the ark of the Covenant there, and did not try as hard. Finally, God did not bless Israel’s superstitious belief in the power of the ark instead of the power of God.

i. We often make the same mistake, believing that if God is with us, we don’t need to try so hard. We think if God is on our side, the work will be easy. That may not be true at all.

ii. As it turned out, God did not feel obligated to bless the Israelites just because they took the ark into battle. He wouldn’t allow His arm to be twisted by the superstitions of the Israelites. God is a Person, not a genie to be summoned at the will of man.

b. There fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers: Not only did Israel lose, they lost far worse than they did before taking the ark into battle. The loss which prompted them to take the ark resulted in the death of about four thousandmen of Israel (1 Samuel 4:2). With the ark more than seven times as many men of Israel were killed.

i. In the late 1970’s, a five-line inscription was found on a grain silo in the ruins of Izbet Sarteh. When deciphered, it was found to contain a Philistine account of this battle, the capture of the ark, even specifically mentioning the priest Hophni. This is the earliest known extra-biblical reference to an Old Testament event.

c. The ark of God was captured: This was worse than just losing a battle. The very “thing” they thought would win the battle was captured. Israel made an idol of the ark and God often deals with our idolatry by taking the idol away.

i. We can make good things idols. There was nothing wrong with the ark itself. God commanded them to make it. It was important to Israel. He told them to put the tablets of the law, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, in the ark. Yet, even a good thing like the ark can be made an idol, and God won’t tolerate our idols.

ii. The ark of God was captured, but the God of the ark was still on the throne in heaven, and guiding these circumstances for His glory. Israel thought they could ignore the God of the ark and find deliverance in the ark of God. God showed He was greater than the ark.

d. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died: The priests who were supposed to supervise the ark were killed in the battle. God promised the two sons of Eli would die on the same day as proof of His ultimate judgment on the house of Eli (1 Samuel 2:34). Now the proof of judgment came.

B. Israel’s great anguish at the loss of the ark.

1. (1Sa 4:12-18) Eli hears of the loss of the Ark of the Covenant of God and dies.

Then a man of Benjamin ran from the battle line the same day, and came to Shiloh with his clothes torn and dirt on his head. Now when he came, there was Eli, sitting on 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. When Eli heard the noise of the outcry, he said, “What does the sound of this tumult mean?” And the man came quickly and told Eli. Eli was ninety-eight years old, and his eyes were so dim that he could not see. Then the man said to Eli, “I am he who came from the battle. And I fled today from the battle line.” And he said, “What happened, my son?” So the messenger answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has been a great slaughter among the people. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead; and the ark of God has been captured.” Then it happened, when he made mention of the ark of God, that Eli fell off the seat backward by the side of the gate; and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years.

a. A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line the same day, and came to Shiloh: The battle was fought near Aphek (1 Samuel 4:1), and it was at least 20 miles from Aphek to Shiloh. The messenger had a long way to go, the route was mostly uphill, and he carried very bad news.

i. Because the news was so bad he came with his clothes torn and dirt on his head. These were some of the traditional signs of mourning. The messenger brought bad news, and he let his appearance reflect how bad the news was.

ii. According to an unfounded Jewish tradition, this unnamed messenger from the tribe of Benjamin was a young man named Saul.

b. Eli, sitting on a seat by the wayside watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God: Eli anxiously waited back at the tabernacle for news of the battle. Eli was rightly more concerned about the fate of the ark than the fate of his sons.

i. Why was he so nervous? Eli knew he let the ark go on an unwise, superstitious errand, and his conscience made him fear it would end in disaster.

c. Eli fell off the seat backward by the side of the gate; and his neck was broken and he died: Eli fell over and died at the news of the ark (when he made mention of the ark of God). It wasn’t the news of Israel’s loss in battle, or the slaughter of the army, or even the news of the death of his own sons that killed him. It was hearing the Ark of the Covenant of God was captured.

i. “No sword of a Philistine could have slain him any more powerfully; neither can you say whether his neck or his heart were broken first.” (Trapp)

ii. God promised that Eli’s two sons would die on the same day as a sign of judgment on the house of Eli (1 Samuel 2:34). God did not announce that Eli would also die the same day. God tells us much in prophecy, but not everything. Some is only seen in its fullness after it is fulfilled.

iii. According to other passages, after the Philistines defeated the Israeli army they went on to destroy the city of Shiloh itself (Psalm 78:60-64, Jeremiah 7:12 and Jer 26:9).

2. (1Sa 4:19-22) More tragedy among the family of Eli.

Now his daughter-in-law, Phinehas’ wife, was with child, due to be delivered; and when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed herself and gave birth, for her labor pains came upon her. And about the time of her death the women who stood by her said to her, “Do not fear, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer, nor did she regard it. Then she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

a. When she heard the news: Poor wife of Phinehas! Pregnant, she heard of the death of her husband, her brother-in-law, her father-in-law, a slaughter among the soldiers of Israel, a lost battle, and the capture of the Ark of the Covenant all on one day. The anguish was too great, and labor pains came upon her.

b. Then she named the child Ichabod: For a Jewish woman, the birth of a son was wonderful news – but not for the wife of Phinehas on this day. To reflect her anguish and the national tragedy upon Israel she named the child Ichabod, meaning, “The glory has departed from Israel.”

i. But she did not answer, nor did she regard it: Her grief was so great, it overcame her maternal joy at the birth of her son. To her, the loss was total and she even lost the desire to live.

c. The glory has departed: The glory of God, displayed by the Ark of the Covenant, had departed from Israel. The Philistines now held it.

i. The glory of God had departed in one sense. But the glory left when Israel stopped repenting and trusting God and started superstitiously trusting in the ark itself. “The glory of God had indeed departed, but not because the ark of God had been captured; the ark had been captured because the glory had already departed.” (Ellison)

ii. How could God allow something so terrible to happen? First, He allowed it as a righteous judgment upon Israel as a nation and the family of Eli. They simply received what they deserved. Secondly, God allowed it as a correction to the nation, so they would not trust in the ark of God, instead of trusting in the God of the ark. Finally, though it seemed so terrible to man, was it all that terrible to God? At that moment, did God wring His hands in heaven, worried about how things would turn out? Worried about His reputation? Worried about the Philistines and their gods? Looking at it this way, the glory had not departed at all. Instead, God was just beginning to show His glory.

iii. Many circumstances that we regard as a calamity, God uses in a marvelous way to glorify Himself. Israel was right to be sad at the loss of life and the ark on that day. But they should have been confident, knowing God was well able to take care of Himself.

iv. “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, as we shall see.” (Poole)

©2013 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission
[A previous revision of this page can be found here]

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