The previous chapter ended with the confirmation of Samuel as the one that would bring the voice of the Lord back to God’s people. Samuel is a prophet in Shiloh and God is giving strength to him and to the words he speaks, letting “none of his words fall to the ground.”
Chapter 4 begins with the affirmation that Samuel would now be speaking as a prophet to all of Israel. Although we are not told exactly why, Israel goes out to fight against the Philistines and it could be that Israel is the instigator. Israel and the Philistines were at war regularly during this period in history. The primary reason for the fighting is that Israel never fully purged the land of all of its inhabitants when they took control of the promised land. The constant fighting with their Philistine rivals is a consequence of not having followed through with the commandments of God. Disobeying God will frequently result in unintended consequences, some of which are not always obvious.
There are two battles mentioned in this chapter between the Israelites and the Philistines. In the first battle, the Philistines won and there were four thousand Israelites killed. The Israelite elders ascribe the loss to God not being with them. And while they are likely correct in this judgment, their next idea is a bad one and their leadership is poor, leading the people amiss. The elders suggest that the ark of the covenant be brought out of the tabernacle and into the camp of battle. They believed that it would bring God’s presence among the fighting soldiers, leading them to victory. This is wrong on a few levels. For one, the elders should have understood that the ark was not to be used in this way. It is true that in many ways the tabernacle represented the presence of God among the people, and that the ark served as the core of this idea. But the elders treat the ark of the covenant more like an idol and less like the reminder of God’s caring for His people that it was intended to be. Were the elders led to think of the ark as an idol under the influence of the pagan nations around them, whose devotion to idols was rampant? It is possible. Furthermore, there is no guidance or command from God anywhere in His Word that allows for or instructs that the ark can be used in this way. Implicitly, the presence of God is with His people when they follow and obey Him, not when they tote around the emblems of His care.
Despite the wayward guidance, the soldiers are still heartened by the presence of the ark. As it comes into the camp, they shout and yell, encouraged by “the presence of God.” The Philistines, hearing this, understand what the shouts mean and become intimidated, remembering how the God of Israel punished the Egyptians. But instead of running, the Philistine leadership urges motivation, saying, “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!”
The encouragement works and the Philistines also win the second battle in this chapter, killing thirty thousand Israelite foot soldiers. Alarmingly, the ark is captured by the Philistines and Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas die in the battle. You may remember the prophecy brought by the unnamed prophet in I Samuel chapter 2, which is now fulfilled: “Now this shall be a sign to you that will come upon your two sons, on Hophni and Phinehas: in one day they shall die, both of them.” You will recall their ill behavior and obvious neglect of God’s commands. Now that their deaths have come to pass, there is no doubt of the shame that their actions bring to Eli as the head priest.
The passage that follows in this chapter relates the death of Eli. We see Eli sitting, waiting by the side of the road for news of the battle. He is worried over the ark. Our understanding of Eli’s character has been tempered by impressions both good and bad. We think good of Eli because of his understanding and acceptance of Samuel as a prophet. His care for Samuel and His mercy on Hannah (once he understood her) were representative of good, godly attributes. However, Eli was a very poor father and even poorer steward of the tabernacle, allowing abominations to occur with sacrifices and other activities. His failure to control his sons speaks very poorly of his integrity as a father and as a priest. But here in his final moments, Eli’s heart seems to be in the right place. His worry over the ark implies that he knew it was in danger. Perhaps he resisted its being taken from the tabernacle. Perhaps he suspected its capture. His worried state over the ark is compounded by the idea of the death of his sons hanging over his head since he heard the prophecy. Knowing that they were in battle and could die the same day as prophesied and knowing that the ark was in danger undoubtedly had him in a great state of distress. So he sits, blind and aged by the side of the road, waiting for news.
A messenger comes and tells Eli that his worst fears are confirmed: the ark has been captured and both of his sons have died in battle. This was too much for Eli. His life ends with him falling backwards off of his seat, breaking his neck, and dying. God’s prophecy for Hophni and Phinehas is now complete. But there was more to the prophecy: “But any of your men whom I do not cut off from My altar shall consume your eyes and grieve your heart. And all the descendants of your house shall die in the flower of their age … And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left in your house will come and bow down [to him] for a piece of silver and a morsel of bread, and say, “Please, put me in one of the priestly positions, that I may eat a piece of bread.”” The judgment on Eli’s descendants and the punishment for the wickedness of his sons would not end with their death, but would extend to the coming generation.
Accordingly, the news that the messenger brought to Shiloh also greatly disturbed Phinehas’ wife, who was pregnant. When she heard that the ark had been captured, and that her husband and father-in-law had died, she gave birth to a son and then she also died. But before she died, the women that were attending to her tried to encourage her, saying, “Do not fear, for you have borne a son.” But in the depths of her despair and grief, she did not heed them and said instead, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.” She named her child Ichabod.
Chapter four ends on this depressing note to underline the consequences of sin. What Hophni and Phinehas did was deplorable and not only hurt them, but many others, including the whole of the nation of Israel. It is easy to learn the lesson from them to not corrupt God’s commandments with selfish and sinful lusts. Perhaps more nuanced lessons can also be learned:
- When God specifies the terms of how we are to worship and serve Him, we need to take them very seriously
- Punishment and consequences will result when we corrupt worship
- God will carry through with His promises of consequence and judgment
- The leadership of our children is a responsibility meant to be undertaken with great seriousness
- Knowledge of sin suggests complicity
- Sin is best handled when it is found and smothered early; Do not allow it to fester and grow