Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
1 Kings (1 Samuel)
War with the Philistines. Loss of the Ark.Death of Eli and His Sons - 1 Samuel 4
At Samuel's word, the Israelites attacked the Philistines, and were beaten (Sa1 4:1, Sa1 4:2). They then fetched the ark of the covenant into the camp according to the advice of the elders, that they might thereby make sure of the help of the almighty covenant God; but in the engagement which followed they suffered a still greater defeat, in which Eli's sons fell and the ark was taken by the Philistines (Sa1 4:3-11). The aged Eli, terrified at such a loss, fell from his seat and broke his neck (Sa1 4:12-18); and his daughter-in-law was taken in labour, and died after giving birth to a son (Sa1 4:19-22). With these occurrences the judgment began to burst upon the house of Eli. But the disastrous result of the war was also to be a source of deep humiliation to all the Israelites. Not only were the people to learn that the Lord had departed from them, but Samuel also was to make the discovery that the deliverance of Israel from the oppression and dominion of its foes was absolutely impossible without its inward conversion to its God.
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 4:1
The two clauses, "The word of Samuel came to all Israel," and "Israel went out," etc., are to be logically connected together in the following sense: "At the word or instigation of Samuel, Israel went out against the Philistines to battle." The Philistines were ruling over Israel at that time. This is evident, apart from our previous remarks concerning the connection between the commencement of this book and the close of the book of Judges, from the simple fact that the land of Israel was the scene of the war, and that nothing is said about an invasion on the part of the Philistines. The Israelites encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines were encamped at Aphek. The name Ebenezer ("the stone of help") was not given to the place so designated till a later period, when Samuel set up a memorial stone there to commemorate a victory that was gained over the Philistines upon the same chosen battle-field after the lapse of twenty years (Sa1 7:12). According to this passage, the stone was set up between Mizpeh and Shen. The former was not the Mizpeh in the lowlands of Judah (Jos 15:38), but the Mizpeh of Benjamin (Jos 18:26), i.e., according to Robinson, the present Neby Samwil, two hours to the north-west of Jerusalem, and half an hour to the south of Gibeon (see at Jos 18:26). The situation of Aphek has not been discovered. It cannot have been far from Mizpeh and Ebenezer, however, and was probably the same place as the Canaanitish capital mentioned in Jos 12:18, and is certainly different from the Aphekah upon the mountains of Judah (Jos 15:53); for this was on the south or south-west of Jerusalem, since, according to the book of Joshua, it belonged to the towns that were situated in the district of Gibeon.
When the battle was fought, the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines, and in battle-array four thousand men were smitten upon the field. ערך, sc., מלחמה, as in Jdg 20:20, Jdg 20:22, etc. בּמּערכה, in battle-array, i.e., upon the field of battle, not in flight. "In the field," i.e., the open field where the battle was fought.
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 4:3
On the return of the people to the camp, the elders held a council of war as to the cause of the defeat they had suffered. "Why hath Jehovah smitten us to-day before the Philistines?" As they had entered upon the war by the word and advice of Samuel, they were convinced that Jehovah had smitten them. The question presupposes at the same time that the Israelites felt strong enough to enter upon the war with their enemies, and that the reason for their defeat could only be that the Lord, their covenant God, had withdrawn His help. This was no doubt a correct conclusion; but the means which they adopted to secure the help of their God in continuing the war were altogether wrong. Instead of feeling remorse and seeking the help of the Lord their God by a sincere repentance and confession of their apostasy from Him, they resolved to fetch the ark of the covenant out of the tabernacle at Shiloh into the camp, with the delusive idea that God had so inseparably bound up His gracious presence in the midst of His people with this holy ark, which He had selected as the throne of His gracious appearance, that He would of necessity come with it into the camp and smite the foe. In Sa1 4:4, the ark is called "the ark of the covenant of Jehovah of hosts, who is enthroned above the cherubim," partly to show the reason why the people had the ark fetched, and partly to indicate the hope which they founded upon the presence of this sacred object. (See the commentary on Exo 25:20-22). The remark introduced here, "and the two sons of Eli were there with the ark of the covenant of God," is not merely intended to show who the guardians of the ark were, viz., priests who had hitherto disgraced the sanctuary, but also to point forward at the very outset to the result of the measures adopted.
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 4:5
On the arrival of the ark in the camp, the people raised so great a shout of joy that the earth rang again. This was probably the first time since the settlement of Israel in Canaan, that the ark had been brought into the camp, and therefore the people no doubt anticipated from its presence a renewal of the marvellous victories gained by Israel under Moses and Joshua, and for that reason raised such a shout when it arrived.
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 4:6
When the Philistines heard the noise, and learned on inquiry that the ark of Jehovah had come into the camp, they were thrown into alarm, for "they thought (lit. said), God (Elohim) is come into the camp, and said, 'Woe unto us! For such a thing has not happened yesterday and the day before (i.e., never till now). Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the very gods that smote Egypt with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness.' " The Philistines spoke of the God of Israel in the plural., האדּירים האלהים, as heathen who only knew of gods, and not of one Almighty God. Just as all the heathen feared the might of the gods of other nations in a certain degree, so the Philistines also were alarmed at the might of the God of the Israelites, and that all the more because the report of His deeds in the olden time had reached their ears (see Exo 15:14-15). The expression "in the wilderness" does not compel us to refer the words "smote with all the plagues" exclusively to the destruction of Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea (Exo 14:23.). "All the plagues" include the rest of the plagues which God inflicted upon Egypt, without there being any necessity to supply the copula ו before בּמּדבּר, as in the lxx and Syriac. By this addition an antithesis is introduced into the words, which, if it really were intended, would require to be indicated by a previous בּארץ or בּארצם. According to the notions of the Philistines, all the wonders of God for the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt took place in the desert, because even when Israel was in Goshen they dwelt on the border of the desert, and were conducted thence to Canaan.
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 4:9
But instead of despairing, they encouraged one another, saying, "Show yourselves strong, and be men, O Philistines, that we may not be obliged to serve the Hebrews, as they have served you; be men, and fight!"
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 4:10
Stimulated in this way, they fought and smote Israel, so that every one fled home ("to his tent," see at Jos 22:8), and 30,000 men of Israel fell. The ark also was taken, and the two sons of Eli died, i.e., were slain when the ark was taken, - a practical proof to the degenerate nation, that Jehovah, who was enthroned above the cherubim, had departed from them, i.e., had withdrawn His gracious presence.
(Note: "It is just the same now, when we take merely a historical Christ outside us for our Redeemer. He must prove His help chiefly internally by His Holy Spirit, to redeem us out of the hand of the Philistines; though externally He must not be thrown into the shade, as accomplishing our justification. If we had not Christ, we could never stand. For there is no help in heaven and on earth beside Him. But if we have Him in no other way than merely without us and under us, if we only preach about Him, teach, hear, read, talk, discuss, and dispute about Him, take His name into our mouth, but will not let Him work and show His power in us, He will no more help us than the ark helped the Israelites." - Berleburger Bible.)
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 4:12
The tidings of this calamity were brought by a Benjaminite, who came as a messenger of evil tidings, with his clothes rent, and earth upon his head - a sign of the deepest mourning (see Jos 7:6), - to Shiloh, where the aged Eli was sitting upon a seat by the side (יך is a copyist's error for יד) of the way watching; for his heart trembled for the ark of God, which had been taken from the sanctuary into the camp without the command of God. At these tidings the whole city cried out with terror, so that Eli heard the sound of the cry, and asked the reason of this loud noise (or tumult), whilst the messenger was hurrying towards him with the news.
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 4:15
Eli was ninety-eight years old, and "his eyes stood," i.e., were stiff, so that he could no more see (vid., Kg1 14:4). This is a description of the so-called black cataract (amaurosis), which generally occurs at a very great age from paralysis of the optic nerves.
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 4:16
When the messenger informed him of the defeat of the Israelites, the death of his sons, and the capture of the ark, at the last news Eli fell back from his seat by the side of the gate, and broke his neck, and died. The loss of the ark was to him the most dreadful of all - more dreadful than the death of his two sons. Eli had judged Israel forty years. The reading twenty in the Septuagint does not deserve the slightest notice, if only because it is perfectly incredible that Eli should have been appointed judge of the nation in his seventy-eight year.
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 4:19
The judgment which fell upon Eli through this stroke extended still further. His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was with child (near) to be delivered. ללת, contracted from ללדת (from ילד: see Ges. 69, 3, note 1; Ewald, 238, c.). When she heard the tidings of the capture (אל־הלּקח, "with regard to the being taken away") of the ark of God, and the death of her father-in-law and husband, she fell upon her knees and was delivered, for her pains had fallen upon her (lit. had turned against her), and died in consequence. Her death, however, was but a subordinate matter to the historian. He simply refers to it casually in the words, "and about the time of her death," for the purpose of giving her last words, in which she gave utterance to her grief at the loss of the ark, as a matter of greater importance in relation to his object. As she lay dying, the women who stood round sought to comfort her, by telling her that she had brought forth a son; but "she did not answer, and took no notice (לב שׁוּת = לב שׂוּם, animum advertere; cf. Psa 62:11), but called to the boy (i.e., named him), Ichabod (כבוד אי, no glory), saying, The glory of Israel is departed," referring to the capture of the ark of God, and also to her father-in-law and husband. She then said again, "Gone (גּלה, wandered away, carried off) is the glory of Israel, for the ark of God is taken." The repetition of these words shows how deeply the wife of the godless Phinehas had taken to heart the carrying off of the ark, and how in her estimation the glory of Israel had departed with it. Israel could not be brought lower. 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.