We had moved the first part of verse 1 of this chapter to the end of the last chapter last time, so now we take up verse 1 in the middle.
1. Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines, and encamped beside Ebenezer; and the Philistines encamped in Aphek.
The Philistines were Israel’s neighbors on the southwest along the Mediterranean Sea. Their name means “Immigrants.” They were descended from Ham, but not from Canaan, but from his son Mizraim. Since they were not actually Canaanites, they were not one of the seven nations whom the Israelites were supposed to destroy. Nevertheless, they were usually enemies of Israel, and often tried to conquer them. Israel was supposed to drive them out in order to possess their land, although they were not required to destroy them, like they were the Canaanites. However, the LORD had not driven them out at first by the Israelites, as He explains in Judges 3:1-4.
1. Now these are the nations which the LORD left, that He might test Israel by them, that is, all who had not known any of the wars in Canaan 2. (this was only so that the generations of the children of Israel might be taught to know war, at least those who had not formerly known it), 3. namely, five lords of the Philistines, all the Canaanites, the Sidonians, and the Hivites who dwelt in Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal Hermon to the entrance of Hamath. 4. And they were left, that He might test Israel by them, to know whether they would obey the commandments of the LORD, which He had commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses.
So the five lords of the Philistines were left in their land, and they were not yet driven out by Israel. Therefore, they became a constant thorn in Israel’s side, and their incessant enemies. They first fought against them in the days of the judge Shamgar (Judges 3:31.) In Judges 10:6-7, we learn that they were oppressed by the Philistines again, yet this oppression seems to have been mostly the doing of the Ammonites, and Jephthah’s war to free Israel from them is mostly against Ammon. It does not seem that the Philistines became major aggressors against Israel until the days of Samson. Yet as far as we can tell, Samson was immediately before Eli as judge over Israel, so that at this time they are one of the most serious enemies the nation faces.
So Israel is now preparing to battle against this formidable enemy. They make their camp beside the rock Ebenezer, though this rock was not actually so named until after the battle in I Samuel 7, as we will see when we get to that portion of the narrative. Ebenezer means “Stone of Help,” as we will see when we get to chapter 7. The Philistines, on the other hand, camp at Aphek, which means “Enclosure.”
2. 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.
So the armies set themselves in battle array, forming a line one against another, as the ancient method of fighting always was until the invention of modern-day firearms. When the two sides join together and fight, Israel loses the first battle of the war, and four thousand men are killed, a very large number in that day. How could it be, that the LORD’s army could thus be defeated? If we know the Scriptures, we should immediately understand what this means, for Deuteronomy 28 clearly sets forth why Israel would lose in war.
1. “Now it shall come to pass, if you diligently obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth. 2. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the LORD your God:
7. “The LORD will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before your face; they shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways.
15. “But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:
25. “The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies; you shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them; and you shall become troublesome to all the kingdoms of the earth.
This collection of verses when considered together show clearly that if Israel was ever defeated in battle, they should take this as a sign that they have not obeying the voice of the LORD. This was certainly true of Israel at this time. As we saw from chapters 2 and 3, even Eli, their judge and high priest, was ignoring the LORD’s voice and refusing to do what He said. How much more the common people!
3. 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.”
The Israelites return to their camp, and start to try to figure out why they were defeated, and such a great loss was inflicted upon them. They start out by asking the right question, for they realize that it is Jehovah Who has defeated them today before the Philistines, and not the might of the Philistines or their power that has caused them to lose. Therefore, they wonder why Jehovah has done this? This was exactly the question they should have been asking, and they should have turned to the Word of God to find out the answer. If they had, they no doubt would have found the passage from Deuteronomy 28 that we considered above, and that would have given them their answer.
However, having asked the right question, they sadly fail to stay with it. Instead of seeking an answer, they hurriedly come up with a rash and ill-advised plan. They decide that if Jehovah won’t help them voluntarily, that there must be a way to force Him to help them, whether He likes it or not. And they decide that the way to do that is to bring the ark of the covenant of Jehovah from Shiloh to their army. If His ark is among the army, then surely He must help them win, they reason, for He will not want anything bad to happen to His ark. Thus, they try to force God’s hand and manipulate Him into helping them. Yet God is not one to be manipulated by men, as these Israelite soldiers will find out to their own sorrow. Far better it would have been for them if they had sought help from Jehovah on His terms, rather than on theirs!
So what was this ark of which they spoke? The ark, whose full name was the Ark of the Covenant, was basically a box, measuring 3.75 feet long by 2.25 feet wide by 2.25 feet high. It was made of acacia wood which was then covered with gold. A lid was placed on it, on which was what was called the mercy seat. Statues of two golden cherubim were carved on each side of this mercy seat. Between the cherubs, Jehovah would meet with them. Thus, this box called the ark was the symbol of His presence. See Exodus 25 for the Biblical description of it.
The idea of a physical symbol like this to represent God is bothersome to some, but it should not be so. It is wrong for anyone to take it upon himself to make anything that represents God’s presence, for that would be to make an idol. Yet the ark was not something that was made of a man’s own volition. What made this ark permissible and what made this fancy box important was that God commanded it to be made. If He says to make a box to represent Him, then that is what must be done, and it does represent Him because He said so. Yet for any human being to take it upon Himself to make a box and to claim that this box represents or holds God, as some in traditional churches do even today, is disobedience to God and an affront to Him, for He has commanded us never to make such a thing.
So this ark was important and was identified with God because He said it was. Yet it did not really contain Him, but was just a symbol of His presence, for He is far bigger than a box! Yet now we see that the Israelites are treating the ark like an idol. They seem to think they can bring it into war, and this will force God to go into war with them. This is how pagan nations treated their gods made of wood and stone. But God is not an idol to be thus manipulated!
4. 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.
The Israelites move to carry out their plan, sending to the priestly city of Shiloh to bring the ark of the covenant of Yahweh of hosts to them. The author reminds us that Yahweh had promised to dwell between the cherubim on the cover of the ark when He had it made. So the ark comes to the camp, being carried there by Hophni and Phinehas, Eli’s two sons. Yet in this we see how wrong the Israelites’ plan is going from the start. Instead of bringing victory among them by bringing in the ark, they only bring in more reasons for God to send them to defeat, for the two priests Hophni and Phinehas, men God had promised to slay, were the ones who brought the ark to the camp!
5. And when the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth shook.
All Israel shouts when the ark comes into their camp. We cannot fault their enthusiasm about God’s ark, but this does not excuse their wrong thinking about it that caused them to bring it there in the first place. They probably also shouted because they thought by bringing the ark into their camp, they had assured themselves victory. Yet they had really insulted God by treating His ark like an idol and acting like they could manipulate His actions. He cannot be coerced into doing what men want Him to do.
The word for the earth shaking is used only six times in the Hebrew Bible, and its meaning is a bit hard to pin down. The idea seems to basically be that of making noise, so the idea seems to be that the noise of the great shout traveled through the ground.
6. 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.
The Philistines want to know why the army they had routed in the last battle are now shouting like victors. They look into it, probably sending spies or scouts, and they discover the truth: that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp.
7. 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.
The God of the Hebrews had quite a reputation among the people around Israel. They knew how He had brought the People out of Egypt with mighty power, and how He had destroyed the Canaanites before them and given them their land. So when they hear that His ark has come into the Hebrew camp, they are afraid.
Notice what the assumption of these idolatrous Philistines immediately is. They are used to the idea of idols, where a god is represented by a statue, and they viewed those statues as if they actually were the presence of the god. Now, the Israelites have used the ark of Jehovah to try to bring them victory in battle, treating it as if it were an idol. And the Philistines immediately pick up on that! Instead of the ark being the sign of God’s covenant with Israel and the place where He meets with them, they now assume that the ark is just like an idol, and its coming into the camp is the same as God coming into the camp. They were wrong in their assumption, but this was not really their fault, since they had been taught to make this assumption by the Israelites themselves when they brought the ark to them in the first place!
It seems that oftentimes the wrong ideas the world has about God are spread to them by believers who themselves are not careful to be sure they understand God as they should. The Israelites are now responsible for teaching the Philistines to look on the ark as an idol. First, then, the Israelites will have to be taught the folly of this kind of thinking, and then the Philistines will have to be taught better as well. Yet once again, the Israelites have doomed their efforts, not helped them, by what they have done here.
8. 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.
As might be expected of pagans at that time, these Philistines assume that there are multiple gods in Israel, not just one. The Hebrew use of “Gods” with singular verbs, as in “Gods created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) was confusing, and they thought it meant they served multiple gods, which of course they did not.
Notice that even hundreds of years later, these men hundreds of miles away have heard of what God did in Egypt! They know about the plagues, though they seem to transfer them to the wilderness. Of course, the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea took place in the wilderness, but all the other plagues took place in Egypt. But it is significant that they know this much about Israel’s history that was already centuries old. God’s reputation had spread far and wide, and was known by the nations that lived around Israel, though that still did not stop them from trying to conquer His land.
When we consider how God would sometimes allow other nations to defeat Israel when they were not obeying Him, and then would give them stunning victories after Israel turned back to Him, we can why the nations around them did not just assume they could never beat Israel and give up on the attempt. They could not necessarily distinguish when Yahweh might be angry with Israel and when He might not, so there must have always seemed a chance to them that they could win. This bringing of the ark into the camp, though, is enough to throw the Philistines into a panic. They do not panic, however.
9. 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!”
Instead of panicking or being weakened with terror, this stirs the Philistines up to fight harder! They realize that if they do not do something, they might end up as slaves to the Hebrews, instead of the other way around. So they encourage themselves, and go out to battle grimly determined. This was from the LORD, of course, for He still wanted these Philistines to win.
10. 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.
So the Philistines fight, and Israel is defeated. This is only to be expected, since the reason they lost the first time was that they were not doing what was right and pleasing Jehovah, and so they lost in battle, as Deuteronomy 28 warned. Instead of realizing this and working to change it, Israel had made an idol out of the ark and brought it into the camp, and then gone back to war just as much out of God’s will as before. So Israel pays the price for their sins, not the least of which were those of their priests, and for treating Jehovah like a pagan god. Instead of victory, they only achieved stunning defeat, for thirty thousand of them are killed in battle, and the rest flee back home for their lives. Thus they learned a hard lesson: God’s ark was not an idol, nor a lucky charm.
11. Also the ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
The Israelites thought that God would never allow something bad to happen to His ark, and so He would have to give them the victory if they brought it into their camp. However, God proved that His hand cannot be forced to abandon what He has determined to do in this way. Thus they discovered that they were wrong: God would let something bad happen to the ark, and He did let something bad happen to the ark. He actually let the Philistines capture it! So Israel learned their lesson about the ark of God. Now, however, it remains for the Philistines to learn the same lesson. They will learn that Yahweh is not like other gods, even if the Israelites treated Him that way.
Eli’s two sons Hophni and Phinehas die together, as Yahweh had said they would through His prophet back in I Samuel 2:34. Thus the curse on Eli’s house proclaimed to him through Yahweh’s prophet starts to come to pass. We will follow out how it continued to come to pass as we go on through the book of Samuel.
12. 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.
The battle had taken place near Shiloh, the city where the LORD’s tabernacle was set up at that time, as we have seen. The city is so near where the battle was that it is in great danger of being plundered now that Israel has lost the war, and so there is no army for its protection. So this man of the tribe of Benjamin comes there to warn the priests and those dwelling there. He comes with clothes torn and dirt on his head, both of which are signs of mourning, letting them know that it is no good news that this messenger is carrying.
13. 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.
It seems that ever since his two sons took the ark of God away to the camp, Eli has been sitting along the road watching for news, trembling lest anything bad happen to the ark. Yet notice the sad irony of this. Eli trembled more for the ark of Jehovah than for the word of Jehovah! His priesthood had truly become an empty religion. The physical objects and outward symbols like the ark mattered deeply to him, but his broken relationship with Jehovah mattered little. A sad condition indeed, yet not one that is uncommon among the religious even today.
When the Benjamite messenger comes into the city, the people cry out as they hear the news. Among other things, they know this loss so near at hand will mean that the Philistines are going to loot all the nearby towns, so that means they will have to flee for their lives and leave their homes behind. This truly was a great tragedy for Israel!
14. 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 is concerned by the noise of the outcry that he hears, and wants to know what it means. The messenger comes to inform him personally, for Eli was a most important man in Israel at that time. He was the patriarch of the priestly line; ruler of that town, which was settled by the priestly family; and was even the ruler over Israel itself, as we will see in a few verses. He must be informed of this great tragedy.
15. Eli was ninety-eight years old, and his eyes were so dim that he could not see.
The Bible informs us here that Eli was old, and had become blind with age. As we have seen in the previous chapters, that was not the only blindness he suffered from. He had lost His spiritual insight as well, and Yahweh was no longer with him.
16. 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?”
The messenger introduces himself, informing Eli that he has carried news from the battle line. Of course, the fact that he fled rather than being sent with news from the battle speaks of disaster. Still Eli needs to know more than this, and so demands a report from the man.
17. 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.”
The messenger reports, as Eli asked. He describes the flight of Israel, and the great slaughter of the soldiers that took place. He tells of the death of the two priests, Hophni and Phinehas. Thus Eli learns of the death of his two sons, both at once, as God had told him would happen in I Samuel 2:34, “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.” So Eli received the sign that the LORD said he would receive. He will not have much time to grieve over it, however. Last of all, the messenger gives the worst news: that the ark of God has been captured.
18. 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.
Israel’s defeat and the loss of the ark to the Philistines are Eli’s final failures of all his many failures. First, he failed as a father, then as a priest, and now finally as a judge. Yet no time will be allotted to Eli to ponder on his failures, for now the punishment he richly deserved falls upon him. For Eli falls backward when he hears of the capture of ark of God. He was seated by the hard earth of the road, remember, and when he falls he lands on his head and his neck is broken.
Now consider how fitting an end this was for Eli. Remember, Jehovah had accused him in I Samuel 2:29 of being overweight because he had eaten the fat stolen from God’s sacrifices. “Why do you kick at My sacrifice and My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling place, and honor your sons more than Me, to make yourselves fat with the best of all the offerings of Israel My people?” So Eli was fat because he had eaten the fat that his sons had stolen from the offerings that Israel made to Jehovah. Now, it is that very same fat that kills him, for the weight of his body breaks his neck. All we can say to this is that God’s justice, when He chooses to act in justice, is very fitting. We do not see Him acting this way today, for we live in a time when God does not act in judgment, but instead acts totally in grace. Nevertheless, when He does choose to act this way, His judgment is always fitting, and His punishment is always right.
Finally, we read that he had judged Israel forty years. Apparently, he was the next judge after Samson, the last judge chronologically in the book of Judges. When he started off judging Israel, he may have been a fairly good judge, but sadly, he did not end well at all, as we have seen. Still, in reading this we mourn the sad story of a once-Godly man who chose his family over the living God and paid for his choice with his life.
19. 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.
We learn that Phinehas’s wife, Eli’s daughter-in-law, is pregnant as this is happening. Considering that Eli was 98 years old at this time, either he or his sons, perhaps both, must have married late and married younger women. At any rate, when she hears the tragic news, not just that has happened to Israel, but also to her family, the shock induces her labor.
We must realize in this that a married woman at that time was no longer considered a part of the family she grew up in, but had transferred completely to her husband’s family. The head of that family, the CEO of the family business, if you will, was the patriarch, in this case Eli. Now not only had he died, but the two sons who might have been his successors had died as well. This spelled near utter disaster for Eli’s family, and the shock to this young woman must have been great. Thus she goes into labor, and eventually gives birth to Eli’s grandchild upon hearing the bad news. So God’s promise will continue. Eli’s family will not be wiped out at this time, for then Yahweh’s words against them would have no one to work against. Eli’s family must continue, so that God’s curse can continue to work against them, causing all of them to die young until they see a rival priest arise, and are finally driven out of the priesthood.
20. 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.
This birth is also a tragedy, not just because of the circumstances, but also because it is fatal to the mother. Whether the disaster that had happened caused her to give up on life, or what exactly went wrong, we are not told. But she did successfully give birth to a son, as the women who were helping her assured her. Yet this does not interest the dying mother. She is beyond the place where the birth of a child could bring her comfort.
21. 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.
In her final grief, this woman names her new boy Ichabod, which means “no glory.” She named him this because of the ark, and her father-in-law and husband. One meaning of glory is the recognition that is given a thing, and it could be she means that the recognition of God has left Israel, and He no longer recognizes them now that He has allowed them to lose the ark. We should not just assume this woman was right in this, for she was speaking from the depths of despair. Yet certainly God had displayed that He was angry at His people for their sins, not least of which were the sins of their now-dead leader. The glory may or may not have departed from Israel, but it is certain that it had departed from Eli’s family.
22. And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
Again she repeats her statement that the glory had departed from Israel. No doubt this was the opinion of many in Israel as well when they learned of this terrible tragedy. We may think that they were placing too much emphasis on the ark. Yet remember that this was more than just a fancy box, but rather was the sign of God’s presence with them that He had given them. To have it taken out of Israel was a sore blow to the nation, for God’s presence with them truly was their glory. Therefore we cannot blame them for the terrible sorrow this loss caused them. Yet God can take care of Himself. He has taught His people something about the ark, and now He will teach the Philistines something about it as well, as we will see in the next chapter.