What does 1 Samuel 4:18 mean?Eli received the terrible news about Israel's defeat like a literal punch in the stomach. A man who fled from the battle arrived in a state of grieving with clothes torn and dirt on his head (1 Samuel 4:12). The city had already begun to mourn the dead and the loss of Israel's army (1 Samuel 4:13). Now the man has given the old priest a litany of terrible facts: the army slaughtered and scattered, Eli's own sons were killed, and the ark was captured by Israel's enemies (1 Samuel 4:17).
It seems to be the news of the ark that hits Eli the hardest. Perhaps he expected to hear of the death of his sons. The Lord had revealed to him that both would die on the same day as a sign that all of Eli's descendants would die young (1 Samuel 2:33–34). The capture of the ark, though, must have felt like the loss of God Himself or certainly of the Lord's favor.
Truly, Eli and many in Israel may have seen the loss of the ark as a major blow to their faith. If the Lord who brought them out of Egypt would allow His ark to be captured, what kind of a God did they serve? Of course, such conclusions would reveal a completely wrong understanding of who God is and what He desired for His people. The Lord was not contained or channeled in the ark, as the Philistines imagined (1 Samuel 4:7). He was the one who demonstrated His power using a visual aid of the ark, not the other way around, as the Philistines would soon learn (1 Samuel 5:1–5).
So shocked is Eli by the news that he falls over backwards out of his chair. He had been sitting by the gate of the city by the side of the road into town (1 Samuel 4:13). The old, overweight priest lands badly on his neck when he falls, breaking it and dying instantly.
The text adds that Eli had been a "judge" over Israel for forty years. The judges (Judges 2:16–19) served as Israel's leaders and guides in the time between Joshua and the kings. Eli's time as judge followed that of Samson (Judges 13–16). Eli was the final judge before Samuel (1 Samuel 7:15; 8:1–5), who helped to anoint the first two kings of Israel, Saul (1 Samuel 10:1) and David (1 Samuel 16:13).