1 Samuel chapter 4

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What does 1 Samuel chapter 4 mean?

Samuel is mentioned in the first verse of 1 Samuel 4, but then he is not mentioned for several chapters, covering about twenty years' time. The action moves to Israel's ongoing war with the Philistines and what happens after the Philistines capture the ark of the covenant.

The Philistines already controlled some of Israel's territory and people. The Israelites put an army together to take a stand against the Philistines on the edge of the hill country of Ephraim. The Israelites encamp at Ebenezer, a short march from the camp of the Philistines, who wait at a place called Aphek. Their first battle goes badly for Israel, and many Israelite soldiers are killed (1 Samuel 4:1–2).

Israel's elders can't understand why the Lord would defeat them. They decide to send for the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:10), the ornate box used in atonement rituals (Exodus 25:22). They want it brought to the battlefield from the tabernacle at Shiloh, because they mistakenly believe they can "bring" God's presence into battle using a physical object. Regardless of what modern popular culture suggests, nothing in Scripture indicates the ark was meant to be used as a weapon. When Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, arrive with the ark, all the Israelites unleash a mighty shout of celebration that carries all the way to the camp of the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:3–6).

The Philistines are idol-worshippers who know the reputation of Israel's God. So, they wrongly believe the ark of God to be Israel's deity, literally; they are terrified when they hear the Israelites have brought the object to their camp. They know the story of how God struck the Egyptians with many plagues to free His people from slavery. How can they fight against such a god? Still, they decide to take courage and fight like men (1 Samuel 4:6–9).

The battle is not even close, but the result is the exact opposite of what either side expected. The Philistines kill almost eight times as many Israelites as they did in the first skirmish. The rest flee for their homes. The Philistines capture the ark of God, and Eli's sons are killed. One survivor runs nearly the length of a modern athletic marathon to deliver the news to Eli, who is waiting by the road at the gate of the city in Shiloh. Eli is blind, overweight. and ninety-eight years old. When he hears his sons are dead and the ark has been captured, he falls over backwards in his chair and breaks his neck. He had been the judge over Israel for forty years (1 Samuel 4:10–18).

Eli's son Phinehas has a wife who is pregnant and nearly due. When she hears that the ark has been captured by the Philistines and Eli and her husband are dead, she goes into premature labor and quickly gives birth. The baby survives, but Phinehas's wife will soon die. Before she does, she names the baby Ichabod, which literally means "no glory." Her final recorded words are that the glory has departed from Israel because the ark of God has been captured (1 Samuel 4:19–22).

What neither Israel nor the Philistines know is that God hasn't abandoned the ark. Israel's enemies will quickly learn they cannot keep the ark like some mere trophy. The details of this painful lesson make up 1 Samuel chapter 5.
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