What does 1 Samuel 4 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
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.
Verse Context:
First Samuel 4:1–11 mentions Samuel's new role delivering God's Word to Israel. It then describes a battle between Israel and the Philistines. After losing an initial skirmish, the elders of Israel bring the ark of the covenant to the battlefield. This briefly terrifies the Philistines but doesn't stop them. The Israelites are defeated, losing many men. In a humiliating blow, the ark of the covenant is captured. Eli's sons are killed, and every survivor of the battle runs for home.
First Samuel 4:12–22 describes the reaction of the people of Shiloh, to news from the battle with the Philistines. A runner arrives and finds Eli, now ninety-eight and blind, sitting by the road at the gate. When Eli hears the news that the battle is lost, his sons are dead, and the ark is captured, he falls over backwards and dies. His daughter-in-law also reacts badly, going into premature labor and then dying herself after giving birth. She names the baby Ichabod, indicating the glory has departed from Israel because the ark has been captured.
Chapter Summary:
Israel amasses an to fight against the Philistines. After losing badly in the first battle, the elders send for the ark of God to be brought from Shiloh. They seem to assume the mere presence of the ark will act like a lucky charm or talisman. The Philistines are terrified at the idea of fighting Israel's deity, but they still defeat the Israelites, slaughtering many soldiers and capturing the ark. A runner delivers the news to Eli that his sons are dead and the ark is captured. He dies, and his daughter-in-law goes into premature labor. Before she dies, she names the baby Ichabod, saying that the glory has departed from Israel.
Chapter Context:
First Samuel 4 begins a new section of 1 Samuel. The young prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1—3) disappears from the story for several chapters. Israel brings the ark of the covenant to a battle with the Philistines, but they are wiped out anyway. The Philistines rout the army and capture the ark. A runner delivers the news to Eli that his sons are dead and the ark is taken. Eli dies, as does his daughter-in-law after giving birth to a son she names Ichabod. She declares that the glory has departed from Israel because the ark has been captured. Despite this, the Philistines will soon learn the ark is not a mere trophy (1 Samuel 5).
Book Summary:
First Samuel introduces the key figures who led Israel after the era of the judges. The books of 1 and 2 Samuel were originally part of a single text, split in certain translations shortly before the birth of Christ. Some of the Bible’s most famous characters are depicted in this book. These including the prophet Samuel, Israel’s first king, Saul, her greatest king, David, and other famous names such as Goliath and Jonathan. By the end of this book, Saul has fallen; the book of 2 Samuel begins with David’s ascension to the throne.
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