What does 1 Samuel 4:3 mean?
ESV: And when the people came to 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 here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”
NIV: When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, 'Why did the LORD bring defeat on us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the LORD's covenant from Shiloh, so that he may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.'
NASB: When the people came into the camp, the elders of Israel said, 'Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let’s take the ark of the covenant of the Lord from Shiloh, so that He may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.'
CSB: When the troops returned to the camp, the elders of Israel asked, "Why did the Lord defeat us today before the Philistines? Let's bring the ark of the Lord's covenant from Shiloh. Then it will go with us and save us from our enemies."
NLT: After the battle was over, the troops retreated to their camp, and the elders of Israel asked, 'Why did the Lord allow us to be defeated by the Philistines?' Then they said, 'Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, it will save us from our enemies.'
KJV: And when the people were come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, Wherefore hath the LORD smitten us to day before the Philistines? Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies.
NKJV: 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.”
Verse Commentary:
The Israelites have gone out to war. They oppose the Philistines, who are attempting to expand their territory into the Israelite-held hill country of Ephraim. The Philistines have apparently already had some success and forced some Israelites into servitude (1 Samuel 4:9). The first skirmish in this battle has not gone well, with the Philistines killing large numbers of Israelite soldiers in the region between Aphek and Ebenezer, on the western edge of the hill country.

Following the battle, the elders of Israel gather at the Israelite camp to talk strategy. The elders were a representative group of seventy older tribal leaders established by the Lord through Moses (Numbers 11:16–17). Though Eli was still the judge over Israel, this council of elders led the war effort against the Philistines. This may have been because Eli was ninety-eight years old at the time and blind (1 Samuel 4:15).

The elders correctly understand their defeat by the Philistines to be the work of the Lord, but they are baffled. Why would God do this to them? Why didn't He give them the victory as He had done in previous times? It does not apparently occur to them to stop and ask the Lord about this. There is no record of them praying or otherwise inquiring of God, nor of consulting Eli the priest and judge as to what should be done, nor even of wondering if they should. No call is made to abandon the worship of idols and other gods in Israel or to repent of sin, as Samuel will lead them to do twenty years later (1 Samuel 7:3–4).

Instead, the elders presume to access the Lord's power against their enemies without asking Him for help. In short, they will attempt to use God's ark as if it were merely some powerful religious artifact. They will have the ark of the covenant brought from Shiloh. Directly or directly, they seem to think they can force God to use His power to protect them and the ark from destruction. It is unclear whether they think the presence of the ark will manipulate God or whether they equate the ark itself with God's power and protection, not recognizing that God could never be confined to a physical object.
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.
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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