What does 1 Samuel 4:4 mean?
ESV: So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
NIV: So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim. And Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
NASB: So the people sent men to Shiloh, and from there they carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord of armies who is enthroned above the cherubim; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
CSB: So the people sent men to Shiloh to bring back the ark of the covenant of the Lord of Armies, who is enthroned between the cherubim. Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
NLT: So they sent men to Shiloh to bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, who is enthroned between the cherubim. Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, were also there with the Ark of the Covenant of God.
KJV: So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from thence the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, which dwelleth between the cherubims: and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
NKJV: 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.
Verse Commentary:
The people of Israel don't ask why the Philistines won their first skirmish, killing many Israelite soldiers. They ask why God defeated them (1 Samuel 4:3). It's the right question, but they produce the wrong answer: that God wasn't close enough to help. So, they resolve to bring the ark of the covenant from the tabernacle in Shiloh to the battlefield. Surely, they think, God will give victory over an enemies if He is right there.

The ark of the covenant or "ark of God" (1 Samuel 3:3) was built by the Israelites during the time of Moses by God's command. It was basically a large box overlaid with gold. Rings were attached to the sides so that it could be carried with long wooden poles, also overlaid with gold. The lid for the box included a "mercy seat." This was flanked on either side by sculpted angels called cherubim with their wings spread out over the mercy seat. The tablets upon which God's covenant with Israel were written were kept in the ark (Exodus 25:10–22).

The ark of the covenant was never said to contain the entire presence of the Lord. God is everywhere, but also said to rule from His throne in heaven (Isaiah 6). The ark is sometimes called God's footstool or podium (1 Chronicles 28:2; Psalm 99:5; Lamentations 2:1). The Lord did say, though, that He would graciously occupy that seat to meet with His people on earth: "There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel" (Exodus 25:22).

The ark had been an important presence in some of Israel's past military victories (Numbers 10:35–36), but this was always at the Lord's direction, not as a pattern. Modern popular culture—infamously including the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark—caricatures the ark as a weapon or a conduit for God's physical power. It's never depicted that way in the Bible, but passages such as this indicate Israel echoed the same kind of superstition.

The elders of Israel send word to Shiloh, and Eli's two sons Hophni and Phinehas accompany the ark of the covenant to the battlefield. Given his position as priest and judge, and the fact that Eli's "heart trembled for the ark of God" (1 Samuel 4:13), it would seem this was all done with Eli's permission.

The presence of Eli's sons should be an ominous sign of what is to come. Those who have read the previous three chapters know the dire prophecy connected to Eli's wicked sons. The Lord said Eli's household would be punished forever because he failed to restrain Hophni and Phinehas in their blasphemy against God. Eli's family abused their power as priests (1 Samuel 2:12–17, 22; 3:13).
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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