(1 Samuel 4:1-22) Last Days of Eli. Defeat of Israel at Aphek. The Ark leaves the Shiloh Sanctuary. The Battle in which the Ark is taken. Hophni and Phinehas are Slain. The Death of Eli.
The compiler of the book, in his relation of the young prophet’s error, touches upon an important feature of his great life. Anarchy and confusion had long prevailed throughout the tribes, and none of the hero Judges who had as yet been raised to power had succeeded in restoring the stern, rigid form of theocracy which had made the Israel of Moses and Joshua so great and powerful. The high qualities which in his prime had, no doubt, raised Eli to the first place in the nation, in his old age were almost totally obscured by a weak affection for his unworthy sons. A terrible picture of the corruption of the priesthood is presented to us during the last period of Eli’s reign. We can well imagine what the ordinary life of many among the people, with such an example from their religious guides and temporal governors, must have been. Individual instances of piety and loyalty to the God of their fathers, such as we see-in the house of Elkanah, even though such instances were not unfrequent of themselves, would have been totally insufficient to preserve the nation from the decay which always follows impiety and corruption. In this period of moral degradation the Philistines, part of the original inhabitants of the land, a warlike and enterprising race, taking advantage of the internal jealousies and the weaknesses of Israel, made themselves supreme in many portions of the land, treating the former conquerors often with harshness, and even with contempt.
Samuel grew up to manhood in the midst of this state of things. He was conscious that the invisible King, forgotten by so many of the nation, had chosen him to be the restorer of the chosen people. The boy-prophet, as he passed out of childhood into manhood, does not appear at first to have recognised the depth of moral degradation into which Israel had sunk, or to have seen that it was utterly hopeless to attempt to free the people from the yoke of their Philistine foes until something like a pure national religion was restored. Samuel and the nobler spirits in Israel, who thirsted to restore their nation to freedom and to purity, needed a sharp and bitter experience before they could successfully attempt the deliverance of the people; so the first call to arms resulted in utter disaster, and the defeat at Aphek—the result, we believe, of the summons of Samuel—was the prelude to the crushing blow to the pride of Israel which soon after deprived them of their leaders, their choicest warriors, and, above all, of their loved and cherished “Ark of the Covenant,” the earthly throne of their unseen King, the symbol of His ever-presence in their midst.
And pitched beside Eben-ezer.—“The stones of help.” The name was not given to the place until later, when Samuel set up a stone to commemorate a victory he gained, some twenty years after, over the Philistines.
In Aphek.—With the article, “the fortress.” Perhaps the same place as the old Canaauitish royal city Aphek.
Let us fetch the ark of the covenant.—Whether or not Samuel acquiesced in this fatal proposition we have no information. It evidently did not emanate from him. but, as we are expressly told, from the “elders of the people.” Probably the lesson of the first defeat had deeply impressed him, and he saw that a thorough reformation throughout the land was needed before the invisible King would again be present among the people.
It may save us.—It was a curious delusion, this baseless hope of the elders, that the unseen God was inseparably connected with that strange and beautiful symbol of His presence, with that coffer of perishable wood and metal overshadowed by the lifeless golden angels carved on the shining seat which closed this sacred Ark—that glittering mercy seat, as it was called, round which so many hallowed memories of the glory vision had gathered. Far on in the people’s story, one of the greatest of Samuel’s successors, Jeremiah, presses home the same truth the people were so slow in learning, when he passionately urges his Israel, “Trust ye not in lying words, saying The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these. For if ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings, then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that 1 gave to your fathers, for ever and ever” (Jeremiah 7:4-5; Jeremiah 7:7).
Wordsworth here, with great force, thus writes:—“Probably David remembered this history when, with a clearer faith, he refused to allow the Ark to be carried with him in his retreat before Absalom out of Jerusalem; and even when the priests had brought it forth, he commanded them to carry it back to its place, saying, ‘If I shall find favour in the eyes of the Lord, He will bring me again, and show me both it and His habitation.’ (2 Samuel 15:25.)
“David, without the Ark visibly present, but with the unseen help of Him who was enthroned on the mercy-seat, triumphed, and was restored to Jerusalem; but Israel, with the Ark visibly present, but without the blessing of Him whose throne the Ark was, fell before their enemies, and were deprived of the sacred symbol, which was taken by the Philistines.”
It was in vain that the grand battle hymn of Israel was raised as in the old days when the Ark set forward: “Rise up, Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee” (Numbers 10:35).
Were there with the ark.—This Note respecting the guardians of the Ark is sufficient to account for the terrible discomfiture of Israel. The conduct and general life and example of their priestly leaders have already been indicated. What a contrast the writer of the Book bitterly puts down in his memoirs here—the glorious but now deserted earthly throne of God, and its guardians, the wicked, abandoned priests!
The city of Aphek, near to which the camp of Israel was pitched, was close to the western entrance of the Pass of Beth-horon. The two defeats of Israel are termed in this Commentary the Battles of Aphek. The name of Eben-ezer, by which the scene was known in after days, was only given to the locality some twenty years later, on the occasion of the victory of Samuel near the same spot.
Philistines and Israelites, then, were equally superstitious in their belief both supposing that Deity was in some way connected with the lifeless gold and wood of the symbol Ark and Cherubim. But the Philistines had some excuse for their fears. Tradition was, no doubt, current among the old inhabitants of Canaan how this sacred Ark had been carried before the conquering armies of Israel in many a battle and siege in those bygone days, when the strange shepherd hordes under Joshua had. first invaded and taken possession of their beautiful land. The next verse explains more clearly some of the reasons for their fear.
It is noticeable that the Philistine exclamation of awe and terror is based outwardly upon the Egyptian traditions of the acts of the Lord. They studiedly ignore what they were all in that camp painfully conscious of—His acts in their own land of Canaan. The Septuagint and Syriac Versions, and some commentators, add “and” before the words “in the wilderness,” to make the Philistine exclamation more in harmony with history, seeing that the plagues were inflicted before the Israelites entered the wilderness; but the very vagueness of the exclamation of fear speaks for its truth. They were little concerned with exact historical accuracy, and were simply conscious of some terrible judgment having fallen on the foes of this Israel, a judgment they not unnaturally connected with the Ark of the Covenant just arrived in the enemy’s camp: that Ark their ancestors remembered so often at the head of the armies of this Israel in their days of triumph.
The two sons of Eli . . . were slain.—This was in strict accordance with the saying of the man of God. (See 1 Samuel 2:34.)
The rent clothes and the earth upon the head were the usual indications that the news brought by the messenger were tidings of evil.
The old judge was naturally anxious for news from the army. It must be remembered the people had already (1 Samuel 4:2) suffered a great reverse in the first battle of Aphek, when 4,000 fell, but his chief anxiety was for that sacred Ark which he had allowed—no doubt against his better judgment—to leave the sanctuary. All had gone wrong lately, and the high priest was deeply conscious that he, for his part, with his culpable weakness, and his priestly sons, with their flagrant wickedness, had broken the covenant with the invisible King. Eli knew too much of the Eternal Guardian of Israel to put any real trust in the power of the lifeless Ark. It was a long time, the high priest well knew, since the glory had rested on its golden mercy-seat between the silent cherubim. Had that mysterious light shone in the dark Holy of Holies since the night when the Divine voice spoke to the child, telling him the doom of the house of Ithamar? So he waited with sorrowful forebodings the advent of the messenger, asking himself, Would the Ark ever return to Shiloh?
The very words of the runner were remembered. The whole vivid scene was evidently related by a bystander—some have even suggested that it was Samuel who stood by Eli’s side.
And he had judged Israel forty years.—“When I read of Eli the priest, of the sons of Aaron, judging Israel forty years, and of Samuel, certainly a Levite, though not a priest, going circuit as a judge itinerant in Israel (1 Samuel 7:16), and of others of the families of Levi appointed by King David to be judges and officers, not only in all the business of the Lord, but also for the outward business of Israel (2 Samuel 15:35; 1 Chronicles 26:29-32)—when I observe in the Church stories, ever since the world had Christian princes, how ecclesiastical persons have been employed by their sovereigns in their weightiest consultations and affairs of state, I cannot but wonder at those who inveigh against courts, power, jurisdiction, and the temporalities of bishops and other ecclesiastical persons. I speak it not to justify abuses of men, but to justify the lawfulness of the tiling.”—Bishop Sanderson, quoted by Wordsworth.
The meaning of the term I-chabod is much disputed, owing to the doubt which hangs over the first syllable—“I” followed by “chabod.” It is usually taken to mean a simple negative; “not:” chabod signifying “glory:” I-chabod thus represents “not glory:” i.e., there is no glory. Others render the “I” syllable as a query, “Where?” “Where is the glory?” the answer, of course, being, “It is nowhere.” But the best rendering seems to be to understand the syllable “I” as an exclamation of bitter sorrow, “Alas !” The name then could be translated, “Alas! the glory.”