I Samuel 4

The Word Made Fresh

1Word of Samuel spread through all of Israel.

In those days Israel went to war against the Philistines. They camped at Ebenezer, while the Philistines camped at Aphek. The Philistines formed a battle line against Israel and defeated them, killing about four thousands of them. 3When the soldiers returned to the camp, the leaders of Israel cried, “Why has the LORD allowed the Philistines to defeat us? Let’s bring the chest of the covenant here from Shiloh. Then the LORD will be with us and help us defeat our enemies.”

4They sent word to Shiloh, and the covenant chest of the LORD, whose throne is formed by the cherubim on the lid covering the chest, was brought to them. Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, came also.

5When the chest containing the covenant of the LORD arrived at the camp, the soldiers cheered until the ground shook. 6The Philistines heard their clamor and wondered, “What are they cheering about in the Hebrew camp?” When they learned that the chest of the LORD had arrived, 7they were very afraid. They said, “A god has come to their camp! What can we do? This has never happened before. 8Oh, no! Who can save us from the might of these gods? These are the gods that struck down the Egyptians with terrible plagues in the wilderness. 9Have courage! Fight like men, Philistines, or we’ll be slaves to the Hebrews as they have been our slaves. Be men! Fight!”

10The Philistines fought and defeated Israel. The Israelites fled to their homes, and thirty thousand of their soldiers fell. 11The chest of the LORD was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were killed.

12A Benjaminite ran to Shiloh that same day. His clothes were torn, and his hair was matted with dirt. 13When he arrived he saw Eli sitting on a seat by the road keeping watch, afraid for the safety of the chest of the LORD. The runner went on into Shiloh and told them what had happened, and all of them were terrified. 14When Eli heard the outcry and asked what was going on, the runner came to him. 15Eli was ninety-eight years old, and blind. 16The runner said, “I have just come from the battle that took place earlier today.”

Eli asked, “Tell me what happened, son.”

17The man said, “Israel is in full retreat, and many of the soldiers are dead. Your sons, Hophni and Phinehas were killed, and the chest of the LORD’s covenant has been taken.”

18When he heard about the chest, Eli fell over backward from his seat beside the gate and, because he was a heavy old man, his neck was broken, and he died. He had been Israel’s judge for 40 years.

19His daughter-in-law, Phinehas’ wife, was pregnant and was in labor when she heard the news that the chest had been taken and that her husband and her father-in-law were dead. She became overwhelmed with the labor pains, and was dying while she was giving birth. 20The women attending her said, “Don’t be afraid; you have a son!” She did not answer. 21But she named the child Ichabod, which means, “our honor is gone,” because the LORD’s covenant chest had been captured, and her husband and her father-in law were dead. 22Her final words were, “All honor has departed from Israel, for the LORD’s covenant chest has been captured.”


1-4: The old conflict with the Philistines flares up again. The Philistines amass an army at Aphek, some 25 miles west of Shiloh in the coastal plains, seven or eight miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea. The Israelites respond with a force of their own and in the ensuing battle are defeated. The elders counsel together and decide to bring the covenant chest to the battlefield. Hophni and Phinehas, Eli’s sons, come with it.

5-11: When the covenant chest arrives, the Israelites raise a cheer that is heard in the Philistine camp. The Philistines’ intelligence tells them that the chest has arrived in the Israelite camp, and they are afraid because they have heard the story of how Israel’s God defeated the Egyptians. Rather than running away, however, the Philistines determine that they must fight even harder. They deliver an even more disastrous defeat to Israel and capture the covenant chest in the bargain. Eli’s sons, Phinehas and Hophni, are killed during the battle, fulfilling the prophecy given to Eli (2:34).

12-18: A messenger runs to Shiloh to deliver the news — he covers the 25 miles in one day. Eli asks him to report, and when the man tells him that his sons are dead and the ark has been captured, the old man falls off his seat and breaks his neck and dies. He is 98 years old and has “judged” Israel for 40 years. The next judge, and the last judge, will be Samuel. He will combine the functions of judge, priest and prophet.

19-22: The bad news brought by the messenger is so upsetting that Phinehas’ wife dies in childbirth. But to her and to Eli it is apparent that the greatest part of the disaster is not the death of Eli’s sons, but the loss of the chest containing the covenant with God. They are certain it means that God is no longer with them.


On a number of occasions God stepped away, but never abandoned Israel. Sometimes God lets us suffer the consequences of our folly, but always the love God has for God’s people (and for us today) hovers in the background, ready to be revealed when we become humbled enough to confess and repent.