The sign that had been given to Eli about the fall of his house was the fact that his two sons would die on the same day. He heard this news just seconds before he himself died. He had also heard the news that disaster for his house was disaster for all of Israel as well—the ark of the covenant was taken by a heathen army. The glory departed from Israel, and it was left desolate.
“And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Ebenezer: and the Philistines pitched in Aphek. And the Philistines put themselves in array against Israel: and when they joined battle, Israel was smitten before the Philistines: and they slew of the army in the field about four thousand men . . .” (1 Sam. 4:1-22).
Summary of the Text
The word of Samuel came to all Israel (v. 1). In this time, Israel pitched near Ebenezer and the Philistines in Aphek (v. 1). The two armies arrayed against one another, and battle was joined. Israel got the worst of it (v. 2). As a result, the elders of Israel called for the ark of the covenant to be brought up from Shiloh (v. 3). This they did, and Hophni and Phineas came with the ark (v. 5). When the ark came into the camp, Israel shouted so that the earth shook (v. 6). The noise, and the reason for it, rattled the Philistines (v. 7). The Philistines came to the conclusion that they were done for (vv. 7-8). But they were in desperate straits, so they encouraged one another to the fight (v. 9). The battle was joined again, and Israel was utterly routed (v. 10). On top of that disaster, the ark of the covenant was captured and the two worthless sons of Eli were killed (v. 11).
A messenger from the tribe of Benjamin came to Shiloh, his clothes torn and earth on his head (v. 12). Eli was waiting by the road for news about the ark, and when the messenger came, the whole city cried out (v. 13). Eli asked about the tumult, and the messenger came and told him the news (v. 14). Eli was 98 years old, and his eyes were dim—he could not see (v. 15). The messenger identified himself (v. 16), and told Eli of the defeat, the death of his sons, and the capture of the ark (v. 17). At this Eli fell over backward and broke his neck and died. He had been judge for 40 years (v. 18).
The wife of Phinehas was pregnant, and when she heard about the ark, and that her father-in-law and husband were dead, she went into labor, and then she died (v. 20). But before she died she named Eli’s grandson Ichabod, which means “the glory is departed.” She did this because of the ark, and because of Eli and Phinehas (vv. 21-22).
The Sanctuary Violated
We sometimes think that God is not careful enough with His holy things. God Himself is going to desecrate this holy place. But God is Himself holy, and He would never do such a thing unjustly. The ark of the covenant is captured in battle, which means that the holiest object in Israel’s possession was in the hands of the Philistines— and God was the one who did that. But why?
As we have seen, the Lord’s sacrifices were being polluted by Hophni and Phinehas. Phinehas was named after a faithful man who had speared a fornicating couple in the time of Moses (Num. 25:1-9). By contrast, this Phinehas was immoral with the women who were serving at the tabernacle, uncovering their nakedness. As Peter Leithart has observed, this was tantamount to “ripping down the curtains of the tabernacle.” In short, when God desecrates His own holy things, it is because they have already been desecrated. On top of everything else the ark of the covenant was taken out onto the battlefield as though it were a sort of talisman. No prophet had commanded this, and yet the Israelites thought that God could be whistled up through their manipulation of a sacred object. But it doesn’t work that way.
His Eye Was Dim
Right before Samuel hears the word of the Lord for the first time, we are told that Eli’s eyes were dim (1 Sam. 3:2). In this he was not like Moses, who at 120 was still vigorous, and his eyes undimmed (Dt. 34:7). The same thing is repeated here in this text (v. 15), which is quite striking. We are told that Eli could not see right before Samuel saw the Lord, and was given the prophetic word by Him. And here we are told the same thing again, just before the events foretold by Samuel are reported to Eli as accomplished.
The Weight of Glory
We are told that Eli was a heavy man, a fat man (v. 18). We were told earlier by the nameless prophet that Eli had (indirectly) made himself fat through the best offerings of the people (1 Sam. 2:29). The word for heavy here is kebed. The word for glory is kabod (which you can hear in the name Ichabod). One is a true glory and the other is a counterfeit glory—and both kinds of weight depart from Israel in judgment.
What it is to Hear the Lord
We see in this passage a culmination of themes. Eli heard about the loss of the ark, and the death of his sons because he had not heard the previous warnings the way he ought to have. Samuel had heard the Lord speak in a time of Israel’s history when very few heard the word of the Lord. When Eli did admonish his sons, they did not listen to him (1 Sam. 2:25). And why? Because it was the Lord’s purpose to destroy them—it was past the time for listening.
Someone has wisely said that the course of the kingdom of God is a series of great triumphs cleverly disguised as disasters. In the midst of this chaos, Samuel is growing up into a faithful prophet, ministering as a holy young man in the precincts of a doomed temple.