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1 Samuel 4

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“The Death of Eli and His Sons”

In the New Testament we read of the deaths of a husband and wife, Ananias and Sapphira, because they lied to the Apostles (and therefore to God). Their deaths brought a hush of reverence upon the whole Christian church at that time.

A long time before that, God displayed His mighty hand against Eli and his priest-sons. For a long time Eli ignored, or did not do anything about, his rebel sons. They held grave and powerful positions in the land of Israel, for the Temple priests were also princes of state along with the Chief Priest. Eli was the chief prince, judge over all Israel, and its supreme ruler. Therefore, his responsibility to both God and men was tremendous.

In this chapter we read of how this responsibility was called to book as Eli was reminded of his errors at the cost of his life; he had failed God miserably by allowing his wayward sons to act sinfully within the walls of God’s house. They also acted with gluttony, violence, greed, and sexual impropriety outside it, giving the households of Eli and God a terrible name.

As my mother used to warn me, God does not sleep. He knows what is going on. Indeed, He knew the sins we would commit before He made the world! So, why are we so stupid when it comes to disobeying? Why do we think we can get away with it? He will, and He must, act against us at some point in our lives, if we continue in our sins. For Eli, the sins of his sons were to lead not only to their deaths, but also to his own.

Verses 1&2

  1. “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.

  2. 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.”

The scene for disaster is set. Samuel was already a well-known religious leader, who would be the last judge of Israel, much to their detriment (when they chose a king, it was to Israel’s detriment). What we come across here is the fact that though Samuel was preaching and teaching God’s truth, men of influence were still doing whatever they liked. Notably, Eli’s two sons. We are now in similar days, when evil is found throughout the churches, and nothing is done about it.

Once again, the time came for battle against the Philistines and the Israelites marched to Ebenezer (‘stone of help’), north of Jerusalem. This is an interesting text because at that time the stone memorial did not yet exist. This is a typical Hebraic literary device, which enabled the writer to mention a place before it came into being. It is like saying “They went to the place that would later be known as...”

As the Israelites pitched their war tents at Ebenezer, their enemy, the Philistines, pitched not too far away, at Aphek (‘enclosure’). They set out their men in battle formation and attacked, soundly beating the Israelites, killing 4,000 men in one day. We can only imagine the disarray of the defeated army. No doubt they thought God was with them!

Verses 3-11

  1. “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.

  2. 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.

  3. And when the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again.

  4. And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, What meaneth the noise of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews? And they understood that the ark of the Lord was come into the camp.

  5. And the Philistines were afraid, for they said, God is come into the camp. And they said, Woe unto us! For there hath not been such a thing heretofore.

  6. Woe unto us! Who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty Gods? These are the Gods that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness.

  7. Be strong, and quit yourselves like men, O ye Philistines, that ye be not servants unto the Hebrews, as they have been to you: quit yourselves like men, and fight.

  8. And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen.

  9. And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.”

As the weary soldiers returned to their camp, their leaders wondered why they had been beaten and clearly saw it as a judgement of God… which it was. Then, they made a fatal mistake – they thought of bringing the Ark of the Covenant to the field of battle. To them, it became a talisman. They sent to Shiloh so that it could save them in the next battle.

The ark was quickly dispatched to the battle, accompanied by Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli. They must have been supremely confident of a triumph. As they entered the camp with the Ark, a great shout went up from the men, a thundering roar that reached the ears of the enemy!

Naturally, the Philistines were unsettled – something big must be afoot! A spy told them the Ark of the Hebrew God was now present in the camp of their enemy. Suddenly, their triumph turned to great fear, for they now believed they would have to fight a mighty god. How could they win against a divine god? They did not know God as He was, but still feared Him, for they had heard of what He could do. This was something they had never come across before, and their immediate reaction was to quake in terror.

They began to shout out... who can save us from the mighty gods? The same gods killed the Egyptians with many plagues! As they wailed, their generals bolstered their will to fight – fight like men! The Hebrews are presently your slaves, do you want to be their slaves now? Take courage and fight hard!

Given at least temporary courage, the men rallied and again went to battle against the Hebrews. To their surprise, they won a second victory and the Hebrews fled back to their camp. This time 30,000 of their infantry died. But, far worse, the Ark was captured! On that same day the two sons of Eli were killed, thus fulfilling the prophecy given by Samuel. God had judged, and the two false priests could not escape their fate.

Verses 12-17

  1. “And there ran a man of Benjamin out of the army, and came to Shiloh the same day with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head.

  2. And when he came, lo, Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching: for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city, and told it, all the city cried out.

  3. And when Eli heard the noise of the crying he said, What meaneth the noise of this tumult? And the man came in hastily, and told Eli.

  4. Now Eli was ninety and eight years old, and his eyes were dim, that he could not see.

  5. And the man said unto Eli, I am he that come out of the army, and I fled to day out of the army. And he said, What is there done, my son?

  6. And the messenger answered and said, Israel is fled before the Philistines, and there hath been also a great slaughter among the people, and thy two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken.”

That same day one of the soldiers, a Benjamite, escaped and ran to Shiloh with the news. He arrived with torn clothing and dirt on his head, to show that a disaster had befallen the nation. Eli was sitting near the roadside waiting. He was afraid because the Ark had been removed by his sons. The runner, however, first told the inhabitants of the city and a cry of horror arose from the men and women.

Eli heard the noise and asked what it meant. The runner then approached the chief priest who was, by that time, nearly 100 years old and blind. He told Eli he was a soldier escaped from the carnage. Eli asked with fearful tone what the news was. The soldier gave him the news he wished he would not hear – “The men of Israel were slaughtered, your two sons were killed, and the Ark was captured!” The news must have struck the old man like a hammer blow!

Verses 18-22

  1. “And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died: for he was an old man, and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years.

  2. And his daughter in law, Phinehas’ wife, was with child, near to be delivered: and when she heard the tidings that the ark of God was taken, and that her father in law and her husband were dead, she bowed herself and travailed; for her pains came upon her.

  3. And about the time of her death the women that stood by her said unto her, Fear not; for thou hast born a son. But she answered not, neither did she regard it.

  4. And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband.

  5. And she said, The glory is departed from Israel: for the ark of God is taken.”

News of his sons’ deaths was bad enough, but as soon as he heard the Ark was taken, the shock was too much. Eli fell backward off his chair near the main gate to the city and broke his neck, dying instantly because he was both old and very heavy in weight. Thus came to an end his 40 year role as judge in Israel. From now on his future family would also be judged.

When his pregnant daughter-in-law, wife of Phinehas, heard the awful news, she immediately went into labour. Like Eli, it was not just the death of her husband that shocked her – it was that the Ark was no longer in Israel. Now, her father-in-law was also dead and all seemed lost, as she started a painful premature birth.

The midwives who tended to her said, “Don’t be afraid – you have given birth to a son”. But, for her it was too late, and she died. Before she died she named her child by a terrible name – Ichabod (‘no glory’). She was both afraid and dismayed. She knew that Israel was under judgement because of Eli and her husband, and so she died in shame after giving her son a name that would bear testimony to that shame. She cried out “The glory of God has left Israel, for the Ark has now gone!

The account of how men used the Ark of God for their own ends is a warning to us all. God is not mocked. The two rebel sons of Eli were evil men. Eli knew of their evil ways and did nothing. Today, as then, we have men in supposed Christian service who are evil and who teach wrongly. Yet, others of repute do nothing to stop them or remove them. God will not sleep and will judge! We ought to fear God’s wrath, for even if we are not the men being directly judged, those of us who are influenced by them will also suffer, just as the Hebrew army fell in its thousands.

Do not let evil men, even well-known names, go unchallenged in our churches! They must be warned to repent and to change straight away, or know God’s wrath. He will punish even His own, so do not think that being a Christian is some kind of shield or immunity. God has struck down bad pastors and teachers in the past, and continues to do so today. Be warned and be fearful, for the Lord is a mighty God. Very soon his hammer will come crashing upon us all, for our laxity.


Published on www.christiandoctrine.com

Bible Theology Ministries - PO Box 415, Swansea, SA5 8YH
United Kingdom