“The Glory Has Departed”: Setting Our Hearts on the Surprising Lord God of Hosts

1 Samuel 4-6
Third Sunday of Easter – April 30, 2017 (am)

            Our Father in Heaven, almighty Lord God of Hosts, God of life, your Spirit raised Jesus from the dead. Your Spirit inspired the prophets and writers of Scripture. Your Spirit draws us to Christ and opens our hearts and lips to confess him as Lord. Send your Spirit now, we pray, to illumine our eyes, that we might grow in faith, hope, and love, through the proclamation of your Word, in Jesus’ name. Amen.[1]

Our passage this morning includes 1 Sam 5, which we just read, and the two chapters that sandwich it, chs. 4 and 6.[2] It is a large section of Scripture, and time and (perhaps also) our attention-spans do not permit us to read it in its entirety. It will do us some good, then, to spend a good chunk of the morning working through the story by way of summary, highlighting the key events and basic plot of the passage. So if you don’t already have your Bible open to 1 Sam 4, turn there now, and let’s get a survey of sorts of these chapters.

As we saw last week, in ch. 3 the young Samuel is called to be the Lord’s prophet.[3] The narrative moves rather abruptly from the Lord beginning to speak through Samuel to all Israel at the end of ch. 3,[4] to all Israel gathered for battle with the Philistines at the beginning of ch. 4. The Philistines had been the antagonizers and oppressors of Israel for a while,[5] but the narrative here in 1 Sam 4 doesn’t offer any clues as to why Israel and Philistia are gathered for battle at this time.[6] All we’re told, in v. 1, is that Israel camps at Ebenezer on the western side of Israelite territory, about 20 miles west of Shiloh where the Tabernacle and ark are located; and the Philistines assemble for battle just opposite Ebenezer at the city of Aphek. In v. 2, the armies collide, with the Philistines getting the upper hand, killing some 4,000 Israelites.

In vv. 2–4, the Israelites respond to this defeat partly well but mostly very poorly. On the one hand, they recognize the sovereignty of the Lord in their suffering and defeat. They ask, in v. 3, “Why has the Lord defeated us before the Philistines.” The ultimate mover and shaker in history is the God of Israel. It is not ultimately good or bad military strategy, full or empty bank accounts, good or bad political leaders in office, or what we do or think about ourselves that is the ultimate reason for the calamity or well-being of nations and individuals. Ultimately, it is the Lord God of hosts who raises up and casts down. The people of Israel are right to ask why the Lord defeated them before the Philistines.

But they are wrong, and very foolish, for not actually trying to answer the question. Have you noticed the strange fact that their extremely important question is never really answered? For they assume they know the answer already—just as many of us ask questions not because we are seeking an answer but to assert the answers we think we already know. Israel raises a question, but has already answered it in their hearts: the Lord caused them to be defeated, because the Lord wasn’t really present with them in battle. His presence was locked away in Shiloh at the tabernacle. So the solution is simple, which they voice in the second half of v. 3: “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” The Israelites believe that God’s presence is mechanistically tied to the ark of the covenant, the box which served as a kind of moveable throne or footstool of the Lord. If they bring this ark with them into battle like a lucky rabbit’s foot, then God will surely be with them to defeat their enemies.[7] So they send for the ark at Shiloh, and it is brought to the battle by Hophni and Phinehas,[8] the wicked sons of the priest Eli, whom we have already met in the opening chapters of the book.

What’s the result of this new battle strategy? At first, it strikes fear into the hearts of the Philistines. For, amazingly, the Philistines know about and tremble at the saving power of the God of Israel. When the Philistines realize that the ark of the covenant joins the battle, they lose heart.[9] They cry out in v. 8, “Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness.”[10] But they’re not cowards. They don’t turn tail and run as though all were lost. “Take courage, and be men, O Philistines,” they say to themselves in v. 9: “Be men and fight.”

That’s what they go on to do. And they win. Verse 10 tells us that the Philistines again defeat Israel. And Israel experiences a slaughter much greater than at their first defeat.[11] Israelite foolishness and presumption, the thought that they could work the Lord like a machine without submitting their will to his, leads to further defeat.[12] And not only to further defeat. Verse 11 adds that Israelite foolishness, presumption, and unbelief leads to the loss of the ark of the covenant itself, which is captured by the Philistines, and to the death of Hophni and Phinehas in fulfillment of the word of the Lord, which we heard last Sunday.

The deaths don’t end there. “News” from the battle reaches Shiloh,[13] where priest and tabernacle are, and it results in two further deaths in ch. 4: Eli the priest, the father of Hophni and Phinehas, who in v. 18 falls backward, breaks his neck, and dies; and Phinehas’s wife, who dies in labor induced by news of the deaths of her husband and father-in-law in vv. 19–22. A pitiful child is born into hopelessness and a house of judgment, and his very name reflects it. With her dying breath the woman names her son Ichabod, which means something like “Where is the glory?,” because the glory has left Israel. The ark of God has been captured by the Philistines, and the priestly house of the God of Israel has been decimated.

All of this happens in further fulfillment of the word of judgment from 1 Sam 2 against Eli and his wicked sons. Because Eli and his sons were concerned with pampering and honoring themselves more than honoring God,[14] therefore God stripped them of honor and brought judgment upon their heads. And a great sadness in the story is that the suffering spreads like gangrene, making one woman a widow, and a little boy an orphan. It’s all the result of his father’s and his grandfather’s wickedness. Sin is never a merely private matter. Our personal apathy or bitterness or greed or gluttony or lust or pride or self-centeredness and self-preoccupation—whatever the personal sin, it always bleeds into the lives of those around us, bringing disorder and infection and pain and loss to others.

That’s 1 Sam 4. First Samuel 5, which we read earlier, tells of the sojourning of the ark in Philistine territory. The chapter opens with a scene in the temple of the Philistine god Dagon. The Philistines initially put the ark in Dagon’s temple as a kind of trophy of their victory.[15] But Dagon doesn’t fare too well before the ark of the Lord.[16] As we read in v. 3, in the morning the Philistines find the image of Dagon fallen down on its face before the ark. The ark is now responsible for the “falling down” of both Eli and Dagon: in ch. 4, Eli falls backward at news about the ark; here in ch. 5, Dagon falls face down before the ark. The high and mighty are being brought low, in fulfillment of the song of Hannah.[17]

The falling of Dagon’s idol deserves further attention. People “fall on their face” before God typically for three reasons. (1) Sometimes it’s just an accident. (2) Sometimes they fall down dead. But (3) sometimes they fall on their face in worship and submission, which here would be fitting, since Dagon is on his face before the Lord in the morning, around the time that Israel’s morning sacrifices were offered with Israel on their faces before the Lord.[18] There’s an ironic ambiguity when the Philistines find Dagon’s idol fallen down before the Lord on the first morning. The ambiguity is removed on the second morning. With head and hands cut off, it’s clear that Dagon falls down as a dead idol. God has slain his opponent. And the severed hands at the threshold suggest that it wasn’t a close fight—we are to envision someone trying to crawl out of the room, clutching onto the threshold, and being wrenched back in by the waist so that his hands are ripped off.[19] For good measure, the Lord beheaded the false god (as David would later behead Goliath) to make crystal clear that in Dagon lies no true life and authority.[20]

The Lord of hosts who sits enthroned upon the cherubim above the ark wreaks havoc on Dagon and his idol. But the Lord also wreaks havoc on the Philistines who worship Dagon. And this is what the rest of ch. 5 turns to focus on. In v. 6, we read that “the hand of the Lord was heavy against the people of Ashdod,” the Philistine city where Dagon’s temple was. Specifically, the Lord torments the people with great “tumors.” There’s a lot of debate over the precise nature of these “tumors.” Suggestions range from the bubonic plague to dysentery.[21] Another viable interpretation is reflected in the old King James Version, which translates “tumors” rather differently as “emerods in their secret parts” (5:9). “Emerods” updated into contemporary English would be a severe case of hemorrhoids.[22] We’ll go with that one, because why not? So perhaps it is unsurprising (and perhaps we might sympathize), when in vv. 9 and 11 “a very great panic” breaks out among them and their “cry” goes “up to heaven” in v. 12.

The Philistines are, understandably, desperate for a solution. So what do they do? They turn, v. 8 says, to the “lords of the Philistines,” their political leaders.[23] And the politicians’ initial strategy is to treat the ark like a modern day housing project: they merely move the distress to other areas of the nation, shipping the ark to one Philistine city after another. But that simply puts the problem all the more behind them, which in this case was probably the last thing they desired.

Finally, in ch. 6, a real solution is reached. After seven months of no little torment, v. 2 says that the Philistines consult their priests and diviners. Perhaps surprisingly, these pagan priests give good advice. In contrast to Eli and his sons in Israel, the Philistine priests display a measure of spiritual discernment and humility.[24] They recognize their transgression against the God of Israel, and so suggest a “guilt offering” in v. 3. They acknowledge in v. 5 that to Israel’s God alone belongs glory and honor. So they warn the Philistines in v. 6: do not “harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts.” Instead, the Philistines should make five golden tumors and five golden mice as a kind of peace offering to the Lord.[25] This peace offering should then be set on a cart together with the ark, and the cart hitched to two never-before-yoked cows in milk. If the cows lead the cart back to Israel, then the people of Philistia may know for sure that the God of Israel has done all this to the Philistines; and if not, then all of it was simply one big (and uncomfortable) coincidence.[26]

In vv. 10ff. of ch. 6, the Philistines heed this advice and they send the ark on its way, led by the two cows in milk. And we readers (and likely also the Philistines in the story) expect, the cows make a beeline for Israelite territory. They turn “neither to the right nor to the left” (v. 12),[27] until they come to a stop, v. 14 says, “in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.” The Lord has defeated the Philistines and their gods; he has done so in the very heart of Philistia; and now he returns triumphantly to Israel. And Israel rejoices.

Sadly, the rejoicing doesn’t last long. In v. 19, the Lord, who had been striking the Philistines, now amazingly strikes down many men of Beth-shemesh, for they had presumptuously and unlawfully looked into the ark.[28] If Israelites want to behave like Philistines, they will receive the judgments that God pours out on the Philistines and worse.[29] Let that be a lesson and warning for us: we might identify with a holy people, we might live in a “holy land” like western Israel or Wheaton, Illinois,[30] but if our lives take on the shape and logic of Philistine life, the Lord will fight against us with all his holy, judging might.

The Lord strikes down the disobedient and presumptuous people of Beth-shemesh. So what do the survivors do in response? They ship the ark off to the neighboring Kiriath-jearim.[31] In other words, the people of Beth-shemesh try to pass the problem on to others.[32] They invite the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim to take the ark off their hands. And, in the first verses of ch. 7, that’s where the ark, and the story before us this morning, ends up.


All in all, what we have in chs. 4–6 of 1 Sam may be viewed as a distinct “chapter” of the overall story of Samuel, clearly marked off by the shifts in setting. The story begins in the land of Israel in ch. 4, where the people of Israel are defeated and the ark is captured by the Philistines; the story moves outside of Israel to Philistine territory in ch. 5, where the ark wreaks havoc on the Philistines and their gods; and finally the story returns to the land of Israel in ch. 6, as the ark arrives in Beth-shemesh. That’s the basic shape of the story. And there’s a lot to consider here in a narrative that is at turns exciting and humorous and troubling. But in the time remaining, I want simply to draw our attention to two statements made by characters in the story. The first is the cry of Eli’s daughter-in-law, “The glory has departed,” which is her dying breath at the end of ch. 4. And the second is a statement the Philistine priests make in ch. 6: “Why should you harden your hearts like the Egyptians and Pharaoh?”


First, let’s consider the cry of Eli’s daughter-in-law, “The glory has departed!” in 4:21–22. This was, remember, not simply a cry but a name she gave her son: Ichabod, Where is the glory? Why name a son that? Because the priesthood had fallen and the ark had been captured. The glory had departed from Israel. She names her son Ichabod because Israel suffered national defeat and humiliation and is left without hope. It’s sort of like naming our child “Pearl Harbor” or “September 11.” It’s a name of shame and defeat. It’s a cry of hopelessness. But the words take on a more precise connotation as the larger biblical storyline progresses.

What other event in Israel’s history might the phrase “the glory has departed” call to mind for us, who now have the completed canon of Scripture? Consider Ezekiel 10. There the prophet Ezekiel witnesses a remarkable vision. Remember what it was? It was of the glory of the Lord, which normally rested upon the temple in Jerusalem; except Ezekiel sees the Lord’s glory depart from the temple and exit the land of Israel.[33] The glory departs. Now what was Israel in Ezekiel’s day experiencing? They were experiencing, or about to experience, the covenant curse of Babylonian exile. The vision that the prophet has in Ezek 10 of the glory of the Lord departing the land provides the theological meaning of exile. The heart of exile is being cut off from the presence and glory of God. To say that “the glory of the Lord departs from Israel” is to speak the language of exile. It’s a way of saying that exile is happening.

Back in 1 Sam 4, when the daughter-in-law of Eli names her newborn son Ichabod, “the glory has departed,” what she is saying, and what the author of Samuel is saying through her, is that Israel is undergoing a kind of exile. The glory has departed; an exile has begun. The Lord promises, for example in Lev 26 and Deut 28–29, that those who disobey his commandments and statues and refuse to trust in him alone will be cursed with exile. And this curse came about at the end of Israel’s long, sad story in the land. After generations of faithlessness and wickedness, God, first, decimated the people of Israel; second, he caused the house of David, the ruling dynasty, to topple;[34] and, third, he cast all the survivors out from the land, out of his presence, and away into exile.[35] That happens in the end of the book of Kings.

The same pattern happens back in 1 Sam 4. The people—and especially their leaders, Eli and his sons—are faithless and wicked. So the Lord brings an exile-like judgment upon them. First, the people are slaughtered on the battlefield. Second, a ruling dynasty topples to the ground. What dynasty? It’s the dynasty of Eli. Remember, there was no formal kingship in Israel at this time; instead, Israel was ruled by a succession of judges. Eli is clearly identified as a judge, a ruler, of Israel. We see it in v. 18 of ch. 4: Eli “judged Israel for forty years.” Eli ruled in Israel. This is why v. 14 of ch. 4 portrays Eli as “sitting on the throne” (most translations say he was sitting on his “seat” but the word used is almost always translated “throne” elsewhere[36]). The narrator portrays Eli as a royal, kingly figure. And this royal figure, with his ruling dynasty, falls as part of God’s just judgment of exile.[37] That’s what happens in the curse of exile. Ruling dynasties are brought low, snuffed out, as a judgment against corruption.[38]

First Samuel tells the story of a mini-exile. First, the people are slaughtered. Second, a dynasty is cut down. And, third, in 1 Sam there is an expulsion from the land, an actual sending away into exile. But here’s where things get really interesting. Because in this story of Samuel, who, or what, is exiled, cast out of the land? It’s the ark of the covenant. It’s the glory of God. The glory departs, is exiled, from Israel. Wonder of wonders, it is God himself who goes into exile. And what does he do during that exile? He defeats the false god Dagon, in a battle that was so one-sided it was hardly a battle. God defeats Israel’s oppressors the Philistines on their own turf. He does this in the heart of an exile that not he but his people deserve.[39] This is the glory of our God: he undertakes the judgments that we his people deserve in order that he might win the victories we most need. God is portrayed as the unquestioned conquering King in these chapters, but he conquers, amazingly, by going into the exile his people deserve.

And if the Lord takes the people’s judgment upon himself, what’s left for the people but to enjoy anew the presence of God? That is to say, since God has gone into exile for us and won the victory on our behalf, we no longer stand under the threat and curse of exile, but can enjoy his renewed presence, a return from exile. That’s what happens in ch. 6. There’s a return from exile, a restoration of the glory to the land.[40] And it is presented as a new exodus work.

Have you noticed how often these chapters recall the exodus from Egypt? It’s expressly mentioned in 1 Sam 6:6,[41] which is the second statement by characters in the story that I want to zero in on this morning. In ch. 6, v. 6, the Philistine priests ask the people, “Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts?” The Philistines are well aware that they are reliving the exodus story. First Samuel 4–6 is a story of God rescuing his people from enemies with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. It’s a story of Yahweh in the land of pagans, humiliating false gods, sending great plagues, and exiting the oppressors’ land with cartfuls of their gold.[42] And as the first exodus resulted in an entry into the Promised Land with Joshua at the helm, so this story in Samuel results in another entry into the land with another Joshua present, Joshua of Beth-shemesh in 6:14.[43] Like most of Scripture, the author of Samuel views the return from exile, the redemptive work of God, as a second exodus.


So 1 Sam 4–6 is a story of exile and return from exile in a new and wondrous exodus. And from beginning to end, it is the God of Israel enthroned on the ark of the covenant, who is the key actor—the one who undergoes exile, the one who defeats Israel’s enemies, the one who returns from exile in a second exodus. At the end of the day, this story in 1 Sam 4–6 helps us to see what, or better, who the book of Samuel is ultimately about: this is a story about God. It’s not a story in which Samuel is the main character, though the opening three chapters might lead us to think that. David is not the main character of this story, though a lot of the narrative will focus on him. Israel, the people of God, are not the main characters of the story of Samuel, though clearly it has a lot to say about the beginnings of their experience of kingship. We are not what this story is about; it’s not here chiefly as a bunch of “illustrations” of “life principles” which we may choose to put into practice when it seems relevant to us. Ultimately, this story is not about us and our self-improvement or self-discovery; it’s about God-discovery (though in discovering and resting in God we also discover our truest selves and life).

God is the main character in the story of Samuel. He is the main character in the story of Scripture as a whole. For the center and climax of the story of Scripture mirrors exactly what God, the main character of Samuel, does in chs. 4–6.[44] What does God do in the gospel of Jesus Christ? He submits himself to the exile of death that his people deserve by going to the cross; yet precisely in so doing he conquers all our truest enemies; and the last and greatest enemy is death, whom Christ our God and King defeated by rising from the grave to indestructible life. The path of the ark of God in 1 Sam 4, 5, and 6 is the very path that Jesus took from Good Friday and Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday. The story of Scripture as a whole is the story of the God who goes into exile on his people’s behalf so that they might have new and true life.

God is the main character of the story of Scripture and of all reality. And setting our hope and heart on him, on who he is, on his self-sacrificial, almighty, all-beautiful glory is what life is all about. That’s why this narrative of the exile and return of the ark is placed at the outset of Samuel—to help us realize who this story, and reality as a whole, is all about; and to invite us to set our eyes and our faith on the glorious God who is the story’s main character.


At the end of the day, the point of life, the way to life, the meaning of life is turning our attention and heart and hope to the God of Israel, not ultimately to ourselves, or our efforts, or the state of our hearts, or our problems and needs. Unfortunately, our attention tends to get fixated more on the latter than on the former. We tend to stall our attentions and anxieties on ourselves, on our effort, on our despair, on the fearsome realities we face. But there’s no hope or help for us so long as our hearts are focused on such things—so long as we are fixated on ourselves, on what we think our problems are, on the impossibility of the circumstances before us, we will only know anxiety and despair and ingratitude and bitterness. What good can finally arise from simply setting our eyes on our problems, from merely identifying exhaustively all the wrongs done to us, from only diagnosing our disorder and disease, from doing nothing more than listing out the thirteen reasons for our sorrow and despair? If we simply identify and complain about and worry over such things, without ever turning our hearts toward the only One who can bring any true help and healing in all our troubles and more, then what have we accomplished? We have only deepened our misery, without getting a step closer to rest and peace. God means for us to know rest and peace, and even hope and gratitude and joy and life. So he gives us the book of Samuel, and the book of Scripture, which puts forth himself in all the glory of his self-sacrificial love and saving might as an invitation to turn our attentions more fully to him, as an invitation to trust and hope and exult in him.


So we can return to the question that the Philistine priests, of all people, raise: Why should we harden our hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? Why stiffen our neck and refuse to entrust our problems, our sorrows, our life to the Lord, preferring instead simply to coddle our griefs like Gollum coddling his “Precious”? There’s no life and joy there. But there is life and hope and joy in trusting and hoping and exulting in the Lord, no matter what impossibility stands before us, no matter what exile we feel ourselves in.


If you are struggling with an overwhelming sense of guilt and self-condemnation, turn your eyes to the God of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he has taken our guilt upon himself that it might be done away with once and for all, and there is now no condemnation for those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.


If you find yourself crippled with fear by the truly fearsome threats before you—the rulers of the age, the raging of the devil, the power of sin, the reality of death—then turn to the King who defeats all our enemies handily. Every knee shall bow before the Lord God of Israel, before the only true king Jesus. They will either fall on their faces before him or find their hands and head cut off. The Lord God will crush the serpent’s head under our feet.


If you find yourself in the valley of the shadow of death, with all health and help and happiness stripped from you, if you feel isolated and invisible with life a perpetual exile from any goodness and glory, then turn your hurting heart to the Lord God of Hosts. He knows what the pain and loss of exile is. He knows the despair even of a woman such as Eli’s daughter-in-law, who married a slug of a man and into a disaster of a family, saw her husband slaughtered in a foolhardy battle, gave birth to a son with no hope in life, and in her dying breath names him out of such hopelessness and despair: “the glory has departed.” God knows that kind of despair. He knows it so well that he writes it into his inspired Word. And he knows it not as an object of impersonal scientific analysis, but he sympathizes with it, having experienced it personally. For it was Christ himself who endured the utter darkness and despair of Good Friday, the loss of all help, the departure of the glory, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God sympathizes with the despair of one who cries, “The glory has departed!” But he is also the only One for whom “the glory has departed” does not mean defeat but an opening of the path to new and true life. In Samuel’s day the glory departed from Israel in order to fight and win the battles Israel needed won. And Christ, too, died to win the truest battles we need won. In your despair, turn to and trust in the God who is the only hope in that kind of darkness.


Let us set our hearts and hope on the Lord our God, the God of great and surprising glory, who takes the exile we deserve on himself, who fights and wins all our truest battles and defeats all our deepest enemies, and who returns to us in glory causing us to be restored into his presence, a presence which we enjoy now in beginning ways by the power of his Spirit, and which we will enjoy fully at the end of days.

Lord, we believe in your goodness and love, in your saving power wielded for us in Christ Jesus. We believe. Help our unbelief. Rescue us from our afflictions. Deliver us safely into your kingdom, we pray, through Jesus our King, who with you and Holy Spirit reigns, one God, forever and ever. Amen.


[1] Based on WSB §N.3.1.1.

[2] This is a distinct literary section in the book of Samuel, a clearly defined “chapter” in the overall story; it is clearly set apart by its setting and by the absence of Samuel as an actor. In fact, critical scholarship has often suggested that chs. 4–6 formed an original “ark narrative” that has, at some later stage in the compositional history of Samuel, been editorially stitched into the narrative (for a brief discussion, see Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel [New York: Norton, 1999], x–xi). The suggestion is speculative, resting on virtually no hard evidence, and largely ignores how clearly these chapters are inextricably interwoven literarily and thematically into the larger narrative of Samuel. 

[3] There is no good reason to think that Samuel was a “little boy” when he received his call from the Lord, at least in the sense that the phrase in English typically conveys. The Hebrew term נַעַר is a generic, comparative term, which can refer to people as “old” as the Eli’s sons (1 Sam 2:17), who being priests and the sons of the aged Eli were most assuredly no less than 30 but likely more than 40 or even 50 years old. I think it probable that Samuel is repeatedly called a נַעַר in chs. 2–3 as part of an ironic contrast with הַנְּעָרִים (see 2:17) who were the sons of Eli (see Peter J. Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 and 2 Samuel [Moscow, ID: Canon, 2003], 48–49n10). 

[4] There is some debate over whether 4:1a belongs more with the end of ch. 3 or the beginning of ch. 4. Keith Bodner suggests that the phrase, “The word of Samuel came to [or ‘was for’] all Israel” functions something like a heading for chs 4–6 (Keith Bodner, 1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary, Hebrew Bible Monogrphs 19 [Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2009], 44). Be that as it may, the phrase appearing as the opening words of the section stretching from ch. 4 to ch. 6 sets in great relief the fact that Samuel utterly disappears in the remainder of the passage. For alternative ways of reading this curious absence, see ibid., and Leithart, A Son to Me, 55. In my estimation, the absence of the character Samuel in chs. 4–6 helps us to see, at the outset of a story that might thus far suggest otherwise (in chs. 1–3), that Samuel is not the main character of the story. Rather, the ark (or the God who sits enthroned on the ark) is the main character of the book of Samuel. Samuel is but a forerunner for the true main character. As Leithart notes, though Samuel is absent from chs. 4–6, “ark” appears some 37 times, whereas in chs. 1–3 it only appeared once at 3:3 (A Son to Me, 58n20). 

[5] This is made clear in the book of Judges (note also the indirect statement of 1 Sam 4:9). 

[6] The text doesn’t even expressly say who was the aggressor/initiator. However, the setting of the Philistine camp in Israel (“Aphek” in v. 1) might indicate that they were the initiators (1 Samuel, 44). Perhaps they intended to attack the Tabernacle shrine at Shiloh to the east (Leithart, A Son to Me, 57–58). 

[7] The emphatic (superfluous) prepositional phrase “to ourselves” (אֵלֵינוּ), which most English versions leave untranslated, likely underlines the disposition of the Israelites. The ark (and the Lord of the ark) is theirs to wield according to their whims and advantage (see also Alter, The David Story, 22). 

[8] To be precise, the text says that Hophni and Phinehas were simply “with” the ark as it was brought to the battle (4:4). Alter notes the curiosity that every time the two names appear in ch. 4, they are set at the very end of the sentence; perhaps this is an intentional stylistic move to reflect grammatically the opprobrium these characters are given in the narrative (ibid.). 

[9] Bodner comments, “A whole sequence of Philistine actions is recited in 4.6–7, as they hear, say, know, and fear” (1 Samuel, 45). It is a little odd that the Philistines, though clearly aware of the fate of the Egyptians before the hand of Yahweh, nevertheless claim the unparalleled nature of the event in v. 7 (see ibid., 45). It is possible that they mean, “Nothing like this has happened before to us.” 

[10] The Philistines’ theology and story-telling are a bit off (“gods,” “every sort of plague in the wilderness”), but that they had heard and knew the basic story is clear. Bodner suggests that they tell the story, as we might expect, from their own polytheistic presuppositions and framework (1 Samuel, 45–46). 

[11] The specific number of Israelites killed is debated. 1 Sam 4:10 is typically translated “thirty thousand soldiers,” but good arguments have been raised for understanding the Hebrew term אֶלֶף as having a semantic range not limited to the cardinal number “thousand” but including something like a “clan” or “division” or “[military] unit” (the best defense I have come across is that of Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, NAC 2 [Nashville: B&H, 2006], 297–303). This allows for a number potentially much smaller than “30,000” in 1 Sam 4:10 (i.e., 30 “military units”; whatever the precise number of those in a unit/division, it was likely far less than a thousand). Whatever the amount of losses in the battle, the blow to Israel was undoubtedly great (Leithart, A Son to Me, 58n21). 

[12] Though I stated above that their problem lay in thinking that the ark was a good luck charm, it is a bit more precise (given the theological assertion inherent in the [functionally rhetorical] question they raise in v. 3) to say that they believe the Lord is beholden to them. The ark guarantees that the Lord will fight their battles. Their mistake lies in forgetting that the Lord will fight his battles, and his presence is not a blank check for their will but an invitation to submit to the Lord’s will. The Lord fights his battles, and in great irony, the Lord fights it against his people. The Lord of hosts (4:4) uses the host/army of the Philistines to judge Israel for its unbelief (cf. Leithart, A Son to Me, 58). It turns out that the problem was not that the Lord was not present with Israel, but that he was all too present, present in judgment because Israel trusted in its own wisdom rather than upon the word of the Lord (ibid. 58–59). 

[13] The use of the the verb בשֹר in 4:17 is interesting, raising the question of whether there might be “good news” in the events reported. As Bodner postulates (following Polzin), “the verb ‘to bring (good) news’ almost invariably occurs in the Deuteronomistic History [i.e., Judges–Kings] when the news is good for David or the Davidic royal house” (1 Samuel, 48). This story of the fall of one “dynasty” is but the prelude for the rise of another—and it is the rise of that other dynasty that is the historical and theological heart of the “good news” in Scripture. The use of בשֹר in this passage is, then, a clue to the biblical meaning of “good news/gospel,” while also being a clue that we must read this story in Samuel at least firstly christologically. 

[14] Bodner notes the repetition (at times ironic) of the root כבד in the Eli narratives (2:29–30; 4:18, 21–22; cf. also 2:8); see Bodner, 1 Samuel, 48–49. As many commentators note, the term continues to be a Leitwort throughout the story of Samuel (e.g., 5:6, 11; 6:5–6). 

[15] This was, apparently, a Philistine habit—namely, taking trophies from those whom they have defeated (note Samson in Judg 16, a living trophy who brings about similar results in Philistia as the ark; also Saul’s weapons and beheaded corpse in 1 Sam 31); see Bodner, 1 Samuel, 51. 

[16] As we will see, the scene is full of humor and irony. Not the least bit of irony is in the fact that the Philistines set the image of Dagon before the ark of Yahweh, in which were the tablets of testimony upon which was written the prohibition of setting images before the Lord (Bodner, 1 Samuel, 52). 

[17] Ibid. The point is probably especially apropos with respect to the falling down of Dagon’s image, given the likelihood that the image would have been rather large, especially in comparison to the ark. Yet the tall and large statue is brought very low, while the ark remains unharmed. 

[18] Leithart, A Son to Me, 61, 

[19] See Bodner, 1 Samuel, 52. Alternatively, Alter points to parallel acts of mutilation as a regular practice in ANE warfare (The David Story, 28). In any case, it is plain as day that Dagon, now handless, is no match for Yahweh, whose “hand” is all over this and the surrounding chapters (see, e.g., 5:6, 7, 11), even though he has no visible representation of that hand in statue form. 

[20] As Leithart suggests, God, in a manner, “crushes” the head of Dagon (A Son to Me, 62), a point which is of great significance in the development of the overall biblical storyline (see below). 

[21] This hypothesis is aided by the presence of “mice” (μύες) and “great death” (θανάτου μεγάλη) in 1 Sam 5:6 LXX. The addition of “mice” in 1 Sam 5:6 LXX likely compensates for the otherwise surprise appearance of golden mice in 6:4 MT, but in any case, neither the LXX addition nor the oblique reference to mice in the MT gives a sure reason for concluding that the “tumors” were an outbreak of the bubonic plague (which otherwise is unattested until several centuries later in Syria and Libya). Josephus is an early representative of the dysentery interpretation. On both suggestions, see Joyce G. Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, TOTC (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1988), 80, and, in particular, the study of D. J. Wiseman cited by Baldwin. At the end of the day, no one knows for sure what these “tumors” were, so that, ironically, the Philistines’ experienced is mirrored by modern scholarship: “the precise nature of these ‘tumors’ has long discomfited the scholarly community” (Bodner, 1 Samuel, 53). 

[22] If this is the right line of interpretation, then we may say, all the more, that “the ark of God wreaks havoc in the deepest recesses of its captors’ anatomy” (Bodner, 1 Samuel, 51). The Qere in 5:6 (בטחרים) and 9 (טחרים) gives rise to the hemorrhoidal option. As HALOT notes, טְחֹרִים is a “perpetual Q[ere] for עפלים” (see HALOT, under טְחֹרִים). While this gives not grounds for certainty, it does show the antiquity of the interpretation. 

[23] Apparently, ancient peoples (like many moderns) associated hemorrhoids closely with politicians. 

[24] The use of the divine name in 6:2 is significant, being the first use of the divine name on Philistine lips in the story. For Bodner, it signals the recognition among the Philistines that the ark is chiefly a religious rather than merely a political problem (1 Samuel, 56). That it is Philistine “priests and diviners” who recognize the root of the matter, a root which includes their guilt before Yahweh (note 6:3), is likely an ironic, implicit, and further condemnation of the Elide priesthood. This is particularly so, since the Philistine “priests and diviners” recognize in vv. 5–6 that the Lord of “glory/honor/weight” (כבד) must be given “honor” (כבד), drawing on a Leitwort that appeared throughout the Eli narrative in criticism of Eli and his sons (see ibid., 56–57; cf. Leithart, A Son to Me, 63). 

[25] Given what I think the “tumors” may have been, I have no interest in trying to imagine what a “golden tumor” might look like. That there were five of them (and also five golden mice) is in correspondence to the five cities of the Philistine pentapolis (not expressly mentioned here, reference being made only to the five Philistine “lords” in v. 4; but see v. 17). It seems likely, given the reference to “all of you and your lords” in v. 4, that the ark made its way through all five cities. If so, then the narration in ch. 5 is telescoped and representative, as biblical narrative often is.

On the golden mice which suddenly appear in the narrative with little to no prior readerly preparation for their entrance (though see LXX 5:6), Bodner comments, “At the risk of being lured into a text-critical mousetrap, it seems safe to conclude that the revelation of this important detail captures the sense of confusion that pervades the entire Philistine society, and afflicts every member: added to the embarrassment of hemorrhoids is an invasion of mice that have brought further disaster upon the captors of the ark. The reader only now discovers that the Philistines have been plagued with external as well as internal crises” (1 Samuel, 57, emphasis original). 

[26] The Philistine test is set up to make the return to Israel of the ark the most unlikely scenario to unfold, since they choose nursing cows which have never had a yoke put upon them: “One guesses that it would be hard to teach an old cow new tricks, especially when the cow’s udder is dripping with unpasteurized milk” (ibid., 58). 

[27] The text adds that they were “lowing as they went” (6:12), which Alter suggests is significant. In a narrative that gives details with great economy (e.g., we are told little of the acts/sounds/gestures of the human actors in the scene), that we are told of the cows’ lowing signals some peculiar intent. For Alter, the description indicates that the cows were acting contrary to their nature, wanting to be with their calves (The David Story, 32). 

[28] The ESV translates the Hebrew preposition בְּ in v. 19 as “upon” (cf. LXX 6:19, which lacks a preposition), but the preposition with the verb “to see” may also indicate a peering into. In either case, the act was unlawful (the ark should have been covered [see Num 4:5]). Leithart, A Son to Me, 64, goes into some detail about this and other discernible covenantal infractions and irreverence on the part of the Beth-Shemeshites.

An additional problem is in the exact number of those struck down, for both the Hebrew and the LXX read “50,070 men” (or more precisely, “70 men, 50,000 men”) at 6:19. Most interpreters conclude that some kind of textual corruption has occurred here (though Leithart, A Son to Me, 64, takes the large number as the fact of the matter). Alter points to a text that Josephus evidently had access to which must have read “seventy,” and notes that the lack of any connector/conjunction between “seventy men” and “fifty thousand men” in the MT suggests that the latter is a later intrusion (The David Story, 34). 

[29] Bodner asks appropriately, “Could it be that the ark is no respecter of persons?” (1 Samuel, 61). Indeed, the Israelites have already received, as they are now receiving again, the same blow as the Philistines and also the Egyptians of old (note “plague/slaughter” [מַכָּה] in 4:8, 10; 6:19; and “plague/slaughter” [מַגֵּפָה] in 4:17; 6:4). 

[30] Leithart mentions Wheaton by name (A Son to Me, 65)! 

[31] Kiriath-jearim was a Gibeonite city (see Josh 9), and thus, though technically an Israelite city, it was likely largely Gentile in population. In Bodner’s estimation, this may be a bit of ironic retributive justice against the deceptive Gibeonites, since the people of Beth-shemesh are (in the narrative at 1 Sam 6:21) less than forthcoming about the implications of having the ark present among them (Bodner, 1 Samuel, 62). Slightly more convincing to me (though perhaps not necessarily an alternative) is Leithart’s suggestion that Kiriath-jearim, being a predominantly Gentile city, is a fitting place for Yahweh to cause his ark to settle—he is “provoking Israel to jealousy” by blessing Gentiles with the presence of the ark, as he would later do at the house of Obed-edom the Gittite in 2 Sam 6 (see Leithart, A Son to Me, 65). 

[32] Again, this is not a good sign, since Israelite behavior here mirrors Philistine behavior quite closely: they ask/strategize in the same way as the Philistines do in the presence of the afflicting ark—they seek to pass it off to others as their problem (see 6:20–21; cf. Bodner, 1 Samuel, 62). 

[33] Though on the surface Ezekiel’s vision in Ezek 10:18–19 is a sign of judgment, at the same time it sets up a word of hope for the exiles inasmuch as the glory of the Lord is not tied to the temple but can even be with them in exile as a “sanctuary” for them (see Ezek 11:16). As we will see, the exile of 1 Sam 4–5 is both a word of judgment (on the surface, as it were), while also opening the way counter-intuitively to hope and new life. 

[34] That the curse of exile is a judgment particularly against corrupt ruling dynasties is made clear in passages such as Jer 36:30–31; 2 Kgs 21:10–15. 

[35] The obvious omission here in the things that constitute the reality of exile is the destruction of the temple, which happens in 1 Kgs 24–25. Such a destruction also happens in conjunction with the events recorded in 1 Sam 4—namely, the snuffing out of the Shiloh sanctuary (Alter notes that the lack of any attempt by the Beth-shemeshites to return the ark to Shiloh at the end of 1 Sam 6 is an indirect testimony in Samuel to the destruction of the Shiloh sanctuary [The David Story, 35]). The destruction of Shiloh is part of an exilic judgment. So, e.g., Ps 78 uses exile terminology to reflect upon the Shiloh devastation and sequel (note, e.g., “captivity” [שְׁבִי] in v. 61). Within the narrative of Samuel itself, the portrayal of Eli standing by the doorpost of the “temple” in 1:9 is relevant. The reference is odd and, at one level, a mistake, since the temple was not yet built (Leithart, A Son to Me, 42, notes the oddity). The tabernacle at Shiloh must be the historical referent. However, the theological referent may indeed be the temple; or perhaps more precisely, the Tabernacle at Shiloh is being presented as a temple in 1:9, so that its destruction later in the story in ch. 4 should be understood as the destruction of a “temple.” God “was sending the Philistines to devastate His house, just as He would later send the Babylonians and the Romans for the same purpose” (Leithart, A Son to Me, 58). 

[36] That is, the articular הַכִּסֵּא is in every place, with the exception of Judg 3:20 and 1 Sam 1:9; 4:13 (both of the place where Eli sat), translated by the NASB as “a/the throne”: see Gen 41:40; 1 Kgs 7:7; Ezek 1:26. Even in Judg 3:20, where the NASB translates it as “seat,” the context clearly indicates that the seat in view is a throne. The anarthrous כִּסֵּא is also frequently translated “throne” or contextually referring to a throne. See similarly Bodner, 1 Samuel, 17, 47. As Bodner comments, this section “presents a narrative of exile and return after the dramatic collapse of a ruling dynastic house” (1 Samuel, 44); the “ruling dynastic house” is Eli’s. Leithart notes Eli’s portrayal as a judge at the gate in 4:18, further underlining the kingly authority of Eli (A Son to Me, 59). As Alter points out, Eli’s anxious waiting at the gate, hearing an uproar among the people, and receiving tidings from a breathless messenger foreshadows the later experience of King David awaiting news of Adonijah (The David Story, xi). 

[37] Eli is a prototypical Zedekiah, the ruler who “sees” exile begin, and the blind ruler whose sons are slaughtered by the invading nation (see 2 Kgs 25:7). 

[38] This exile, with its accompanying destruction of the tabernacle, marked the end of the Mosaic (priestly) era and signaled the beginning of the Davidic (kingly) era (Leithart, A Son to Me, 60), much like the later Babylonian exile and destruction of the temple would be bound together with the transition from the Davidic (kingly; holy society; time marked by the reigns of Israel’s/Judah’s kings) era to the era of the nations (prophetic; interaction among societies; time marked by the reigns of Gentile kings [Babylon, Persia, etc.]). Indeed, the transition in Samuel is a covenantal transition (from Mosaic to Davidic), complete with a change of priesthood which one would expect for a covenantal transition. According to Heb 7:12, every transition or transformation of covenantal structure/setup is accompanied by a change of priesthood; in Samuel, the end of the Elide priesthood is a signal that a covenantal transformation is on the way. In this light, the joy of David at bring priesthood and kingship together for the first time in 2 Sam 6 may be viewed as a joy over a transformed priestly setup and thus an anticipation of a new covenant. Indeed, we might describe the joy (only slightly anachronistically—note Ps 110!) as a joy over coming one step closer to a priesthood after the order of Melchizedek. 

[39] On the ark suffering exile in place of the people, see, e.g., Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, Int (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), 44–47; Leithart, A Son to Me, 56, who comments, “Israel suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of Philistines, but Yahweh shared in their humiliation, and by taking the most intense weight of that humiliation upon Himself, triumphed over the principalities and powers and rulers of the age.” We can add that the victory Israel experiences at Ebenezer in ch. 7 is thus a derivative victory, a victory over an already conquered foe. In Leithart’s words, it is “just the aftermath” (ibid., 65). 

[40] Overall, we can view 1 Sam 4–6 as providing “a parable of exile and return” and they thus “occupy an important position within the overall schema of the Deuternomistic History” (Bodner, 1 Samuel, 43–44). As Bodner points out, this is to say, at least, that the chapters are closely tied to their immediate context (and are not editorially stitched into a context that is more or less foreign to the composition, as has been sometimes proposed; see also Leithart, A Son to Me, 55–56). It is also to suggest that at the editorial or canonical level of the place of Samuel within the Former Prophets (Joshua–Kings, or what Bodner refers to as “the Deuteronomistic History”; this is to say nothing of the compositional level), these chapters have a particularly exilic (and/or post-exilic) significance. 

[41] The Philistines earlier in the story have already expressly recalled the exodus (see 4:8). 

[42] There are, in fact, at least a dozen (likely more) verbal or thematic connections to the exodus narratives in 1 Sam 4–6, having varying degrees of “volume,” and often, in Alter’s words, “in a virtually scatological key” (The David Story, 27). So, e.g., Moshe Garsiel points out several verbal/conceptual parallels: the heavy “hand of the Lord” (1 Sam 5:6, 9; Exod 9:3); “smite/strike/afflict [נכה]” (1 Sam 5:6, 9; Exod 3:20); “plague” (1 Sam 6:4; Exod 9:14); “destruction of the land” (1 Sam 6:5; Exod 8:20); a great “cry” (1 Sam 5:12; Exod 12:30); pleading of the people and/or priests that the ark/Israel might be sent away (1 Sam 5:22; Exod 10:7); and note the overall result of the Philistine humiliation in 6:9 (they “know” Yahweh) in comparison to the general purpose of the exodus (cited in Leithart, A Son to Me, 57n19; Leithart identifies further thematic connections to the Exodus on 56–57, 62–63). Exodus terminology abounds particularly in ch. 6; Bodner points, e.g., to שׁלח (“send”) and עלל (“make a fool”) (1 Samuel, 57; see also Alter, The David Story, 30, on the verb “to send”). The seven months that the ark was in Philistine territory and terrorized the Philistines perhaps recalls the seven days of the first plague in Exod 7:25 (ibid., 56, citing Bruce Birch). Leithart makes the observation that the Philistines were even related to the Egyptians (“Mizraim”) accoring to Gen 10:13–14 (A Son to Me, 57). 

[43] See Bodner, 1 Samuel, 60. It should be noted that this reentry into the land is, like the first entry in the exodus from Egypt, an entry for conquest. But now, sadly, it is faithless Israelites who are needing to be conquered, with the men of Beth-shemesh being struck down before the ark (Leithart, A Son to Me, 64). Already, we are being prepared for a key theme in the book of Kings—namely, the re-Canaanization of the land and the need for a new conquest. Or alternatively, we are continuing a theme of the book of Judges, the degeneration of Israel to the point that they are by the end of the book “new Canaanites.” 

[44] Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, 44–45, offers a striking visual representation of how the “plot-line” of 1 Sam 4–6 mirrors exactly the “plot-line” of Phil 2:5–11.