March 28 Reading: I Samuel 4-8 Commentary
“But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.'” (I Sam. 8:6-7)
I Samuel 4 – Fighting the Philistines
When Israel entered the land under Joshua, one people group they could not (or just did not) conquer was the Philistines. Known in Egyptian texts as the “Sea Peoples”, their strength rested in their understanding of and ability to use iron. Their weapons gave them a decided advantage in battle that allowed them to hold land next to the Mediterranean Sea in southwest Israel (see map here). Additionally, they built the fortress-like cities of Gaza, Gath, Ashkelon, Ashbod and Ekron.
They were constantly a thorn in Israel’s side. In I Sam. 4, they invaded the land and killed about 4,000 Israelite soldiers on the battle field. Confused as to why the Lord had allowed this to happen, the people brought the ark of the covenant from Shiloh (vv. 3-4). They thought the ark’s presence would guarantee victory.
However, they did not realize God was not with them in the first place. If he had been, they would not have needed to bring the ark at all. It could have stayed in Shiloh and He would have granted them victory in their first foray with the Philistines.
They didn’t seem to think that though. Perhaps they viewed the ark as some sort of idol or representation of God. Maybe they thought the mere sight of it nearby would cause the Philistines to flee. Indeed, when the Philistines heard the ark was in the Israelite camp, they were afraid (vv. 7-9), having heard all that God had done for Israel in Egypt.
But the Philistines fought anyway. And they put “a very great slaughter” on Israel, killing 30,000 foot soldiers (v. 10). In addition, Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas died in the battle. And the Philistines captured the ark of God (v. 11).
Back home, people awaited news of the battle. A man from the tribe of Benjamin who had been at the battle, ran to Shiloh, carrying with him the terrible news. When he arrived, Eli was sitting at the city gate (v. 12).
Eli had lived a long life. He was 98 years old (v. 15), His eyes were dim and he was overweight (v. 18). He was very concerned about the ark of God (v. 13), even more so it seems than his two sons. Their rocky relationship (see I Sam. 2:22-25) and what the text says next, seems to confirm that sentiment.
When the runner came from battle and announced in the city what happened, the whole city erupted in a cry of sorrow (v. 13). Eli wanted to know what caused the disruption and asked the young man to tell him (v. 16). The man said:
“Israel fled before the Philistines, and the army has suffered heavy losses. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured” (v. 17).
The text says that “when he made mention of the ark of God, that Eli fell off the seat backward…and his neck was broken and he died…” (v. 18). He had judged Israel 40 years. And God’s prophecy from I Sam. 2 about his house was fulfilled that day.
Meanwhile, his daughter-in-law, Phinehas’ wife was giving birth. When she heard the news about Eli and her husband dying, she is grief-stricken and dies in childbirth. Her son is given the name Ichabod, meaning “the glory has departed from Israel” (vv. 19-22).
I Samuel 5 – The “Ark” Fights Back
The Philistines took the ark to Ashbod. They brought it into the house of their god Dagon (vv. 1-2) and placed it next to an idol of Dagon. They must have been very proud of their victory, having conquered the God of Israel.
However, an interesting thing happened the next morning when all the people arose. The idol of Dagon was “fallen on its face to the earth before the ark of the Lord” (v. 3). They probably thought some sort of accident had occurred. So they stood Dagon upright again.
But the next morning, Dagon had fallen again. Only this time things were worse. The idols “head…and both the palms of its hands were broken off” (v. 4).
And God did not stop showing himself there. “…The hand of the Lord was heavy on the people of Ashdod, and He ravaged them and struck them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory” (v. 6). At this point, the people knew this was God’s doing and that they had to rid themselves of the ark.
So they carried the ark to the city of Gath. And as soon as it arrived, God struck the men of that city with tumors also. Then the people of Gath quickly sent the ark away to Ekron.
By the time the ark arrived in Ekron, the people are in a frenzy. They cry out, “They have brought the ark of the God of Israel to us, to kill us and our people!” (v. 10). They want no part of it.
So after a conference with the other Philistine lords (v. 11), it’s determined the ark should return to Israel because the destruction in the city was great (vv. 11-12).
I Samuel 6 – The Philistines Give Up
The ark had been in the land for seven months and the Philistines were through with it. They called all their diviners and asked them how they should return the ark (vv. 1-2).
The diviners suggest that they not return the ark empty handed. They say, “return it to Him with a trespass offering. Then you will be healed…you shall give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps He will lighten His hand from you, from your gods, and from your land. Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? When He did mighty things among them, did they not let the people go, that they might depart?” (vv. 3-6). So they are acknowledging that God was the source of their affliction, just like he had been to the Egyptians.
The offering they sent with the ark was five gold tumors and five golden rats, representing the afflictions upon them, one for each of the five lords of the Philistines (v. 4). They put the gifts along with the ark on a brand new cart and sent it up the road to Beth Shemesh , a Levitical city (see Josh. 21:16) near Philistia. They figured that if the tumors went away once the Israelites received the cart, that their assumptions were correct about their affliction coming from the Lord (vv. 7-10).
When the people of Beth Shemesh saw the ark coming, they were overjoyed. The Levites took the ark off the cart, split the cart apart and offered a burnt offering using the cows that were pulling the cart (vv. 13-15). When the Philistine lords saw the ark had been secured, they returned to their homes (v. 16).
God’s judgment on Beth Shemesh
We don’t know the details, but for some reason certain men from Beth Shemesh looked inside the ark (v. 19). This was in direct violation of Mosaic Law (see Num. 4:20). Because of this, God struck the people with a great slaughter, killing 50,075 men.
As a result, the people of the city were scared of God saying, “Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God?” (v. 20). So they sent the ark to Kirjath Jearim and took it into the house of Abinadab. His son Eleazar was consecrated to take care of the ark. (I Sam. 7:1).
I Samuel 7 – Samuel as Judge
I Sam. 7:2 tells us the ark stayed in Kirjath Jearim for 20 years. However, it actually stayed there closer to 100 years until David brought the ark to Jerusalem in the first year of his reign (see II Sam. 5:5, 6:1-18). So the reference to 20 years here probably represents the timeframe up until Samuel called all the house of Israel together at Mizpah (v. 5).
Israel lamented their relationship with the Lord. For Samuel, the solution was simple. He told them, “If you return to the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths from among you, and prepare your hearts for the Lord, and serve Him only; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines” (v. 3). The directive seems to have hit home with the people as they put away their idol worship and served God only (v. 4).
When the Philistines heard that Israel had gathered at Mizpah and had repented of their sin (v. 6), they gathered forces to fight (v. 7). But this time, God was with Israel. Samuel intervened in prayer and offered sacrifices as the Philistines drew near for battle. And then “…the Lord thundered with a loud thunder upon the Philistines that day, and so confused them that they were overcome before Israel” (v. 10).
At the end of the battle, Samuel erected a stone monument and called it Ebenezer meaning, “Thus far the Lord has helped us” (v. 12). So the Philistines were subdued that day and did not come into the land again during the days of Samuel (v. 13).
I Samuel 8 – “We Want a King”
Samuel judged Israel for his entire life (Judges 7:15). Every year he would make a circuit through the land, being a judge to the people along the way (7:16). His permanent home though he made in Ramah, about five miles north of Jerusalem.
But when he was old, he did something unusual. He made two of his sons, Joel and Abijah, judges in Israel (Judges 8:1-2). This was unusual because God was always the one to appoint judges.
Samuel surely had the best of intentions. However, it did not turn out the way he hoped. Like Eli before him, his sons did not serve the Lord. We are told that his son “…turned aside after dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice” (v. 3).
Because of his age, the elders of Israel feared that Samuel may not be with them much longer. Additionally, they saw that his sons did not walk in Samuel’s ways. So they made a request of Samuel:
“Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” (v. 4)
Samuel is displeased at the request of the people. Based on his conversation with God, we can deduce that Samuel felt the people were rejecting his leadership. But God saw it differently. He told Samuel:
“Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.” (v. 7).
Even though God allowed this, He wanted the people to understand what a king would do to them. Samuel warned the people that a king would:
1. Take their sons and daughters to serve in the army (v. 11).
2. Have them work the land, to plow and harvest (v. 12).
3. Assign their daughters to be perfumers, cooks and bakers (v. 13).
4. Tax the people’s harvest (v. 14-15).
5. Order their male and female servants to work for him (v. 16).
6. Take their livestock for his own (v. 17).
And the ultimate warning from Samuel was this:
“And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day” (v. 17).
None of this mattered to the people. They chose not to heed the voice of Samuel. They wanted to be like all the other nations who had a king to judge them and lead their armies into battle (vv. 19-20).
So in the end, the people got their way. God said, “Heed their voice, and make them a king” (v. 22).
Questions to Consider:
Ultimately God doesn’t need us to accomplish his plan. He can defend and work for himself, as the incident with the Philistines capturing the ark of the covenant shows. Let’s not allow the arrogance of our own importance to assume otherwise but feel honored God chooses to use us at all.
It’s important to remember that when people reject your faith, they are not rejecting you the person. They are rejecting Jesus, the person from whom your faith originates.
Have you ever been rejected by someone? Stings, doesn’t it? That’s how God must feel when people turn their back on Him. The Israelites did it when they asked Samuel for a king in I Samuel 8. We do it by neglecting the truths of His Word. How can we keep this from happening?
What other points would you want to know about in our I Samuel 4-8 commentary? Email us here with questions or comments.