As we return to our studies in 1 Samuel, we encounter an abrupt shift. Just as Samuel is becoming established as God’s prophet, he vanishes from the narrative, not to reappear until early in chapter 7. The text now focuses not on a person but on an object—the ark of the covenant—for which reason chapters 4–6 are sometimes called the “ark narrative.” In this section of 1 Samuel, God uses the Philistines, Israel’s archenemies, to carry out His judgment against Eli’s house, then judges the Philistines themselves.
The Philistines are mentioned in Scripture from Genesis onward, but they become a major thorn in Israel’s side after the settlement of Canaan. The reason for this is simple: Israel failed to destroy the Philistines during the conquest (Josh. 13:2–3). Left undisturbed in their territory along the southern coast of Canaan, the Philistines do not leave Israel undisturbed. Rather, they try repeatedly to expand their territory by taking Israel’s, and God on occasion allows them to subjugate the Israelites to punish their apostasy (Judg. 10:7; 13:1). Here in 1 Samuel 4, Israel is free of Philistine domination, but the Philistines are trying to change that. They invade Israel and camp near Aphek, west of Shiloh. In response, Israel assembles for war and camps at Ebenezer, a place whose name means “Stone of Help” (see 7:12). But there is no help for die Israelites in the battle that ensues—they are defeated with die loss of four thousand men.
Throughout Israel’s history, military defeat generally indicated divine disfavor. The Israelite elders here in 1 Samuel 4 seem to understand this, for they ask, ” ‘Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?’ ” This is the right question, but they ask it of one another, not God. When Israel suffered defeat at Ai, Joshua went straight to God for answers, falling prostrate before Him (Josh. 7:7). By contrast, these Israelites never ask God to explain their defeat—they rely instead on their own wisdom. They conclude correctly that they lost to the Philistines because God was not with them in the battle, but they think they can rectify that by taking the ark of the covenant, God’s symbolic dwelling place, to the battlefield. They go so far as to say that the ark, not God, will save them. Thus, the ark is carried from Shiloh to Ebenezer—with the sons of Eli in attendance.