The Philistines fought, “and Israel—so we saw—was smitten, and they fled every man to his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen. And the ark of God was taken: and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.” So had the Lord made a beginning of performing against Eli all things which He had spoken concerning his house (chap. 3:12). What the sacred writer relates in the immediate sequel shows that Eli, however deserving of punishment on account of his failure to restrain his wicked sons, was nevertheless, in the heart of his dispositions a man who truly feared the Lord. We read, “And there ran a man of Benjamin out of the army and came to Shiloh.” He came with grievous tidings, as was indicated by his rent clothes and the earth upon his head. And when he came, lo, Eli sat upon a seat by the way watching. The Hebrew text reads here, “And he came, and behold, Eli sat upon the seat by the side of the way looking out.” As appears from verse 18, the way by which Eli sat led by the side of the gate of the tabernacle. Here he sat in his seat; that is, in a seat that he only was wont to occupy. The Hebrew word translated seat in our version is throne, and it appears with the article and thus implies something of an official dignity. On that way Eli was looking out intently, forgetful of all about him, in intense expectation of a messenger with tidings. Such is the thought conveyed in the piel part, of the original text. “For Eli’s heart was trembling” not primarily for his sons and for the army of Israel, but “for the ark of God.” Under the pressure brought to bear upon him by the Elders of Israel, he had let the ark go from its dwelling place into the camp without the command of God. “And when the man came into the city, and told it. . . .” Heb., “And the man came to tell it in the city. . . Fleeing from the scene of battle, the man (messenger) had not without intent strayed into Shiloh; he had resolutely pursued the way that led to this city intent on reporting to Eli, he being the high priest and as such the highest official in Israel. The view that the messenger had purposed to divulge the terrible news first to Eli is in harmony with the notice, “And the man came in hastily and told Eli”. Heb., “And the man hastened, and he came and told Eli.” That he had not arrived sooner was due to his having been prevented against his will by anxious inquirers among the people, who had interrogated him on the way about the outcome of the battle. As soon as he could free himself, he hastened to Eli. The report of the messenger had spread with lightning rapidity, and created a great emotion. “The whole city cried.” “And Eli heard the voice of the cry and he said, What meaneth the voice of the tumult.” For his heart trembled for the ark of God. Presently the messenger stood before him with rent clothes and with a head strewn with earth. But these tokens of grief could make no impression on Eli; for he “was ninety and eight years old; and his eyes were dim (Heb., his eyes stood; that is, were set), that he could not see”. His eyes were “set” from feebleness of the optic nerve. It is the description of the motionless appearance of the eyes, quenched by senile weakness. But the process of blinding was not completed; his eyes still had a glimmer of light. For according to 3:2, “his eyes began to wax dim, that he could not see.” And according to 4:13, he sat by the way looking out.
Eli being partially blind, the messenger had to introduce himself, which he did in these words, “I am the one that came out of the army, and I fled today out of the army.” The expression “I am the one who came” (a correct translation of the qal active part, with the article) indicates that it had already been told Eli that a messenger had arrived from the battle field with tidings; but he was still ignorant of the full truth. Having learned that the man who stood before him was that messenger, Eli said, “What is there done, my son?” Heb., “What is the thing or matter, my son?” The messenger replied in four short sentences, each a blow, the last of which crushed the aged priest, “Israel is fled before the Philistines, and also there hath been a great slaughter among the people, and also thy two sons Hophni and Phinehas are dead, and the ark of God is taken.” The double “and also” indicates the excitement with which these words were spoken. It is expressly remarked that the news of the capture of the ark by the Philistines led to Eli’s death. That was the death blow. “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.” It shows that the fear of God was deeply rooted in his souk Yet there is the question just why the loss of the ark of God was a shock to him so great as to render him insensible so that he fell from his seat? Was Eli, too, worshipping the ark and was he shocked into insensibility by the loss of an idol? He should not be accused of this. At 4:3 we read, “And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel, saying, if ye do return unto the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from, among you. . . There is no statement occurring in the narrative to indicate that Eli served idols. This was not his sin. His guilt was that he was unwilling to take action against wicked priests who desecrated the sacrifices. Besides, an idolater, being a rational being, does not truly believe in the existence of his idol and could not therefore be so evilly affected by the tiding of its capture as to fall insensible to the ground. The Philistines ascribed their victory over the Israelites to Dagon; therefore they brought the ark as a thank-offering to his temple. But in the crisis of the battle, they cried not to Dagon to deliver them, but relied solely on their own arm— the arm of flesh—to save them. Eli’s great grief was caused by his interpretation of the capture of the ark of God. The ark was Jehovah’s throne; it was the symbol of the covenant and the chief instrument of its working. To Eli therefore, its capture by the heathen betokened that the Lord had cast off and departed from His people. That was his great grief undoubtedly. Thus, though the manner of his death was terrible in that it bore the mark of divine judgment, he nevertheless died, in the fear of the Lord.
The narrative of the events that led to Eli’s death is followed by the sad story of his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas. She was “with child to bear. And she heard the tidings that the ark of God was taken and that her father-in-law and husband were dead. And she bowed herself and gave birth to a son; for her pains turned upon her.” It is not explicitly stated that her pains came prematurely on account of her being so violently effected by the evil tidings; yet this is the thought conveyed by the order of the clauses in the narrative. She was with child. She heard the evil tidings and travailed. These events are actively related.
The child having been borne, the mother lay on the brink of death, slain by a great sorrow. The word of the midwife—the woman appointed over her, “Fear not, a son thou hast borne,” was calculated to revive her soul by arousing the mother’s love in her heart. But the word failed of its aim. She gave no answer. She turned not her eyes to the speaker. Her soul was occupied with the loss of the ark. When her thoughts did turn to her child? it was only to whisper the name by which she would have it called, “Ichabod,” meaning non-glory. Why should the child be named Ichabod? The woman appointed over her—the midwife—must come close to hear her reply, for she was dying, “The glory is departed from Israel; for the ark of God is taken.” These were her last words.
This woman, like Eli her father-in-law, feared the Lord. The wife of a. deeply corrupted man, she was not one with him in spirit. She loved the Lord and kept His covenant. Let us therefore try to understand her grief. The ark of God with the law and the mercy-seat was for the true Israel the throne of grace and as such the visible pledge of the covenant which the Lord had made with His people. As enthroned above the ark He sat as .Israel’s God and dwelt in the midst of His people. Thus the capture of the ark seemed to declare that the Lord had abandoned His throne and annulled His covenant; that, in a word, the glory of Israel was gone into captivity indeed. The glory of Israel is the glorious Jehovah as the fountain of all the glory, honor, and true beauty that was found in Israel. And the Lord was now in captivity. The God-fearing in Israel were as perplexed and as troubled as were the disciples in the hour of Christ’s crucifixion. It is plain from the psalms that the capture of the ark must be regarded as a type of the humiliation of Christ.