Here is a short account of the issue of this battle.
I. Israel was smitten, the army dispersed and totally routed, not retiring into the camp, as before (1 Sam. 4:2) when they hoped to rally again, but returning to their tents, every man shifting for his own safety and making the best of his way home, despairing to make head any more; and 30,000 were slain in the field of battle, 1 Sam. 4:10. Israel was put to the worse, 1. Though they had the better cause, were the people of God and the Philistines were uncircumcised; they stood up in necessary defence of their just rights and liberties against invaders, and yet they failed of success, for their rock had sold them. A good cause often suffers for the sake of the bad men that undertake it. 2. Though they had the greater confidence, and were the more courageous. They shouted, while the Philistines trembled, and yet, when God pleased so to order it, the Philistines’ terrors were turned into triumphs, and Israel’s shouts into lamentations. 3. Though they had the ark of God with them. External privileges will secure none that abuse them and do not live up to them. The ark in the camp will add nothing to its strength when there is an Achan in it.
II. The ark itself was taken by the Philistines; and Hophni and Phinehas, who it is likely kept close to it, and when it was in danger ventured far in the defense of it, because by it they got their living, were both slain, 1 Sam. 4:11. To this sad even the Psalmist refers, Ps. 78:61, 64, He delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy’s hands. Their priests fell by the sword. 1. The slaughter of the priests, considering their bad character, was no great loss to Israel, but it was a dreadful judgment upon the house of Eli. The word which God had spoken was fulfilled in it (1 Sam. 2:34): This shall be a sign unto thee, an earnest of the judgments threatened, thy two sons shall die both in one day, and so shall all the increase of thy house die in the flower of their age, 1 Sam. 2:33. If Eli had done his duty, and put them, as polluted, from the priesthood (Neh. 7:64), they might have lived, though in disgrace; but now God takes the work into his own hands, and chases them out of the world by the sword of the uncircumcised. The Lord is known by those judgments which he executeth. It is true the sword devours one as well as another, but these were waited for of the sword, marked for vengeance. They were out of the place; what had they to do in the camp? When men leave the way of their duty they shut themselves out of God’s protection. But this was not all; they had betrayed the ark, by bringing it into danger, without a warrant from God, and this filled the measure of their iniquities. But, 2. The taking of the ark was a very great judgment upon Israel, and a certain token of God’s hot displeasure against them. Now they are made to see their folly in trusting to their external privileges which they had by their wickedness forfeited them, and fancying that the ark would save them when God had departed from them. Now they are made to reflect, with the utmost regret, upon their own rashness and presumption in bringing the ark into the camp and so exposing it, and wish a thousand times they had left it where God had fixed it. Now they are convinced that God will not be prescribed to by vain and foolish men, and that though he has bound us to his ark he has not bound himself to it, but will rather deliver it into the hands of his sworn enemies than suffer it to be profaned by his false friends, and countenance their superstition. Let none think to shelter themselves from the wrath of God under the cloak of a visible profession, for there will be those cast into outer darkness that have eaten and drunk in Christ’s presence.