Tidings are here brought to Shiloh of the fatal issue of their battle with the Philistines. Bad news flies fast. This soon spread through all Israel; every man that fled to his tent brought it, with too plain a proof of it, to his neighbours. But no place was so nearly concerned as Shiloh. Thither therefore an express posted away immediately; it was a man of Benjamin; the Jews fancy it was Saul. He rent his clothes, and put earth upon his head, by these signs to proclaim the sorrowful news to all that saw him as he ran, and to show how much he himself was affected with it, 1 Sam. 4:12. He went straight to Shiloh with it; and here we are told,
I. How the city received it. Eli sat in the gate (1 Sam. 4:13, 18), but the messenger was loth to tell him first, and therefore passed him by, and told it in the city, with all the aggravating circumstances; and now both the ears of every one that heard it tingled, as was foretold, 1 Sam. 3:11. Their hearts trembled, and every face gathered blackness. All the city cried out (1 Sam. 4:13), and well they might, for, besides that this was a calamity to all Israel, it was a particular loss to Shiloh, and the ruin of that place; for, though the ark was soon rescued out of the hands of the Philistines, yet it never returned to Shiloh again; their candlestick was removed out of its place, because they had left their first love, and their city dwindled, and sunk, and came to nothing. Now God forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, they having driven him from them; and the tribe of Ephraim, which had for 340 years been blessed with the presence of the ark in it, lost the honour (Ps. 78:60, 67), and, some time after, it was transferred to the tribe of Judah, the Mount Sion which he loved, as it follows there (Ps. 78:68), because the men of Shiloh knew not the day of their visitation. This abandoning of Shiloh Jerusalem is long afterwards reminded of, and told to take warning by. Jer. 7:12; “Go see what I did to Shiloh. From this day, this fatal day, let the desolations of Shiloh be dated.” They had therefore reason enough to cry out when they heard that the ark was taken.
II. What a fatal blow it was to old Eli. Let us see, 1. With what fear he expected the tidings. Though old, and blind, and heavy, yet he could not keep his chamber when he was sensible the glory of Israel lay at stake, but placed himself by the way-side, to receive the first intelligence; for his heart trembled for the ark of God, 1 Sam. 4:13. His careful thoughts represented to him what a dishonour it would be to God, and what an irreparable loss to Israel, if the ark should fall into the Philistines’ hands, with what profane triumphs the tidings would be told in Gath and published in the streets of Ashkelon. He also apprehended what imminent danger there was of it. Israel had forfeited the ark (his own sons especially) and the Philistines would aim at it; and now the threatening comes to his mind, that he should see an enemy in God’s habitation (1 Sam. 2:32); and perhaps his own heart reproached him for not using his authority to prevent the carrying of the ark into the camp. All these things made him tremble. Note, All good men lay the interests of God’s church nearer their hearts than any secular interest or concern of their own, and cannot but be in pain and fear for them if at any time they are in peril. How can we be easy if the ark be not safe? 2. With what grief he received the tidings. Though he could not see, he could hear the tumult and crying of the city, and perceived it to be the voice of lamentation, and mourning, and woe; like a careful magistrate, he asks, What means the noise of this tumult? 1 Sam. 4:14. He is told there is an express come from the army, who relates the story to him very distinctly, and with great confidence, having himself been an eye-witness of it, 1 Sam. 4:16, 17. The account of the defeat of the army, and the slaughter of a great number of the soldiers, was very grievous to him as a judge; the tidings of the death of his two sons, of whom he had been so indulgent, and who, he had reason to fear, died impenitent, touched him in a tender part as a father; yet it was not for these that his heart trembled: there is a greater concern upon his spirit, which swallows up the less; he does not interrupt the narrative with any passionate lamentations for his sons, like David for Absalom, but waits for the end of the story, not doubting but that the messenger, being an Israelite, would, without being asked, say something of the ark; and if he could but have said, “Yet the ark of God is safe, and we are bringing that home,” his joy for that would have overcome his grief for all the other disasters, and have made him easy; but, when the messenger concludes his story with, The ark of God is taken, he is struck to the heart, his spirits fail, and, it should seem, he swooned away, fell off his seat, and partly with the fainting, and partly with the fall, he died immediately, and never spoke a word more. His heart was broken first, and then his neck. So fell the high priest and judge of Israel, so fell his heavy head when he had lived within two of 100 years, so fell the crown from his head when he had judged Israel about forty years: thus did his sun set under a cloud, thus were the folly and wickedness of those sons of his, whom he had indulged, his ruin at last. Thus does God sometimes set marks of his displeasure in this life upon good men who have misconducted themselves, that others may hear, and fear, and take warning. A man may die miserably and yet not die eternally, may come to an untimely end and yet the end be peace. Dr. Lightfoot observes that Eli died the death of an unredeemed ass, whose neck was to be broken, Exod. 13:13. Yet we must observe, to Eli’s praise, that it was the loss of the ark that was his death, not the slaughter of his sons. He does, in effect, say, “Let me fall with the ark, for what pious Israelite can live with any comfort when God’s ordinances are removed?” Farewell all in this world, even life itself, if the ark be gone.