In Judges the Philistines were a continual thorn in the side of the Israelites, and it is no less so here. A battle was to take place between the two forces and the first battle saw the Israelites defeated (4:1-2). As the Israelites reflected on their loss they concluded that they lost because they failed to have God’s icon in the midst of their camp (4:3-4). So frightened by the prospect of having to fight God with the icon now present among the Israelites (4:5-8), there was a Philistine who went through the camp to encourage them to fight on just the same. They did and the Israelites were defeated once again, only this time their losses were greater (4:9-11). The news gets back to the Israelite community and when Eli hears that the Ark of the Covenant is captured he died.
Application: In the previous chapter we read that Samuel let none of the Lord’s words fall to the ground (3:19). Whatever the Lord said, Samuel made it a point to declare the whole of it (cf. Acts 20:27). That which Samuel was told by the Lord, he told Eli, and Eli saw it play out. Did Eli tell his sons what the Lord told Samuel, giving them an opportunity turn back to the Lord? Perhaps, but whether he did or not, a really great lesson to learn is that icons are insufficient. Take note of 4:3; the religious relic, it was thought, would be that which would save Israel in their great battle. This way of thinking plagued Israel at another time also (Jeremiah 7). Religious relics are inadequate because if we think they are sufficient we become idolaters!