We are in 1 Samuel 5:1-6:11 today. We have seen previously how the Philistines crushed the armies of Israel, even though they brought the ark of God to the battle. God wouldn’t help them due to their sin and unfaithfulness.
God’s purpose is to work through his people. Leviticus 10:3 states this principle – “through those who are near me I will show myself holy and before all the people I will be glorified.” But if those near him, the Israelites, are unfaithful, so that God can’t bless them, and they are defeated and the ark is captured – it looks like God is not the true God. That’s certainly the message the Philistines took from this.
But in our story today we are powerfully reminded that God is still God, even when his people’s unfaithfulness makes it look otherwise. In a case like this God, or to use his proper name – Yahweh – has to take matters into his own hands. He has to act for his own name and glory.
And this is just what he does –
God wins a great victory over the Philistines
We begin with the defeat of Dagon, god of the Philistines
5:1When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod.
Ashdod was about 30 miles southwest of Aphek/Ebenezer where the battle took place.
2Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon.
Dagon was the chief god of the Philistines (Judges 16:23-24; 1 Chronicles 10:10). Some think he was the god of grain.
The idea is that Dagon defeated Yahweh, so the ark is brought into his temple as a spoil of war to honor or even serve Dagon, which, of course, is blasphemous.
3And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place.
The statue of Dagon is on its face before the ark in a pose of submission, honor and worship to Yahweh. And the Philistines pathetically have to put him back on his idol stand. Some powerful god, right? Well, it gets worse.
4But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.
Again, he is on his face (stomach) before Yahweh, but this time his head and hands are cut off indicating that Yahweh has killed him in his own temple. That his hands and head are on the threshold might indicate that Dagon was trying to flee from Yahweh out the door!(These two defeats of Dagon may mirror the two times that the Philistines defeated Israel – 4:1-10. Klein)
5This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.
Since Dagon’s head and hands touched the threshold the priests no longer walked on it, thus preserving the memory of Yahweh’s victory “to this day.”
Having defeated Dagon, cutting off his hands – now the hand of Yahweh turns to the Philistines who have dishonored him. God’s hand is mentioned 7 x in these verses.
God punishes the people, cities and lords of the Philistines
6The hand of the Lord was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory. 7And when the men of Ashdod saw how things were, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for his hand is hard against us and against Dagon our god.” 8So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?”
God afflicts them with tumors, or it could mean boils. This recalls the plagues that God sent on the Egyptians. As we will see below, God also sent a plague of rodents (6:4). It’s so bad that Ashdod wants nothing more to do with the ark.
They answered, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be brought around to Gath.” So they brought the ark of the God of Israel there. 9But after they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city, causing a very great panic, and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them.
10So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. But as soon as the ark of God came to Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought around to us the ark of the God of Israel to kill us and our people.”
Can you imagine? “Hey, we didn’t want this! What are you doing? Are you trying to get rid of us?”
11They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.” For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there. 12The men who did not die were struck with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.
All this didn’t just happen to these three cities. As we learn below, all the cities and territories of the Philistines were affected (6:4; 17).
The story goes on to show how God is honored by the priests and diviners of the Philistines
6:1The ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months. 2And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us with what we shall send it to its place.”
It’s not a question of if they send it back, but how.
God’s victory is complete. They know that Dagon is defeated because of what happened in his temple and that he can’t protect them from the plagues. And in humiliation they only seek to get rid of their suffering by sending the ark away.
The priests and diviners were so-called pagan experts in things supernatural and divine. So the thinking is, they should know what to do and how to send the ark back in an appropriate way.
3They said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty, but by all means return him a guilt offering. Then you will be healed, and it will be known to you why his hand does not turn away from you.” 4And they said, “What is the guilt offering that we shall return to him?” They answered, “Five golden tumors and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines, for the same plague was on all of you and on your lords. 5So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land . . .
They have dishonored God and so now they need to make amends, and they do this by giving gifts of gold. The idea is that these images of their miseries – rodents and tumors – represent their plagues. And if they send these representations away with the ark their miseries will go away too. God will be appeased.
So they are to give these gifts –
. . . and give glory to the God of Israel.
Yahweh has totally defeated them. Dagon bowed before the ark and now the Philistines give honor to Yahweh.
Perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land. 6Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had dealt severely with them, did they not send the people away, and they departed?
Perhaps by sending these gifts and honoring him, God will have mercy. They appeal to the example of the Egyptians at the Exodus. Don’t be dumb!The Egyptians were stubborn and that only served to increase their suffering. The result was the same, so get rid of the ark quickly!
7Now then, take and prepare a new cart and two milk cows on which there has never come a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them. 8And take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart and put in a box at its side the figures of gold, which you are returning to him as a guilt offering. Then send it off and let it go its way 9and watch. If it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth-shemesh, then it is he who has done us this great harm, but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by coincidence.”
Back to the question of how to properly send the ark away. In addition to guilt offerings, they are to use two milk cows to send it away.
And then, there is a test, just to make sure their misery is from Yahweh. They are hoping against hope that they can say that Yahweh didn’t do this to them, so they stack the deck. If the cart makes it to Beth-shemesh, an Israelite town, then Yahweh did do all this. But the cows have never carried a load or worked as a team, and no one is leading them. And their calves are back in the barn and so their instinct would be to go to them.
10The men did so, and took two milk cows and yoked them to the cart and shut up their calves at home. 11And they put the ark of the Lord on the cart and the box with the golden mice and the images of their tumors.
As we will see next time, the cows did indeed go straight to Beth-shemesh, turning neither to the left or to the right.
What do we learn from this very interesting story?
1. Yahweh is the true God
- Even though the Israelite armies were decisively defeated, God is still God – the only true and living God.
- And even though the ark of God was captured, God is still reigning, even over Israel’s enemies.
- And even though the Philistines thought that their god had prevailed, God revealed his awesome power to them.
This story clearly teaches us that there is only one true God. And that God is Yahweh, and he is all powerful. And this should lead us to acknowledge this, be in awe of God and worship him.
2. We need to align ourselves with God so he can work through us, not in spite of us
As we saw, it is God’s purpose to work through his people to accomplish his purposes in this world; to show the world who he is; his glory. But Israel was unfaithful. And so instead of being used they are judged and bring dishonor to God.
And when we are unfaithful, we also are judged and bring dishonor to God. We too fail to fulfill our purpose as God’s people; to make him known in all his glory. Unlike the Israelites of this time, we should give God our faithful obedience. In this way, God doesn’t have to work despite us, taking things into his own hands, but he can work through us to bring glory to his name. And then we will be blessed as we fulfill God’s purpose for our lives.
[Note: There is a strong exodus theme in these verses with the ark standing in for Israel:
- The ark is captured – enslaved/ Israel was enslaved.
- God overcomes Dagon – 1 Samuel 5:1-4/ God judges the gods of the Egyptians – Exodus 12:12
- Plagues on the people – 1 Samuel 4:8/ Exodus 3:19-20
- The rodents “destroyed” the land – 1 Samuel 6:5/ The destroyer – Exodus 12:23.
- The ark is sent away – 1 Samuel 6:6, 10-11/ Israel is sent out of Egypt – Exodus 12:33.
- It is sent away with gold – 1 Samuel 6:10-11/ Israel is sent away with silver and gold jewelry – Exodus 12:35-36
- God gained glory over the Philistines – 1 Samuel 6:5/ God gained glory over the Egyptians – Exodus 14:4, 17.]