Sermon preached on 1 Samuel 5 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/25/2015 in Novato, CA.
1 Samuel 5
“The Hand of the LORD Was Heavy”
If ever there was a question if God has a sense of humor, this passage might suggest that he does. The events described here, from one vantage point, seem almost comical. From an Israelite perspective, learning about the events, you probably would be inclined to laugh when you hear what goes on in this chapter. And yet at the same time, what’s described here is very serious. We see here that it’s no joke that the one true God is not to be trifled with. If you were a Philistine in this passage, you wouldn’t be laughing.
And of course, Israel, by the end of last chapter, wasn’t laughing either. Remember that last chapter ended with the Israel losing the Ark of the Covenant. We said that this reflected God withdrawing his presence and glory from the people, at least for now. It immediately launched the Israelites into great sadness and concern. Well, today’s passage continues the story, but now the perspective changes. We turn now away from the perspective of defeated Israel, shocked and mourning over the loss of the Ark. Now we turn to the supposed victors. We come to look at the Philistines who leave their battle with Israel carrying back what they think is a great spoil of victory. They come back to their main city of Ashdod with a great prize, the Ark of the Covenant. They bring it back and put it in their temple, but they find out the hard way that they weren’t the ultimate victors in this battle. Yes, they defeated the Israelite people, but that was really a victory that the one true God, Yahweh, enabled. And now that one true God shows that he is also an enemy to the Philistines too. We see God as represented by the Ark shame the Philistine religion, and bring a great curse upon the Philistine people. This is directly related to the special presence of God being brought into their land by their audacious attempt to claim victory and control over the God of Israel.
So then, there are several important truths that stand out in this passage. They are truths that in many respects could be told from various passages of Scripture. But I want us to reflect on these truths in the light of this passage of Holy Scripture. The first truth is this: Pagan religion is false religion. This becomes very clear by observing what God does when the Ark is placed before the Philistine idol of Dagon. We see this faceoff of sorts in verses 1-5. You see, when the Philistines return back to Ashdod with the Ark in their possession, they place it in their temple. Their temple was a house to worship their false god Dagon. Of course they evidently don’t consider him a false god, but that’s obviously the case. And so they take the ark and set it right before Dagon in this pagan temple. Now, this sort of thing was actually a somewhat common practice in the Ancient Near East. If you conquered another nation, and are able to capture its idols, it was common to bring them back and put them in your own temple, in some subjugated place. Of course the Ark wasn’t an idol, but you could appreciate that the Philistines might have treated it like that. Well, the idea is that this is you claiming victory over those foreign deities, and you are placing them under the control of your own god or gods. And so that’s what appear to be going on here. The Philistines claim victory over Yahweh and bring him back and put in before their idol Dagon as a way to proclaim that victory and assert that their god Dagon will now rule over Yahweh.
But of course, Yahweh, jealous for his glory and name, would not be subjected to any false god or pagan idol. And so what takes place makes it abundantly clear that the Philistines had not defeated Yahweh and are not in control of Yahweh. And so remember that the Philistines had just had two battles against Israel, and had won them both, the second time being the much greater victory. Well, here now, back in this temple of Dagon, Yahweh, the one true God, shows his victory over Dagon. The next morning after the Ark is placed in the temple, the idol of Dagon is found to have fallen over, laying prostrate before the Ark. In other words, this position makes it look like Dagon is bowing before the Ark of God, putting him in a position of worship of Yahweh. After the Philistines re-setup Dagon, there is an even greater defeat of the Dagon idol the next morning. They come in to see that Dagon had not only fallen over again, but this time his head and hands had broken off. This looks like Yahweh had slaughtered Dagon in a mighty military victory. The chopped off hands of Dagon also stand in contrast to the rest of the passage which tells us three times how the hand of the Lord was heavy and harsh against the Philistine people, verses 7, 9, and 11. After Dagon’s “encounter” with Yahweh, he is left shamed, and powerless. Yahweh on the other hand is just getting started in showing off his mighty power and vindicating his great name.
So, it becomes very clear here. The Philistines had not conquered God. Nor was their false god more powerful or able to control Yahweh. The reason of course, is that Dagon isn’t a real god. This idol in their temple is just a lifeless statue, and there is no real god name Dagon. The point is that pagan religion, is false religion. Sadly, this point seems lost on the Philistines. Well, to be fair, they somewhat get the point, but not fully. Yes, as we read on in this chapter they realize the great power of Yahweh and will decide that they must send the Ark away. Look at verse 7. There they acknowledge that God’s hand has been harsh against both themselves and against their god Dagon. So they get it in part — They and their god Dagon can’t defeat or control the God of Israel. But the underlying reason is that it’s because the worship of Dagon is false religion. They should have not only acknowledged the superiority of Yahweh. They should have also turned from their idols to worship the living and true God. But they do not, sadly. Verse 5 interestingly mentions that because the head and hands of the Dagon idol had fallen on the threshold, that this is the basis of their ongoing practice of not walking on the threshold in that temple. The Bible claims this defeat of Dagon by God is the origin of this Philistine religious practice. True as that may be, what I especially see in verse 5 is that the Philistines keep on worshipping Dagon. After all this mighty embarrassment where Dagon is shown as powerless before God, they amazingly go on worshipping Dagon.
How sad. And yet how many go on today worshipping false gods. A common lie today is that all religions have some truth in them. A common lie you hear today by pagans is that all the different names you hear in the different religions for their deity — that this is all just different names for the one God. But this passage shows that is not true. The one true God is not the Dagon that the Philistines worshipped. He will not be worshipped by idols crafted in the image of this false god Dagon. God is jealous for the right revelation of himself and the right worship of himself. Pagan religion is false religion, and God in his Bible says this does matter.
I’d like turn now next and reflect on a second truth from this passage. This second truth is: God’s presence brings curse to the wicked. Starting at verse 6, the focus in the chapter turns from God’s victory of their false religion, to his heavy hand that he puts upon the Philistine people. Notice some of the language here. Verse 6 talks of his heavy hand that ravaged and struck the people with tumors, not just in Ashdod, but even the surrounding territory. Verse 7 describes God’s hand against them as harsh. After they take the Ark away from the city of Ashdod they take it to Gath, and then to Ekron, all major Philistine cities at that time. And in both cities, the same things is reported as happening. God’s harsh hand comes upon the people, and he strikes them with tumors. In verse 12, we see that many are dying from this too.
My favorite hockey team, the L.A. Kings won the Stanley Cup last year. Since then, they have taken the cup around to various cities in California, and are showing it off. It’s like an extended victory parade of sorts. Sports teams do such things. And armies can do such things too after a great victory. And that’s the irony here with the way the Ark is shuttled off to these three major Philistine cities. Under normal circumstances this might have looked like a victory parade, taking the Ark from city to city to show off how you conquered Israel, and from pagan thinking, acting like you captured their God. But the opposite here is actually the case. Instead of this being a victory parade for Philistia, it becomes a military march of God going from one Philistine town to the next, laying upon them a great military-like defeat. “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God?”
We tend to today to think of God’s presence with someone as a good thing. For example, after the Ark is returned to Israel, we see later on in 2 Samuel 6:11 that the Ark ends up staying for three months at the home of someone named Obed-edom; and it says that the LORD blessed Obed-edom and all his household. There the blessing is clearly connected with the presence of the Ark of God at his house. But here the Ark is present among the Philistines and it doesn’t bring blessing; it brings a great curse instead. In a similar vein, you might recall that when God established the Mosaic covenant with Israel, it said they’d receive blessings if they kept the covenant, but they’d received curses if they didn’t. Listen to some of those curses described in Deuteronomy 28:27 It says, “The LORD will strike you with the boils of Egypt, with tumors, with the scab, and with the itch, from which you cannot be healed.” And so God’s presence does bring blessing to his people. But pagans who reject God and go after false religion should not expect blessings but curses. It’s the point we just said: God’s presence brings curse to the wicked. One way or another, this is ultimately the case. This was the lesson that the Philistines learned the hard way here.
And so what a telling contrast. The Israelites at the end of last chapter lose the presence of God and it results in the city greatly crying out over this loss. Here the Philistines have the presence of God with them through the Ark, and they end with their cities greatly crying out, verse 12. What irony and how telling to what’s going on. Israel cries out over the loss of the Ark. The Philistines cry out over the arrival of the Ark. But that’s because the people of God were losing out on the blessing of God’s presence among them, through this chastisement of losing the Ark. The Philistines on the other hand were receiving a more immediate intrusion of divine curses because of God’s presence among them. Of course, keep in mind that though the Ark is a greater intrusion of God’s presence into these situations, but there is a larger truth that comes out here. The blessing God’s people experience back then by his presence with the Ark, was but a small foretaste of what eternity will be like for all God’s people in the age to come. Likewise the curses the pagan Philistines experienced with God’s presence, was but a small foretaste of eternity will be like for all those who are not followers of the one true God; I’m speaking of the punishment of hell of course. God’s presence is good for his people. But it is terrible and heavy upon those who are under his judgment.
Let’s turn now and consider a final third truth from this passage for today. Understanding providence can be complex. In other words, we acknowledge that God is in control of everything, and at work in human history to bring about his great plans. But when we try to understand exactly what God is doing and trying to accomplish at any given point in history, it can be a bit complex. Sometimes we have greater degrees of understanding than at other times. Sometimes, we need to sit back and watch how things further unfold before things become more clear to us. Other times, the purpose of God in any situation is either beyond our understanding, or something that maybe only becomes clear to humans years after we’ve gone. And yet God is at work, in all things. Even in the lives of Pagans like this. Amos 9:7 is an interesting verse as it mentions how God had not only brought up Israel up out from Egypt, but that he had also brought up the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir. In other words, even the lives and histories of pagans like these Philistines does not escape the careful ordination of the God of all things. What happens with these pagans is also governed by the plans of God. But who can know the mind of the Lord? And so God does have a plan, and he is working it out in all things, but understanding how his providence is accomplishing that plan can be difficult. It can be difficult sometimes due to the complexity of God’s plans and workings in human history.
So take this situation for example. At the end of the last chapter, there might be some serious questions raised by what God allows to happen. The people of God are allowed to be destroyed twice, in a mighty way, by the Philistines. Of course, God did that as an act of chastisement to Israel. Israel, as God’s people, had been breaking the laws God had given them. As an act of discipline among them, he allowed them to suffer defeat. And yet it might be asked, why would you use the Philistines to do this? The wicked Philistines! Those more wicked than Israel. Yes, Israel had its idolatries; yes Israel had gone after other gods in various ways. But in comparison, Israel at least still had some efforts at worshipping the one true God. Why would God allow the wicked to prosper like this in destroying Israel who was less wicked? Under a similar situation with the nation of Babylon, the prophet Habakkuk (1:3) asked that same question to God asking why God is “silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?” And so at the end of last chapter, it seems like the more wicked are prospering. And furthermore, at the end of last chapter, it looks like the Philistines were able to overcome the power of God. That is what they talk about in last chapter. Recall, that when they heard that Israel was bringing the Ark of God to the battle, that they remembered the report of all the plagues Israel’s God had brought upon Egypt. They gathered their courage and strength and set out to win the battle nonetheless. Isn’t that audacious of a pagan to think they could defeat the one true God? And yet at the end of last chapter, they appear victorious. God seems so concerned in the Bible about his name not being scoffed at by the nations; what would become of his great name after what happened in that chapter?
And so at the end of last chapter, we are left with some serious questions about God’s providence. What is God doing here? Why would he allow a more wicked people to conquer Israel and be so prosperous? Why would he allow his name to look so weak in the eyes of the nations? You see at the end of last chapter, these kinds of questions come up. But the story wasn’t over yet. At least three answers to these questions come as we continue to follow along in God’s providence. First, God’s name is vindicated. If the nations had thought even for a moment that Yahweh was weaker than the Philistines or their god Dagon, that idea is thrown out when you read our chapter for today. That the Philistines thought even for a moment that they had proven their superiority becomes laughable when you read how God shows them up in this chapter. And so God uses all of this to ultimately vindicate his name in an even greater way.
Second, the Philistines as wicked pagans begin to experience curse and judgment. In other words, yes, God allows these wicked people to be used by him to bring a defeat to Israel. But just because God uses them in that way, doesn’t mean that God is overlooking the fact that the Philistines were a wicked, pagan, people. No, God knows well that they are. And though God’s hand of judgment is often met with great divine patience, there is ultimately a day of reckoning for those whose sin has not been atoned for. And it’s not like you should feel bad for these Philistines, as if they didn’t know something like this chapter could have happened to them. Remember, we saw last chapter, 4:8, that Yahweh had put such plagues upon the Egyptians when they afflicted God’s people. So, the Philistines were well aware that they were playing with fire, and yet in their audacity they continued on nonetheless with their course to try to stand against the Almighty God of the Heavens and Earth.
Third, all of this will ultimately lead to the repentance of Israel. We are still in the middle of the story, so we haven’t seen the full picture on this yet. But we will ultimately see when we get to chapter 7 that after the Ark is returned to Israel, and all of this results in Israel lamenting. Samuel then calls them to repent and return to God. They then admit their sin, and offer sacrifices to God for atonement. Then they also ask God for help against the Philistines. This is exactly what they should have done last chapter after the first defeat against the Philistines. But we see it took them losing the Ark and being without it for a time for them to realize how they had strayed from the Lord. And yet the fact that God spared Israel in this from themselves going into captivity, and instead took that upon himself via the Ark, showed God’s heart for his people. He was chastening them in all this. And though by the time we finish with this chapter, the positive outcome of a repentant Israel is not yet achieved, God is clearly working toward that. Because it’s in this chapter that he secures the reality that his presence as represented by the Ark would only be gone for a limited time from Israel. The events that happen in this chapter are what will result in us seeing in next chapter that the Philistines are going to send the Ark back to Israel. They dare not keep it among them any longer!
Well, in conclusion, I hope the applications from today’s passage are pretty obvious by now. If you have put your trust in pagan religion, the Word of God declares to you that your trust is misplaced. The gods of the nations are merely idols and false religion. Turn from this unto the living God. Don’t try to fight against him. You can’t conquer or thwart the one and only living and true God. There is coming a day of judgment that will bring a curse worse than the tumors these Philistines experienced. The good news however, is that God has declared to the pagan nations a way of salvation. It’s by the mighty hand of the Lord conquering your unbelief. It’s to see that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, came to this world, and at the cross, he became accursed for us, in our place. And so if you have been trusting in pagan religion, lament over this, confess your sins, repent, and trust in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to atone for your sins. Call upon him for help, and be saved!
And for the many Christians that are here today. Trust in the providence of God, even when it seems like the world is winning. Don’t believe the world’s lies that say that all the religions are just different names for the same God. They aren’t. Remain steadfast in your faith. And be on the look for where God, in his providence, might be teaching you something in the process. Sometimes a Christian goes greatly astray and God will do something to awaken them to it. That’s part of his providence in your life too. But given that it is a very complex thing to understand providence in terms of God’s plan for your life, you need to use the Bible to evaluate the providential happenings in your life. Interpret what goes on in your life through the counsel of the Scriptures. Trust in the revealed things of God’s plan for your life, instead of trying to guess at what the secret things God is doing in your life. Let the revealed will of God recorded in the Bible help you to make sense of the varying trials and tests that you will go through in life. May we too, repent where needed, making course corrections as needed to live more fully for the Lord. And may we rejoice in the salvation that we know in Christ. That we can know with full assurance of faith that God’s presence in our lives will always and forever be for blessing. Amen.
Copyright © 2015 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.