A few years ago, a computer programmer friend was asked how his job was going. With a glow on his face, he replied that his job was the most fun he had ever had. The most amazing thing to him was that someone actually paid him to have so much fun. I have felt much the same way in preparing to teach this lesson. I must confess that my job is not always that way; parts of my job are very unpleasant. But teaching the Scriptures is one of the fun parts, and this text has definitely been a joy to study and preach.
It may appear to the Israelites and to the Philistines that God is now being held hostage by Israel’s enemies. Israel has been defeated in an initial battle with the Philistines, suffering the loss of about 4,000 lives (1 Samuel 4:1-2). The Israelites are wondering how their God could allow them to suffer this defeat, concluding that it is because they did not take the Ark of God into battle with them. Like a large good luck charm, they believe the presence of the Ark will make the difference. Confidently, the Israelites commence fighting. Fearfully, the Philistines rise to the challenge, dreading that it might mean death or defeat for them. Instead, it leads to an even greater defeat for the Israelites. Our text tells us that 30,000 foot soldiers are killed, along with the two priests, Hophni and Phinehas. When Eli learns that his sons are dead and that the Ark has been captured, he falls from his seat, breaking his neck and dying when he falls. He is followed in death by his daughter-in-law as she gives birth to the son she names Ichabod (gone is the glory), in light of the Ark being taken.
Our text for this message takes up at this point. We are allowed to be a “fly on the wall” in the “temple” of Dagon, one of the Philistine gods.17 In chapter 5, God humbles Dagon (verses 1-5) and then the Philistines who worship him (verses 6-12). In chapter 6, the Philistines send the Ark back to Israel, using a method designed to determine whether it is God or chance that has brought all their trials upon them. Irreverence and disobedience regarding the Ark result in divine judgment upon the Israelites, and their initial response to this judgment is similar to that of the Philistines. Chapter 7 commences with the Ark being placed in storage, so that all will know that the spiritual revival and military victory of the Israelites which follow are not the result of any magical use of the Ark, but the result of Israel’s repentance and faith in God.
If only from a literary point of view, the account of 1 Samuel 5-7 is fascinating. Beyond this, the theological truths and practical lessons are such that we will do well to give much thought to this text. Let us look to God’s Spirit to guide us to the truth in this text, for our good and His glory.
1 Now the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it to the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon. 3 When the Ashdodites arose early the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and set him in his place again. 4 But when they arose early the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD. And the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off on the threshold; only the trunk of Dagon was left to him. 5 Therefore neither the priests of Dagon nor all who enter Dagon's house tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.
6 Now the hand of the LORD was heavy on the Ashdodites, and He ravaged them and smote them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territories. 7 When the men of Ashdod saw that it was so, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for His hand is severe on us and on Dagon our god.” 8 So they sent and gathered all the lords of the Philistines to them and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?” And they said, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be brought around to Gath.” And they brought the ark of the God of Israel around. 9 And it came about that after they had brought it around, the hand of the LORD was against the city with very great confusion; and He smote the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them. 10 So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. And it happened as the ark of God came to Ekron that the Ekronites cried out, saying, “They have brought the ark of the God of Israel around to us, to kill us and our people.” 11 They sent therefore and gathered 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 deadly confusion throughout the city; the hand of God was very heavy there. 12 And the men who did not die were smitten with tumors and the cry of the city went up to heaven.
From a merely human point of view, it looks as though God is being held hostage by the Philistines. From the perspective of the Israelites, the anguish of Eli, his dying daughter-in-law, and other Israelites at the capture of the Ark, is understandable But Israel’s God is not an idol; He does not need for men to carry Him about. God is the One who carries Israel:
18 To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare with Him? 19 As for the idol, a craftsman casts it, A goldsmith plates it with gold, And a silversmith fashions chains of silver. 20 He who is too impoverished for such an offering Selects a tree that does not rot; He seeks out for himself a skillful craftsman To prepare an idol that will not totter. 21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been declared to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 22 It is He who sits above the vault of the earth, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. 23 He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless. 24 Scarcely have they been planted, Scarcely have they been sown, Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth, But He merely blows on them, and they wither, And the storm carries them away like stubble. 25 “To whom then will you liken Me That I should be his equal?” says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes on high And see who has created these stars, The One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name; Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power Not one of them is missing (Isaiah 40:18-26).
1 Bel has bowed down, Nebo stoops over; Their images are consigned to the beasts and the cattle. The things that you carry are burdensome, A load for the weary beast. 2 They stooped over, they have bowed down together; They could not rescue the burden, But have themselves gone into captivity. 3 “Listen to Me, O house of Jacob, And all the remnant of the house of Israel, You who have been borne by Me from birth, And have been carried from the womb; 4 Even to your old age, I shall be the same, And even to your graying years I shall bear you! I have done it, and I shall carry you; And I shall bear you, and I shall deliver you. 5 “To whom would you liken Me, And make Me equal and compare Me, That we should be alike? (Isaiah 46:1-5).
I can imagine the elation and jubilant celebration the Philistines momentarily enjoy over their apparent victory as they carry the Ark of God from Ebenezer to Ashdod, the northern most of their five principle cities. In their minds, defeating the Israelites and capturing the Ark was defeating God. It is probably with great ceremony that the Philistines carry the Ark of God into the house of one of their principle gods, Dagon. Here, placed before Dagon in some symbolically subordinate position, is the Ark of God. Dagon now prevails over God as the Philistines prevailed over Israel -- or so the Philistines suppose. They are in for a rude awakening.
What a shock they have early the next morning when people arrive to praise and worship their god, Dagon, for the victory it has given over Israel. There, in its own temple, their idol lies prostrate in the dirt before the Ark of God. Imagine the excuses and explanations made in defense of their “god.” It must not have been properly positioned. Could it have been an earthquake? Whatever the reason, one can be sure that their god is now securely anchored in its “house” when the Philistine priests leave that day. There will be no more falling on its face, that is for sure.
Does a larger than usual group assemble at the house of Dagon the following day? Do the Philistines want to convince themselves that the previous morning was some kind of fluke? Is this nothing but an “act of God” (as insurance adjusters say)? When they arrive early the next morning, things are even worse than the previous day. Dagon has fallen before God once again, but this time its hands and head are broken off as the idol strikes the threshold. Do the Philistines still think the God of Israel is in their hands? The hands of their god are in the dirt, as well as its head. The Ark of God may be in Philistine hands, but the god of the Philistines is in the hands of the only true God, the God of Israel.
Is Dagon in the hands of an angry God? I think so. The most amazing thing about verses 1-5 is not the prostration of Dagon before the Ark of God, but the response of the Philistine priests to this second symbolic scene. The Ark of God is not an idol; the Ark of God is not Israel’s God. The Ark is a symbol of God’s presence among His people. It plays an important role in Israel’s worship, but it is not an idol. Dagon is an idol, which men have fashioned to be their god. This Philistine idol has twice fallen before the Ark of God and broken upon impact, requiring repairs. The Philistine “god” falls before the Ark of God and then has to go back into the shop for repairs. What should this tell the Philistines?
Does a real God have to be picked up off the ground? Does a real God fall apart? Does a real God have to be glued back together? If these pagan priests are thinking properly, they will see that Dagon’s image belongs on the scrap heap or in the city dump. What kind of a “god” has to be set upright by its subjects and carried off for repairs because it is broken? Yet these priests do not humble themselves and confess that the God of Israel is the only true God. They do not give up worshipping a piece of wood, stone, or metal. Instead, they pronounce the threshold on which the idol breaks to be holy. From this point on, the threshold becomes a sacred object. The threshold’s destruction of their god should have taught them a lesson, but it is a lesson the Philistines did not learn. No wonder there are some even more difficult lessons yet to come.
In some ways, the author has already prepared us for what we read in verses 6-12 of chapter 5:
6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, “What does the noise of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” Then they understood that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp. 7 And the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “God has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 “Woe to us! Who shall deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who smote the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. 9 “Take courage and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews, as they have been slaves to you; therefore, be men and fight” (1 Samuel 4:6-9, emphasis mine).
Here in chapter 4, the Philistines are about to once again engage the Israelites in battle when they learn that the Israelites have brought along the Ark of God to take into battle with them. When the Philistines learn about the Ark coming with the Israelites into battle, they are deeply frightened. They recall the role the Ark played in Israel’s past, especially in relation to Israel’s deliverance from the Egyptians at the exodus. It is one thing for the Philistines to speak of the defeat of Pharaoh and his army, because they are about to go to war with the Israelites. Instead, the Philistines speak to one another about how God smites the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. What do plagues have to do with going to war with the Israelites? The Philistines see a connection, and our author makes certain we know it. The end result is that what the Philistines fear in chapter 4 comes upon them in chapter 5.
Inside the house of Dagon, God shows the Philistines that their idol is powerless in His hands. Now God begins to work on the Philistines themselves. Do they think themselves victorious over God? The hands of Dagon have been broken off. The “hand of God” has done it. Now, the “hand of God” is heavy on the Philistines in the place where the Ark is kept -- Ashdod and its surrounding territory. It is impossible to be dogmatic about the exact identity of the plague God brings upon the Philistines. Some translations suggest that the malady God brings upon the Ashdodites (and later the inhabitants of the other places where the Ark is sent) is hemorrhoids. Others think it is some kind of tumor with which God smites the Philistines. We do not know with certainty and probably will not know until the Lord comes. While there is a kind of “poetic justice” to the thought of the Philistines suffering from hemorrhoids, the plague seems much more serious than this. It appears that people are not merely suffering from pain and irritation, but that they are dying like flies. Some conclude that since there are tumors and many deaths somehow associated with rodents, this must have been a manifestation of the bubonic plague. They may well be right.
Whatever the plague, the Philistines do not like it, and they are eager to be rid of it. The Philistine leaders know that the plague the Ashdodites are suffering is due to the presence of the Ark of God in their midst. They know it is the hand of God heavily upon them. He is judging them and their “god,” Dagon. Consequently, they reason that the only way to be rid of the plague is to be rid of the Ark. The leaders reach a political decision: send the Ark of God on to Gath, the next major Philistine city. The implied result is a cessation of the plague at Ashdod. We are clearly told that sending the Ark to Gath is followed by an outbreak of the plague in and around the city of Gath. The plague follows the Ark.
It is therefore decided that the Ark will be sent away, this time to the city of Ekron. The people at Ekron are not that gullible. No “Madison Avenue” sales job can convince the people of this place that what they really need is the Ark of the God of Israel -- accompanied by a deadly plague. When the people of Ekron know the Ark is on its way, they refuse to accept it. I am reminded of one of my “little friends” who loves to play “Old Maid.” I cannot describe to you the look of anguish on her face which she seems unable to disguise when she gets the “Old Maid.” The people of Ekron feel much more strongly about being selected to receive the Ark of God. It becomes obvious that if no Philistine city will take the Ark, then it will have to be sent back from whence it came. Without a military confrontation, without international negotiations, Israel is getting back the Ark it lost some seven months earlier.
Once again, it is apparent that the Philistines recognize that the plague which is visiting various Philistine cities is due to the presence of the Ark of God in their midst. They know that the Ark means trouble, and that this trouble is God’s judgment upon them and their “god,” Dagon. What they do not do is reject their heathen idolatry and their impotent “god.” Neither do they trust in the God of Israel and worship Him. They simply want God to “get out of their town.”
I am reminded of the response of the people who lived in the country of the Geresenes, as described in Mark 5. When Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee and casts the demon from the dreaded and powerful demoniac, “Legion,” the people of that place are terrified. They ask Jesus to leave town as soon as possible. They do not want One this good and this powerful among them. He is too threatening. The Ark of God is too holy and too hot to handle, and they want only to be rid of it.
1 Now the ark of the LORD had been in the country of the Philistines seven months. 2 And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, “ What shall we do with the ark of the LORD? Tell us how we shall send it to its place. “ 3 And they said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty; but you shall surely return to Him a guilt offering. Then you shall be healed and it shall be known to you why His hand is not removed from you.” 4 Then they said, “What shall be the guilt offering which we shall return to Him?” And they said, “Five golden tumors and five golden mice according to the number of the lords of the Philistines, for one plague was on all of you and on your lords. 5 “So you shall make likenesses of your tumors and likenesses of your mice that ravage the land, and you shall give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps He will ease His hand from you, your gods, and your land. 6 “Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? When He had severely dealt with them, did they not allow the people to go, and they departed? 7 “Now therefore take and prepare a new cart and two milch cows on which there has never been a yoke; and hitch the cows to the cart and take their calves home, away from them. 8 “And take the ark of the LORD and place it on the cart; and put the articles of gold which you return to Him as a guilt offering in a box by its side. Then send it away that it may go. 9 “And watch, if it goes up by the way of its own territory to Beth-shemesh, then He has done us this great evil. But if not, then we shall know that it was not His hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance.” 10 Then the men did so, and took two milch cows and hitched them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. 11 And they put the ark of the LORD on the cart, and the box with the golden mice and the likenesses of their tumors. 12 And the cows took the straight way in the direction of Beth-shemesh; they went along the highway, lowing as they went, and did not turn aside to the right or to the left. And the lords of the Philistines followed them to the border of Beth-shemesh. 13 Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley, and they raised their eyes and saw the ark and were glad to see it. 14 And the cart came into the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite and stood there where there was a large stone; and they split the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the LORD. 15 And the Levites took down the ark of the LORD and the box that was with it, in which were the articles of gold, and put them on the large stone; and the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices that day to the LORD. 16 And when the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned to Ekron that day. 17 And these are the golden tumors which the Philistines returned for a guilt offering to the LORD: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron; 18 and the golden mice, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both of fortified cities and of country villages. The large stone on which they set the ark of the LORD is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite. 19 And He struck down some of the men of Beth-shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck down of all the people, 50,070 men, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter. 20 And the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? And to whom shall He go up from us?” 21 So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have brought back the ark of the LORD; come down and take it up to you.” 7:1 And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took the ark of the LORD and brought it into the house of Abinadab on the hill, and consecrated Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the LORD. 2 And it came about from the day that the ark remained at Kiriath-jearim that the time was long, for it was twenty years; and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.
For seven months, the Ark of the Lord is in apparent “captivity.” Seven months the Philistines are plagued under the heavy18 hand of God. The only remaining option is now clear: the Ark must be returned to Israel. The only question is, “How?” In chapter 5, where the Ark is considered a political problem, it is discussed by the Philistine lords and then passed from one city to the next, until no one wants it. Now, the Ark is a religious problem, and the Philistine priests are asked how the Ark can be returned in such a way as to not further infuriate the God of Israel.
The Philistine priests give the lords of the land very specific instructions regarding the return of the Ark. These instructions are not based upon any understanding of God or His law, but rather they are the outworking of their own pagan theology. The Ark must not be sent away empty, they advise. It must be accompanied by a guilt offering.19 It is interesting that the idea of guilt is raised. This does not seem to be out of a sense of personal or even national sin. Rather it seems to be based on an assumption that the plagues are the manifestation of God’s nationalistic pride and resulting anger, due to the capture of the Ark. Israel’s God must be appeased, but how? The Philistine priests can think of but one thing to do: idolize the solution. They counsel the Philistine lords to appease God by making a guilt offering of gold. This is no mere offering of gold as though it were a bribe, but five golden images of hemorrhoids (or tumors) and five of mice (or rats). They assure the lords that this will appease God, resulting in the healing of Philistines from the plague. If this action succeeds in stopping the plague, then the Philistines can be assured that they have found the explanation for God’s anger and their suffering.
In some ways, the Philistines’ knowledge about Israel’s history and Israel’s God is amazing. They are well aware of the exodus. They know that Pharaoh and the Egyptians hardened their hearts against God, even though He brought numerous plagues upon them. They do not wish to make this same mistake. Thus, they suggest letting the Ark go back to Israel, along with a guilt offering. The Egyptians erred by not letting the Israelites go. They will not err by refusing to let the Ark go.
While the Philistines are eager to be rid of the Ark, they still want to be cautious. They are completely willing to admit that the Ark of the God of Israel is the source of their suffering. They will “let the Ark go” as the Egyptians let Israel go, but they will not just send the Ark away. They devise a plan which will only work if the Ark is the cause of their suffering, and only if God is able to override the course of nature. The priests advise the Philistine lords to put the Ark, along with the guilt offering, on a new ox cart. The cart is to be drawn by two milk cows, both with still nursing calves. The calves are to be locked up, apart from their mothers. The cows are then to be yoked to the cart and left free to go. If these cows follow the course of nature, they will turn back to their calves. If the plagues are from God, who wants the Ark returned, then the cows will leave their calves behind, drawing the Ark directly to Israel. If the cows draw the cart and the Ark back to the Israelites, it is safe to assume that all of the Philistines’ troubles are from this God and that they have made the right choice in letting the Ark go. If not, they will be able to keep the Ark, assured that all the plagues are merely a coincidence.
The cows are yoked to the cart and their calves locked up apart from their mothers. The Ark and the “guilt offering” are placed in the cart, and the cows are released. They head straight for the road leading to Beth Shemesh in Israel, lowing as they go,20 not turning aside to the left or to the right. The Philistine lords follow from a distance, until they observe the cart and its cargo coming to a halt in Israelite territory.
Before turning our attention to the Israelites’ response to the return of the Ark, let us pause to ponder the “guilt offering” the Philistines offer the God of Israel. As mentioned earlier, this guilt offering is the product of the Philistines’ pagan religion and not the practice of the Jewish faith, as prescribed in the Law of Moses. In the Law of Moses, a guilt offering was a blood sacrifice. There is no blood involved in the Philistines’ guilt offering. The reason for a guilt offering is the sin of the one offering the sacrifice to God. There is no acknowledgment of sin by the Philistines but rather an idolization of the instruments of divine judgment: rats (or mice) and hemorrhoids (or tumors). The Philistines do not realize that their offering is an offense to the God of Israel and not an offering which will appease His anger. There is a certain human wisdom about the guilt offering. After all, are not the rats part of the plague, and are not the tumors the instrument of God’s wrath? There are five lords and five principle cities, so why not five golden tumors and five golden rodents? Logical though their offering might be, it is not biblical. The cessation of the plagues and the healing of the Philistines are not results of their “guilt offering”, but gifts of God’s grace.
The Israelites of Beth Shemesh who witness the return of the Ark are ecstatic when they realize that the Ark has returned to Israel. Those reaping in the fields are the first to see it, and the Israelites of that place quickly and joyfully offer up a sacrifice to God, using the wood of the cart to fuel the fire and the cows which drew the cart as the offering. It is a great and festive occasion, but the spirits of the Israelite worshippers are quickly subdued when a plague breaks out on the people of Beth Shemesh. Some of the people have carelessly and disobediently looked into or upon21 the Ark of the Lord, so that a significant number of the inhabitants of that place are struck dead.22
The survivors of this slaughter are horrified and shocked. They do not know what to do. Why did God strike so many worshipping Israelites dead? If people die for such reasons as this, how can the Ark remain among them? Who is able to stand in the presence of the Holy God? And to whom will they send the Ark? It seems almost like a “Catch 22” situation. The Israelites find themselves in a situation quite similar to the one facing the Philistines, except that the Ark belongs in Israel, not among the Philistines.
The Philistines suffer a plague from the hand of God because they have the Ark in their midst. And so the Philistines of one city seek to send the Ark of God to another city. Now, back in Israel, the Israelites suffer from a severe plague from the heavy hand of God. Like the Philistines, the Israelites of Beth Shemesh seek to send the Ark to some other place, so that the heavy hand of God may be turned away from them. The nearby city of Kiriath-jearim is chosen. Men from that city come and take the Ark of God to their city, putting it in the house of Abinidab, specifically under the care of Eleazar, his son, who is consecrated for this task. There the Ark of God will remain for some 20 years, until it is retrieved by David. For the next 20 years, there will be no “rabbit’s foot” in which the Israelites can place their trust. They will have to trust in God Himself, as assisted by Samuel, their prophet, priest, and judge.
During these years, we are told that all Israel laments for the LORD. Just what does this mean? Is this the kind of “mourning” our Lord calls “blessed” in the Sermon on the Mount? To lament is to express regret over the way things are. It seems that all Israel laments over the fact that while the Ark has returned to Israel, it is of no functional use. It is, so to speak, out of commission. It is something like a one-of-a-kind device with a most important function which is out of order, unable to be used. It seems as though this is viewed as a great tragedy, and yet the remaining verses of chapter 7 seem to indicate the opposite. In spite of the fact that the Ark is out of commission and cannot be taken into battle, the people of Israel repent of their sins, turn from their idols, trust in God, and find victory in war.
3 Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, “If you return to the LORD with all your heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your hearts to the LORD and serve Him alone; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.” 4 So the sons of Israel removed the Baals and the Ashtaroth and served the LORD alone. 5 Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel to Mizpah, and I will pray to the LORD for you.” 6 And they gathered to Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day, and said there, “We have sinned against the LORD.” And Samuel judged the sons of Israel at Mizpah. 7 Now when the Philistines heard that the sons of Israel had gathered to Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the sons of Israel heard it, they were afraid of the Philistines. 8 Then the sons of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry to the LORD our God for us, that He may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” 9 And Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it for a whole burnt offering to the LORD; and Samuel cried to the LORD for Israel and the LORD answered him. 10 Now Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, and the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel. But the LORD thundered with a great thunder on that day against the Philistines and confused them, so that they were routed before Israel. 11 And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and struck them down as far as below Beth-car. 12 Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.” 13 So the Philistines were subdued and they did not come anymore within the border of Israel. And the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. 14 And the cities which the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron even to Gath; and Israel delivered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. So there was peace between Israel and the Amorites. 15 Now Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. 16 And he used to go annually on circuit to Bethel and Gilgal and Mizpah, and he judged Israel in all these places. 17 Then his return was to Ramah, for his house was there, and there he judged Israel; and he built there an altar to the LORD.
Samuel is strangely absent from the narrative of chapters 4-6. His name is not mentioned from chapter 4, verse 2, through chapter 7, verse 2. Samuel does not seem to be with the Ark when it is foolishly taken into battle against the Philistines in chapter 4. He is not a part of the humiliation of the Philistines in chapters 5 and 6. But Samuel is very much a part of the revival of Israel as described in chapter 7. The very things which are not happening in Israel when the Ark is in Shiloh are the things which happen without the involvement of the Ark in chapter 7. The Ark is not the instrument through which God works (as the Israelites previously falsely assumed); He works through the Word of the Lord and prayer spoken by the prophet Samuel.
God takes away Israel’s security blanket, the Ark, and now they have to look elsewhere for security. Samuel tells them where to look. Samuel calls upon the nation to return to the LORD with all their hearts. They will show this by putting away all their pagan idols. (And so, we see that the Ark of God is really one idol among many to the Israelites – the greatest idol, perhaps, but only an idol.) This the people do, purposing to serve God alone and to look to Him alone for deliverance from the Philistines. Samuel then gathers all of Israel to Mizpah, not far from his home in Ramah, promising that he will pray to the LORD on behalf of the nation there. The people draw water and pour it out before the LORD. Because we are told that the people also fasted that day, it seems as though the nation refrains from food or water as a token of their repentance and sincerity in seeking God. When they confess their sins, Samuel prays for the Israelites.
Mizpah was apparently a high place which overlooked the surrounding area. Militarily speaking, it was the ideal location to defend oneself in battle. The Philistines have not yet learned their lesson from the heavy hand of God. They assume that the nation Israel has gathered at Mizpah for war. The Philistines have been victorious in waging war with the Israelites before, and so they assume they will be successful once again. The Israelites are frightened when they learn that the Philistines are coming. They do not have the Ark to take to war with them (and, besides, it didn’t work the last time they tried to use it), so all they can do is cast themselves upon God and trust in Him. They will have to appeal to Him on the basis of grace, not magic. They cry out to Samuel, beseeching him to pray to the LORD on their behalf, asking Him to deliver them from the approaching Philistines.
Samuel offers a whole burnt offering to the LORD on behalf of the Israelites. He cries out to the LORD, beseeching Him to deliver the Israelites, and God answers his prayer. Samuel is still offering the sacrifice to the LORD as the Philistine warriors arrive. The Israelites are completely unprepared for this attack, but the LORD seems to bring about a great thunderstorm (or at least the sounds of thunder) which causes great confusion among the Philistine warriors and enables the Israelites to overcome them. From Mizpah, the Israelites pursue the Philistines as far as Beth Car, a city whose location is not known. Samuel then sets up a stone between Mizpah and Shen, calling the stone “Ebenezer,” which means, “stone or rock of my help,” a commemoration that this battle has been won by the LORD’S help.
The result is that the Philistine domination over Israel ends. From then on, they do not invade Israel all the days of Samuel, for the hand of the LORD is upon him and against them. The cities which the Philistines have taken from the Israelites are restored to Israel. Peace is also established between the Israelites and the Amorites. All of this our author directly relates to the reign of Samuel. Samuel is a priest, a prophet, and a judge over all Israel. He is a kind of “circuit judge,” who makes his rounds from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in each of these locations. When he makes his circuit, he always returns home to Ramah. He judges Israel there also, and there he builds an altar to the Lord.23
The first thing that impresses me about this text is the reversals which are apparent. Israel is not serving God alone, with a whole heart. All sorts of evils are being practiced in the very place where the Ark is kept. The priests are corrupt, wicked, and unrepentant. Israel goes to war with the Philistines, taking the Ark along for certainty of victory, is then miserably defeated, and the Ark is captured and taken back to Ashdod in Philistine territory. Yet, by the end of the story, the Ark is returned. Israel repents of her sins, turns from her idols, and trusts in God alone. When the Philistines attack the Israelites at worship, God defeats them, and the period of Philistine domination over Israel ends. It is important to see clearly how these reversals happen. The return of the Ark, the repentance and revival of Israel, and the decisive military defeat of the Philistines come about as the result of the power and grace of God, and not as a result of Israel’s spiritual merit or magical use of the Ark.
A second reversal is a bit more subtle but very apparent upon reflection. There is a very distinct change of mood and mindset in our text from chapters 1 through 5 to chapters 6 and 7. It took me a while to realize my own change of mood as I worked through the text. At the outset of the lesson in chapter 5, I found myself very light-hearted, chuckling my way through the author’s inspired account of God’s humbling of Dagon and the Philistines who serve this idol. For centuries, Jews have probably read this account of the Ark’s seven-month sojourn in Philistine territory, rolling in the aisles with laughter. “How foolish the Philistines were,” a devout Jew might think as he reads this account. “How can they be so slow to be convinced that this is the “heavy hand of God”? How can they be so foolish as to attempt to pacify God’s righteous anger with a ‘guilt offering’ of golden hemorrhoids and rats? And look at the sheer foolishness of sending the Ark back to Israel in an ox cart!”
If the Philistines are so foolish, and this could be the source of amusement for a devout Jew, I wonder how the look on these same Jewish faces changes when the Israelites begin dying in great numbers, for essentially the same reason: irreverence for the holy things of God and disobedience to the commands which specifically forbid what they are doing (such as looking at or into the Ark). If it amuses the Jewish readers to see the Philistines shuffling the Ark from one city to another, how do they respond to the Israelites of Beth Shemesh trying to send the Ark off to Kiriath Jearim?
The simple fact is that the Israelites of Samuel’s day err in a way very similar to the error of the Philistines. Both the Israelites and the Philistines tend to take the Ark too lightly. They have no appreciation for the holiness of God and these sacred objects. Both tend to look upon the Ark as an idol. Both seek to control God, rather than to trust in Him and obey His commands.
It seems as though the error of the Israelites and the Philistines is long ago and far away. How can we, enlightened as we are, possibly repeat the same sins? The answer, in short, is, “Easy.” Let’s look first at the sins of the Israelites. Let me make several statements, framed in the culture of the ancient times we are considering, and then give some thought to their modern counterparts and the error of such thinking.
(1) “The way to win pagan Philistines over to the true Israelite faith is to invite pagans to our worship, to downplay any negative, offensive elements (no matter how crucial to the faith), and focus on making the Philistines feel comfortable and welcome at our worship.”
(2) “As long as we are sincere in our worship, God doesn’t care about the form our worship takes. If our worship of God differs from the way Israel once worshipped, it is only because God is at work creating new and exciting ways to worship Him.”
(3) “I know God said in His Law that the holy things of the Tabernacle should be handled in a certain way and that only certain people could perform certain functions, but this is politically incorrect. Everyone should be equal in the sense that no function excludes some and includes others. So forget this business about only the Levites transporting the Ark, and let anyone who feels led to do so assume the role of a Levite in worship.”
(4) “There is a magical way, by which we can manipulate God, bringing Him under our control, so as to satisfy our lusts and indulge our sinful desires. This is to take the symbol of God’s presence along with us, expecting that the symbol guarantees us success in life. . . .” Another form of this, seen throughout Israel’s history, is to see the commands and promises of God as a kind of magical formula: “If I do this, this, and this, God must do that. . . .” This is “god in a box” thinking, and God will not be put in a box, though He surely can and will put those who try to deal with Him in this way in a box.
The Philistines err in several ways, and we should pause to consider the nature of their error. The one thing that most fascinates me about the Philistines is their use and abuse of the scientific method. Our text goes to great efforts to inform us of the many things the Philistines do to “test” their experiences, so that they can be sure it is really the “heavy hand of God” which causes them to suffer the plagues which come upon them. They try to keep an open mind when God sends Dagon sprawling to the floor, breaking it to pieces the second time. They want to be convinced that the plagues which come upon them are also from the hand of God. Then there is the carefully planned means for the Ark to be “released” to return to Israel. All of these are ancient manifestations of what we call “the scientific method.”
Sadly, the Philistines appear to be scientific, but they do not want to go where the evidence points. When all the evidence points to Israel’s God being alive, all-powerful, and actively engaged in caring for His people, the Philistines nevertheless choose to “send God out of town,” and at the same time, continue to serve their dead, broken-down “god,” Dagon. They prop him up, glue him back together, and even sanctify the threshold on which he comes apart, but they will not forsake him as a dead idol to worship and serve the living God.
I sometimes hear Christians criticized for being “unscientific,” and I also hear Christians criticizing the “scientific method.” In fact, when applied scientifically, the scientific method points to the truths which Christians embrace. Is it scientific for the Philistines to perform all of their scientific tests and then go back to their dead idols? It would be much more scientific for them to forsake their idols and trust in the God of Israel. Do some criticize Christians as unscientific? Unbelief is far more unreasonable, far more unscientific.
Having said this, I wish to point out how God works in the lives of His people to bring them from immorality and idolatry to repentance and revival. Our text clearly lays out a sequence of events and changes, leading up to the spiritual renewal of the nation Israel. First, God produces in the Israelites a deep sense of the holiness of God and a corresponding fear (or reverence) for God. Immorality and violence take place in the context of Israel’s sacrifices and sacred objects (like the Ark). The Ark is taken to war as if it is a rabbit’s foot. After many are struck dead for merely looking at (or in) the Ark, the Israelites begin to wonder who is able to stand before the LORD (6:20). Now the people of God are beginning to grasp how utterly different, how vastly superior the one true God is. This is the starting point for Israel’s revival. It is my conviction that this is where all true revival begins, with a deep sense of the holiness of God, and a corresponding sense of the magnitude of our sin and our unworthiness before our holy God. The Israelites see the sin of their idolatry and repent of their sins by forsaking their idols and turning to God alone. This is what men must do today. God has provided but one means by which sinful men may be forgiven and may be made righteous, and that is through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. When the Israelites sought God first and foremost, God gave them the victory over their enemies. So it is today. A deep sense of the holiness of God, followed by a corresponding awareness and confession of our sins, and a forsaking of any other object of trust other than God and His provisions – this is the way God leads sinners from irreverence, sin, and judgment to righteousness, forgiveness, peace, and access into the presence of our holy God.
17 Dagon was thought by earlier writers to be some kind of “fish god” because the term “dag” means “fish.” Later writers now believe that this was some kind of agricultural god, since the term “dagon” means grain. Either way, it is one of the prominent Philistine gods who is about to be humiliated by the God of Israel.
18 As others have noted, the term “heavy” is related to the term rendered “glory.” The “heavy hand” of God was no doubt a good part of the reason the Philistine priests instruct the Philistine lords to “give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps He will ease His hand from you. . . (1 Samuel 6:5).
19 The term rendered here as “guilt offering” is one commonly employed in the Law of Moses for a sin or guilt offering, although the Philistine priests’ concept of such an offering is vastly different from the Law of Moses.
20 I am a bit of a farm boy, and as I read this account, it seems that the lowing of the cows is not one of contentment, but rather the discontent of a mother whose calf has been taken away. The cows thus go straight ahead, in spite of their motherly inclination to turn back to their nursing calves. If I am wrong, then the cows not only go straight ahead, they do so lowing with contentment. Either way, it is clearly a miracle contrary to nature. The “hand of God” is once more evident.
21 There is a difference of opinion as to whether those who died looked upon the Ark or into the Ark. Either way, they did that which was forbidden, and thus a number of Israelites were smitten that day.
22 There is some debate as to whether this many people could have been killed on that occasion. Josephus writes that it was but 70 people who perished. I am inclined to stay with the plainest rendering of the text, even if that number seems large. It is, after all, a “great slaughter” (verse 19).
23 Some have wondered why the Ark was not taken back to Shiloh, and why worship no longer is associated with Shiloh. It now appears that Shiloh was destroyed at the time of the capturing of the Ark or shortly after. There may have been no city left to which to take the Ark. Either way, God wanted the Ark out of circulation. If the Israelites thought too highly of it, as a kind of magic instrument, then God will simply take it out of operation, and this He does.