Last week we saw two failed attempts by the Israelites to defeat the Philistines. On the first attempt, four thousand of their men, or four units of men, were killed. On the second attempt, thirty thousand of their men, or 30 units of men, were killed. And as well as losing all those soldiers, Eli’s two sons were killed. And as well as that, the ark of the Lord was taken captive.
What was the ark of the Lord doing on the battlefield? Do you remember? After the first defeat, the Israelites brought the ark of the Lord from the tabernacle in Shiloh. And they brought the ark of the Lord, because the ark of the Lord was the sign of God’s presence with them. And hadn’t God helped them in the past? Didn’t the Lord go before the people in the days of Moses? Didn’t the Lord lead them in victory over fierce enemies in the wilderness? Didn’t the Lord lead them in victory over their enemies in the city of Jericho? Well, won’t he lead them in victory over the Philistines? That’s what they thought. But though the Lord went before them in the days of Moses, and though they Lord led them in victory over fierce enemies in the wilderness, and though the Lord led them in victory over their enemies in the city of Jericho, he did not lead them in victory over the Philistines.
And the reason he did not help them was because the Lord was carrying out everything he said he would do to Eli’s family. Eli’s sons were worthless men; and they used to steal from the people; and they used to steal from the Lord; and they used to defile the Lord’s sanctuary by their immorality. And though Eli knew what his sons had done, and though he rebuked them for their sins, he did not remove them from the priesthood. And so, because Eli the priest honoured his sons instead of honouring the Lord, the Lord was determined to remove Eli as a priest and to remove his sons as priests and to cut short Eli’s family. And because that was God’s plan, the Lord did not help the Israelites to defeat the Philistines, because he had determined that Eli’s sons should die. And whenever Eli heard what had happened to his sons and what had happened to the ark, Eli fell over and died. And that too was part of God’s plan.
And so, chapter 4 ended with the death of Eli and his two sons and with the news that the ark of the Lord had been captured by the Philistines. So what happened after that? That’s what chapter 5 is all about. And the chapter can be divided into two parts. First of all, in verses 1 to 5, we read that the ark was taken by the Philistines and placed in the temple of their god, Dagon. And then, secondly, in the verses 6 to 12, we read about God’s heavy hand.
Verses 1 to 5
Verses 1 to 5 first of all. We’re told in verse 1 that after the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer, where the battle had been fought, to Ashdod. The Philistines ruled over five cities in the area and Ashdod was one of them. As well as Ashod, there was Gath which appears in verse 8 and Ekron which appears in verse 10. There was also Gaza and Ashkelon, though they’re not mentioned in this chapter. Asd they took the ark of the Lord to Ashdod because this was where Dagon’s temple was located. The Philistines worshipped a number of gods, but Dagon was the most important one and was regarded by some as the father of Baal. And by carrying the ark of the Lord and placing it beside Dagon in his temple, the Philistines were saying that their god was greater and mightier than Israel’s God. Furthermore, by placing the ark in Dagon’s temple they were saying that from that time on Israel’s God was to serve Dagon. And we can imagine the celebrations that night, can’t we? Celebrating their victory over the Israelites and celebrating their god’s victory over the God of Israel.
But the next morning, after the people of Ashdod woke up, what did they discover when they went to the temple? They discovered that their god had fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord. I wonder what they thought as they picked up their god and put him back in the proper place? Did they wonder if someone had knocked over the statue of their god by accident? Did they wonder if an earth tremor had knocked it over? Was it just one of those inexplicable things that can happen? What did they think? Perhaps they did not think anything about it, because after all, we know that the god of this age blinds the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the glory of God. The glory or the greatness of God was right there in front of their eyes; it was plain as day; but unbelievers do not see it. Their god has fallen prostrate on the ground before the ark of the Lord. Can’t you see, Philistine, that your god is nothing and Israel’s God is the true God? Can’t you see it? Well, they didn’t see it, because all they did was pick their god up and put him back in place.
Well, the following morning, when the people of Ashdod work up, what did they discover when they went to the temple? They discovered that their god had once again fallen down before the ark of the Lord. What’s more, this time his head and his hands had been broken off. It was a sign to the Philistines that Dagon was powerless, because without hands, he could do nothing. But it was also a sign that Dagon was dead, because cutting off his head was an execution. Whatever they believed about Dagon and about his power and might, it was now clear that Israel’s God was the true God and Dagon was dead.
But the god of this age blinds the minds of unbelievers, doesn’t he? And so, instead of giving up their belief in Dagon, these foolish and spiritually-blind Philistines took care from that time on not to step on the threshold of the temple where Dagon’s head and hands had fallen. Instead of tearing his temple down, because it was clear that Dagon was nothing, they took special care not to touch the step where their god once lay. Israel’s God is clearly greater than Dagon, but these foolish Philistines continued to honour their god.
Verses 6 to 12
Let’s move on to verses 6 to 12 where we read about God’s heavy hand. Dagon’s hands were broken off. He no longer had any hands. But, of course, since Dagon was only an idol — in other words, since he was nothing — he could not do anything even when his hands were attached to his arms. On the other hand, the hand of the Lord was heavy upon the people of Ashdod. That’s what we read in verse 6. It’s an expression that means God worked powerfully against them. And in this case, the Lord brought devastation on the people of Ashdod and its vicinity and he afflicted them with tumours. The word translated ‘tumours’ refers to swellings. It’s not clear what kind of tumours or swellings these were, but some of the commentators speculate that this was an outbreak of the bubonic plague. They think this because one of the symptoms of the bubonic plague is swelling and also because rats are mentioned in chapter 6. You might recall that it’s believed the Black Death in the Middle Ages was caused by fleas living on rats which travelled on merchant ships. However, the Bible text isn’t clear what kind of tumours the Philistines suffered from. Nevertheless, it does tell us in verse 7 that when the men of Ashdod saw what was happening, they connected the disease with the ark of the Lord. They said that the hand of the Lord was heavy upon them and upon their god. And so, the ark of the Lord must go.
And so, they called together all the rulers of the Philistines in order to discuss what could be done with the ark. And who knows how they decided it, but they decided that the ark should be moved to Gath.
But look at verse 9: after they moved the ark to Gath, the hand of the Lord was heavy against that city. And the people there were thrown into a great panic, because once again there was an outbreak of these tumours among the people, both young and old. Well, with all the news and fears about the coronavirus at this present time, we can understand their great panic, can’t we?
So, they sent the ark of the Lord to Ekron. Interestingly, the text doesn’t say — as it did before — that all the rulers of the Philistines got together to discuss what to do. There apparently wasn’t a consultation this time. In their panic, the people of Gath just took the decision to get rid of the ark. And we can imagine them, taking it to the gates of Ekron, and dumping it there as quickly as possible.
And the people of Ekron are none too pleased, because when they saw the ark, they began to complain: ‘They have brought the ark of the God of Israel round to kill us!’ They had heard the news reports. They had heard what had happened in Ashdod and Gath. Now, the ark had come to their city and they were terrified. And so, according to verse 11, the rulers of the Philistines once again assembled and they agreed to send the ark of the Lord away. Let it go back to its own place, they said. Otherwise, it will kill them and their people.
And the chapter concludes with the statement that those who did not die were afflicted with tumours. And the outcry of the city of Ekron went up to heaven.
I’ve already said that the god of this age blinds the minds of unbelievers. Instead of acknowledging that Dagon was nothing and that Israel’s God is the true God, the Philistines continued to worship their false god. Idols and false gods are nothing. They cannot do anything and they cannot say anything. They are nothing. But in 1 Corinthians, where Paul discusses whether or not believers may eat food which had been offered to idols, he concluded that the sacrifices of pagans — that is, the sacrifices offered to pagan gods — are offered to demons and not to God. Paul was clear that while idols are nothing, the god of this age, who is the Devil, and all his demons, lurk behind these false gods and idols. So, lurking behind the idols which are nothing is the Devil who is real.
And the New Testament makes clear that the Devil is real and he’s very active in the world. According to Acts 10:38, he puts people under his power. According to John 8:44, he’s a liar and a murderer. According to Ephesians 2:2, he is now at work in the sons of disobedience. According to 2 Corinthians 11:14, he masquerades as an angel of light. According to 1 Thessalonians 2:18, he obstructs the mission of the church. According to 1 Timothy 5:15, he turns people away from God to serve him instead. According to 2 Timothy 2:26, he set traps for people and takes them captive to do his will. According to 1 Peter 5:8, he prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for people to devour. According to Revelation 2:10, he puts Christians into prison. According to Revelation 12:9, he leads the whole world astray. According to Revelation 12:12, he is filled with fury against men. According to Revelation 12:17, he makes war against the church.
In the Bible, we read how he tempted Adam and Eve to sin against the Lord; and he accused righteous Job before the Lord; and he afflicted Job with all kinds of physical and mental anguish; and he incited David take a census of his army which was a sin; and he tried to tempt the Lord Jesus to sin; and he caused Peter to oppose the Lord Jesus; and he wanted to sift Peter and to crush him like wheat; and he put it into Judas’s heart to betray the Lord Jesus; and he caused Ananias to lie against the Holy Spirit; and the thorn in Paul’s flesh was a messenger of Satan, sent to torment him.
And the New Testament speaks of the reign of darkness; and of principalities and powers; and the powers of this dark world; and to spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm; and to the way the Devil devises wicked schemes and he sets traps and he lies behind false gods and false religions.
Dagon was nothing. All false gods and idols are nothing. They cannot do anything or say anything, because they are nothing, whereas the Lord our God is the one who made the heavens and the earth and all that they contain; and he’s the one who sustains all things day by day. The Lord is mighty and powerful; and false gods and idols are nothing. But lurking behind all false gods and idols, there’s the Devil who is real. And he is a strong enemy.
And yet, the New Testament also makes clear that the Lord Jesus has triumphed over the Devil and all his demons. Just as the Lord made clear to the Philistines that he is greater than Dagon, so the New Testament makes clear that the Lord Jesus is greater than Satan; and that Satan and all his demons have been defeated already; and one day they will be destroyed. Now, I don’t have time to mention all the places in the New Testament where this is made clear, but let me mention one place. It’s in Colossians 2 which speaks to us of the Lord’s humiliation and suffering and of his exaltation.
First of all, there’s the Lord’s humiliation and suffering. Paul tells us that God forgave all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us. The words ‘written code’ refers to a kind of IOU. All of us owe obedience to God because he made us and we’re all under obligation to obey him. But we’re all in debt to him, because we’ve disobeyed his rules and regulations and laws and commandments. And so, the IOU stands against us and it opposes us. But the Lord Jesus has cancelled it, because he bore in our place the punishment we deserve for having broken God’s law. He took the blame for us and paid the debt we owe to God for failing to do his will. He took it away, says Paul, nailing it to the cross. So, whatever penalties we deserved for disobeying God have been taken away from us, because Christ suffered in our place on the cross. There’s his humiliation and his suffering.
But then we have his exaltation. Paul goes on to say that the Lord Jesus has now disarmed the powers and the authorities and he has made a public spectacle of them by triumphing over them. He triumphed over them because, after he died, he was raised from the dead and exalted to heaven, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and every title that can be given, not only in this age, but in the age to come. All things have been placed under him, including the Devil and all his demons. And from his throne in heaven, the Lord Jesus is able to send the Spirit down into the lives of his people to rescue them from the dominion of darkness and to bring them into the kingdom of light; to deliver them from Satan’s tyranny and to bring them into his kingdom of grace where there is freedom and joy and life.
Now, do you see the connection with 1 Samuel? In 1 Samuel 4, the Lord God Almighty suffered humiliation and defeat when his army was defeated and his ark was taken captive. And he was brought into the heart of darkness, into Dagon’s temple. But then, after suffering humiliation and defeat, the Lord in a sense was raised up and he demonstrated his victory over Dagon and over the people of Ashdod and over the people of Gath and over the people of Ekron and over all the Philistines. And the Lord Jesus — God’s one and only Son — suffered humiliation and defeat whenever he was taken away and beaten and crucified and buried. For a time it seemed the Devil had triumphed over him, because for a time, the Lord Jesus was held under the power of death. But then, after suffering humiliation and defeat, the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead and he was exalted over all his enemies who have been disarmed and defeated forever.
When he first came into the world, he was the Son of God in weakness and humility. But by his resurrection he has become the Son of God in power. And he now rules over all. And by the power of his word, he is extending his kingdom throughout the world, calling sinners to turn from their sin in repentance and to enter his kingdom by faith, a kingdom which is an everlasting kingdom, a kingdom that will never be destroyed. And since he is powerful, and since his word is powerful, everyone he calls will come.
In 1 Samuel 5, the Lord entered entered the kingdom of the Philistines and he entered Dagon’s temple, he entered the heart of darkness. But the Lord emerged triumphant. And the Lord Jesus entered the kingdom of Satan, and he descended to death. But on the third day he emerged triumphant.
And so, if you have not done so already, you must turn from your life of sin and unbelief and you must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, because all his enemies — all who do not believe in him — will one day be condemned and punished forever along with the Devil. But all who yield their lives to Christ the King will live with him and will rule with him in the new heavens and earth. So, go to God in prayer. Confess your sins to him. Ask God to forgive you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. And ask God to make you a member of Christ’s kingdom and to give you the hope of everlasting life.
And for those who already believe, will you pray for the extension of Christ’s kingdom? In the Lord’s Prayer, the Lord taught his people to pray for his kingdom to come. So, will you pray for Christ’s mighty kingdom to come? In other words, will you pray that his kingdom will advance throughout the world through the preaching of his word and that more and more men and women and children will be added to it and kept in it? And will you also pray for Christ the king to come again in glory to destroy Satan and all who side with Satan, and to make his people perfect, so that we will never dishonour him or disobey him or doubt him, but will love and honour him perfectly. Isn’t that what you want? You love the Lord, but you want to love him perfectly. You try to obey the Lord, but you want to obey him perfectly? You trust the Lord, but you want to trust him fully? Well, pray that he help you to do that more and more in this life. But pray too that Christ will come, because when he comes again, he will make you perfect and you’ll be able to give Christ the King the worship and honour he deserves.