We are not in James anymore. Good morning, it’s good to be with you. Pastor Dave has been working to prepare for John’s Gospel beginning next week. This passage has intrigued me for a long time and I’m excited to be able to preach it this morning.
In our passage we see several things happening in this encounter between the LORD and the Philistines. God’s ways are not our ways, and he can accomplish multiple things at once. And often he uses people to accomplish his purposes, but he doesn’t need to. In this case he does all the work with his own glorious, heavy hands.
Father, thank you for your Word. Thank you that we can gather to read, sing and hear your word. All of it is profitable. Help us to understand this passage and apply it to our hearts. May it spur us on to worship you today and this week. Strengthen our faith. Father, I pray that the places that are difficult, you would make clear. In the places that might confront or challenge us, that we would submit to your Word.
Jesus you are the same yesterday today and forever. May we see that a story from 3,000 years ago still has relevance for us today. You are still glorious and work your purposes. We are still frail sinners who are prone to chasing after false gods.
Holy spirit, please apply this text to our hearts. Strengthen us as a church this morning. May we delight in the glory of this passage. Fill us with joy. Help me to clearly explain and preach I pray. Amen.
The fun part of preaching standalone sermons is I get to find interesting or fun passages. The downside is it takes a little more work to set the proper context. So before we get to chapter 5, I wanted to quickly look at some of the pieces in Samuel that help us understand chapter 5. First Samuel and Second Samuel are actually one cohesive book. And the big theme of Samuel is the story of establishing an earthly king under the rule of the Lord as the ultimate King. So it’s about Kings and worship and authority.
Israel is in the Promised Land. The temple hasn’t been built by Solomon yet. The tabernacle had come to rest in a semi-permanent place in Shiloh. Remember that within the tabernacle, in the holy of holies, was where the ark of the covenant rested. This was the place that the high priest would make atonement through blood sacrifice. And the LORD himself would be present and rest above the ark between the cherubim and his glory would be present.
Israel also has God’s law and covenant. There are Covenant blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience.
House of Eli
In the beginning of the book, there is a family of priests, the house of Eli. The father Eli was kind in many ways, but he also had allowed his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, to be wicked priests. They were adulterous, and were using their positions to essentially steal from the people. And Eli was not only complacent about it, but was participating. And worst of all, they were profaning worship before the LORD. The result was that the people reflected the priests, so the nation was pretty rotten too and profaned God in worship. So God sends a prophet to warn Eli that he and his sons would all come to an end in a single day.
A second piece to the background is the Philistines. They are Israel’s chief foreign enemy in Samuel. Way back in Genesis 10, the Philistines are mentioned in the line of Noah’s son, Ham. Ham is where almost all the Old Testament bad guys came from. The Philistines were descendants of another bad guy, Egypt. Further, they lived within Israel’s land. They were only 30 miles from what would become Jerusalem. It was a reminder that Israel had failed to drive out the nations when they possessed the promised land. So the Philistines will remain a thorn in the side of Israel for a long time.
Now we come to chapter 4 and Israel and the Philistines go to battle. To the surprise of Israel, they are defeated and lose 4,000 men. While they were stunned, they shouldn’t have been. They knew the law; they knew the covenant God had made with them. God warned them that if they failed to be faithful and keep his commandments, they would be cursed. Lev 26 and Deut 28 describe the curses that include being routed by their enemies. Israel got a taste of the curses, but it gets worse.
Israel decides to bring the ark of the covenant into battle. Israel brought the ark into battles before, but only with the proper reverence toward the LORD and not presuming upon the LORD’s holiness. Instead Israel treats the ark as a secret weapon to defeat their enemy. It didn’t work. The philistines prevailed again and it’s worse than the first time. 30,000 Israelites are killed, and worst of all the ark is captured. Eli’s sons die, then when Eli hears the news, he dies too.
The state of Israel at the end of chapter 4 is summed up in verses 19-22:
1 Samuel 4:19-22 Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. 20 And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention. 21 And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
The glory has departed Israel. The ark has gone into captivity. It’s dark for God’s people. It harkens back to Israel’s time in slavery under Pharoah. Only instead of the people in captivity, God himself was going into captivity. It was dark and from Israel’s vantage point, it was hard to know whether God would do anything. But He would.
As we turn to our text in chapter 5, we will quickly see the glory of God at work. First, he works against a rival god and then he’ll work against a rival nation. And after that we’ll look at what exactly God is doing in his work against his rivals.
The Hand of the Lord against rival gods
Let’s look at verses 1 and 2.
When the Philistines leave Ebenezer with the spoils of victory, they take the ark of God. It was kind of like a trophy, but it was more than that. It was a sign that the Philistines’ god was greater than Israel’s. So they take the ark and set it next to their great god Dagon in Ashdod. And then things get interesting.
Look at verse 3.
This mighty Dagon, the chief god among gods who brought victory over Israel is suddenly bowing towards the ark of the Lord. That’s a little embarrassing. What’s worse is that the people have to pick him up and set him back on his pedestal. Maybe it was an accident? Maybe there was an earthquake. But his gives it away: Dagon is an idol who needs help.
Well, maybe it was an accident. So Dagon gets set back into place and the philistines will see what happens in the morning. But, just as things went from bad to worse for Israel in battle, things have escalated with Dagon. The next morning Dagon is again bowing to the ark, but now his head and hands are cut off.
What began as a contest between rival gods has become a rout. God has utterly embarrassed Dagon. He has no head. He cannot think or know. His wooden or stone hands have been severed. He has no power. Dagon the mighty is impotent! God will not be mocked, but he will certainly mock his rivals. God mocks his rivals to show how foolish it is to trust in false gods.
Isaiah 44 gives a picture of the folly of idols. It describes a carpenter who cuts down a tree, shapes it, planes it and makes it into an idol. But from the same tree he also makes a fire to cook food and heat himself.
There’s no difference. An idol is created by man from other things. There’s nothing transcendent like the true and living God. There is no other God. He has no rivals.
Isaiah 44:6 Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
Now, we can look at Dagon, made of wood and stone, maybe gold and think, I don’t do that. True, but we still bow plenty. John Calvin famously said that man’s nature is a factory of idols. Our idols are many, and any good thing that becomes all important can become an idol. But let me give one example, think about our phones. Imagine someone from Samuel’s time coming to a public place in our world. What would they think? All these individuals, even within families, all looking at their own phones? We bow our heads to the blue glow.
How do you use your phone? It might not be the god of fertility or agriculture, but how do we use them?
We use them for distraction, maybe away from our responsibilities or important things we don’t want to deal with. The infinite scroll can trap us for a long time.
We use them for comfort. We get into a habit of simply checking our phones and not knowing why. It’s almost superstitious. It can keep us from caring about real things because we have cheap and abundant entertainment. We can become dull.
We use them for likes and favorites. We can seek the approval of men. Suddenly we find ourselves conspiring to get more approval.
We can be more focused on what kind of post this will make than enjoying the moment in real time.
We can be enslaved to our employers by believing we have to stay connected.
We aren’t that different from the Philistines or Israelites. Our idols might be more sophisticated, but they are still idols. We are fools chasing after them.
Isaiah 44:9-11 All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. 10 Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? 11 Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.
Grace, idols are nothing. There is no profit. Don’t be put to shame by trusting in idols. You will have to do work to discover your particular idols. Let us help one another and recognize the futility. Recognize the fleeting pleasures and that they are creations not the creator. Recognize that our phones and what they promise will disappoint. Fight against their pull. Let’s help one another in that fight.
Not only is God the only true and living God, Our God does not need help from anyone, as we will continue to see in our story. We move now to the next section, verses 6-12, where God continues his march through the Philistines. He’s humiliated their god, now he’ll humiliate the people.
The hand of the Lord against rival nations
In an ironic turn, the Philistines’ god now has no hands. But the true God of Israel, who doesn’t actually have hands, is shown using his hand against the Philistines. And it’s a heavy hand. The Hebrew word for heavy is the same hand for glory. So while it’s a heavy hand of judgment against the people, it’s also the glorious work of God that he alone can do. Remember, Ichabod symbolized that the glory had departed. But that didn’t mean that the glory had disappeared or departed forever. God’s heavy and glorious hand is at work to subdue all rivals and restore right worship among his people.
The similarities between our passage and the Exodus account are also very strong. Through a mighty hand God worked signs and wonders to deliver his people from Pharoah. Now he will work to deliver the ark back to Israel. And he does this by sending plagues upon the Philistines. And once again, the plagues go from bad to worse for the people.
Dagon is finished, just like the gods of Egypt were humiliated by darkness, frogs and blood. Now God sends a plague on the skin of the people. Instead of boils, the Philistines suffer tumors. The plagues start in Ashdod, but the people send the ark to another Philistine town, Gath. Again, maybe the people are thinking there’s a rational solution to the plagues. If we move the ark, the plagues will stop. But Gath is just as bad. It doesn’t tell us in our passage, but chapter 6:4 looks back at the plagues and tells us that there were mice ravaging the land. The plagues are increasing: False gods, check. Plagues on the people, check. Plagues on the land, check again. The people try to move it to a third city, but the people of Ekron refuse. But it is too late. The plagues reach Ekron, including death. And the ones who don’t die are terrorized and afflicted by the other plagues. A cry goes out to heaven and the Philistines recognize that the ark, and the Lord’s presence, are causing all the destruction.
Just like in the Exodus, God makes it clear that he alone is God. There are no other rivals. There are no other nations that can compare to God and his glory. Maybe you can follow why a false god like Dagon would be destroyed, but why would God destroy a nation? Because they are pagans and don’t honor the true God. They are defiled and wicked. God is holy and cannot be in the presence of wickedness. It’s only in his mercy to any of us that we are not consumed for our wickedness.
So what are we to make of this? Why exactly is God going to the trouble to allow Israel to suffer defeat, go into captivity, only to ruin the Philistines? Psalm 78 provides an explanation:
60 He forsook his dwelling at Shiloh,
the tent where he dwelt among mankind,
61 and delivered his power to captivity,
his glory to the hand of the foe.
62 He gave his people over to the sword
and vented his wrath on his heritage.
63 Fire devoured their young men,
and their young women had no marriage song.
64 Their priests fell by the sword,
and their widows made no lamentation.
65 Then the Lord awoke as from sleep,
like a strong man shouting because of wine.
66 And he put his adversaries to rout;
he put them to everlasting shame.
This was all God’s doing. Who else but our Almighty God can do so many glorious things at once? He wasn’t defeated and had to go into captivity. He chose to go into captivity. Who else can humble his own people through their enemies, deal with the enemies and show and warn us all in one glorious action?
God uses means to accomplish his purposes. Sometimes he takes matters into his own hands. In this case he judged his own people through defeat. Israel was unfaithful to the covenant, so God disciplined them through defeat to correct them.
He can mock false gods by bringing them low.
He can judge and punish his enemies by sending plagues by his heavy hand.
He can restore his people and grant mercy
He can warn and instruct his people. This story is for our benefit. It’s a warning to us to flee idolatry. It’s a warning to offer right worship and trust the LORD to fight for us.
All at the same time.
So how can we avoid the judgment of God? How do we avoid the fate of Dagon and the Philistines?
The answer is to worship the LORD, whose hand is mighty. The One who crushed the head of the serpent through his death. Who accomplished multiple things through his death. The One who is holy and cannot stand the sight of sin and rebellion. So the call is to turn to him in faith and repentance.
From Dagon to Goliath to Christ
Let me say a little bit more about this LORD who is worthy of worship. The Bible describes a bigger story about God defeating his rivals. Dagon losing his head isn’t merely about his knowledge or representing the Philistines. It’s part of the story of God defeating all enemies and crushing their heads. From the promise in the garden to crush the serpent, to numerous examples in the Old Testament of Israel’s rival nations getting their heads crushed. God’s enemies are in the line of the serpent. Dagon’s head is crushed. Later in Samuel you’ll find the famous story of David and Goliath. Now, instead of a battle between gods, it’s a battle of two men representing their nations. And the LORD’s anointed defeats the Philistines’ secret weapon, Goliath of Gath. Goliath falls on his face, bowing to David and David takes his head as a trophy.
There are others along this story but we can fast forward to 30AD. We have another battle between rivals. The anointed God-man who went up to Jerusalem and was crucified outside the city on a hill called Golgotha. And without weapons or any fight at all, he bore the wrath of the Father. He bore the covenant curses for us, the covenant breakers. The idolators who have offered profane worship. And he was buried. And again it looks like the bad guys have won. Some were basically asking, ‘Has the glory departed?’
But Jesus Christ rose again. Christ rose from the dead to defeat death and sin. Colossians 2:14-15 says that at the cross Jesus canceled our spiritual debt by nailing it to the cross. And he disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. He’s mocking his enemies.
Ha Ha! Death has no sting! Sin has been defeated through Christ. And that will be true for all of Christ’s enemies. He will continue establishing his kingdom. Philippians 2 tells us that after his resurrection, Jesus ascended to heaven and that there will be a time when all the earth will bow like Dagon before his rule. Everyone will acknowledge the one and true king, either in worship or in judgment.
Now, with all of this heaviness and destruction, there might be the question, isn’t Jesus about love and mercy? What about his kindness and grace? He is, but we don’t want to pit his attributes against one another. He is the same God who defeated Dagon. He is jealous for his glory, a glory he will not share. Yes, Jesus is gentle and lowly, but that is only part of his character. He is also a conquering king who will judge and destroy his enemies. And this is different from any other human ruler or king. It is not rash or arbitrary, but based on Christ’s holy standard. This is a theme that runs throughout the Bible. Read the Psalms and notice how frequently this theme comes up. And doesn’t stop in the Old Testament. It runs all the way to Revelation. All Christians believe this. We will differ on the timing, but all Christians believe and should long for the day when all is put right by Christ.
Jesus is still crushing idols and sending plagues in judgment. He removed Herod in Acts, he destroyed the temple in 70AD. The Roman empire fell. We’ve just spent 8 months in Sunday School looking at God’s work through the last 2000 years of history. It’s not always easy to discern God’s purposes in our current day. We don’t have scripture explaining exactly what God’s intentions are. But we do have the story of scripture and God’s law to inform the things we see in our day. We can see lots of parallels between the days of Samuel and our days. We have tyrants acting like gods. We have increasing lawlessness. There is theft at almost every level of society. We have people who have no regard for children or protecting them. We have a nation that hates God and is trying in vain to exist apart from God and his righteousness. We have lots of people thinking that there are no consequences to their actions.
We have many churches in our day that look like the House of Eli. Pastors who are complacent grifters with no regard for the glory of the Lord like Hophni and Phinehas. And many of the churches in our nation look like their pastors.
But we can see the story of scripture that God is able to do multiple things at once. Is he judging our society? Is he vanquishing his foes? Is he warning us and teaching us? Yes. He is doing all of those things.
So the call for us is to by holy. Kill your idols. Raise godly families. Let’s pursue holiness as a church and worship our Holy God with fear and trembling. And pray for our country that God would either grant repentance to people and destroy his rivals. That might mean difficulty even for God’s faithful people. We may have to endure suffering as God works. But God is at work and no false idol or rebellious nation will stand in the end.
There is only one true God, the triune God of the universe, Father, Son and Spirit. He is holy, he is glorious and he is actively at work putting all enemies under his feet. He often acts through us to accomplish his purposes, but he doesn’t need to. He doesn’t need weapons or worldly power; he can vanquish his foes without any help. He worked in Israel, he worked through the early church and he is working today. Our God will establish his perfect rule and defeat all enemies in his path, until at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
LORD we exult in you this morning. You are kind to us. We rejoice in your salvation. We deride our enemies because they are your enemies. There is none holy like you LORD. There is no rock like our God. You have worked mighty wonders through your glorious hand. Please do it again we pray. Help us this morning as we expect to hear from you now. Humble us, help us to examine ourselves. Bring us low where we are arrogant. Strengthen us where we are weak and feeble. Feed those who are hungry. Help us to see your glory in this passage. You are savior and judge. Even your judgment is glorious, help us to see that.
The pillars of the earth are yours and on them you have set the world. You have promised to guard the feet of your faithful ones. We ask that you do that for us. Cut off the wicked. Bring low those who hate your word and hate your son. Break your adversaries to pieces. That’s a hard prayer to pray, but it is according to your word that we pray. Do it according to your holiness. Like Dagon you will bring all false ideas and all false gods to pieces. You will rout all nations who hate you. We pray that justice will be upheld. Give strength to your kind and exalt the horn of his anointed. We pray in our king’s name. Amen. (I Sam. 2:2-10)