1 Samuel 5 – The Ark of the Covenant Among the Philistines
A. The ark in the Philistine city of Ashdod.
1. (1-5) God humiliates the idol Dagon.
Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the temple of Dagon and set it by Dagon. And when the people of Ashdod arose early in the morning, there was Dagon, fallen on its face to the earth before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and set it in its place again. And when they arose early the next morning, there was Dagon, fallen on its face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. The head of Dagon and both the palms of its hands were broken off on the threshold; only Dagon’s torso was left of it. Therefore neither the priests of Dagon nor any who come into Dagon’s house tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.
a. They brought it into the house of Dagon and set it by Dagon: No doubt, the Philistines were jubilant, and confident in the superiority of their god over the God of Israel. They faced the God of Israel in battle, and believed their god Dagon delivered them and defeated Israel. Now, the Ark of the Covenant of Israel’s God stood as a trophy in the temple of their god Dagon. The victory seemed complete.
i. Dagon was represented with a half man, half fish figure, and was said to be the father of Baal. “This deity was a personification of the generative and vivifying [life-giving] principle of nature, for which the fish with its innumerable multiplication was especially adapted, to set forth the idea of the giver of all earthly good.” (Keil and Delitszch)
b. There was Dagon, fallen on its face to the ground before the ark of the Lord: Had the glory of God departed? Not at all. God was more than able to glorify Himself among the Philistines and their pagan gods. God made this statue bow down in worship before Him.
i. God will glorify Himself. Sometimes when men disgrace the glory of God, we fear God will go without glory. We think the glory has departed. But when men and women will not glorify God, God will glorify Himself.
c. The head of Dagon and both the palms of its hands were broken off on the threshold; only the torso of Dagon was left of it: Imagine the horror of the Philistine priests when they entered the temple of Dagon the next morning. They not only saw their god bowing down before the Lord, they also saw the image broken. It was hard to account for such an accident two days in a row and for the broken head and hands of Dagon.
i. After seeing the superiority of the God of Israel, these Philistine priests had a choice. They could turn from their weak, inferior god Dagon and begin serving the mighty, superior Lord of Israel. Or they could make a religious tradition instead. They chose the religious tradition: Therefore neither the priests of Dagon nor any who come into Dagon’s house tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.
ii. These Philistine priests, like men confronted with the truth today, rejected God despite the evidence, not because of the evidence. They wanted to believe it was an accident.
iii. How could they believe something so ridiculous? Because worshipping the Lord instead of Dagon meant a huge change in thinking and living. The Philistine priests were unwilling to make those changes. It was easier when they took Dagon and set it in its place again. Setting Dagon up and gluing him together is easier than changing your life and your thinking.
2. (6-8) The Lord afflicts the city of Ashdod with tumors.
But the hand of the Lord was heavy on the people of Ashdod, and He ravaged them and struck them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory. And when the men of Ashdod saw how it was, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for His hand is harsh toward us and Dagon our god.” Therefore they sent and gathered to themselves all the lords of the Philistines, and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?” And they answered, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be carried away to Gath.” So they carried the ark of the God of Israel away.
a. The hand of the Lord was heavy on the people of Ashdod: They would not listen when God struck down their statue of Dagon; they just set it up again. When we close our ears to God, He often finds another way to speak to us, and we may not like the second way.
b. He ravaged them and struck them with tumors: What were these tumors? Older commentators often describe them as hemorrhoids, and newer commentators often describe them as signs of the bubonic plague.
i. “According to the Rabbins, swellings on the anus.” (Keil and Delitszch) “Beating Dagon upon his own dunghill, and smiting his worshippers on their hinder parts, paying their posteriors, as men used to deal with puny boys.” (Trapp) “The word apholim, from aphal, to be elevated, probably means the disease called the bleeding piles, which appears to have been accompanied with dysentery, bloody flux, and ulcerated anus.” (Clarke)
ii. “Of the numerous suggested identifications of the specific malady that struck the Philistines, bubonic plague remains the most likely: ‘It is a disease characterized by an epidemic occurrence, by the appearance of tumours, by the production of panic amongst the affected population, by a high mortality rate, and by an association with mice or rats.'” (Wilkinson cited in Youngblood)
iii. The Septuagint adds this to verse six: “And the cities and the fields of all that region burst up, and mice were produced, and there was the confusion of a great death in the city.” Some think this was originally in the Hebrew text, and explains why golden images of rats were included in the return of the ark (1 Samuel 6:5).
iv. In Legends of the Jews, Ginzberg is much more graphic: “This new plague consisted in mice crawling forth out of the earth, and jerking the entrails out of the bodies of the Philistines while they eased nature. If the Philistines sought to protect themselves by using brass vessels, the vessels burst at the touch of the mice, and, as before, the Philistines were at their mercy.”
c. Let the ark of the God of Israel be carried away to Gath: Instead of submitting to the God of Israel, they decided to get rid of Him. Yet we can’t get rid of God. We can do things to push Him away but even the best of those attempts are temporary. We must all face God and stand before Him one day.
B. The ark of God in Gath and Ekron.
1. (9) The Ark of the Covenant in the Philistine city of Gath.
So it was, after they had carried it away, that the hand of the Lord was against the city with a very great destruction; and He struck the men of the city, both small and great, and tumors broke out on them.
a. The hand of the Lord was against the city with a very great destruction: The city of Gath didn’t do any better than the city of Ashdod. More of the destructive and painful tumors broke out on them.
2. (10-12) The Ark of the Covenant in the Philistine city of Ekron.
Therefore they sent the ark of God to Ekron. So it was, as the ark of God came to Ekron, that the Ekronites cried out, saying, “They have brought the ark of the God of Israel to us, to kill us and our people!” So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go back to its own place, so that it does not kill us and our people.” For there was a deadly destruction throughout all the city; the hand of God was very heavy there. And the men who did not die were stricken with the tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.
a. Therefore they sent the ark of God to Ekron: The Ark of the Covenant was now among the Philistines like a “hot potato,” in the children’s game, burning every city where it stayed. The Ekronites were not happy to see the ark but they still wouldn’t submit to the Lord God of Israel.
b. Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go back to its own place: The Philistines, if they had repented and turned towards the Lord, could have benefited from the ark. Instead it became a curse and a judgment to them. The same is true of the presence of God among men today, which can be as a fragrance of life to some and the aroma of death to others (2 Corinthians 2:15-16).
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