This Sunday we will be continuing our sermon series in the book of 1 Samuel, looking at chapter 7. Since we will not be preaching sermons on chapters 4-6, this week, we’ve asked a few church members to post some brief studies on these chapters for your benefit. “All Scripture is breathed out by God, and profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16)!
Today, Rachel Poel shares some thoughts on 1 Samuel 5:
1 Samuel 5 shows us how, even in the bleakest moments, God is unstoppable in his pursuit of his children.
When we start 1 Samuel 5, the ark of the covenant has been captured by Israel’s mortal enemies, the Philistines. And that might be even worse that it sounds.
The Philistines had taken the ark of the covenant to Dagon’s temple in Ashdod. Dagon was probably the head of the Philistine pantheon, their chief god. In those days, it was a common practice for one people to capture another’s gods. According to the ESV Study Bible, “It was understood that a people whose gods were in enemy hands was completely conquered.” With the ark of the covenant in Dagon’s temple, it looked like the God of Israel had been squashed by the god of the Philistines.
But when the Philistines woke up the next morning and came into the temple, they found the statue of Dagon bowed facedown on the ground. They propped Dagon back up, but when they returned the next day, Dagon was on the ground again, and this time, his head and arms were cut off. To someone living in the the ancient Near East, that had a specific and chilling meaning—you cut off the head and hands of the enemies you had killed in battle.
The Dreadful, Unstoppable Hand of God
Meanwhile, outside the temple, “the hand of the LORD was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory” (5:6) (Because of this and the mice mentioned later, many scholars think God brought an outbreak of bubonic plague—the medieval “Black Death”—to Ashdod.)
Dreading the might of God, the people of Ashdod gathered the Philistine leaders together to decide what to do with the ark of the covenant. The Philistine leaders sent the ark to Gath; God afflicted the people of Gath. Next, the Philistine leaders sent the ark to Ekron; God afflicted the people of Ekron.
Terror swarmed among the Philistines as they become acquainted with the dreadful power of God. In Ashdod, the ark is brought in with confidence but sent away with fear. But it is received in Gath with “very great panic” (5:9) and in Ekron with “a deathly panic throughout the whole city” (5:11). Our God is a mighty and fearsome God. We know him as Savior and Father, but he deserves our fear and wonder as well. He commands our world from tiniest plague bacteria to the governing bodies like those in Philistia, and he cannot be stopped from fulfilling his good purpose—to dwell among his people.
Why Does the Ark of the Covenant Matter?
The Bible shows God establishing relationship with humans over and over—in the Garden of Eden, through covenant after covenant, and finally through the tearing of the temple curtain and in the promise of living in heaven with God.
It’s not on accident that the Bible includes so much detail about the ark of the covenant and later about the temple. They are where that promise was fulfilled—where God lived in the middle of his people. In Exodus, when God is delivering his law to his people from Mount Sinai, he takes five chapters to describe the ark of the covenant and priests who serve there. And at the end of all this detail, God says,
“I will dwell among the people of Israel and be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.” (Ex 29:45-46)
When the ark of the covenant is captured in 1 Samuel 5, it could seem like an interruption in this narrative. Israel’s leaders are absent. Eli is dead. His sons have been killed. And while Samuel’s words have come to all Israel (1 Sam 4:1), he is not yet leading the people of God.
But God is not dependent on human leadership, and he is not finished with his people. He moves among the people of Philistia to show his glory and return the ark to the people of Israel. While God uses humans, he does not need us. The biblical narrative of God establishing relationship with people is driven by his initiative in reaching out to us.