1 Samuel 5:1-12
A couple years ago, I fell into the Black Friday trap. I had seen some deals listed, and I knew that I wanted to pick up a few things for around the house. Plus, I knew that I wanted a few tools. So, a couple guy friends and I met up early and headed to all the big name home stores. None of us really had a list, which is a bad thing. All of us were “just looking.” Some of you have done this before. Some of you are married to someone who does this, and you know how the story is going to end.
So, after getting a few things that would actually be helpful around the house, we ended up at one of my favorite stores, Harbor Freight. I love that place because they always have good deals, and they have options that aren’t name-brand but are just as good for the average guy like me who doesn’t do very many projects all the time.
Well, I found a deal on something that I just couldn’t pass up, even though I couldn’t think of ANY projects I would use it for. But, for such a good price, I’d find a use for it and I’d be really happy about saving so much money.
Well, that was probably 4 years ago, and I’m happy to say my cheap grinder is…still in the box. Never opened. Not even to look at it. I bought it, brought it home, set it on a shelf in my garage, and it hasn’t been touched. In 4 years!
What I had bought as a tool to use has become nothing more than a trinket to collect, or a trophy to display. Do you have a Black Friday trinket? Something you bought but don’t actually use? I’ve got more than a few. All like my grinder. It looks nice in the garage next to my small collection of other tools. But it’s not a part of my daily life.
For a lot of people, their relationship with God can be like that. Maybe they were excited about it at first, but it’s slowly faded to the background of their life. Maybe it’s displayed in a prominent place in their life, but it’s not actually a part of their daily life. There might even be people who do use their relationship with God, but they view it like a tool that they can wield to accomplish something useful and then put away again until they have another problem that needs to be fixed.
Too often, all of us fall into the practice of treating God like a hobby that we pick up from time to time. Or we treat him as an acquaintance that we don’t know too well and connect with infrequently. We try to fit HIM into OUR life and schedule. If this sounds like you, or someone you know, today’s Scripture can teach us what happens when we treat God like a trophy, or a trinket, or a tool. And we’ll try to figure out what an alternative might be. One that’s actually realistic for everyday people like you and me.
As we listen together to today’s passage, keep your Bibles open, because we’re actually looking at both chapter 5 and chapter 6 today, though we’re about to listen to the reading of 1 Samuel 5.
Okay, before we get into the details of this story, can we just admit something? This is a crazy story! This is one of those stories that reminds me how weird and wonderful and interesting and gripping the Bible truly is. But even though this story reads like some sort of mythological event from a Lord of the Rings movie, it actually has relevance for us today. So, in order to understand how we can live in light of what God is showing us, let’s dive in a bit deeper into these chapters.
You might remember last week’s sermon from Pastor Chris that discussed the events directly before this, where the Israelites went to war with the Philistines and brought along the Ark of the Covenant as a sort of trophy or tool to intimidate their enemies. But God can’t be USED like that, and the Israelites ultimately lost that battle and the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant.
Our story picks up right there. Israel has been shown to be pitifully powerless. The ark has been captured, and therefore Yahweh must be weak, while the Philistines and their god, Dagon, are strong. The Philistines bring home the “trophy” of their victory and place the Ark of the Covenant inside the temple of Dagon, making a theological statement:
Philistia is superior to Israel.
Dagon is superior to Yahweh.
And so they place Yahweh next to Dagon, in the place of a servant, ready and waiting to answer any desire of the master. The Philistines went to bed that night riding high on adrenaline and power. And they wake up the next day to offer worship to Dagon early in the morning, expectantly ready to relive their victory over the weak God of Israel. But just like those who visited Jesus’ tomb early on the third day, the people of Ashdod don’t find what they expect. Instead of finding a weakened and defeated Yahweh, Dagon, their powerful god, is laying facedown in front of the ark, incapable of getting himself up.
Embarrassed and confused, they rush to pick him up and place him back in his place of honor, probably wondering what would have caused the idol to fall like that, almost as if it was bowing before the Lord. Some may have wondered if he had been struck down by Yahweh, or if he had recognized Yahweh’s sovereignty and CHOSEN to bow down before him.
But, no, that couldn’t have been it! It must have just fallen. Maybe there was a small earthquake, or a gust of wind. We need to find who was on guard last night and scold them for leaving the entrance to the temple open to allow such gusts of wind to come through!
But they can’t even get through another day without another strange occurrence. This time, when they come in early in the morning to worship their powerful god, Dagon, and to relive their victory over the defeated Yahweh, they find Dagon once again facedown in front of the ark. But this time, his head and his hands had been broken off and were lying at the doorway, as if he was trying to escape his own temple when he was broken and bowed down before the Lord.
The first day, he had fallen and could not get up. Even though he was the “powerful victor”, he couldn’t stand on his own. He might have been carved to look like he had arms and legs, like many other idols, but he still needed the help of his people in order to move him around and place him back where he belonged.
This time, however, a bigger statement had been made by Yahweh. In ancient cultures, hands represent power (just think of all the different Psalms and scriptures that describe the “righteous right hand of God”). The removal of Dagon’s hands signified the removal of his power. The “powerful victor” had been shown to be truly powerless. Without a head for thinking, or hands for acting, Dagon had been dethroned. And while HIS hands were made powerless, God’s hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod. (1 SAM 5:6)
The humiliation of their god was just the beginning, because a sickness comes on all the people of the town. And it doesn’t take long for the people of Ashdod to put two and two together and realize that the Lord was the cause of their suffering because they had captured his ark. They immediately start looking for a way to get rid of the ark, because the hand of the Lord was heavy on them and on Dagon, their god. (1 SAM 5:7)
The word used for “heavy” here is from the same root as the word used to describe the “glory” of God. You can think of the weightiness of someone’s authority, or the “gravitas” that someone has and get the same idea. God’s glory is manifested as a heavy, powerful hand of judgment against the Philistines, and they don’t know what to do other than to try and get rid of the evidence of their transgression. So they pass the buck and send the ark to a different one of their cities, but God brings the same burden on that city as well, throwing the city into a panic. (1 SAM 5:9)
So they continue the game of hot potato and send the ark on to another city. And the word has gotten out about how Yahweh is throwing his weight around, because the people of that city see the ark coming and think it’s a death sentence to all of them.
What started out as a declaration of the Philistines’ power over Yahweh-and-Israel by capturing the ark has proven to not stop Yahweh’s power in any way at all. And so, as many people die, and the survivors are afflicted with tumors, they call the rulers of the Philistines together and plead with them to figure out a way to send back the ark.
The ark had been in their possession for 7 months, and the hand of God had been heavy on them, and they couldn’t bear the weight any more. So they call together their wise men to figure out the proper way to return the ark. Now that they see the power of God, they don’t want to risk offending him further with their treatment of the ark, so it’s important to appease him somehow.
The wise men advise them to send back the ark with treasure, which might remind you of how God rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and had all the Egyptians give them treasures on their way out. They have seen the powerful hand of Yahweh that saved his people out of Egypt, and that hand has been heavy in judging the Philistines. Their guilt offering is fashioned into tumors and rats, to show their acknowledgement that the plagues afflicting their whole country are from the Lord.
However, it seems like maybe a few of the advisors or rulers have a sneaking suspicion that this MIGHT have just been a coincidence all along, so they devise a test. In order to return the ark to Israel, they get two cows that have never pulled a cart before. To increase the difficulty, they pick cows that have recently given birth to calves, and they take the calves away from the mothers and pen them up. This way, the natural instincts of the cows would be to seek out their little calves in order to protect them and nurse them. And even then, they wouldn’t know how to work together to pull the cart that held the ark and the guilt offerings of gold. The ONLY way that the cows would know what to do or where to go would be by the divine guidance of Yahweh.
So, they set the cows on the road. And they watch. The cows take off immediately, staying on the path, perfectly navigating the road to the nearest Levite city of Beth Shemesh. Following the cart all the way to the border just to make sure, the Philistine rulers see the whole thing.
The Levites who lived in Beth Shemesh received the ark with rejoicing. They chop up the wood from the cart to make a fire and use the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord.
It was a party, the ark of the Lord was back! But the party got out of hand and turned bad when some of the partiers decided to look inside the ark. 70 people died because the Lord struck them down for their casual disrespect. The Israelites find out that when you act like a Philistine, you can expect to be punished like a Philistine. When they treat the ark of the Lord as a trophy to be won and wielded, they experience the impossible burden of his weighty glory. (1 SAM 6:20) And so, after committing sacrilege, they act like Philistines again and try to get rid of the ark by shipping it off to another city, the predominantly gentile city of Kiriath Jearim, where the people installed a guard and the ark stayed quiet for 20 years.
And THAT’S how our story ends today. Crazy, right? Parties and cows and tumors and the glorious weight of God’s judgment. Both the Israelites and the Philistines had placed God in a lower place and treated him like a trophy to brag about and possess. But God is not a trophy to display, or a trinket to collect, or a tool to use for our purposes.
He is the weighty, glorious Creator and Sustainer of all that is. They also learned that God doesn’t need us to defend him. He is perfectly capable of fighting his own battles. He judges according to his justice, and he has mercy on those he chooses to have mercy. (Exodus 33:19)
What about us today, in 2021? Though most of us don’t have tribal battles where we parade out God like a mascot for our team to intimidate the other side, we still deal with the sin of not giving God the glory he deserves. We still treat him like a hobby that we do in certain seasons. Or we treat him like an acquaintance we try to catch up with once in a while. We try and live our comfortable life, and we make God fit into OUR schedule in the way that works for US.
That’s what the Israelites did when the ark came back, right? The scripture tells us they were harvesting wheat. (1 SAM 6:13) They were going about their normal lives. The ark had been lost 7 months earlier, and they had gone back to their normal routine. And sure, when the ark showed up, they were excited. But as soon as the weight of God’s glory fell heavily on them and disrupted things for them, they sent him away as quickly as possible.
Do we do that? When God’s glory disrupts our comfortable life, do we send him away? Are we more content to let His Word live on a shelf in our house than step into action in our lives? Are we happier to listen to a sermon and then get back to the rest of our week, instead of letting our time of worship together be the thing that equips and kickstarts our life of worship out in the world?
I don’t know about you, but this passage has weighed heavily on me. The weight of God is heavy here. And if I’m being truly honest, I don’t know if I let myself feel the burden of God’s presence in every part of my life. I don’t know if I want to shoulder the weight of God’s glory in every facet of my day. It’s easier to let God stay in a smaller compartment of my life. But the God who rescued his people out of slavery in Egypt doesn’t deserve a small compartment. The God who came as Jesus and took on himself the weight of every sin I have ever committed, every rebellion you have and ever will do against him, and replaced it with his perfect, righteous life, that Jesus!, shouldn’t sit on a shelf. He overcame death and broke out of the tomb, you think he’s going to stay put in a one-hour worship service we attend occasionally?
If we let him, God can and will refocus our lives to bear his glory to the world. He’ll use us to accomplish his mission of restoration. He’ll fulfill our desires better than any idol could.
Will you let him? Will I let him? That’s our homework from today. Reflect on whether we feel the burden and weight of God’s glory in every part of our lives. If it helps you to journal about it, great, journal about it! Or use a post-it note. Or make it the topic of conversation with someone tonight or this week. Ask these questions:
If I didn’t follow God, what would change about my time? What would change about my finances? What would change about my politics if I didn’t follow God? What would change about how I interact with my family or my neighbors?
As I think through those categories, I’ll admit that there wouldn’t be much change at all in some of them. If I didn’t follow God, my life wouldn’t look very different in some areas. If you find that to be true for you as well, take THOSE areas of your life to God in prayer this week.
God, where I am missing you in my time? In my finances? In my relationships? Let HIM lead the conversation. Let HIM lead your heart to where he’s inviting you to follow him deeper. We can trust that wherever he leads us will be better and more fulfilling than where we choose to go on our own. He’s a good Father, a glorious Savior, a perfect Friend. Isn’t that good news?