Chapter four ended with the Ark of the Covenant being captured by the Philistines. The series of events surrounding its capture were destructive all around. Firstly, the Israelites misconstrued the purpose and power of the ark when they surmised it would help them in battle. Secondly, the Israelites were soundly defeated and the ark was captured, which was God’s way of showing them they were thinking about it the ark in all the wrong ways. Thirdly, the battle during which the ark was captured marked the prophesied death of Hophni and Phinehas, the errant sinful sons of the high priest Eli. Fourthly, when news of the ark’s capture and his sons’ deaths reached him, Eli fell and died. And finally, when Phinehas’ pregnant wife heard the compounded news, she promptly gave birth and died. Her last words were, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
The lessons learned were many. The main lesson is that there are severe consequences for misunderstanding God and the way He wants us to approach and worship Him. God had specifically instructed how He wanted the ark to be used and parading it as an oracle in battle was certainly not prescribed. But as we saw in chapter four how God punishes His own people for their careless disobedience, He will not let the opportunity pass to show the heathen unbelievers the power of His might and the scope of His dominion.
When the Philistines took the ark from the Israelites, they brought it to a city called Ashdod, where there was an idolatrous temple to a god named Dagon. They placed the ark beside Dagon. This act shows us how they viewed the ark: it represented the belief system and god of those they conquered. Their polytheistic tendencies prompted them to believe that they could take the ark and, treating it as an idol, place it alongside their own fashioned and created idol. To them, they were likely merely categorizing idols together; worshipping one was like worshipping another. But when they arose the next day, Dagon had fallen on its face to the ground in front of the Ark of the Covenant. The Philistines placed Dagon back as he was only to find Dagon fallen again the next morning. But on this second fall, Dagon’s head and palms of its hands were broken.
The symbolism is difficult to miss. The power of God easily supersedes the impotency of Dagon. The foolishness of the Philistines prompted them to learn the lesson twice, the second time with Dagon’s destruction. Loss of head and hands means the loss of life and utility; Dagon was powerless and useless. The Philistines took this to heart: “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.” Dagon has been soundly defeated forever. His defeat is gratifying yet also empty in a sense because there was never any power in the idol to begin with.
The Philistines though, like the Israelites, would need to experience consequences for treating the power of true divinity with such frivolity. They did not know with what they were playing. From verse six until the end of the chapter, the suffering of the Philistines is documented.
The people of Ashdod and the people of its surrounding territories were struck with tumors. They sensed that it was due to the arrival of the ark. The way that Dagon was defeated was evidence enough. In light of the suffering, the lords of the Philistines decide to send the ark to Gath. Gath was about twelve miles east of Ashdod, located at the foot of the Judean mountains, and was one of the five main cities of the Philistines. But like Ashdod, Gath received great punishment. It says in verse 9 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.”
After this, the ark was sent to Ekron, another one of the five Philistine cities. But when the ark arrived in Ekron, its reputation came with it, and the people of Ekron cried out, saying, “They have brought the ark of the God of Israel to us, to kill us and our people!” But even so, there still was a great and deadly destruction in Ekron. The final verse in chapter five says, “And the men who did not die were stricken with the tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.” In the midst of their suffering, God was aware of their cries.
The message of this chapter is simple: there are consequences for taking the things of God lightly. Misunderstanding or ignorance will not be a valid excuse when it comes time to pay the penalty for not honoring God as He has outlined. We cannot make a case for the Philistines as innocent parties, because they were the enemies of God’s people, and they knew the power of God. Recall in a previous chapter when the Philistines noted how the God that the Israelites worshipped had ravaged the Egyptians. The Philistines had been warned in this sense and should have known better than to thwart and toy with the power of the true God. Their eyes and hearts were only concerned with battle and defeat, and they did not seek the deeper truths of divinity that were before them. Could things have gone differently for the Philistines if they had respected God’s power and let the ark be? What if they had returned the ark to Israel after the first time Dagon fell?
Whatever the answers to those questions may be, the lessons are apparent. The parallels drawn to our individual lives can be expressed as questions:
· Am I treating God in worship as I should? Is my heart right? Do I understand what He expects of me?
o If not, how best can I seek to understand how God wants me to approach Him?
· Are there any of God’s truths that I willingly ignore in favor of what I prefer to believe?
o If so, am I prepared for and convinced of the consequences that are coming?
· Are there any signals or occurrences in my life that warn me that I am doing the wrong thing?
o If so, am I living in denial, or has my heart become hardened?