God cannot be defeated, even when His children are. When the Philistines vanquished the Israelites and captured the ark, all seemed lost. The tables were turned, though, when the almighty God toppled the Philistines’ worthless idol Dagon and inflicted them with tumors until they cried out. Alistair Begg explains that afflictions like these can be acts of mercy that help us recognize God’s glory, presence, and power. Our only true protection from God’s wrath is the refuge He Himself provides in Jesus.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to 1 Samuel chapter 5 and follow along as I read the chapter. First Samuel 5 and from verse 1:
“When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon. And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him. This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.
“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. And when the men of Ashdod saw how things were, they said, ‘The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for his hand is hard against us and against Dagon our god.’ So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, ‘What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?’ They answered, ‘Let the ark of the God of Israel be brought around to Gath.’ So they brought the ark of the God of Israel there. But after they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city, causing a very great panic, and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them. So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. But as soon as the ark of God came to Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, ‘They have brought around to us the ark of the God of Israel to kill us and our people.’ They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, ‘Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.’ For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there. The men who did not die were struck with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.”
Lord, speak to me, that I may speak
In living echoes of your tone;
As you have [taught], so let me [teach].
[We are] erring children lost and lone.
Well, I know you’ve been keenly waiting for us to get back to 1 Samuel chapter 5. We’ve delayed about as long as we can in the hope that we might be able to find a manageable way both to teach it and to understand it. Because if you’ve been reading it, you surely must have said to yourself, “What are we to make of this chapter?” After all, we’re dealing with something that happened a very long time ago, eleven centuries BC, happened far away from here, and it is quite clearly an unrepeatable incident. So there is no immediate point of obvious application, because, quite frankly, it just seems so unusual and so far gone.
How then do we approach such a passage? Well, the way in which we approach it is in light of the rest of the Bible. We say to one another that the way to interpret the Bible is by interpreting the Bible. The way to teach the Bible is by teaching the Bible. And where one passage may not be just as accessible as another, we will, as we read our Bibles, find that other parts will enable us to approach it correctly.
And so this week I have had Romans 15:4 at the very forefront of my mind. If you turn to it, you will see that Paul there, having just quoted from the Psalms, immediately says to his readers by way of explanation, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and … the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” He’s referring to the Old Testament. In other words, the Old Testament Scriptures were not only for then; they are also for now. The Old Testament Scriptures are meant to teach us now. And so that is our starting point. We know that 1 Samuel 5 is a challenge to us both in understanding and in applying, but we do know that it was there, it is there, in order that we might learn from it now, and that all Scripture, as Paul says to Timothy, is profitable for instruction, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.
So, if we stand far enough back from it, at least we can say this: that in this record of the people of God being soundly defeated, God himself was not defeated. And God is not and cannot be defeated. This was a lesson that was to be learned both by his people and also by these Philistine folks.
Now, as a way through the passage, I simply have four headings in my notes. Number one: “The Ark Captured.” Number two: “Dagon Toppled.” Number three: “The Philistines Terrified.” Number four: “God Glorified.” All right? And so, that’s to help me. If it helps you, then we’re both delighted.
So, first of all—and we need to do a little back work here, back into chapter 4—the ark has been captured.
The Israelites had suffered a dramatic, a disastrous military defeat. And you will notice that the writer is driving home the fact that the ark is captured and has been captured. When we read the Bible, obviously, there’s no underlining. There’s no yellow marker that the writer has been able to use. And so one of the ways in which we can determine a point of emphasis is by repetition. And when you read chapter 4, you realize that this capture of the ark is being driven home by the writer. The ark “was captured” in verse 11. Down in verse , “And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured…” In verse 22, “The glory has departed …, for the ark of God has been captured.” In 5:1: “When the Philistines captured the ark of God…” You say, “Okay, we’ve got it.” The fact that the ark of God has been captured is a very, very important point. And that’s why the writer focuses our attention on it.
Now, you’ll remember that the place of the ark had been brought in by the people themselves. At the beginning of chapter 4, they had gone “out to battle against the Philistines,” they had been roundly defeated, and as a result of that, they got together with the elders, 4:3, and they said, “I wonder why it is that the Lord has defeated us today before the Philistines.” And then somebody said, “Well, why don’t we take the ark up with us, the ark of the covenant of the Lord, so that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies?”
Well, how could a wooden box save them from the power of their enemies? It couldn’t! No, the answer was only God could save them from their enemies. But what happened to them was that they did what religious people often do, and that is that they began to treat this issue of significance as a mascot or as a kind of lucky charm: “If I have this with me, then maybe everything’ll go well. I could hang it from my wing mirror. I could hang it round my neck. I could do whatever it is with it. Let’s take the ark up. That’ll fix them!” And when the ark of the Lord, we’re told in the middle of chapter 4, entered into the camp, there was “a mighty shout,” and the earth actually moved underneath the excitement that filled the place—a shout that was more than silenced in the defeat that followed.
As a result of the defeat, there is despair that fills Shiloh—a despair that is absolutely driven home when we look at the sad picture of the wife of Phinehas in childbirth: “She bowed and gave birth,” verse 19, as “pains came upon her.” The midwives, trying to encourage her, said, “Now, I can tell this is going badly, but don’t be afraid, because you have borne a son.” “But she did[n’t] answer or pay attention.” Why? Because her concern was even more significant. And she said, “Let’s call the child Ichabod, because the glory of God has departed.” Verse 21: it “has departed.” Verse 22: it “has departed.”
Now, when you read the history of Israel, there are probably only two points in their history where it appears that they may not survive as a nation. One is years later in 587 BC, when the destruction and the fall of Jerusalem takes place and the people of God are carried into exile. You remember in exile, they are saying to one another, “I think this is probably a hopeless cause.” If that is one incident, then the other is surely this one, when it would seem as though all has now been lost. The glory has departed; the ark has been captured.
Meanwhile, despair in Shiloh and delight in Ashdod. We learn that the Philistines, who now have this ark in their possession, bring it to Ashdod, which is one of five cities—Philistine cities—in that area there, where they had representative lords and sovereigns and they had some kind of civil and military jurisdiction. And the way in which the writer describes this for us is, I’m sure, in order to give us an understanding of the apparent complete control that the Philistines now had. Notice the verbs: “When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it…” They “took the ark of God,” they “brought it into the house.” They “set it up beside Dagon.” In other words, in all of these movements, they were essentially saying to themselves and everybody else, “We have vanquished these people and their God.”
Interestingly, they decide to put it in the pantheon, if you like. They decide to set it up beside Dagon. They don’t destroy it. Did that strike you as you read this? You say, “Why not just burn the thing and be done with it?” Well, I’ll tell you why: because they’re syncretists. In other words, they would never have said, “Our god is the only god,” because they didn’t believe that. They believed in multiple gods. Oh, this was the big god; Dagon was the daddy of them all. But he wasn’t the only one that they could call upon. And so here, insofar as this is an idol that represents another god, “we won’t destroy it, we’ll accommodate it.”
Incidentally, that’s what syncretism always does. I was thinking about the Queen this week. I think about her probably every week. And as I thought about her and about her coronation in 1953, and when the archbishop gave to her the Bible and said, “This is the most important book in the whole world, this is the royal law, these are the oracles of God,” and they gave it to the Queen, who in her position as sovereign is the Defender of the Faith… Note the definite article. If Charles follows her to the throne, he has already made it known that he will not be the Defender of the Faith. He will be the defender of faith or the defender of faiths, because he’s a syncretist.
Think about it. Isn’t that what our friends say? “What’s up with you Christians, that you have to say that your God is the only God? Why can’t you be nice like the Baháʼí, or like the Hindus, or like the Muslims? They’re prepared to give you a shot in their pantheon. Why are you so exclusive? Do you really believe that all these other gods will bow down before the true and living God?” Answer: yes. Do you really believe that one day at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father, to the living God, to Yahweh, to the God who here is having his glory dragged around in a pagan temple? The answer is yes. And why is that? Because we’re belligerent? No, because of who Jesus is. Because of the historical foundation. Because of the reality of his atoning death. Because the triumph of his resurrection. Because of the evidence that is there to be examined.
But these people, they don’t care about that! “What we’ll do is we’ll put it up here, and it will be nice. People like to come and visit the temple of Dagon, and it’ll be another little attraction for them.” I was just at the Museum of the Bible this week. What an amazing place, and so many different elements in it. And as I walked around, I said to myself, “You know, that’s really what they wanted to do. They wanted to have all these little bits and pieces, but not to the living God: to themselves.” Now, I would imagine that they wouldn’t want to keep it to themselves. They would want visitors to the house of Dagon. Maybe somebody went out and put up a few signs around Ashdod, said, “Tomorrow morning at ten o’clock, we’ll be opening up the house of Dagon, and we invite you to come and see our latest trophy. If you come, you’ll be able to see our magnificent victory over those Israelites. Tomorrow morning, ten o’clock, be there, be on time.”
In their minds, you see, this box was just an idol, like their image of Dagon. Dagon, incidentally, was a kind of fertility god. He was a kind of vegetarian god—a vegan fertility god. You say, “Well, what have you got against vegans?” Nothing at all. I’m just having fun with you, just a little bit. But it is quite fascinating, isn’t it, that in every generation, whenever people begin to worship the creature rather than the Creator, there’s nothing new under the sun. As soon as the living God has been removed, we’re gonna have to substitute it with something or someone. Hence Dagon.
Now, the ark has been captured, but now look: Dagon has been toppled. “When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day,” something had happened during the night. We have no description of what happened during the night. But the fact that something happened during the night is obvious in the morning. Keep that thought in mind; I’m going to come back to it. What we could not see during the night becomes revealed in the morning.
“So they took Dagon,” because he “had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord,” and they “put him back in his place.” There’s something kind of pathetically comedic about this, isn’t there? “Oh, thanks for coming by to see our latest exhibit. If you just hold it there at the rope for a moment or two, we’re just getting Dagon. He’s had a bad evening, and we’re going to put him, we’ll just put him back up where he belongs. There he is. You’ll see he is slightly above the box that we’ve brought from the battlefield, but there you are. There you are.”
And the day ends, and verse 4, a new day dawns: “But when they rose early on the next morning,” things were even worse, because “Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.” Wow.
Incidentally, I wonder if Isaiah has this picture in his mind when, centuries later, addressing the issue of idolatry, he says of the idols,
They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it,
they set it in its place, and it stands there;
it cannot move from its place.
If one cries to it, it does[n’t] answer.
It’s pathetic. The notion of idolatry is pathetic. When God says, “You’re not supposed to have idols; you’re only supposed to worship me,” he says that because he wants us to live as he created us. Every idol that we are tempted to set up is self-depleting. It offers, but it cannot satisfy. It says, “Here is peace,” and only leads to chaos. You can follow it through on your own.
Look at this now: no hands, no head—just a trunk, just a stump. Wow! Now, remember, when in these brutal days, in warfare, captives would be taken, one of the ways in which they describe the fact that they had vanquished the enemy was to cut off their hands and to cut off their feet and in certain cases to decapitate them. Think later on, David to Goliath of Gath: “You come before me and defy the armies of the living God? I will cut your head off—the way your god Dagon had his head cut off.” That’s the point that’s being made.
And as a result of that, they make a decision. The priests of Dagon have decided that since the only way they could get into the house of Dagon was somehow or another to navigate their way over the bits and pieces of him that was lying around… You know, when you’re with your grandchildren, and they do that thing in the street, and you can’t step on a line. If you step on the thing, then something happens to you. I don’t know what it is. But that’s now what they’ve decided. Think about it. Their idol lies on the ground. Instead of it becoming the occasion of a reappraisal—“Let’s just think about this for a minute”—no, instead of a reappraisal, they turn it into a ritual. “What we’ll do is, we’ll make this the… This is what we’ll do: when we come to the threshold, to the point of departure between the secular and the sacred, we will always do this.” What a strange thing to put in as a ritual, so that you could remember for years to come the fact that your thing was lying on the ground: no head, couldn’t think, never could; no hands—for everybody and all to see.
Now, as I worked through this, I said to myself, “I still can’t get this yet.” So I thought of it in terms of a split screen. What I’m thinking is, 4:11: “And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died,” right? That’s where it all comes to a collapse. Okay?
Now, so one side of the screen, which is 4:12–22, gives to us the scene in Shiloh. So the ark has been captured, and as we said, there is despair in Shiloh. It is epitomized by the cry of a dying mother and her assessment of the situation. As far as she’s concerned, the glory is gone: “It is over. We’ve been defeated. Ichabod is the only name for a boy being born in these circumstances.” That’s half the screen.
The other half of the screen is 5:1–5, where, actually, although in Shiloh it appears that the glory has departed, in Ashdod the glory is being revealed. The hand of God, which is “heavy”—and that word for “heavy,” which we noted before, is the same word that is used for “glory”—the heaviness of God establishes his glory. So here, superficially, the wife of Phinehas says, “It looks to me like it’s finished.” That’s on half the screen. But on the other half of the screen, the Word of God is making clear that no, that is not ultimately the case.
The ark is captured, Dagon is toppled, and notice, thirdly, the Philistines are “terrified” and “afflicted.” And the reason they are, verse 6, is because “the hand of the Lord was heavy against [them].”
Now, let’s not miss this. The God Yahweh is a terrible God. He terrifies them. And he deals with them in immediate retribution, so that they are able—and this is an expression of his mercy, you see—they are able then immediately to realize cause and effect. If God just says, “It doesn’t matter what you do to the ark. It doesn’t matter. We’re all in the game together. There’s no ultimate consequences to this,” then people would all continue in the way they were going. But no, there is immediate retribution. The person wakes up in the morning, has tumors—the possibility that it has somehow or other to do with mice or with rats, a kind of form of the bubonic plague or whatever it might be. Whatever this thing is, it is unmistakable.
Now, it is for this reason that people often get off the bus in terms of Old Testament studies. And I find that people say to me things like this: “You know, I don’t like it when you mention that, Alistair. I’m not really keen on the God of the Old Testament. I’m not keen on the God who terrifies and afflicts and produces tumors and chaos. I much prefer the God of the New Testament—far nicer, far easier to deal with.” Well, here’s the deal: it’s the same God. It’s the same law. You see, the New Testament doesn’t contradict the Old Testament. The New Testament completes the Old Testament. It takes the New Testament, if you like, to fill out an adequate understanding of God. It is clear in this day of grace that God does not operate on the basis of immediate retribution. In the infancy, he does.
That’s why, incidentally, you’re supposed to deal with your children in their infancy, despite what the culture says, in terms of immediate retribution. You’re supposed to pow, and they wow—irrespective of what the Scottish Parliament says this past week, where they are going to make the slapping of a child punishable as a crime. In my same newspaper, incidentally—this is parenthetical now; I wished I hadn’t started it, but I’m here—in the same newspaper, it carries the story of a man in his sixties, similar age to myself, who took a pillow and suffocated his wife as a “act of mercy.” She had cancer, so he decided that the best thing he could do for her was to kill her. The judge said, “To punish this man would be tragedy on tragedy.” So here you kill your wife with a pillow and you go free, and here you smack your son’s bottom and you go to jail. Now, tell me the world isn’t upside down.
But the immediate retribution of childhood does not continue all the way through adulthood. You don’t treat your teenagers in the same way. You don’t treat them into young adulthood in the same way. No, those early days are there in order that the days that follow might then be exercised in light of the same parameters, so that the same parameters exist when you go into the New Testament. There is a broad road, and it leads to destruction. And so the terrible nature of God’s intervention, which is meted out to us in time but ultimately when we face him in eternity, is consistent with who and what God is.
Do you know, when the book of Revelation describes the circumstances, this is what it says: in that day, “the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free,” they “hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and [the] rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’”
Now he intervenes, eleven centuries BC, in immediate retribution. And the people are aware of this, and they are able to put two and two together as pagans and understand: it is “the hand of the Lord” that is “heavy” upon them. You will notice there in verse 7: “The ark of the God of Israel must[n’t] remain with us, for his hand is … against us and against Dagon our god.” They came to the right conclusion. Fascinatingly, they came to the same conclusion that the Israelites had come to back at the beginning of chapter 4. Remember, when they had been defeated by the Philistines, they said, “This is because God has done this. His hand is against us.” They figured that the presence of the ark would be their solution. They were wrong. The Philistines realized that the presence of the ark is their problem, and they were right. The Israelites were presuming on God’s power. The Philistines were defying God’s power.
And so, in verse 8, they “gathered … all the lords of the Philistines and said, ‘[Well,] what [then will] we do with the ark of the God of Israel?’” And “they answered, ‘Let the ark of the God of Israel be brought around to Gath.’” What an interesting decision! Talk about political passing the buck. This is fantastic! “Let’s just ship it off to one of the other cities.” Remember, there were five cities. The other two were Gaza and Ashkelon. “We’ll send it off to Gath.” Now, presumably, the person who said “Send it off to Gath” had no relatives living in Gath, because after they had brought it there, the whole city was in an amazing panic. You will see that in verse 9. And so they didn’t have a meeting again. They just shipped it further on. They said, “Well, let’s send it to Ekron.”
It’s almost funny, isn’t it? A traveling road show. They said, “Why don’t you come and see our great acquisition?” And then that’s not going so well. “Well, let’s just move it over to Gath.” Same thing: a lot of tumors in Gath, not going well in Gath. “Let’s just flip it off to Ekron.” Off to Ekron they send it. And “they have brought around to us,” said the people of Ekron, “the ark of the God of Israel. He’s gonna kill us and our people.” And so they gathered all the lords of the Philistines: “Let’s get the whole five cities together, all the bright boys. And then what we’ll do is we’ll send away the ark of the God of Israel. We’ll let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people,” “for there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city.” Why? Because “the hand of God was very heavy there.”
And the survivors, “who did not die,” suffering from the tumors, cried out to heaven. Which is exactly what the Israelites did in the bondage of Egypt in Exodus chapter 2: in the face of the hand of God being heavy against them, they cried out to heaven. Can I ask you this morning: Have you ever cried out to heaven? You ever cried out to the God who made you, designed you, loves you, sustains you, is gracious to you? There has to be a test at the end of life. There has to be an exam. Because God is a righteous God. God cannot simply overlook these things.
Now, we began by saying it was written in the past so that we might have endurance and encouragement. Let me come full circle and end in this way: by reminding us, yes, it was written as something of a pattern for us so that we might understand a number of things.
At least this: that without the power and presence of God, the people of God are powerless. You say, “Well, there’s nothing like stating the obvious.” Yes, but think about it. They were powerless. They were defeated by the Philistines not because the Philistines were strong but because they were weak. Why were they weak? Because they began to turn the things of God into lucky charms and mascots. They began to say, “We don’t have to do what’s right. We can just take this with us. If you have this with you, then you’re okay, you’re in the clear.” Nothing could be further from the truth. That’s why they were soundly defeated.
Also, as I began to say earlier, the defeat of God’s people is not the defeat of God. It’s not the defeat of God. They were defeated because they were weak. Eli was weak. He might have been kind for a while, but he wasn’t the best, was he? And alongside him he had his boys, who were corrupt and immoral. When the people of God—whether it is the people of God 1100 BC or whether it is the people of God twenty-first century AD—when the church of Jesus Christ tolerates inept, corrupt, immoral leadership, there is a reason for its defeat. There is a reason for the empty buildings. There is a reason for its decline. There is a reason for the absence of its attendance. There is a reason for the loss of its credibility. Of course there is! And meanwhile, those same people will be saying, “You see, the problem is the opposition, the secularism. All of this on the outside.” No. No! Never! However fierce that may be, the problem is always on the inside, as it was here. The Philistines themselves defied God, thinking, as people do today, “I can defy him and get away with it.” But their triumph was fleeting. What a surprise they had when the morning came.
And what a surprise—what a shocking surprise—it will be when the morning comes for those who have defied God, standing there with nothing to offer in my defense when he inquires of me, “Why did you ignore my Word? Why did you deny my presence? Why did you live as you lived?” “’Cause I wanted to. ’Cause I thought I could get away with it. And I did get away with it for a long time. But now I wish the mountains would fall on me and save me.”
You see, because there is no refuge from this terrible God except the refuge that is found in this terrible God. Remember I said to you, there’s no indication of what was happening during the night. The evidence is all in the morning. Think Jerusalem. Think Good Friday. Think the ultimate expression of man’s defiance against God: “He saved others. He can’t even save himself. If he’s the Christ, he should come down from the cross.” The same kind of thing people say: “If he shows up on Carnegie Avenue, I’ll believe in him, but not until then.” Careful! He’s a terrible God. He’s patient, but his patience isn’t limitless.
And in the morning, the evidence was there of what had happened during the night. “See what a morning, gloriously bright.” He had been nailed to a cross in the classic expression of and celebration of man’s defiance and his apparent defeat. It surely must be that the glory has departed. Oh! And then Mary, and then the rest. Paul tells us what was happening: “He disarmed the rulers and [the] authorities,” and he “put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” in the cross.
Ark captured. Dagon toppled. Philistines terrified. God glorified.
And so, may the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you his peace, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Frances R. Havergal, “Lord, Speak to Me” (1872).
 See 2 Timothy 3:16.
 1 Samuel 4:1 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 4:3 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 4:5 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 4:20 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 4:20–21 (paraphrased).
 See Philippians 2:10–11.
 Isaiah 46:7 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 17:45–46 (paraphrased).
 See Matthew 7:13.
 Revelation 6:15–17 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 4:3 (paraphrased).
 See Exodus 2:23–25.
 Matthew 27:42; Mark 15:31–32; Luke 23:35 (paraphrased).
 Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, “See What a Morning (Resurrection Hymn)” (2003).
 Colossians 2:15 (ESV).
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.