Summary: Although we live in troublesome times, and life seems fragile and irksome, we are not alone in the universe. Greater is He who protects us than the forces of evil around us. Evil may appear to prevail, but God will have the final word.
“Dwelling in Dagon’s Den”, I Samuel 5.
Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
I saw a cartoon last week about the popular PBS Antique Road Show. A woman brought in the Ark of the Covenant, and the appraiser gasped, “Where in the world did you get that?!”
The Ark is like the “holy grail” of the Old Testament. This sacred box, made from acacia wood and plated with gold, and topped with figures of angels, would be an archeologist’s dream come true. It contained the stone tablets given to Moses on Mt Sinai (the Ten Commandments); a jar of manna from the wilderness journey to the promised land; and Aaron’s rod that budded miraculously. More importantly, the Ark represented the presence and power of God, a visible reminder of the invisible God; and until its mysterious disappearance it was kept in the Jewish Temple, within the “Holy of Holies.” But it may not be lost. We don’t need Indiana Jones to find it. Ethiopia claims to have the Ark safely locked away in a remote, heavily-guarded sanctuary in Axum. According to legend, King Solomon entrusted the Ark to the Queen of Sheba (and their son, Ibn-Melenik) for safekeeping. Unfortunately no one’s allowed in to view it, which would be an irreverent sacrilege. The Ark is not a mere historical curiosity.
In the previous chapter, the Ark of the Covenant was captured in battle, an unthinkable mishap. This was such a traumatic loss to the Jews that the daughter-in-law of Eli, the Jewish High Priest went into labor upon hearing the news and died in childbirth; in her last breath she named her newborn son, Ichabod, a name meaning “the glory has departed.” God is gone. Or so it seemed. The Philistines assumed that by seizing the Ark they had captured Israel’s God; just as Israel thought they lost Him. By stealing God the Philistines figured they could somehow access His power, and by removing Him from Israel they might remove His blessing from Israel’s enemies.
The Philistines were Israel’s Number One enemy. They were known as hard drinkers and fierce fighters, and were so immoral that the word Philistine is still used as a pejorative, like calling someone a libertine, a degenerate, or a reprobate.
The Philistines underestimated the Ark. It was not some magical tool, idol, good luck charm, or piece of spiritual technology. The Philistines were like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark, in regarding the Ark as a weapon they could control. Both thought that possession of the ark would provide them with supernatural power. But God was not at their disposal. He will not do our bidding, but He will do what He’s promised.
The Ark was placed within the temple of Dagon, in Ashdod, put on display as a trophy of victory. At this point the Philistines were clapping each other on the back and claiming that Dagon was more powerful than the God of Israel. The name Dagon means, “grain”; he was their agriculture-god, prominent in pagan farming and fertility rituals. Yet Dagon fell prostate before the Ark. The Philistines hurriedly set their idol back up, only to find him the next morning not just on the ground, but with his head and hands lopped off, incapacitated. He had to be sent out for repairs! It became quite evident that this god held no power, no wisdom. Psalm 95 describes God as “the great King above all gods” (vs 3). The demise of Dagon was no act of vandalism; it was the wrath of God Almighty. Dagon fell, humbled, just as one day every knee shall bow before the Lord Jesus Christ.
God went one step further by afflicting the Philistines with painful tumors. What at first seemed good fortune became a curse. They regarded the Ark as a weapon--it became one against them. Their “bomb” backfired big-time! God cannot be manipulated. They began to fear the object they’d captured, and passed it off on several Philistine cities, which only spread the curse. Scholars think the divine judgment was a form of plague, which produced panic among the people.
Today we are dwelling in Dagon’s den. We’re in enemy-occupied territory. False teachings and idolatries of all kinds surround us, especially the idolatry of self. Idolatry is trying to find happiness in anything other than God. Yet the god of self is, like Dagon, a fragile idol. We also live in an age where injustice and immorality seem to prevail, where “anything goes”. People seem more interested in what they can get away with than what they ought to be doing. This incident deals with the question of why evil prospers. When wicked people get the upper hand, it certainly tests our faith. We may question God, His love, even His existence. But we don’t know the whole story. If we stop at chapter 4, we may sink into despair, like the high priest’s daughter--who was wrong. The glory had NOT departed. But it sure seemed that way.