The Pain of Idolatry (I Samuel 5:1-12)
Topic: I Samuel Passage: 1 Samuel 5:1–5:12
Crying for a King
I. Idolatry Today
Almost 10 years ago I stood gazing up at an 11 foot tall idol in the temple of a false god. This temple, made from 2000 tons of pure white marble, was called the Venkateshwara Temple and it sat on top of hill in the center Hyderabad, India. The Lord Venkateshwara, whose name means “he who destroys the sins of the people”, is a manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu.
As a westerner, I was amazed to see genuine idol worship taking place in the modern world. Smack dab in the middle of a city that was quickly becoming the high tech capital of India, people were continuing to come and worship before a graven image.
Can idolatry really exist in the age of the I-Pod?
This morning we are back once again in the book of I Samuel. Turn with me to I Samuel chapter 5.
Now since we are coming back to Samuel, I think would be helpful for all of us, me included, to quickly get caught up on what's happened thus far in this story.
If we look at the 'highlight reel', there are three key story lines that we need to be reminded of this morning.
First, in chapters 1 and 2 we witnessed how God blessed Hannah, who had been childless for many years, how He blessed her with a son. Hannah later took her son to God's sanctuary so that the boy might stay there and grow up serving God.
Second, in chapter 2 we learned how God condemned the corrupt priesthood of Israel. The sons of Eli the high priest were abusive and immoral, and Eli himself was complacent and unresponsive to their blasphemous behavior.
Third, in chapter 3 we saw how Hannah's miracle child, Samuel, was called by God to be a prophet to all of Israel in a time when God's guidance was desperately needed.
And if you were with us when we talked about chapter 4, then you'll remember how, in one day, within a matter of hours, God fulfilled his promise of judgment against the corrupt priests of Eli's family.
It was, in fact, on that same day, that day of judgment, that another devastating turn of events took place. The Ark of the Covenant, the golden chest that contained the Ten Commandments, that golden chest, on whose lid the priests would, once a year, make atonement for the whole nation, the ark was captured and carried off by the Philistine armies.
And that's exactly where the story resumes this morning.
II. The Passage: "The Hand of God Was Very Heavy There" (5:1-12)
Look with me at verses 1-3 of chapter 5. This is the beginning of a section that runs from 5:1 all the way to 7:2. Because it is a self-contained unit and doesn't include any of the characters who have been mentioned in the book thus far, it is traditionally called “The Ark Narrative”.
Look at how this Ark Narrative begins. 5:1...
A. God's Hand Humbles Dagon (5:1-3)
When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon. 3 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.
So we have to ask, why did the Philistines decide to put the Ark, their prize from the battle, a powerful reminder of their triumph and Israel's humiliation, why did they decide to put the Ark in the temple of this god Dagon?
Well, even though Dagon, who was probably some kind of grain or harvest deity, even though he is not mentioned before this in Samuel, we know that the people of the ancient Near East believed that when they went out to battle, their god or gods were also going out to fight the god or gods of their enemies. Thus, any victory would ultimately represent the victory of their god over the god of their opponents.
So here they are, with proud smiles on their faces, depositing the Ark at the feet of Dagon as a tribute to their god's great victory. The ark of the covenant is now Dagon's trophy, a perpetual reminder to all of Dagon's worshipers that the great Dagon has crushed Yahweh the God of Israel.
But of course, the next morning, as they come to worship and give thanks for this victory, the Philistines make a disturbing discovery. At some point in the night, the statue of Dagon had toppled over.
Now, we need to remember there would be two different ways of interpreting Dagon's fall. If an Israelite was reading this story, it would be very clear that Yahweh was sending the Philistines a clear message. But for the Philistines who found the idol that morning, they must have decided that, however improbable it was, the statue accidentally fell over.
But given what the reader of I Samuel already knows about the God of Hannah, about this God who has judged his own priests and who called Samuel to be His prophet, the wording of verse 3 is very clear: behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord...It doesn't simply say, “Dagon fell over next to the Ark.” Dagon is laying in a position of submission and respect before the Ark of Yahweh.
If the Philistines had any sense, at this point they would have taken the Ark back to Israel as quickly as their little heathen feet would carry them.
But they did not. How could they? Their god needed them. Like the false God that he was, Dagon must be helped up and helped back into his place. But the God of Israel doesn't need anything. He doesn't need anyone. As we shall see, he can definitely fend for himself.
B. God's Hand Defeats Dagon (5:4, 5)
Look at how the story continues in verses 4 and 5:
But when they [the Philistines] 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. 5 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.
So when the Philistines come back the next day, they find a scene that defies any explanations involving accidents or coincidences. Here is Dagon, the great Dagon, once again, bowing before Yahweh, with his face in the ground. But only his torso and legs are laying before the Ark. His head, and both of his hands, are lying, maybe even lined up on, the threshold of the Temple's entrance.
So now, not only is Dagon visualized as being in submission to Yahweh, now he is visualized as being utterly defeated by Yahweh. Decapitation was the greatest symbol of humiliation and defeat, and since the hand represented power in those times, Dagon is displayed here as completely powerless.
The God who was supposedly defeated in battle has just proven that He is in fact the true victor.
Verse 5 is simply an interesting bit of trivia that reinforces the historicity of this story. It's interesting that at the time of I Samuel's composition, even the Philistines had not forgotten about what happened to Dagon.
In fact, this was not God's first symbolic defeat of Dagon. In Judges 16, as the Philistines are praising Dagon for their victory over Samson, as they mock Samson who is chained up before them, most likely in the temple of Dagon at Gaza, God grants Samson one last demonstration of strength, and he brings the house down...literally. Dagon's temple is destroyed.
But here in chapter 5, these Philistines seem to have forgotten about what happened at Gaza. And so the story continues.
C. God's Hand Afflicts the Philistines (5:6-12)
Look with me at verses 6 through 12:
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. 7 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.” 8 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. 9 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. 10 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.” 11 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. 12 The men who did not die were struck with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.
Did you notice in these verses how God is intensifying his message to the Philistines? He begins by placing the statue of Dagon in a position of homage. Then He places Dagon in a position of defeat. Then, as we see here, he begins to afflict the people of Ashdod with tumors.
There is no clear evidence to help us identify these tumors. They may have been boils or, maybe because rats or mice are mentioned in the next chapter, maybe these were the swellings that come with bubonic plague. It isn't clear. What is clear is that the people finally understood exactly what was happening to them: (v.7) “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for his hand is hard against us and against Dagon our god.”
After an official pow-wow with their leaders, the people of Ashdod finally send the Ark away. But they don't send it back to Israel. They send it the neighboring city of Gath. Maybe they were too proud to send it back to Israel.
But when the Ark comes to Gath, the people of that town suffer the same curse of tumors as Ashdod. So the Gathites, without any consultation, pass the Ark to the next town.
But in the next town, the town of Ekron, the citizens there seemed to have a better newspaper or a faster internet connection because they know exactly what's going to happen to them when the Ark shows up: (v.11) “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.”
Ekron is not only the first town of the three where it is recorded that people were dying, but it is the only town of the three that comes up with the right solution; they figure out what needs to happen to end this severe cycle of affliction: the ark needs to go back to Israel.
III. Perspective: The Supremacy of the True God
So what are we supposed to do with this story? Remember what Paul tells us in Romans 15 about the Old Testament: For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4)
As we've been doing with the book of Samuel, the application for us is like the two sides of a coin. First, God's word adjusts our perspective by renewing our minds in the truth, by helping us to see things as they really are. And second, this renewed perspective leads to a change in our practice; how we live is different because of the difference in our perspective.
So how should this passage change our perspective? Well, that question simply drives us to ask “How did the writer of this book want his original readers' perspective to change?”
And the answer to that question seems fairly clear. The account we have here in I Samuel 5 is a crystal clear testimony pointing directly to the supremacy of the true God. Yahweh, the God of Israel, He alone is God. There are no other gods.
Even though the Israelites should have known this, they were easily tempted to believe that somehow the Philistines now had the upper hand, that somehow, because the Ark was now is Philistia, somehow God was going to have a harder time helping them.
But through these events, through the writing of this story, God was showing His people that He is always in complete control. A victorious army and their imaginary god are helpless to act apart from what God ordains.
There's a great encouragement for us in all this. In the presence of our God, no human invention or scheme or ideology or title or achievement or army or any kind of boast that is shaped by lies, carved by deception, fashioned by falsehood, in the presence of our God none of these can stand. They will be toppled.
Like a blinding light, God's truth always exposes and topples the sinful creations of fallen man.
IV. Practice: Modern Idolatry, Modern Pain
But as we think about our everyday lives, I think there is something else here that flows from this confirmation of God's supremacy as the only true God.
Why is God doing what He's doing to the Philistines. Are these merely expressions of His wrath, directed at an unholy people who are mishandling a holy object? I don't think so.
Notice how the judgments are intensifying in I Samuel 5. Just like in Egypt, God's judgment get progressively worse and finally end in death. God is trying to send the Philistines a message, but they are not listening. I Samuel 6:1 tells us that the Ark of the Covenant was in Philistia for seven months. Seven months of tumors and death!
Maybe God is simply making them miserable so they will send the Ark back to Israel. Well, that's part of it. But remember, it all begins with what He does to Dagon. God is saying something, not only to the Philistines then, but to every person who would hear this story later.
I believe what we find here in I Samuel 5 is a powerful reminder that idolatry always brings pain. What we see illustrated here is that in dealing with idolatry, God first topples the idol, and then, if necessary, he afflicts the idol worshiper.
That sounds a little harsh, doesn't it? But, remember, God could have very quickly blasted Philistia right off the map for their sins. He did not. What God is doing here is a form of judgment, but it also a demonstration of mercy. This is the same God who would later send Jonah to the idol worshiping Ninevites to call them to repentance.
If you were a Philistine who was actually thinking clearly, wouldn't you, in light of all that had happened, wouldn't you not only send the Ark back to the Israelites, but also join with them in worshipping the one true God?
But again, how does this relate to us in the modern world? Like I asked earlier, can idolatry really exist in the age of I-Pod? Maybe I should be preaching this in India this morning. Maybe that's where it would have the most relevance.
Let me read you just one verse from the New Testament. Listen to what Paul writes to the Christians in Colossae about living for Jesus:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)
“Covetousness, which is idolatry.” One source defines covetousness like this: “an unreasonable desire for what we do not possess.” But how is it that idolatry? How is that the same as bowing down before a carved image?
Here's a simple definition of idolatry: idolatry is devoting ourselves to anything other than Him who alone is worthy of our devotion.
To covet is to devote yourself to pursuit of possessing possessions. It the worship of stuff. Therefore it is a form of idolatry.
Now, in light of that definition, in light of what Paul is saying in Colossians 3:5, which of us, in some way or in certain instances, which of us is not an idolater?
Don't we covet? Don't we often find ourselves devoted to worry or lust or control or fear or pride or comfort? Aren't we capable of turning anything or anyone into an idol?
If that's true, then I think it is fair to say that there is a good chance that you have pain in your life this morning that is the pain of idolatry. Yes, stories like Job tell us that suffering is not always the result of our personal sin. We imagine sometimes that what is happening to us is just 'bad luck'. Stuff happens right? Life isn't fair. But the Bible is clear about the fact that sin brings suffering, that idolatry brings pain.
So much of the pain in marriages today comes directly from the worship of pride, or maybe fear. So much of the pain young people experience today comes directly from the worship of acceptance. So much of the pain men experience today comes directly from the worship of power, or maybe lust.
How are you suffering this morning? Might that pain be the consequence of misplaced, of misdirected worship?
If it might be, remember this: God is sending you a message.
Listen to what the 4th century church leader and theologian Augustine said about how God worked in His life as he chased the idols of the world:
"You were always present, angry and merciful at once, strewing the pangs of bitterness over all my lawless pleasures to lead me on to look for others unallied with pain. You meant me to find them nowhere but in yourself, O Lord, for you teach us by inflicting pain, you smite us so that you may heal, and you kill us so that we may not die away from you." (Augustine, Confessions, Book 2, Section 2)
C.S. Lewis said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." (The Problem of Pain, 1940).
Do you hear God this morning? His word topples every one of our idols, doesn't it. In the Scriptures we discover that God has exposed and put every one of our idols in its proper place. He tells us the truth about fear, and lust, and greed, and anxiety, and jealousy, and pride, and legalism, and unforgiveness, and laziness, and the love of comfort, and the love of praise.
But oftentimes God must afflict us to drive those truths home. He did it with the Philistines. And He does it with us.
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives”...For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:5, 6, 11)
Sadly, we can see from this passage that the Philistines never “got it”. Even though God proved His supremacy over Dagon, in spite of the clear supernatural source of their affliction, the Philistines, as we see in verse 7, are still concerned about Dagon.
And not many years after this, after another one of their military victories, we read in I Chronicles 10:10 that the Philistines put his [Saul's] armor in the temple of their gods and fastened his head in the temple of Dagon.
They were only concerned about finding relief for their pain. They should have been listening to what the pain was telling them about why they were suffering.
There is only one hope for idolaters like us. In spite of what the Hindus call their idol, there is only one Lord who destroys the sins of His people. Jesus Christ is our only hope. The judgment that God brought against the head and hands of Dagon, was only a shadow of that judgment under which Jesus' head and hands were pierced for us. But as He bore our judgment, He also toppled the power of sin and death.
This week, let's ask God to help us live each day in the supremacy of His holiness, in the reality that He alone is God. And may he cause us, because of the grace of Christ, because of the love He poured out on us through Jesus, may he cause us to hear what He wants to tell us through the pain of idolatry.