1 Samuel 5; 6:1-91 Samuel 6:1). The scene is now changed. Whilst there arises in every household in Israel a cry of mourning for the dead, Shiloh is ravaged and burnt with fire, and the yoke of oppression made heavier than before, the hosts of the Philistines return to their own country elated with victory. They carry with them the ark of the Lord, which had never before been touched by unconsecrated hands, or for ages exposed to the gaze of any but the priests; and the interest centres on the sacred symbol amidst its new and strange surroundings. It is first of all taken to Ashdod, three miles from the sea coast, the chief seat of the worship of Dagon, the national god of the Philistines (1 Chronicles 10:10); afterwards to Gath, ten miles distant (the native place of Goliath, and twice the temporary residence of David); and then to Ekron (1 Samuel 7:14), the most northerly of their cities. Although the other two cities of the Philistine Pentapolis, Gaza, the scene of Samson's death (Judges 16:21-30), and Askelon (1 Samuel 31:10; 2 Samuel 1:20), were deeply concerned in the events which attended its presence (1 Samuel 5:8; 1 Samuel 6:17), it does not appear to have visited them.
1. The time of its abode among the Philistines was for them a time of judgment. Although the ark when among the people of Israel seemed to be abandoned by God and destitute of power, it was now defended by him and clothed with might. The difference arose from the different circumstances in which it was placed; and in both cases it was shown that the possession of institutions appointed by God does not profit those who refuse to stand in a right relation to God himself, but rather serves to increase their condemnation. Judgment also is executed in many ways.
2. Judgment was mingled with mercy. The afflictions which they endured were "less than their iniquity deserved" (Job 11:6), and were "established for the correction" (Habakkuk 1:12) of their sins and the prevention of their ruin (Ezekiel 18:30). The God of Israel has supreme dominion over the heathen, "chastises" them (Psalm 94:10) for their good, and never leaves himself "without witness" (Acts 14:17).
3. The design of the whole was the furtherance of the purpose for which Israel was called, viz. to bear witness to the living and true God, and to preserve his religion separate and distinct from the idolatry and superstition of the heathen.
4. The effect of the display of his power in connection with the presence of the ark among them appears here and in their subsequent history. Consider these Philistines as -
I. TRIUMPHING IN THE CAPTURE OF THE ARK (vers. 1, 2). "They brought it into the house (or temple) of Dagon, and set it by Dagon," as a trophy or a votive offering, ascribing their victory to him, and magnifying him as superior to Jehovah. The process described by the Apostle Paul (Romans 1:18-23) had taken place in them. Their worship was a nature worship, joined with the embodiment of their "foolish" imaginations in an image with which their god was identified. Dagon was "the god of natural power - of all the life-giving forces of which water is the instrument; and his fish-like body, with head and arms of man, would appear a striking embodiment of his rule to those who dwelt near the sea." When men have fallen away from the knowledge of the true God they -
1. Do honour to a false god; impelled by the religiousness of their nature, which will not let them rest without an object of worship.
2. Dishonour the true God, by declaring him inferior and subject to the false, and by "despising his holy things." The Philistines did not deny the existence of Jehovah; they were willing to account him one among "lords many and gods many," and regarded him as having a local and limited dominion. But the fundamental idea of the religion of Israel was that Jehovah is God alone, and demands the supreme and entire affection of man (Isaiah 42:8). "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," i.e. in my presence.
3. Give glory to themselves; are proud and boastful of their wisdom, power, and success. Self is really the idol of all who forsake the Lord. But the triumph of the ungodly is short.
II. SMITTEN BEFORE THE PRESENCE OF THE ARK (vers. 2-4). Almost as soon as they obtained possession of it, the victory which they thought they had obtained over him whose presence it represented was turned into disastrous defeat.
1. Their god was cast down and broken in pieces.
(1) Mysteriously. In the night.
(2) Significantly. "Fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord," as if in subjection, or rendering worship to the Lord of all.
(3) Irresistibly. Unwilling to lay the lesson to heart, they set him in his place again, but only to prove that their efforts on his behalf were abortive (Isaiah 45:9).
(4) More and more signally. Their very efforts affording occasion for a greater manifestation of Divine power, and one which could not be, as the first may possibly have been, attributed to accident. "The face, as a sign of its worthless glory and vain beauty, struck down to the earth; the head also, as the seat of the wisdom which is alienated from God and opposed to God; the hands, as a symbol of the powers of darkness which work therein, cut off" (Lange).
(5) Contemptuously. "Upon the threshold," as if fit only to be trodden under foot, Such, however was the blindness of his votaries, that they henceforth accounted the spot as peculiarly sacred (ver. 3).
(6) Completely. "Only the fish stump was left." "Thus the kingdom of Satan will certainly fall before the kingdom of Christ, error before truth, profaneness before godliness, corruption before grace in the hearts of the faithful."
2. Their sustenance was wasted and destroyed (ver. 6; 6:4, 5). "Mice were produced in the land, and there arose a great and deadly confusion in the city" (Septuagint). The cornfields, the chief means of their subsistence and the source of their prosperity, rendered fertile, as they deemed, by the power and favour of Dagon, were wasted by a plague of field mice (not unknown in the history of other lands) under the special arrangement of Divine providence, that they might learn the vanity of their idol and the supremacy of Jehovah.
3. Their persons were afflicted with disease. "The hand of the Lord was heavy upon them of Ashdod" and "the coasts (territory) thereof," and "smote them with emerods" (vers. 9, 12; either boils or hemorrhoids, bleeding piles - Psalm 78:66).
(2) Reproachful, because of the moral corruption sanctioned in connection with idolatrous worship (Romans 1:24-32).
(3) Instructive - concerning the self-control and moral purity which the true God requires in men. These things were adapted to show the folly of idolatry, the majesty of God, and the necessity of humiliation before him. Nor were they wholly without effect.
III. INSPIRED WITH DREAD OF THE ARK (ver. 7), for such was evidently the prevailing feeling of the men of Ashdod, and of others subsequently, as more fully expressed in vers. 11, 12. They attributed their afflictions to its presence - "His hand is sore upon us, and upon Dagon our god;" and feared a continuance of them. Hence they wished to get rid of it, as the Gergesenes desired Jesus to "depart out of their coasts" (Matthew 8:34).
1. The religion of the heathen is a religion of fear.
2. The fear of man in the presence of the supernatural bears witness to the sinfulness of his nature, or of his disturbed relations with the Divine.
3. It springs from a conviction or instinct of retribution, which, however, is often mistaken in its applications.
4. A servile, selfish fear drives away the soul from God instead of drawing it near to him, and is contrary to the reverential, filial fear in which true religion has its root (2 Timothy 1:7).
IV. STRIVING FOR THE RETENTION OF THE ARK (vers. 8-12). The effect of their sufferings on the people of Ashdod was to lead them to resolve, "The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us;" but its removal was deemed a matter of such importance that they called a council of the lords (or princes) of the confederacy to determine what should be done with it. Whilst they may have felt toward Jehovah a like fear to that with which they regarded Dagon, they were unwilling to render honour to him by "letting it go again to its own place" (ver. 11), still less to renounce their idolatry. They wished to retain the ark for their own honour and glory; and so indisposed were they to desist from their attempt, and acknowledge their fault, that even their own priests found it necessary to admonish them against "hardening their hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh" (ver. 6; 1 Samuel 4:8). They sought to effect their purpose by sending it to Gath; and it was only when both Gath and Ekron were still more severely afflicted than Ashdod, many died, and the cry of distress "went up to heaven" (ver. 12), that in a second council they consented to let it go.
1. The devices of men against the Lord are foolish and vain (Proverbs 21:30).
2. Their continued resistance to his will causes increased misery to themselves and others.
3. Their efforts against him afford opportunities for a wider and more signal display of his power.
4. What they are unwilling to do in the beginning they are, after much suffering, constrained to do in the end.
V. INQUIRING ABOUT THE RETURN OF THE ARK (1 Samuel 6:2-9). The Philistine princes, having resolved to send it back, called "the priests and soothsayers" together, to show them in what manner it should be done; and the answer they received, though not unmingled with the caution generally exhibited by heathen priests, was wise and good.
1. Men in all ages have had need of special guidance in Divine things. The very existence of a priesthood is a confession of such need.
2. Conviction often forces itself upon the most reluctant.
3. There is in men generally a deep feeling of the necessity of a propitiatory offering in order to avert Divine wrath - "trespass offering" (ver. 3).
4. Even the light which shines upon the heathen indicates the need of the higher light of revelation. Their wisest advisers exhibit uncertainty and doubt (vers. 5, 9).
VI. RENDERING HOMAGE TO THE GOD OF 'THE ARK.
1. By sending it back to its own place.
2. By the open acknowledgment of their transgression in the trespass offerings they present on behalf of the whole nation. "Give glory unto the God of Israel" (ver. 5).
4. By the humble attendance of their chief men (vers. 12, 16).
5. By confessing the incompatibility of the worship of Jehovah with the worship of Dagon. "And from this time we hear no more of the attempts of the Gentile nations to join any part of the Jewish worship with their own" (Warburton). Imperfect as their homage was, it was not unacceptable to him "who is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repents him of the evil" (Jonah 4:2; Acts 17:27, 30).
VII. PERSISTING IN THEIR ATTACHMENT TO IDOLS; We know not all the beneficial effect of the presence of the ark among them, in restraining them from evil and inciting them to good; but we know that -
1. They did not renounce their idolatry.
2. They did not cease from their oppression of Israel. And,
3. Were not permanently deterred from making fresh attacks upon them (1 Samuel 7:7), and by their opposition to the God of Israel "bringing upon themselves swift destruction." - D.
And the ark of God was in the country of the Philistines.
(W. G. Blaikie, D. D.)
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