1 Samuel 5 is a classic OT story, with a bit of everything. Here we find,
1. Obscure and obsolete place-names
2. A strange-sounding god, complete with statue
3. Tribal conflict
4. A big fight over a religious artefact
5. Things that go bump in the night
6. A just-so story
7. A vengeful god
8. A very nasty plague
9. A clear claim about the authority of the God of the Bible
And here are at least 9 reasons why people don’t read the Old Testament, or the Bible at all. It just seems to be tall stories. Even if we could believe them, they have no relevance on our lives, and little which attracts us to what they’re saying. Or so we think.
Actually, this passage tells us everything about Biblical Christianity. The God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old Testament. What you see here is the God of the Bible, the human heart, and God’s response to it. That’s Christianity. 1 Samuel 5 is a perfect place to start if you’re going to see what Christianity’s all about. Let’s ask two questions of the passage.
Why do people worship things which aren’t real?
We worship what works for us
For these 11th C BC Philistines, Dagon worked. He’s won the battle, He’d beaten this god of Israel. He had taken the ark. Remember the Ark, the special box which contained the 10 Commandments? The chapter before tells us that the Israelites put so much trust in it that they took it into battle. Now it was stolen. And the Philistines thought that they had got this god in a box. ‘Where’s the evidence for God?’ they could have shouted: ‘look our gods, our values have beaten him. Let’s celebrate!’
What’s working for you right now? What’s an idol for you? Not sure? Ask yourself, what must I have in life, above all-else? Approval, success, romance, wild sex, power over others? You’re looking at your idol. And you’ll understand, then, that you’re like everyone else – religious.
We ignore the facts
Picture the scene: the Philistines had fought, and won. Dagon had come up trumps, now it’s party time! Come day 2 they get a rude awakening – they weren’t the only ones who’d crashed out after a night’s partying – Dagon had, too. Their god had toppled over. They panic, and pick him up. Day 3 comes, the same things happen, expect now Dagon’s head and hands – his wisdom and strength – were cut off, and he was prostrate before the Ark. The historian’s message couldn’t be clearer.
So they didn’t do the sensible thing – after the second time – of breaking it up? No, they set it up again. Because people do, when they’re confronted by the Living God.
It wasn’t a broken Dagon alone which showed that the real God had shown up, the facts were all over the nation of Philistia. There’s this dreadful plague – tumours and rats sounds exactly like the bubonic plague (v. 7). ‘Devastation’ doesn’t seem too strong a way of putting it.
And then it gets more frightening, more dreadful. Wherever they take the Ark, death goes with it. If it weren’t so terrifying it would be comical – Ashdod, Gath, Ekron – all suffering from something which make swine flu look like a blessing! And this continues until our historian tells us, in v. 12 – ‘their cry went up to heaven’. What started out as a victory party turned into a living hell.
Why don’t people worship the Living God?
They didn’t, though they had seen His power. Their god was broken, and their catastrophic plague a sign of the true,God’s displeasure. They knew that this God was Living, powerful, true. They clung to what they trusted in. Come on, they knew just what was happening. But they wanted a broken god rather than the real one (compare v. 5).
The real God is too much for us
This episode tells us two things about the God of the Bible, the God of true Christianity:
1. He’s Living. Ask Dagon, better still, ask the Philistines. A God you can’t see – that’s scary. You never know where He is. You knew where Dagon was, right there, in his temple, in that place you could chose to go to or not to go to. You could involve him in your life if you wanted to; you do a few things and you can believe that you’ve made him happy, you’re in His good books. That’s religion. It’s about having the gods where you want them, getting them to do what you want them to do. Christianity’s all different. It’s not about trying to control God, but recognising that He’s in control.
2. He’s Powerful – you can’t put Him in a box. Think of the Philistines’ pride: they’d beaten his armies, they’d captured His magic box. Now they had him just where they wanted him. Surely he was powerless? People make that same mistake today. They think they’ve got God safely in dusty church buildings; outdated hymns, fading memories of school assemblies, Sunday school lessons. He’s a God for the children, of a God for the elderly, God for people of an earlier age. A God for other people, in other worlds. That’s Philistine theology. How wrong we are.
The lesson of this episode is the Jesus is the Living God, before whom one day every knee will bow (compare Phil 2.10). He will never be toppled, never overthrown. He will always stand. And if we bow the knee to Him, we will rise up and stand with Him, forever.