By Al R. Hodges
Retired IMB Missionary
God was working to reveal His holiness and power to the people of Israel. The house of Eli had been rejected as God’s priests. Times were changing. The Philistines were attacking. Chaos and confusion were the order of the day.
Israel was losing a battle with the Philistines. They brought the ark of the covenant into the battle, thinking God would help them win. That day Eli’s two sons were killed, and the ark was captured. When Eli heard of it, he died (I Samuel 4:1-18).
God is holy (I Samuel 5:1-5). The Philistines worshiped Dagon, a half-man, half-fish fertility god. His temple was in the coastal town of Ashdod. Having won the battle and captured the ark, they assumed the God of Israel to be powerless. They set His ark in Dagon’s temple. The following morning, Dagon was on his face before the ark! The Philistines put their god back on his pedestal. The second morning, not only was Dagon on the floor before the ark, but he had lost his head and his hands (v. 4).
God’s judgment is severe (v. 6). Dagon had lost his head and hands, but, the “hand of the Lord was heavy” on the people of Ashdod. So severe was God’s judgment, that the Philistines moved the ark to a different town. When the same judgment came, that town sought to get rid of it. Panic broke out. Four times we read “the hand of the Lord was severe” against the Philistines and their god Dagon (5:6-11).
They became very ill and developed tumors. Because the Philistines implicated rats in their peace offering (I Samuel 6:4), many believe that the affliction was like the Bubonic Plague of 14th century Europe. Fifty million people died in that terrible scourge. Whatever it was, we know that God’s judgments are severe, and they always vindicate His holiness.
Restitution was implemented (6:11-12). Desperate to get away from God’s judgment, the Philistines devised a plan. They hitched two milk cows to a cart bearing the ark and their restitution offering of solid gold tumors and rats. With their calves penned up in a stall, they knew those cows would not go anywhere unless God directed them. In fact, that is what happened. The cows went away from their own calves, and directly to Beth-shemesh, where lived the priestly Levites.
God is worshiped (6:13-16). When the ark arrived near Beth-shemesh, the Israelites rejoiced greatly. They split up the cart into firewood, and offered the cows as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. True worship always involves the recognition of the holiness and sovereignty of God. It also involves sacrifice. Romans 12:1-2 instructs us to offer our own bodies as living sacrifices as our reasonable worship before the Lord.