Recall that the elders of Israel had summoned the ark of the covenant to the battlefield (1 Sam. 4:3), and the entire army of Israel was full of confidence that it would “do” something (1 Sam. 4:5). But it didn’t do anything, and Israel was decisively defeated and the ark captured. And so then it started to do things.
“And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it from Ebenezer unto Ashdod. When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon . . .” (1 Sam. 5:1-12).
Summary of the Text
The Philistines brought the ark of the covenant which they had captured from Ebenezer, the battlefield, to Ashdod, one of the principal cities of Philistia (v. 1). The five great cities were Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, Gath, and Ekron). Our modern name Palestine comes from the fact that Philistines lived there. They brought the ark into the temple of Dagon, their principal deity, and set it next to their idol (v. 2). When they got up in the morning, the idol was prostrate before the ark of the Lord. So they helped their god back up (v. 3). When they got up the next day, the same thing had happened, only the statue was now broken—head and hands broken off on the threshold (v. 4). From that time on, the threshold of Dagon’s house became something those entering would not step on (v. 5).
This was highly symbolic, but the Lord then got down to business. The hand of the Lord was heavy on Ashdod and the surrounding area, and He destroyed them by means of tumors (v. 6). The men of Ashdod put two and two together and decided that the ark could not remain (v. 7). So all the lords of the Philistines decided to try another city—and settled upon Gath (v. 8). But when the ark got there, the epidemic from Ashdod came with it (v. 9). So they tried a third city, Ekron, but the Ekronites didn’t wait for the epidemic to start (v. 10). So they had a meeting of their leaders, and it was decided to send the ark back to Israel as an act of self-defense (v. 11). Those who did not die still had the tumors, and the cry of the city went up to Heaven (v. 12).
This plague that the Philistines had to cope with was almost certainly the Bubonic Plague. The affliction was accompanied by tumors, it was deadly, and it was associated with rodents. The Bubonic Plague causes painful swellings in the lymph nodes, in the groin and armpit, and these are called buboes. In v. 6, the LXX adds that “rats appeared in their land, and death and destruction were throughout the city.”When the Philistines sent the ark back to Israel in the next chapter, they included as a guilt offering five golden replicas of the tumors and five golden mice (1 Sam. 6:4). In short, God was dealing with them roughly. His hand was heavy upon them with a “very great destruction” (v. 9). God would not fight for Israel through the ark on sinful Israel’s terms. But once that issue was settled (as it was by the routing of the Israelite army), God undertook to fight for Israel on His own terms. And it is important to note that this was done through the instrumentality of the ark of the covenant. Israel’s problem was not that they believed that the ark had spiritual authority—it was that they did not themselves live under that authority. The ark contained the Ten Commandments, and Hophni and Phinehas were the immoral priests who brought those sacred words up to the battlefield.
Desolation at Shiloh
After this, Shiloh had been wiped out, presumably in the immediate aftermath of this first battle at Ebenezer. Centuries later, when Jeremiah is rebuking the people for having made the very same mistake about the Temple as had been made at Shiloh, he points to the desolation of Shiloh (Jer. 7:12, 14; 26: 6, 9). God says through Jeremiah that He destroyed Shiloh because of the wickedness of Israel—it was not just Hophni and Phinehas.
A Grotesque Victory Lap
The ark of the covenant is taken on a grand tour of the land of the Philistines, a parody of triumph. Despite the fact that the spiritual combat here is in deadly earnest, we are plainly meant to see the humor in this story. Dagon falls over twice, and then the ark tours all of Philistia, leaving mayhem in its wake. It was captured in the far north near Aphek, taken to Ashdod in the southwest, then over to Gath in the east, due north to Ekron, where they weren’t having any, not even for a little while, and then straight east back to Israel with all due haste. Israel was winning great victories, in part because there were no Israelites involved.
God is a great man of war (Ex. 15:3). When He bares His right arm, He accomplishes all that He wills. He can use human leaders, and often does, but He periodically does this sort of thing when such leaders get above themselves. As Charles de Gaulle once put it, the graveyards are full of indispensable men. Note what happens here as a prelude to this great victory—the human leaders die or disappear. Samuel disappears for three chapters after 4:1. Hophni and Phinehas are killed in battle for their sins. Eli falls and dies in grief. Hannah had begun this book with her song that exulted in the emptying of thrones. The fall of leaders in the church is not necessarily a bad thing. It may well be a prelude to grace, a prelude to great reformation and revival.
Too often we say if only in places where God says no such thing. If only the old wineskins would hold the new wine . . . If only the old leaders would accept the young blood . . . If only the curators would stop polishing the marble floors of the Reformation Heritage Museum . . . If only we would learn that God is fully willing to overthrow His appointed leaders.
Take this lesson from God’s playbook. Reformations are messy. Do you pray for reformation in the church? Well and good, but you are praying for a mess. This is not said to discourage you—we are called, like Hannah, to exult in God’s pattern of doing things. God overthrows people who should know better. Creative destruction is something that He knows how to do well. But we still wince. Sometimes we think that they had it coming like Hophni and Phinehas did, and other times we think (deep down in our hearts) that the Lord was a bit severe, as with Eli. But reflect and learn wisdom.