THE PHILISTINES CAPTURE THE ARK
Psalm 96:5, ESV
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens.
1 SAMUEL 4:2-11, NIrV
2 The Philistines brought their forces together to fight against Israel. As the fighting spread, the Israelites lost the battle to the Philistines. The Philistines killed about 4,000 of them on the field of battle. 3 The rest of the Israelite soldiers returned to camp. Then the elders asked them, “Why did the Lord let the Philistines win the battle over us today? Let’s bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh. Let’s take it with us. Then the Lord will save us from the power of our enemies.”
4 So the people sent men to Shiloh. They brought back the ark of the Lord’s covenant law. He sits there on his throne between the cherubim. The Lord is the one who rules over all. Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were with the ark of God’s covenant law. The ark was in Shiloh.
5 The ark of the Lord’s covenant law was brought into the camp. Then all the Israelites shouted so loudly that the ground shook. 6 The Philistines heard the noise. They asked, “What’s all that shouting about in the Hebrew camp?”
Then the Philistines found out that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp. 7 So they were afraid. “A god has come into their camp,” they said. “Oh no! Nothing like this has ever happened before. 8 How terrible it will be for us! Who will save us from the power of these mighty gods? They struck down the people of Egypt in the desert. They sent all kinds of plagues on them. 9 Philistines, be strong! Fight like men! If you don’t, you will come under the control of the Hebrews. You will become their slaves, just as they have been your slaves. Fight like men!”
10 So the Philistines fought. The Israelites lost the battle, and every man ran back to his tent. A large number of them were killed. Israel lost 30,000 soldiers who were on foot. 11 The ark of God was captured. And Eli’s two sons Hophni and Phinehas died.
The Ark of the Covenant was a special gold chest that was kept inside the Tabernacle tent. Between the wings of the angels on its cover, the Lord God came to meet with his people. When the Israelites lost a battle to the Philistines, they made a terrible mistake. Instead of saying, "Let's call on God. He will save us from our enemies!" they thought, "Let's bring out the ark. It will save us!" But the ark wasn't some magical lucky charm. Israel’s savior was the Lord God, not some box! So they lost the next battle, they lost the ark, and they lost Hophni and Phinehas, the two evil sons of Eli.
+ What had God told Samuel about Hophni and Phinehas in the last chapter? (see 1 Sam. 3:13)
+ What happened to the high priest Eli when he heard all the bad news? (vs. 18)
1 SAMUEL 5:1-5, NIrV
1 The Philistines had captured the ark of God. They took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 They carried the ark into the temple of their god Dagon. They set it down beside the statue of Dagon. 3 The people of Ashdod got up early the next day. They saw the statue of Dagon. There it was, lying on the ground! It had fallen on its face in front of the ark of the Lord. So they picked up the statue of Dagon. They put it back in its place. 4 But the following morning when they got up, they saw the statue of Dagon. There it was, lying on the ground again! It had fallen on its face in front of the ark of the Lord. Its head and hands had been broken off. Only the body of the statue was left. Its head and hands were lying in the doorway of the temple. 5 That’s why to this day no one steps on the bottom part of the doorway of Dagon’s temple at Ashdod. Not even the priests of Dagon step there.
As the Philistines carried off the ark, they thought, “We’ve captured the God of Israel!” They set it up like a trophy in the temple building of their god Dagon. But the Philistines had things backwards. The ark wasn’t God – it was just a box. And their god Dagon? He was just a powerless statue! That night, God knocked Dagon’s statue over. Laying helpless on his face, the God of the Philistines looked like he was bowing down before the ark of the Lord. The priests helped poor Dagon back to his feet. But God knocked him over the next night, too, this time breaking off his head and his hands!
+ How did God make Dagon, the god of the Philistines, look powerless?
+ Why couldn't Dagon stand back up after God knocked him over?
1 SAMUEL 5:6-8, NIrV
6 The Lord’s power was against the people of Ashdod and the settlements near it. He destroyed them. He made them suffer with growths in their bodies. 7 The people of Ashdod saw what was happening. They said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us. His power is against us and against our god Dagon.” 8 So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines. They asked them, “What should we do with the ark of the god of Israel?”
The rulers answered, “Have the ark moved to Gath.” So they moved it.
Normally, if you crush your enemies in battle and run away with their treasures, things are going well. But for the Philistines, that was the moment their troubles began! After knocking defenseless Dagon flat on his face, God made painful lumps grow all over the bodies of the people. The Lord, the God of Israel, was sending them a clear message: "You may have captured the Ark of the Covenant, but you did not capture me!” Just a few days earlier, the Philistines happily carried the ark back in a victory parade. But now all they wanted was to get that troublesome chest as far away as possible!
+ What Philistine city was the Ark of the Covenant in? (vs. 6)
+ What Philistine city did they want to send the ark to next? (vs. 8)
1 SAMUEL 5:9-12, NIRV
9 But after the people of Ashdod had moved the ark, the Lord’s power was against Gath. That threw its people into a great panic. The Lord made them break out with growths in their bodies. It happened to young people and old people alike. 10 So the ark of God was sent to Ekron.
As the ark was entering Ekron, the people of the city cried out. They shouted, “They’ve brought the ark of the god of Israel to us. They want to kill us and our people.” 11 So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines. They said, “Send the ark of the god of Israel away. Let it go back to its own place. If you don’t, it will kill us and our people.” The death of so many people had filled the city with panic. God’s power was against the city. 12 Those who didn’t die suffered with growths in their bodies. The people of Ekron cried out to heaven for help.
When an army wins a battle, they sometimes throw a victory parade to show off all the treasures they captured from their enemies. However, as the Ark of the Lord traveled from one Philistine city to the next, it was more like God who was marching on his own victory parade! Wherever the ark went, from Ashdod to Gath to Ekron, God's powerful hand punished the people. Their bodies grew painful lumps. Their minds were filled with terror. Many people died. And their city was crawling with diseased rats! Gross! Everyone agreed: return that ark to Israel or all of us will wind up dead!
+ What did the people of Ekron say when the ark was brought to their city? (vs. 10)
+ Why do you think the people wanted to send the ark back to Israel?
1 SAMUEL 6:2-13, NIRV
2 The Philistines called for the priests and for those who practice evil magic. They wanted their advice. They said to them, “What should we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we should send it back to its place.”
3 They answered, “If you return the ark of the god of Israel, don’t send it back to him without a gift. Be sure you send a guilt offering to their god along with it. Then you will be healed. You will find out why his power has continued to be against you.”
4 The Philistines asked, “What guilt offering should we send to him?”
Their advisers replied, “There are five Philistine rulers. So send five gold rats. Also send five gold models of the growths in your bodies. Do it because the same plague has struck you and your rulers alike. 5 Make models of the rats and the growths that are destroying the country. Give honor to Israel’s god. Then perhaps his power will no longer be against you, your gods and your land. 6 Why are you stubborn, as Pharaoh and the people of Egypt were? Israel’s god was very hard on them. Only then did they send the Israelites out. Only then did they let them go on their way.
7 “Now then, get a new cart ready. Get two cows that have just had calves. Be sure the cows have never pulled a cart before. Tie the cart to them. But take their calves away and put them in a pen. 8 Then put the ark of the Lord on the cart. Put the gold models in a chest beside the ark. Send them back to the Lord as a guilt offering. Send the cart on its way. 9 But keep an eye on the cart. See if it goes up toward Beth Shemesh to its own territory. If it does, then it’s the Lord who has brought this horrible trouble on us. But if it doesn’t, then we’ll know it wasn’t his hand that struck us. We’ll know it happened to us by chance.”
10 So that’s what they did. They took the two cows and tied the cart to them. They put the calves in a pen. 11 They placed the ark of the Lord on the cart. They put the chest there along with it. The chest held the gold models of the rats and of the growths. 12 Then the cows went straight up toward Beth Shemesh. They stayed on the road. They were mooing all the way. They didn’t turn to the right or the left. The Philistine rulers followed them all the way to the border of Beth Shemesh.
13 The people of Beth Shemesh were working in the valley. They were gathering their wheat crop. They looked up and saw the ark. When they saw it, they were filled with joy.
Wherever the ark traveled, death and disease followed. Still, the Philistines weren’t certain these punishments came from the Lord. So they set up a test: put the ark on a cart and hook it up to two mama cows who had no idea how to pull a cart. If these untrained beasts lumbered back to their babies, it would mean that the Lord had nothing to do with their problems. But if they marched directly to Israel, it was proof Israel’s God was punishing them. So they let those cows loose, and God gave the Philistines a clear answer. He guided those mooing mamas in a straight line right back to Israel.
+ What did the Philistines make and place on the cart as an offering to God? (vs. 3-5)
+ How did the Israelites respond when they saw the ark was returned? (vs. 13)
PSALM 115:1-11, NIRV
1 Lord, may glory be given to you, not to us.
You are loving and faithful.
2 Why do the nations ask,
“Where is their God?”
3 Our God is in heaven.
He does anything he wants to do.
4 But the statues of their gods are made out of silver and gold.
They are made by human hands.
5 They have mouths but can’t speak.
They have eyes but can’t see.
6 They have ears but can’t hear.
They have noses but can’t smell.
7 They have hands but can’t feel.
They have feet but can’t walk.
They have throats but can’t say anything.
8 Those who make statues of gods will be like them.
So will all those who trust in them.
9 All you Israelites, trust in the Lord.
He helps you like a shield that keeps you safe.
10 Priests of Aaron, trust in the Lord.
He helps you like a shield that keeps you safe.
11 You who have respect for the Lord, trust in him.
He helps you like a shield that keeps you safe.
When we study the Bible, we learn about the Lord God of Israel: what he’s like and what he’s done. But did you know that God’s Word mentions the name of over 30 other gods? This is not a joke! We’ve already read about the god of the Philistines, Dagon. The book of Leviticus speaks of a dreadful god named Molech. And in the book of Acts, we even learn about a lady goddess named Artemis! So why do we spend so much time learning about the Lord, the God of the Israelites, when we can be learning about Dagon, Molech, Artemis or any of the other gods mentioned in the Bible?
The answer to that question is pretty simple: the Lord is the only God who isn’t totally made up! These verses we have read today from Psalm 115 talk about the big difference between the Lord, the God we read about in the Bible, and other gods like Dagon, Molech, or Artemis.
Verses 4-8 tell us what the gods of the other nations are like. Just like the statue of Dagon, they have mouths, eyes, ears, noses, hands, and feet. But they can’t speak, see, hear, smell, feel, or move. In fact, when a god like Dagon falls over, he needs his followers to pick him back up! That’s pretty pathetic!
Dagon and his fellow god buddies aren’t real. They are just idols, statues built by human hands. In fact, there’s a special way you can tell if the Bible is talking about the one true God or one of these false gods. If “God” begins with a capital “G” it’s talking about the real God. If “god” begins with a lowercase “g” it’s talking about one of the pretend gods.
While wimpy Dagon couldn’t even pick himself up off the floor, verse 3 of this psalm (which means “song”) tells us that the Lord does all that he pleases. He can do anything he wants. The Philistines learned this truth the hard way. Not only did the Lord God knock down the statue of their god, he brought death and disease throughout their land as the ark traveled from city to city.
We should be thankful that the Lord is the one true God. Other gods like Dagon, Molech, and Artemis, weren’t described as being kind and loving. They were thought to be just as selfish and moody and cruel as the human beings who made them up!
But verse 1 of Psalm 115 says the Lord is a God of steadfast (never-stopping) love. It says he’s faithful: he keeps his promises. And because he’s a promise-keeping God of never-stopping love, the Lord sent his own Son Jesus to save us from our sins. That’s something dreadful, pretend gods like Dagon, Molech, Artemis could never and would never do!
+ List all the body parts mentioned in vs. 4-7.
+ What happens to people who make and trust in these pretend gods? (vs. 8)