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What To Do With An Uncontrollable God

Last Sunday we read about the first of many battles recorded in the book of 1 Samuel. And at this time in Israel’s history – their main enemy was the Philistines! The Philistines had been a thorn in Israel’s side throughout their early history – battling first with Shamgar and then Samson – later on they would battle against King Saul and against David…. but at this time there was no judge or king to lead the Israelites into battle against the Philistines. Although Samuel was widely recognized as the prophet of God by this time – He had not yet become Isreal’s judge – that would happen shortly, but at this time, Israel was led primarily by the elders – the older, supposedly wiser leaders of the different clans and tribes of Israel.

But these elders didn’t seem to be particularly in-tune with God. And as we’ve noted over the past few weeks, the nation of Israel as a whole had kinda drifted away from following God. Their relationship with God had become a religion rather than a relationship, even though they were God’s specially choose people. Out of all the people on earth, God had specifically chosen them to be His holy nation – and they would be His people and He would be their God! He even promised to dwell among them… We saw last week how the Ark of the Covenant would identify God’s presence among his people. It was from the Ark that God promised meet his people and speak to them from above the cover of the Ark.

But as we’ve noted, the people of Israel weren’t all that interested in hearing from God at this point. They chose to ignore God’s commands – and everyone did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. They had no interest in serving and pleasing God – they really just kept God around because of what God could do for them!

And last week’s battle with the Philistines was a prime example of that. After being defeated in the first battle against the Philistines, the elders of Israelites decide to go get the Ark of the Lord and carry it into battle with them. We read in 1 Samuel 4 verse 3…

Then they said, “Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, it will save us from our enemies.” 1 Samuel 4:3b

And I think it’s very telling that they say “IT will save us from our enemies” – Not, “GOD” will save us from our enemies – but “IT” – the Ark of the Covenant – will save us from our enemies.

Their faith was in a gold box, rather than in the God who spoke to them from the gold box. They had been disobedient to God for years and really had no interest in changing their ways, but yet, they thought they could harness and manipulate the power of God by trotting out the Ark of the Covenant and carrying it into battle with them.

But one of the main themes that comes out of the book of Samuel – and we’ve seen this several times already – is that God will honor those who honor Him, but he will despise those who think lightly of Him. And we see that playing out clearly in this story.

The Israelites carry the Ark of the Covenant with them into battle – hoping to manipulate the power of God in their favour, but God does not honor those who refuse to honor Him and the Israelites are soundly defeated. 30,000 men are killed and the Ark of the Covenant is captured by the Philistines!

And that leads us into our passage today. As I mentioned last week, the story of 1 Samuel doesn’t revolve around Samuel – it doesn’t even revolve around the Israelites – it revolves around God! This is His story, and so the camera pans away from the defeated Israelites and it follows the Ark of the Covenant carried by the victorious Philistines into the nearby Philistine town of Ashdod.

We pick up the story in 1 Samuel chapter 5, verse 1.

After the Philistines captured the Ark of God, they took it from the battleground at Ebenezer to the town of Ashdod. 2 They carried the Ark of God into the temple of Dagon and placed it beside an idol of Dagon. 1 Samuel 5:1-2

Now before we read any further, let me just point out a couple of things. First of all, Dagon was the name of the main Philistine god. You may recall that it was the temple of Dagon in Gaza that Samson had pulled down in his final feat of strength – killing himself along with 3000 Philistines.

But it was this god, Dagon, that the Philistines believed had defeated the God of the Israelites. You see, in that time and culture, wars were not simply fought and won by human armies – but rather they were also fought and won by the gods of those armies! It wasn’t just about who had the strongest army – but who had the strongest god!

That’s why last week, when the Ark of the Covenant came into the camp of the Israelites, the Philistines had a panic attack because they knew how strong the Israelites’ God was. Remember? They said…

“The gods have come into their camp!” they cried. “This is a disaster! We have never had to face anything like this before! 8 Help! Who can save us from these mighty gods of Israel? They are the same gods who destroyed the Egyptians with plagues when Israel was in the wilderness. 9 Fight as never before, Philistines! If you don’t, we will become the Hebrews’ slaves just as they have been ours! Stand up like men and fight!” 1 Samuel 4:7-9

The Philistines knew from history how powerful the God of the Israelites was – He had totally destroyed the Egyptians many years earlier! But now, because they had defeated the Israelites in battle, the Philistines concluded that their god Dagon was even more powerful than the God of the Israelites.

And so they bring the Ark of the Covenant into the temple of Dagon and set it before this idol – this statue of Dagon. This would symbolize in their minds how the God of the Israelites had been conquered and was now subject to Dagon. This would be like bringing a defeated king as a prisoner of war in chains to kneel before the conquering King upon his throne. That’s kinda the idea here.

And that’s why what happened next was so shocking to the Philistines! Verse 3.

 But when the citizens of Ashdod went to see it the next morning, Dagon had fallen with his face to the ground in front of the Ark of the Lord! So they took Dagon and put him in his place again.

1 Samuel 5:3

Can you imagine the shock and the disbelief on their faces when the citizens of Ashdod went into the temple that morning and they saw their mighty god Dagon had fallen on it’s face before the Ark of the Lord! How could that possibly be!? It must have been an earthquake or something like that that knocked him over, they figure! And so they quickly pick up their fallen god and put him in his place again.

Which is pretty ironic when you think about it. It seems kinda ridiculous that the mighty god Dagon can’t even pick himself up off the floor?! 

And I think that’s kinda the point that God was trying to make. God was illustrating to both the Israelites and the Philistines just how ridiculous it is to trust in idols. I’m reminded of what Jeremiah writes in Jeremiah 10:3…

3b  They cut down a tree, and a craftsman carves an idol.

4 They decorate it with gold and silver

    and then fasten it securely with hammer and nails

    so it won’t fall over.

5 Their gods are like

    helpless scarecrows in a cucumber field!

They cannot speak,

    and they need to be carried because they cannot walk.

Do not be afraid of such gods,

    for they can neither harm you nor do you any good.”

14b  These idols have no breath or power.

15 Idols are worthless; they are ridiculous lies!

    On the day of reckoning they will all be destroyed.

16 But the God of Israel is no idol!

    He is the Creator of everything that exists,

including Israel, his own special possession.

    The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name!

Jeremiah 10:3b-5, 14b-16

And I know that in our western, civilized culture, we don’t tend to worship little statues or carved images – but I think this is still an important reminder for us. The God of Israel (the God of the Bible – the God we worship and serve today) is no idol. He’s not a fairy tale. He’s not a myth. He’s not a delusion. He is the Creator of everything that exists – including you and I. He is the Author of Life. He is the sovereign Lord of the Universe. He is just as real and just as powerful today as He was back then.

We kinda laugh at the foolishness of these ancient cultures as they bow down and worship their different idols – but if we deny the reality of God and his sovereignty over all – then we are just as foolish as they are! The God of Israel is no idol. He is the Creator of everything that exists, including you and I – the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name!

Of course, the Philistines had not yet figured that out. When they saw their god Dagon lying there face-down before the Ark, they quickly picked it up and put it back in it’s place once again. But then we read in verse 4…

4 But the next morning the same thing happened—Dagon had fallen face down before the Ark of the Lord again. This time his head and hands had broken off and were lying in the doorway. Only the trunk of his body was left intact. 5 That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor anyone who enters the temple of Dagon in Ashdod will step on its threshold. 1 Samuel 5:4-5

Since the Philistines didn’t seem to get the message the first time, God made things a little bit clearer. Not only had Dagon fallen on his face once again, but this time his head and hands had broken off and were lying in the doorway. This was an unmistakable message. 

Even through the Philistines had defeated the Israelites, and the Ark of the Lord had been captured, by no means had Dagon defeated the God of Israel! God was still supreme over all! The headless, handless, Dagon was powerless before Him – as were the Philistines as they were about to find out! Verse 6 continues…

6 Then the Lord’s heavy hand struck the people of Ashdod and the nearby villages with a plague of tumors. 7 When the people realized what was happening, they cried out, “We can’t keep the Ark of the God of Israel here any longer! He is against us! We will all be destroyed along with Dagon, our god.” 8 So they called together the rulers of the Philistine towns and asked, “What should we do with the Ark of the God of Israel?”

The rulers discussed it and replied, “Move it to the town of Gath.” So they moved the Ark of the God of Israel to Gath. 9 But when the Ark arrived at Gath, the Lord’s heavy hand fell on its men, young and old; he struck them with a plague of tumors, and there was a great panic.

10 So they sent the Ark of God to the town of Ekron, but when the people of Ekron saw it coming they cried out, “They are bringing the Ark of the God of Israel here to kill us, too!” 11 The people summoned the Philistine rulers again and begged them, “Please send the Ark of the God of Israel back to its own country, or it will kill us all.” For the deadly plague from God had already begun, and great fear was sweeping across the town. 12 Those who didn’t die were afflicted with tumors; and the cry from the town rose to heaven.1 Samuel 5:6-12

The Philistines quickly came to realize that the God of Israel was far more powerful than anything they’d ever known before. As their idol of Dagon kept falling on its face before the Ark and as a plague of tumours afflicted town after town – where ever the Ark was sent, the Philistines feared that both they and their god Dagan would be destroyed by the God of the Israelites!

But I find it really interesting, that even though God had clearly demonstrated his great power over Dagon and even over nature as this plague followed the Ark wherever it went, still the Philistines wanted to get rid of the Ark rather than worshipping and putting their faith in the God of the Israelites.

They would rather have their weak and broken god Dagon – who apparently was a little easier to manipulate and control – than this God of the Israelites who clearly more powerful – but would not be controlled or manipulated. They would rather believe a lie so they could continue to live how they wanted, instead of accepting the truth and changing their beliefs and actions.

And I guess that’s probably true for a lot of people today. Everyone wants a god that they can control and manipulate. They want a god that will do what they want. They want a god that will serve them and allow them to live however they want.

So when the God of the Bible doesn’t seem to be that kind of God, well, then regardless of the evidence, they would rather believe a lie to continue living however they want, instead of accepting the truth and submitting their lives under the authority of a sovereign God.

They would rather deny God’s existence or His authority or to send him away to the next town so they don’t have to deal with God’s holiness and their own sinfulness.

But you know, we can only live in denial for so long… The Bible reminds in Romans 14:10

For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:

“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,

‘every knee will bow before me;

    every tongue will acknowledge God.’”

12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

Romans 14:10b-12 NIV

It’s only a matter of time before every person on earth will have to acknowledge the truth. We can deny Him now if we wish – we can serve whatever god we choose – Dagon, Baal, money, pleasure – we can serve any god we want – but in the end, each of us will have to stand before the One true God and acknowledging Him as God, and will have to give an account for how we’ve lived our lives. I would sure encourage you not to wait until that day to acknowledge God as your Lord. Acknowledge Him today and live your life in submission and obedience to Him.

As for the Philistines – they had no interest in submitting to this God of the Israelites. Their only thought was to get rid of the Ark. As we move into chapter 6, we read:

The Ark of the Lord remained in Philistine territory seven months in all. 2 Then the Philistines called in their priests and diviners and asked them, “What should we do about the Ark of the Lord? Tell us how to return it to its own country.”

3 “Send the Ark of the God of Israel back with a gift,” they were told. “Send a guilt offering so the plague will stop. Then, if you are healed, you will know it was his hand that caused the plague.”

4 “What sort of guilt offering should we send?” they asked.

And they were told, “Since the plague has struck both you and your five rulers, make five gold tumors and five gold rats, just like those that have ravaged your land. 5 Make these things to show honor to the God of Israel. Perhaps then he will stop afflicting you, your gods, and your land. 6 Don’t be stubborn and rebellious as Pharaoh and the Egyptians were. By the time God was finished with them, they were eager to let Israel go. 

7 “Now build a new cart, and find two cows that have just given birth to calves. Make sure the cows have never been yoked to a cart. Hitch the cows to the cart, but shut their calves away from them in a pen. 8 Put the Ark of the Lord on the cart, and beside it place a chest containing the gold rats and gold tumors you are sending as a guilt offering. Then let the cows go wherever they want. 9 If they cross the border of our land and go to Beth-shemesh, we will know it was the Lord who brought this great disaster upon us. If they don’t, we will know it was not his hand that caused the plague. It came simply by chance.” 1 Samuel 6:1-9

So the Philistines determined to send the Ark back to the Isrealites. And again, we see that the Philistines knew their history. They knew how God had destroyed the Egyptians when they refused to listen to God and refused to let the Israelites go. They remind the Philistine rulers not to be stubborn and rebellious like Pharaoh was, but instead they should send the Ark back to the Israelites with a guilt offering to show honor to the God of Israel.

And so that’s what they do – but just to make sure that God really was the cause of all their trouble – and that it’s not some great coincidence that they’ve experienced all these plagues, they devise a test.

They would take two cows that had just given birth and had never pulled a cart. They would separate the cows from their babies. The babies would go in a pen and the cows would be hitched to a new cart that would hold the Ark and the guilt offering. Then, they would let the cows go where ever they wanted. 

Now by nature, these two cows that had never pulled a cart before would resist the yoke and would not likely work together to pull the cart. They would likely pull against each other – not with each other. Furthermore, the maternal instinct of these cows would lead them to go find their babies – not draw them towards the land of Israel.

So if God wanted these cows to carry the ark back the Israelites, he’d have to intervene somehow to make them go where they wouldn’t naturally go. And that’s just what God did.

10 So these instructions were carried out. Two cows were hitched to the cart, and their newborn calves were shut up in a pen. 11 Then the Ark of the Lord and the chest containing the gold rats and gold tumors were placed on the cart. 12 And sure enough, without veering off in other directions, the cows went straight along the road toward Beth-shemesh, lowing as they went. The Philistine rulers followed them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh.

13 The people of Beth-shemesh were harvesting wheat in the valley, and when they saw the Ark, they were overjoyed! 14 The cart came into the field of a man named Joshua and stopped beside a large rock. So the people broke up the wood of the cart for a fire and killed the cows and sacrificed them to the Lord as a burnt offering. 15 Several men of the tribe of Levi lifted the Ark of the Lord and the chest containing the gold rats and gold tumors from the cart and placed them on the large rock. Many sacrifices and burnt offerings were offered to the Lord that day by the people of Beth-shemesh. 16 The five Philistine rulers watched all this and then returned to Ekron that same day.

17 The five gold tumors sent by the Philistines as a guilt offering to the Lord were gifts from the rulers of Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron. 18 The five gold rats represented the five Philistine towns and their surrounding villages, which were controlled by the five rulers. The large rock at Beth-shemesh, where they set the Ark of the Lord, still stands in the field of Joshua as a witness to what happened there.

1 Samuel 6:10-18

And I think that’s about as far as we will read for today. There is a little more to the story yet, but I think we’ll talk about that next week.

But to wrap it up for today, I just can’t help but think about how the Philistines had clearly seen the hand of God at work – but yet they continued to worship their weak and broken god Dagon instead of the Almighty God of the universe.

Not only had they seen what had happened to the idol of Dagon in his temple, but they also saw the plagues following the Ark of the Lord as it went from town to town. And on top of that, they saw these cows defying the laws of nature – pulling the cart with the Ark of God away from their calves and straight into the near-by Israelite town of Beth-shemesh without veering in any other direction.

There is just no way that all of this all could have been a coincidence! It had to have been the hand of God! And yet, the Philistines still refused to worship and serve the God of the Israelites.

And I think people do the same thing today. Even though they know about God, and they can see His hand at work in the world around them, or even in their own lives – still, they harden their hearts and refuse to submit to God.

Even though God’s presence and power are obvious, they would rather cling to their weak and broken gods – gods that have failed them many times before – instead of clinging to the true God of heaven who loves them more than they can even imagine.

And so I’d just ask you this morning: Is that you? Has God been at work in your life – making his presence and his power glaringly obvious to you? Perhaps His hand has been heavy upon you to get your attention – afflicting you in some way to make you take notice! Perhaps He’s arranged circumstances in unusual ways to show you that He’s doing something in your life? Is God trying to get your attention?

And if so, how will you respond to Him? When you see all that God is doing around you, will you – like the Philistines – harden your heart and refuse to submit to Him? Will you continue to worship your weak and broken gods? 

Or will you turn to the God of the Israelites – the one true God and worship and serve only Him?

Hebrews 3:12 warns us:

12 Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. 13 You must warn each other every day, while it is still “today,” so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God. Hebrews 3:12-13

I would encourage you today, not harden your heart against the living God. Turn to Him. Pay attention to what He’s doing in your life. Listen to what He’s trying to say to you. Then worship, obey, and serve the one true God.

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