The ark was lost as punishment for Israel’s infidelity to God and her effort to domesticate God and use him for her own purposes. But, the fact that Israel was defeated by the Philistines did not mean, as it would naturally have been taken to mean in those days, that Yahweh was inferior to the gods of Philistia. [In the same way that America’s victory in Desert Storm did not mean that America’s “gods” are superior to Iraq’s gods! Though much more was that true here!] When, according to ancient custom, the Philistines deposited the captured idols of the enemy in the temple of Dagon [pronounced “Daaa-gone”], it was to prove hugely embarrassing. It was like the plagues of Egypt, a comparison to which direct reference is made in 4:8 and 6:6. One commentator titles the chapter, “Victus Victor”, the conquered one now the conqueror!
v.1 Ashdod was situated just north of present day Tel Aviv.
v.2 Because Israel had no idols, Israel’s conquerors had to make do with substitutes. Here it was the ark; later, for the Babylonians, it would be the gold utensils from the Temple. Dagon was a Semitic god, so the Philistines, who came from Crete, had added him to their pantheon. The name is derived from the word “grain,” so he was some kind of vegetation deity.
v.3 In Psalm 78:56-67 we have a reflection on this history. We read of the Lord sending “his ark into captivity, his splendor into the hands of the enemy. He gave his people over to the sword; he was very angry with his inheritance.” But, then we read, “Then the Lord awoke as from a sleep…. He beat back his enemies, he put them to everlasting shame.” Here Dagon becomes a worshipper of the Lord too!
v.4 There is a “grim humor” in all of this, like the derision that the prophets later on heap on man-made idols (e.g. Isaiah in chapter 40). The great Dagon reduced to “Humpty-Dumpty.” [Gordon, 92] There is also perhaps a comparison between the severed hands of Dagon and the Lord’s hand which was to be heavy upon the Philistines in vv. 6-12.
v.5 The “to this day” suggests some significant passage of time between the events themselves and the writing down of this history.
v.6 It seems still very likely, especially in view of the mention of rats in 6:4, that the plague visited upon the Philistines was the bubonic plague, with rats in their accustomed role as carriers. The LXX adds in v. 6 that “rats appeared in the land.” That the rats were associated with the plague is clear; whether the Philistines understood the nature of that connection is not known.
v.8 The “rulers of the Philistines” were the governors of the five cities (as in 6:4) which are listed by name in 6:17. The Hebrew word translated “ruler” is a Philistine loan-word. It is like our newspapers writing of what the “Imams” are doing and saying in Iran.
William Tyndale, perhaps English Christianity’s greatest man, got as far as the Histories in his translation of the OT. So we have his translation of 1 Samuel 5. In v. 3, taking some creative license, he says that Dagon “lay grovelling upon the ground” before the Lord. [Cited in Alter, Com., 27]
That is precisely the idea. I remember hearing a sermon by R.C. Sproul years ago on 1 Samuel 4-7. In his inimitable style he retold the story: how the ark had been captured, carried in triumph to the sanctuary of Dagon in Ashdod, and without any thought deposited there, the shrine of a conquered and now subject god. But, when they came the next morning, stepped into the sanctuary, the priests all said in unison, “Daaaa – gone!!!” That is almost exactly right. There is a sardonic jesting at the idols of pagan people here.
And it is not the first time and it will not be the last that the point is made that idols are nothing, that they cannot save, but that Yahweh made the heavens and the earth.
“For all the gods of the nations are idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.” [Psalm 96:5]
The Lord bested the gods of Egypt, of Canaan. Later he would take on Baal at his own game. Baal was the god who supposedly controlled the lightning, lightning was supposed to be his specialty. That is why Elijah set up the contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel as he did. “Alright, if Baal is the lightning god, he should have no trouble kindling the fire on your altar.” And then, after the prophets of Baal had failed to bring fire down from heaven, Elijah called on the Lord, the living God, who did not fail.
And so it is all through the Bible. Idols are mocked as nothings, the merest creatures of creatures. Here is a block of wood, Isaiah smirks, out of which a craftsman makes his god, carefully now so it won’t wobble or topple, and with the rest he warms himself by the fire. Isaiah 44:16-20 is Isaiah’s version of our modern “Hellooooo! (while knocking on the head).”
“Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal,
he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says, ‘Save me; you are my god.’
They know nothing, they understand nothing;
their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
‘Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals,
I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
Shall I bow down to a block of wood?’
He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself,
or say, ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?’”
Now it is interesting that, at least in the West, there is widespread agreement with Isaiah’s contempt for idols. That is not to say that there are not still millions upon millions of people in the world who worship them. But, in the West, it is generally accepted that idols of wood and stone are mere superstition; they are and they represented nothing but the projected fears and desires of human beings.
But that is not to say that there are not idols worshipped with seriousness and passion in the West, even among the most secular and seemingly irreligious people. The heart is an “idol factory” and all men, in their fallenness and rebellion against God, substitute some other “god” for the true and living God. They must have a god, for they were made in the image of God, they were made to worship and adore – homo adorans – better describes the true character and nature of human beings than homo sapiens. Worshipping man rather than thinking man.
Idolatry, simply put, is “any substitution of what is created for the Creator.” [H. Scholossberg, Idols for Destruction, 6] It doesn’t have to be an image in wood, stone, or metal. It can be anything at all. Anything that replaces the living God and our Creator in the affection and loyalty of the heart. It, indeed, can be something that lies otherwise unknown in the heart. Ezekiel speaks of men, elders in Israel indeed, who had “set up idols in their hearts” (14:3). As the Lord himself says, in Isaiah 42:8: “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.”
In the New Testament, for example, Paul speaks of people whose “god is their stomach” (Philippians 3:19). In Ephesians 5:5 he says, “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure, or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” To the Corinthian believers, Paul wrote, concerning the Israelites in the wilderness: “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters…” He wasn’t speaking of their bowing to images. That wasn’t their problem. It was setting their hearts on things besides and instead of God himself.
Fallen men and women have never ceased finding ways to substitute the creature for the creator, or as Paul put it in Romans 1:25, to “worship and serve created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised.”
In 1983 Herbert Schlossberg published his book, Idols for Destruction. It was a summary of the forms that idolatry takes in our day and our culture. There were, of course, the usual suspects: power, fame, pleasure, money. But there were also the intellectual idols: history, nature, man himself, even religion.
In the years since 1983, there has been a good bit more reflection on the idolatrous character of modern Western life. Other idols have been identified and the nature of the worship of them explained.
Sex can now be seen as an idol in our culture, one of the idols in the pantheon of the life experiences and pleasures that modern Western man worships. Our experience is now our God. We worship it. And, of course, physical experiences are much easier to produce and to control than spiritual ones. Hence the preoccupation with the body in modern life. There are many ways, of course, in which modern people in our culture worship the body. As churches have emptied, health clubs have filled. Plastic surgery is a booming business. Fitness is the new path to immortality, such as it is. All of these idols have the same characteristics, at bottom, as Dagon in Ashdod. They are safe, predictable, subject to the worshipper’s control. “They offer nothing like the threat of a God who thunders from Sinai…” [David Wells, God in the Wasteland, 53] People can remain at the center of their lives and loyalties, “the autonomous architects of their own futures.” “They need face only themselves. That is the appeal of idolatry.”
But, the problem with idolatry is also the problem of Dagon. Idols always tumble before the true and living God! Always! The rich fool in Luke 12 accumulated more and more wealth in the form of crops. He loved his wealth, he worshipped it, so he could not part with it. What is more, wealth was a means to other things he worshipped. “I’ll say to myself,” he thought, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink, and be merry.” He thought instead of building more barns to hold his increasing wealth. But the living God was not pleased and in the face of God’s displeasure, all of that wealth in all of those barns could do nothing more for the man, nothing more than Dagon could do for the Philistines. And so God took his life that night and gave him, instead of ease and pleasure, the punishment he had prepared for himself.
How different the man who loves and worships God and so is rich toward others. As Ambrose commented on that rich fool in Luke 12: he already had more storehouses: the laps of the needy, the homes of widows, the mouths of children. How different the future of that man if he had thought the same!
And so it is with all the idols. Sooner or later they prove themselves simply blocks of wood, wholly unworthy of your worship and completely incapable of saving you from anything. The body grows old and tired and feeble. Experience becomes muddled and incapable of raising the soul out of the dimness of old age. Wealth, power, fame all corrupt and their corruptions attach themselves like a leech to human life. Even if one lives long and dies happy, these idols must be carried up to the Judgment Seat where a man or woman will be absolutely mortified to find them clinging to him or her. They will stand there, before the Great White Throne, with a silly block of wood in their hand, and nothing to show for the life that the living God gave them to live in the world. What then?
And so it is even with idols of the intellect. I want to finish this evening with a thought or two about one of the great idols of our modern day, the theory of evolution, by which the Creator has been displaced by the creation in the minds of multitudes of people. Nature now made the world, not God himself–a naked case of worshiping the creature rather than the Creator! There is no doubt that evolution is an idol and functions as an idol. By bowing to is, God and Christianity are displaced in the heart and soul. Just like the Philistines and Dagon, there must be unrelieved conflict between the two religions, the two peoples, the two groups of worshippers.
Hence the remark of Richard Dawkins, the Oxford University professor, the champion, the Goliath of evolution, calling out to the hosts of the Lord.
“I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”
Interestingly, Adolph Hitler said very nearly exactly the same thing.
“The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light, and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity.” [Cited in Dembski, Intelligent Design, 294, n.3]
Dawkins does not mince his words.
“It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” [Dembski, 289, n.29]
Professor Dawkins has, as it were, triumphant in his conquest, hauled the ark of the Lord into the sanctuary of his Dagon. But I’ve been reading over the past few weeks William Dembski’s book, Intelligent Design. It is one more in a series of powerful attacks on the theory of evolution that have been published over the last dozen years or so: Michael Denton’s, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis; the several titles by Phillip Johnson, beginning with Darwin on Trial, and still more recently, Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. And it is clear that evolution as we know it today, as it has ruled the intellectual world, as it has replaced the creator in the minds of so many in our day, as it has enabled such men as Richard Rorty, the guru of the post-modernists to be, as he put it, intellectually fulfilled atheists, is under a more deadly attack since Darwin published The Origin of the Species. The arguments being brought against it now are the technical, sophisticated arguments of mainstream science, arguments that could not have been so powerfully formed without the developments in biochemistry and genetics and information theory that have come apace through the last generation.
It appears that many of us will live to see the death of the evolutionary theory of origins as the prevailing paradigm. Some of us may live to see this contemporary Dagon lying, like all other idols before it, on its face before God. But, perhaps not!
We know that Dagon was worshipped in Ashdod until at least the middle of the first century B.C, a thousand years after the events reported in 1 Samuel 5. For a thousand years they still came to Dagon’s sanctuary, they stepped over the threshold, in recollection of Dagon’s humiliation long ages before, they still worshipped a god who hadn’t been able to protect his people from the bubonic plague or himself from the dust before the ark of the Living God!
Clever men may continue to invest their intellectual resources in the worship of evolution so as to be able to remain free from an obligation to bow before God. But, sooner or later, all idols are trod underfoot and shown up for what they are: the worship of the creature instead of the creator. How can people believe so tenaciously when all the evidence is against them? Remember, the Philistines were no stupid people, not backwards. They were, for their own day, as our scientists and philosophers are for our day. Their culture was more technologically advanced than Israel’s at the time. They were known for a particularly beautiful style of pottery. Indeed, when the story of our time is written, people will shake their heads over our behavior more than that of the Philistines!
Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in his autobiography [Chronicles of Wasted Time, 85]:
I…learnt at an early age the great truth that the twentieth century is an age of almost inconceivable credulity….[Do you know that word? It means gullibility, the tendency to believe what intelligent people should know is not so.]
Muggeridge’s father, Thomas, used to quote the observation of a Spanish writer to the effect that “credulity is the only raw material no country need import.”
The answer is given in Psalm 115:4-6:
“…their idols are silver and gold., made by the hands of men.
They have mouths but cannot speak, eyes but they cannot see; they have
ears but cannot hear, noses but they cannot smell; they have hands
but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a
sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them!
As Paul puts it in Romans 1, when men make idols for themselves, so as not to worship and serve the living God, God himself gives them over to their idols to serve them. Idols, make very poor masters. Being lies themselves, they pull the wool over those who worship them. And, then, when it is too late, they show themselves for what they really are: nothing at all. So, sin makes fools of men, for, as we are taught here in 1 Samuel 5, anyone who worships a Dagon is a fool.
No wonder that the Lord had the Apostle John tell us: “Dear Children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21)