“The Lord’s Hand” (1 Samuel 4:19-22; 5:1-12)

The Lord’s Hand – Sermon by Egan Yip

Welcome back to our weekly Sunday worship. As always, I’ll start with a brief recap of last week’s message so we’re all caught up and on the same page.

Last week, we were still in 1 Samuel. Much time has passed in the story. Over the past month we saw Samuel’s birth. Then we saw him as a boy when he received God’s message. By now he has grown up, and people all over Israel have recognized that Samuel is a prophet. But Samuel was really not the focus of last week’s message. We barely saw him or heard from him. Instead, last week was really about the Israelites in general.

The Israelites were still at war with the Philistines, as usual. We don’t really get any explanation why they keep on fighting, but that’s how it is. We kind of see a bit of the reasoning of the Philistines. They had conquered the Israelites before and they don’t want to get conquered by the Israelites now. That may be part of it. Regardless, they are fighting. The battle lines were drawn. The Israelites were losing. They didn’t understand why.

Normally, when we think about war, we think in terms of tactics, strategies and weapons. We try to improve our ways of war so that we can overcome the opponent. But it was different for the Israelites in those days and perhaps for many of the other nations as well. They were not really thinking about tactics or inventing new weapons of war. All they were fixated on was the idea of gods. For nonbelievers, that seems pretty silly. But for believers, it was obvious. I mean, just think about all the stories we’ve gone through since the Israelites had left Egypt. They were never going to win normally. They were wanderers who had survived slavery. And so this mindset continued even after they reached the Promised Land. If they were losing, it must be related to God. 

So what did they do? Did they inquire of God through a Prophet to find out why they lost? Did they examine themselves in repentance, thinking perhaps they were not living correctly and properly according to God’s will? No. All they did was take out the Ark of the Covenant and bring it with them into battle. They thought that the Ark of the Covenant was the key to victory. The message last week was about how they were the following the motions of the past that led them to victory without understanding why it worked in the first place. They were just going through the motions with God, not knowing what they were doing, and that proved to be a fatal error. The army was slaughtered. The Ark of the Covenant was stolen by the Philistines. The news of this defeat ended Eli’s life.

With that, let’s get back into the story. We’ll begin by reading the final paragraph of chapter 4. This continues from Eli’s death that we read about last time.

19 His daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant and near the time of delivery. When she heard the news that the ark of God had been captured and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she went into labor and gave birth, but was overcome by her labor pains.20 As she was dying, the women attending her said, “Don’t despair; you have given birth to a son.” But she did not respond or pay any attention.

21 She named the boy Ichabod,[c] saying, “The Glory has departed from Israel”—because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 She said, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

This is quite the dramatic end to what happened last week. It all happens so perfectly that it doesn’t feel like a real event. Obviously dying during childbirth was a real danger back in the days when there was not much medical study. Even in the Bible there are a few instances of women dying during childbirth, and it’s quite common in history as well. But the way everything kind of just happens altogether is crazy to think about.  The Israelites lose the battle and the Ark of the Covenant. The news shocks Eli and he dies from a fall. Then the news comes to the daughter-in-law, and she immediately goes into labor and gives birth and dies. Last week we were talking about how this was basically the circle of life. Eli’s time was over. Now it was time for Samuel. And the death of the mother and birth of the boy was like another symbol of that changing of generations.

But what’s perhaps the strangest thing here is what she says. What would you normally expect? If this was a scene from a movie, what do you think she would say? Maybe she’d be looking down at her new baby boy. Maybe she’d be in deep sorrow over the death of her husband. But that’s not what seems to be on her mind. In verse 20, when they told her about her son, she did not respond or pay attention.

All she talks about—while she’s giving birth, while she’s dying, while she’s hearing about the deaths of her husband and father-in-law—is the Ark of the Covenant. “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

For the Israelites, this ark was everything. This was the demonstration of God’s presence among them. Now that the ark was captured, it was like nothing else mattered. Family, friends, living, dying—nothing mattered. The Glory has departed. The Israelites had been unfaithful, and now the worst case scenario has been realized. Without God, what else matters? What were they to do now? They lost their army, and it felt like they had been driven away from God. Even if they wanted to recover the Ark of the Covenant, could they really do so?

Let’s continue with the story and see what happens next. 1 Samuel 5:1-5.

After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained.That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor any others who enter Dagon’s temple at Ashdod step on the threshold.

This is the start of a very interesting chapter. This is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible because it’s like nothing else. In spite of the fact that it is quite serious, I can’t help but find it a bit funny. So this chapter starts out where we last left off. The Philistines have the ark of God. And we get to see what they do with it. They don’t just leave it out in the open. They don’t try to destroy it. They keep it with them, like a trophy. And not only that, they put it with their god, Dagon. Perhaps they were interested in worshipping multiple gods or perhaps they thought Dagon wanted company. But God was having none of it. On the first day, God showed them who’s the boss and put that Dagon on the flat on its face where it belongs. Apparently they didn’t think much of it because they just pushed Dagon back up. Then God destroyed it. He dismembered that idol. God showed that the idol is powerless by taking away its hands. God showed that the idol is essentially dead by removing its head. The god that they worshipped was worthless before the one true mighty God.

Let’s finish reading this short chapter. Verses 6-12.

 The Lord’s hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation on them and afflicted them with tumors.[a] When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.” So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and asked them, “What shall we do with the ark of the god of Israel?”

They answered, “Have the ark of the god of Israel moved to Gath.” So they moved the ark of the God of Israel.

But after they had moved it, the Lord’s hand was against that city, throwing it into a great panic. He afflicted the people of the city, both young and old, with an outbreak of tumors.[b] 10 So they sent the ark of God to Ekron.

As the ark of God was entering Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought the ark of the god of Israel around to us to kill us and our people.” 11 So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and said, “Send the ark of the god of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it[c] will kill us and our people.” For death had filled the city with panic; God’s hand was very heavy on it. 12 Those who did not die were afflicted with tumors, and the outcry of the city went up to heaven.

So what do we see here? At first it was just a defacement of their god, Dagon. But then God afflicted them all. Devastation. Disease. Great panic. When I’m reading this chapter, all I can think of is like one of those disaster films or horror films. I don’t know if you’ll know what I’m talking about. But it all starts with something so innocent, something so simple. Like, they transport a rare spider or something from Africa, and before you know it, an outbreak happens and everyone is dying. That’s kind of the feeling that I get from this story. The Philistines win the battle. They get cocky and prideful. They think to themselves that they won by their own power or by the power of their gods. And so they take the ark and just stick it someplace, thinking everything is fine. But it’s not. All of a sudden people are dying. The city falls into a great panic. The Philistines gather together for a solution. Send it somewhere else! Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe the God of Israel just doesn’t like Dagon. Maybe He’ll be fine in another city.

It’s not a coincidence. God doesn’t have a specific grudge against one god. And soon another city is being terrorized by death and plague. If it only happens once, then maybe it’s just a coincidence. And so the people of Gath didn’t complain. But it happened twice. And now the people are catching on. This is the real deal. The Ark has power. God has power. When the people of Ekron saw the Ark, they were pretty much like, “O-M-G, they want to kill us! We’re all going to die!” No matter where they moved the Ark, it was the same situation. Death and sickness. They could do nothing before God. They could not stop it. They could not hide from it. And at the end of all of it, what happens? The rulers of the Philistines come together and decide to send back the ark.

They went through all that trouble, suffered through so much, lost so many lives—all so that they would go back to square one. They captured the ark of God thinking they had received a treasure, a prize—and all they really received was the heavy hand of God.

Now, today’s application for this message is going to be an unusual one because this was, after all, an unusual story.

What makes this story so unusual? The main character is just not what we expect. Normally we have a human being to talk about. Adam and Eve sinned against God. Moses was humble. Joshua called for courage. Samuel was responsive and faithful. But we don’t have that here. We’re not here to learn from the actions of a human being. We’re here to learn from God directly. The main character of the Bible is God, but we often don’t notice it or we just tend to focus on the human element because that’s what we can relate to, that’s what we can easily apply into our lives. We can see this person is faithful and say we should be faithful. We can see this other person was wicked and so we condemn his actions and say to run away from such things, to avoid it.

So here is a story with God front and center, as it should be. And it’s all about God.

We, as people, like to focus on what we can do and what we will do. If there’s a problem, we must deal with it. If there’s an opportunity, we must chase after it. And that’s how we usually go about our studies in the Bible. How does this apply to my life? How should I challenge myself? What does God want from me or expect from me?

And then we come to this story. And all we see is God.

At the start of the story, the start of the chapter, we see the Israelites facing a huge problem. The ark of the covenant was captured! So what do our minds normally think about in such a situation? Where do we typically imagine this story going? We think about the Israelites, right? What are the Israelites going to do next? How are they going to take back the ark? Things seem out of control. Things seem hopeless. But our eyes are still on the Israelites. How are they going to get through this?

The setup for the story was like something you’d see a million times in normal stories. Something important was taken away. The hero has to go rescue a person or take back an important thing. But the hero of this story is God, not the Israelites. The Israelites did not need to rescue the ark. God had everything under control. He “rescued” himself.

As we go through life, there are just going to be some things out of our control. There are going to be things that we can’t handle. Fights we can’t win. Sometimes we feel we need to do something about it, because this is our story. We’re the hero. This is our life. We think we write the book, we think we play the main role… but we don’t. God is, and forever will be the author of our lives, and we need to recognize that.