The Heavy Hand of the Lord (Sermon)
1 Samuel 5:1-7:1
Written by Nathan Rose
Misconceptions that we hold usually result in disastrous consequences. For example, when I was in college, I was a student teacher. I was assigned to work at the same public school as another student teacher and we decided to carpool together because we were poor college students. And every day, we would recap what happened. On one particular day we were driving home, and he told me about a conversation he had had with another female teacher. This teacher was probably in her mid 20’s and she taught physical education. During this conversation, he asked this woman a question that no man should ever ask another female.
This was a completely and totally inappropriate question. He asked her: “How far along are you?” And while he asked her this question he proceeded to pat her belly, and say something like this, “awh, how far along are you?” She did not respond…at first.
She glared at him, she remained silent until she finally blurted out “I’m not pregnant!”
For all the men listening, let me just pause for a moment to provide you some proven, trusted counsel: Never, under any circumstances, for any reason whatsoever, at any time, at any place, should you ask or insinuate or that a woman is pregnant. It doesn’t matter if she’s in the maternity ward. Do not do it!
I bring that up because this conversation reminds us of what we all know to be true: misconceptions result in disastrous consequences. While this is true of stories like my fellow student teacher, it’s especially true when it comes to thinking about God. Calling a lady pregnant when she’s not is insulting. But mischaracterizing God is idolatrous.
If our view of God does not match up with Scripture, then that mischaracterization can rightly be called idolatry. So holding misconceptions about God has disastrous consequences—consequences that are both temporal, that will affect us now, but also consequences that will affect us for all of eternity.
AW Tozer helps us to recognize the importance of perceiving God correctly when he writes the following: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God. For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most [significant] fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like.”
In 1 Samuel 4-6 both Israel and the Philistines have misconceptions about God and the results were disastrous. They thought God was a certain way; they got him wrong, and they suffered for it. That’s what we see here in this passage.
So these chapters reveal to us what happens when people—whether pagans or whether God’s covenant people—misperceive God. And as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10, these examples were written for our instruction (1 Cor. 10:11).
We do not want to follow in their footsteps. We want to ensure as best we can, by the power of the Spirit, that our view of God corresponds with how God is actually is (i.e. how he has revealed himself in Holy Scripture). And that is the purpose of this morning’s sermon: today we’ll glean 3 vital lessons about God.
The Supremacy of God Will Be Vindicated
Back in chapter 4 the Israelites went into battle against the Philistines, their archrivals, and they were defeated. 4,000 Israelite soldiers were defeated on the battlefield.
Israel thought the reason they lost was because they didn’t have the Ark of the Covenant with them. So they decided to go get the Ark in an effort to convince God to guarantee them a victory.
Now, just a quick side note about the ark: The Ark was Israel’s most valuable possession not because it was covered in gold but because it symbolized the presence and power of God. The Ark was housed in the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle. That was where it stayed while in Israel’s camp. The Ark was the place where God had decided to meet and speak with his people, commune with them, reveal himself to them, so the Ark was the object that God routinely attached his holy presence to. It was a sign that God was with them. So in one sense, you could say that if you had the ark, you had God's holy presence with you.
This is where we see Israel’s misconception of God. They thought if they could just bring in the Ark, God was somehow obligated to grant them victory, even though they were engrossed in blatant idolatry. They had been completely disobedient to the covenant and showed no regard for God’s law, but they wrongly thought: “Hey, we have the ark, let’s just break that out and God will defeat our enemies.” They are treating the Ark like it’s a good luck charm, like a lucky rabbit’s foot or a four leaf clover.
What happens? Israel loses again – but it’s worse. Not only are they defeated but they are completely demolished. This time 30,000 soldiers die in battle. That’s the population of the city I live in! They were wiped out, demolished. But what’s even worse, the Ark of the Covenant was confiscated by the Philistines.
This brings us to chapter 5. The Philistines having captured the Ark and are transporting it to the city of Ashdod and there they place it in the temple of Dagon next to a statue, an idol of Dagon himself.
The Philistines were polytheists but Dagon was their main god. He was sort of their mascot, their main deity, and this is where we see the Philistines misconception of the Lord.
It was a common practice in ancient warfare to seize an enemy’s religious relic after defeating them in battle. The belief behind this practice was that our god has defeated your god. They saw the battle field not so much as my army versus your army, but my God against your god. So placing the ark in Dagon’s temple was the Philistine’s way of saying our god, Dagon, he is superior to Yahweh. He beat him in battle.
But what they didn’t realize was even though the ark had been captured, the Lord had not been conquered. And he makes that very clear over the next couple days and for the next seven months.
The next morning, the temple priests wake and head into the temple to discover
“Dagon [had] fallen with his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord.” (1 Sam. 5:3)
This phrase implies that Dagon is in a position of worship, submission, and homage before the Lord.
In the ancient near east, when you enter in the presence of someone who is superior, you bow before them. Its’ sort of a way to acknowledge “hey, I understand how this relationship works. You are my superior, I am inferior to you, so I’m going to go ahead and get down on the ground before you and lie prostrate.”
The Lord had entered Dagon’s territory and not just his territory, but his temple and he had caused this false god to shove his face in the dirt. His nose is in the dust before the ark of the covenant.
The last part of verse 3 is intended to be somewhat humorous to the reader: “So they took Dagon and returned him to his place.” Literally, they had to “put him back.” This idol lacked the power, the ability, the skill, the know how, to pick itself up off the ground.
What this is meant to do for the Israelites and for God’s people today is remind us of the utter folly, futility, and foolishness of idolatry. Why would you serve and follow and worship a god who cannot pick himself back up?
The next day proved that this was no accident. It wasn’t just a bunch of Philistine teenagers running around, causing a ruckus. This time not only was Dagon back on the ground, but now his hands and head were severed. He has been dismembered and decapitated.
It was a common ancient wartime practice to collect the hands or even the head of an enemy in order to show that you had completely conquered your enemy. This is what happens a few chapters later in 1 Samuel 17. David defeats Goliath, he takes him out with a sling, and he takes his sword and he kills him and cuts off his head.
God is showing that he has not been conquered; quite the contrary. What is he doing? He is vindicating his supremacy over the false gods of the Philistines. He is demonstrating that—even in enemy territory—he reigns.
So how do we apply this? Here is what we need to take away from these verses: When the Lord knocks down an idol in your life, leave it on the ground; that is an act of his grace, mercy and kindness, for him to dislodge an idol in your heart. Don’t pick it back up; don’t dust it off; don’t put it back where it was before, leave it alone.
I know that none of us here, worships a statue of stone or wood. Anyone in this past week or so talk to your accountability partner or another church member and confess I’m really struggling with worshipping Dagon? Man, he’s just so tempting –none of us do that, right? But all of us have the tendency to put our hope, our allegiance, our loyalty, our trust, our adoration in something other than God. I mean, wasn't that the tactic of Satan in Gen 3? You can be happy without God! When we attempt to find our worth, our identity, our purpose, our satisfaction in something that is outside of Jesus Christ, the results will alwasy be disastrous. That (according to the Bible) is idolatry.
Idols can only do two things for you. They promise to give us something that they cannot provide, and they punish you if you fail to give them what they want. Idols overpromise and underdeliver every single time. They hold out joy and satisfaction, and when you go to grab it they pull a switch move and only give disappointment & misery.
There was a preacher in the Middle Ages, a guy named John of Capistrano and one morning he brought a prop into the pulpit. Now, I’m not a big fan of props in the pulpit, if you use it I’m not putting you down, I just don’t think they’re helpful. But the prop that John of Capistrano carried into the pulpit on this one particular Sunday morning was a human skull. That’s a bold move.
As he olds up the skull before his audience he says, “Look and see what remains of all that once pleased you or that which once led you into sin. The worms have eaten it all.”
That’s what idolatry does to us. It deceives and destroys us. That is all idols can offer you. And so what we must do, brothers and sisters, is regularly recall that Christ is superior over all our idols. He is superior to the idol of lust, He is superior to the idol of recognition, He is superior to the idol of success. Whatever idol lurks in your heart, Jesus Christ is superior.
You want to know how I know that? When was the last time that any of your idols sacrificed themselves to save you? When was the last time an idol died in your place in order to secure for you eternal joy and satisfaction? Idols will never do that for you, but Christ has.
In verses 6-12, the Lord turns his power directly against the Philistines. Previously he was assaulting Dagon, but now he is striking the Philistines. The Ark travels from city to city, all around Philistia and whenever that ark arrives, the Lord afflicts the citizens of those cities, and he does so with a plague of tumors.
The point the author of 1 Samuel is trying to communicate is that the Lord is not some local deity confined to a particular geographical location.
As Hannah declared back in chapter 2 in her song: “Those who oppose the Lord will be shattered; he will thunder in the heavens against them. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth.” (1 Sam. 2:10a). How can he do that? Because he created it all and he reigns supremely over all the ends of the earth. This God does not need an army to defend himself. He is omnipotent and he will vindicate his supremacy.
The Glory of God Should Be Acknowledged
In 6:1-12 the ark remains in Philistine territory for about 7 months, and tumors and terrors are overwhelming the Philistine people. So they decide, finally, we need to get rid of this thing. The Philistine priests explained that in order to return the ark properly they needed to send it away with a guilt offering. They decided that this offering consisted of 10 golden statues: 5 of them were golden mice and 5 of them were golden tumors. I did a bunch of study and I don’t know what a golden tumor is, but perhaps you can use your imagination.
In order to ensure that Lord was indeed the source of this devastation, they decided to conduct an experiment of sorts. They would take 2 never-before-yoked cows that had just given birth, and fasten up them to a cart.Then they put the Ark of the covenant on that wooden cart (along with the guilt offering they had created and ) and sent the momma cows on a path toward the Israelite city, called Beth-shemesh.
And so they reasoned, if the cows didn't stay on the path and returned back to their calves, it’s evident that this plague was merely an accident. This plague showed up at the same time as the ark. But, on the other hand, if the cows stayed on the path and suppressed their maternal instincts, then obviously the Lord was the source of all this carnage. And what happened?
“The cows went straight up the road to Beth-shemesh. They stayed on that one highway, lowing as they went; they never strayed to the right or to the left.” (1 Sam. 6:12).
This experiment proved the plagues were not a coincidence; this is a supernatural sign from God. It showed that He was indeed inflicting the Philistines with plagues until they repented and returned the Ark back to Israel.
I want to draw your attention to an important literary feature in the Ark Narrative. It’s one of the themes that we see in these chapters. On multiple occasions the phrase “heavy hand of the Lord” is mentioned--eight times to be exact.
5:6 - The Lord’s hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod. Verse 7 – Philistines said: “The ark of Israel’s God must not stay here with us, because his hand is strongly against us”
5:9 - …the Lord’s hand was against the city of Gath, causing a great panic.
5:11 - the fear of death pervaded the city; God’s hand was oppressing them.
6:9 – Religious Leaders said if [the ark] doesn’t [travel to Israel], we will know that it was not his hand that punished us
The phrase, “the heavy hand of the Lord” is biblical imagery used to describe God’s active role in judging the Philistines. The heavy hand of the Lord is a biblical image for God’s judgement. In wther words, the Philistines were hurting because the Lord’s hand was heavy.
This imagery is used here intentionally to contrast Yahweh with Dagon: The omnipotent hand of the Lord was heavy, while the severed hands of Dagon were helpless.
Another place we see this phrase used is in 6:5. The priests tell the Philistines: “Give glory to Israel’s God, and perhaps he will stop oppressing you.” That phrase translate “oppressing” literally means, “He will lighten the heaviness of his hand.” If you give glory to Israel’s God, then perhaps he will lighten the heaviness of his hand. This was the priest’s counsel to the Philistines: “If you acknowledge God’s glory, he might go ahead and remove his heavy hand that is upon you.” “If you recognize your sin and his supremacy, if you return the ark back to Israel, than the plagues might just go away.”
And so for the Philistines to return the ark (along with these golden offerings) was their way of confessing their sin, acknowledging they had indeed offended the Lord, and that ultimately he was ultimately supreme, and not Dagon. In doing this they were giving him the glory he deserves.
Let me give you an example of this: Did you ever play the game called “Mercy?” What you do, in the game of mercy, is that interlocks fingers with the person you are playing against. The goal is to squeeze and to push back their fingers, causing them pain and agony, and their job is to do the same to you. And so you keep playing until the weaker person who is in so much pain and agony eventually cries out, “Mercy”! And when you say “mercy,” you are admitting defeat and acknowledging the other person is stronger, you are saying that you lost the game.
That’s what the Philistines were doing here--sending the ark back to Israel was their way of saying “mercy.” They were admitting defeat and acknowledging God’s strength & supremacy.
This is how this story relates to us: Humanity has a natural tendency to fail to give God the glory that he rightly deserves. We do this as Christians – not on a consistent basis, but we see our sin, we see how we fail to give him glory, and then we confess that, we repent of that. Unbelievers-- those who are unregenerate--do it continually. Though they may appear moral, though they look virtuous, on the inside in their hearts, they are not giving God his due glory. So when we refuse to confess and forsake our sin and when we fail to believe that God is supreme, what we are doing is we are withholding from Him the glory he rightly deserves.
But Philippians 2 teaches us that this won’t always be the case. That New Testament passage makes it abundantly clear that one day soon, everyone will acknowledge God’s glory.
“At the name of Jesus every knee will bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:11)
So one day in the not-so-distant future everyone on this planet, anyone who has ever lived, will rightly recognize the honor and authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. Everyone will bow their knee in submission and confess this theological reality: that Jesus Christ is supreme. That He is superior. His rank is higher than anyone or anything. That His status is unparalleled. Everyone will acknowledge this truth either in joyful submission or by omnipotent coercion. And through this, God will get the glory that he rightly deserves.
The Holiness of God Must Be Mediated
At the end of chapter 3 the Ark finally arrives at the Israelite city of Beth-shemesh. Everyone in that city is excited. God has returned his Ark to Israel. There’s this big party. The Israelites chop up the wooden cart. They sacrifice the two cows as a burnt offering. Everyone was having a fantastic time until all of sudden:
v.19: God struck down the people of Beth-shemesh because they looked inside the ark of the Lord. He struck down seventy persons. The people mourned because the Lord struck them with a great slaughter. The people of Beth-shemesh asked, “Who is able to stand in the presence of the Lord this holy God?
Now To understand what is going on here, we need to recall God’s instructions for rightly handling the Ark. In Numbers 4, not only were the Israelites forbidden from looking inside of the Ark, they were told they couldn’t even look at the exterior of it.They were warned that if they did so they would die. Only a few select priests were allowed to observe the Ark. But even they weren’t allowed to touch it.
The reason for this is because the ark is not merely a golden box. Remember, this is where God manifested himself to his people. It’s where God’s holy presence dwelt. And sinful humans cannot survive an encounter with the white hot blazing holiness of God. It will melt their face off.
Remember Exodus 33? Moses told the Lord “I want to see you, I want a glimpse of your glory.” The Lord replied, “You can’t do that. humans cannot see me and live.” Why? Because he’s too holy. He’s too holy for us.
What we need to realize is that God’s holiness is a good thing; it’s a great thing. But for sinners like us it is a dangerous thing. It’s like the sun.The sun is a good thing. It gives us light, it gives us heat, it gives us energy. But if you get too close to the sun, you go get in a rocket ship and fly into outer space and get too close to the sun, you’re going to get obliterated. You’re going to be consumed.
And similarly, sinners cannot get close to God. So the question posed in verse 20 captures this theological reality: Who is able to stand in the presence of this holy God?
Do you know the Answer to that question? No one. No one can stand in his holy presence. No one can stand in his holy presence and live, except for one man: Jesus.
God’s wrath breaks out against sinners like us who violate his holiness with our sin, idolatry, and impurity. But the good news is that Jesus was unlike us. Jesus wasn’t sinful like we are; he was sinless. Jesus is so holy that he is able to stand in the presence of God.
Jesus did something for us that we could never do for ourselves, that is —he mediates the holiness of God. He died in our place. He died the way that we deserved to die—thus removing God’s wrath from us. But he also imputes to us his own holiness, his own righteousness, enabling us to safely access God’s holy presence.
Our church is currently going through the book of Mark, and Mark tells us in chapter 15 that immediately after Jesus’ died on the cross, the curtain in the temple was torn in 2, and this curtain as we know, was the curtain to the Most Holy Place. It is where the Ark would have been, had Israel had the ark at that time. And so the shredding of the curtain after his death signifies that believers, those who trust in him now have safe access into God’s holy presence, and this is all due to the person and the work of Jesus Christ.
The gospel tells us that Jesus was crushed under the heavy hand of God so that believers like you and me can be declared holy and blameless before God. Jesus took the nails in his hand in order to rescue you from the heavy hand of God’s judgment. On the cross Jesus suffered infinite wrath without any mixture of mercy so that we could receive infinite mercy without any mixture of wrath.
I want to conclude by reading for you a couple of paragraphs from John Flavel. In this paragraph he explains what Christ accomplished through his death & not only what he accomplished for us, but why he did it , and the way he did it is by recreating an imaginary conversation that existed between God the Father & God the Son in eternity past. And this is what he writes, this is God the Father speaking to God the son:
Father: My Son, here is a company of poor miserable souls, (that’s us) that have utterly undone themselves [because of their sin], and now lie open to my justice. Justice demands satisfaction for them, or will satisfy itself in the eternal ruin of them. What shall be done for these souls?
And the son replies:
Son: O my Father, such is my love to and pity for them, that rather than they shall perish eternally, I will be responsible for them as their Guarantee. Bring in all your bills, that I may see what they owe you; Lord, bring them all in, that there may be no after-reckonings with them. At my hand you will require it. I will rather choose to suffer your wrath than they suffer it. Upon me, my Father, upon me be all their debt.
Father: But, my Son, if you undertake for them, you must pay the last penny. Expect no discounts. If I spare them, I will not spare you.
Son: I am willing, Father. Let it be so. Charge it all to me. I am able to pay their debt. [I am able to secure their forgiveness] And though it will undo me, though it will impoverish all my riches and empty all my accounts, yet I am content to undertake it.
Though that is a fictional conversation, it reminds us of what it cost Jesus to grant us access into God’s good and holy presence.
Brothers & sisters, let us not entertain low thoughts or inaccurate thoughts of this marvelous Savior.
The supremacy of God will be vindicated.
The glory of God must be acknowledged.
And the holiness of God has to be mediated. And praise God, it is through Jesus Christ.