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TEXT: I Samuel 5:1-7:1

SUBJECT: The Life of Samuel #4: The Ark

Today, with God's blessing, we come to part four in our study of The Life of Samuel. The curious thing about this part of his Life is that he's not in it! If you re-read I Samuel, chapters 5, 6, and part of 7, you won't find the man's name or any reference to the work God called him to do.

Know why? Because I Samuel is not about Samuel. Like the rest of the Old Testament, it is about God, who He is, and what He's going to do for us in His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Who is God? The chapters tell us He is a Holy God whose wrath burns against all sin-the Philistines', the Israelites', and yours and mine too! He is this, but not only this. The holy, righteous, and offended God is no less tender, patient, and forgiving.

This is how our chapters present Him, and how we ought to think about Him. Not only because it strikes a good balance between respect and love, but because He really is this way.

BACKGROUND

The story begins with the fortunes of Israel at an all-time low. The armies have been soundly defeated, the priesthood has been wiped out, and worst of all, the Ark of the Covenant has been carried away by the Philistines. It's no wonder a baby born at this time was named, Ichabod, (which means, 'no glory') for-

The glory has departed from Israel.

What made the Jews different from the other nations was not their language or customs or-or even their circumcision-but the Presence of the Lord symbolized by the Ark. With the Ark gone, it seems God has forsaken His people.

But He hasn't. While He tied His Name to the Ark He was not its prisoner.

THE ARK CAPTURED

The Philistines captured the Ark at the battle of Ebenezer. Thinking of it as a 'war trophy' they carried it back to Ashdod, one of their principal cities. There, they put it down in the temple of Dagon, alongside their god.

The word, side, is worth thinking about. Dagon is the idol/king of the Philistines, and to put the Ark at his side is to make the Lord Dagon's servant (the way a prime minister is a king's servant). In a misguided way, they might have been trying to 'honor' the Lord, as though being Dagon's Right Hand Man was a privilege!

THE ARK STRIKES BACK, PART I

The Lord didn't see it this way, and the next morning, when the priests of Dagon came in to greet their god, they found him lying on his face before the Ark.

The idol's posture (if that's the right word) is an important detail. For when the people of that time and place 'bowed' to their kings, they didn't bend over at the waist, what they did is fall down on their faces! This is what Dagon is doing: he's prostrating himself before the Lord, groveling in the Presence of the True King!

The priests are embarrassed by their god's bad form, but they haven't learned their lesson just yet. They set him back up, and go out for the day. This, too, is significant, for the supposedly powerful god can't even get back to his feet. He's an invalid god-I've fallen and I can't get up!

The next morning the priests return and Dagon is back on the floor, but this time, with his hands and head broken off!

Hands often refer to power. The Lord' hand is not shortened that it cannot save says the prophet. By breaking Dagon's hands, therefore, the Lord was humbling his so-called power, and ridiculing the stupid Philistines for trusting it.

But it wasn't only his hands that broke off before the Lord. So did his head. This means:

In the first place, Dagon was dead. The Lord didn't beat him; He killed Him. Though I'm ashamed to say so, I've always loved boxing, and I can remember a few times when a fighter broke his hand early in a fight-and still won! But I can't think of a boxer who won a fight with his head knocked off! No hands means hurt: no head means dead.

In the second place, Dagon's wisdom was broken. If a man fights with his hands, he thinks with his head. This means Dagon's theology is brain-dead and so is his counsel against the Lord and His People.

The third thing it means is also the most important: God is fighting the powers of evil. When the serpent got Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, God consigned him and all his offspring to crawl on their bellies and eat the dust of the earth. But this is not all He did to the snake-and to the devil who worked through him. The Lord said-

I will set enmity between your seed and the seed of the woman. You will bruise his heel and He will crush your head.

The devil is at war with God and His people. His efforts are neither slack nor wholly ineffective. In fact, the devil hurts us often and badly. He wins many battles, but he does not win the war. The snake bites the heel, and the heel comes down on the snake's head-and hard! The heel must be hurt and the head must be crushed. That's the prophecy, and this fulfills it-in part. God is embarrassed (you might say) by being put alongside Dagon, but Dagon is humiliated by being broken before the Lord.

This work, begun long before, does not end in the Philistine Temple. It goes on through the years, and climaxes with the work of Jesus Christ. Who first, on the cross, dealt Satan a death blow. For by dying at his wicked hands, our Lord freed his captives by taking away the guilt and sin that put us in his service. And then, at the Second Coming, the work will be completed, as the Lord abolishes all sins and their every last consequence.

What took place in the privacy of Dagon's Temple became a public cause of celebration for God's People! Whatever the Philistines say, whatever the false Israelites do, the fact remains-

The Lord, He is God!

The Lord, He is God!

This part of the story ends with a strange detail. Because Dagon's head and hands rolled or bounced onto the threshold of the Temple door-

The priests of Dagon and whoever enters the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon.

This seems like a dead-end. Why explain a detail of pagan worship practice in the Bible? I won't swear this is the right answer, but it may be something along these lines.

The threshold of Dagon was not stepped on because Dagon had touched it, and thus-to the Philistines-it was a holy place. The Lord Himself had made similar claims. When He appeared to Moses in the burning bush, He told him to take off your shoes for the ground you are standing on is holy ground. He did it, of course.

So did the Philistines, who for all their folly and superstition, at least respected their god. But Israel, the People of the One True God, did not respect the Lord. In the next chapter we find them peeking into the Ark, a sacrilege not even the Philistines were capable of!

Israel is in a bad way.

THE ARK STRIKES BACK, PART II

Dagon is thoroughly whipped. Now, it's the Philistines' turn. They have brought the Ark of God into Ashdod, and God brings something to the party as well: plagues. In chapter 4, the Philistines feared the Lord because of the plagues with which He broke Egypt many years before. Now, the same God is going to break them.

Two plagues are named, one of which is mice. Vermin overran the land and destroyed the crops. With the mice came visible tumors, which makes me think they carried the bubonic plague, which filled the city with sickness, death, and panic.

The people cried out against the Ark, and the leaders did something about it: they sent it to Gath (where a young man named Goliath is in the military academy!). The men of Gath are happy to see it come them, until the plagues show up! Then they too ship it off, this time to Ekron, where the same destruction follows.

There are two more cities in Philistia, but they've seen enough of the Ark to know: they don't want it!

THE CLERGY

They turn to their priests for spiritual help. And, funny as it sounds, they get it. (This is also in contrast to the late priesthood of Israel who misled the people).

Here the plan:

Send it back!

Make restitution.

Glorify the Lord.

And, whatever you do, don't be like Pharaoh!

The kings of Philistia are open to their advice until someone raises an objection: What if the Ark and the plagues are not connected to each other? In other words, what if our problems did not come from the Lord, but from chance?

The priests have an answer: Put the Ark on a wagon, hitch it up to two cows who have never been in harness. To be on the safe side, make sure the cows are nursing their young. If nursing cows, who aren't used to pulling wagons, and know their way home, still go on to Israel, we'll know it is of the Lord.

They did all this, and the cows make a beeline for Israel, all the while lowing (or, crying) for their calves.

THE ARRIVAL

The Ark crosses the border at Beth-Shemesh, a city belonging to the Levites (this is an important detail). When the Jews see it, they burst into praise, and offer the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord.

So far, so good. But then things go wrong. It's not every day one can see (or see into) the Ark. In fact, at no time were they allowed to do this. And so, they did it.

And God struck them dead!

Now terrified of the God they thought they could play around with, they turn the Ark over to Abinadab and his son, Eleazar, who take it to Kiriath-Jearim and show it (and the Lord) the respect they deserve. There it remains for twenty years. God, you might say, homeless among His people.

THE MESSAGE

At the beginning of my sermon I told you this story (like the rest of the Old Testament) is about God's character and His plan to save His people and to judge His enemies. Here's what I mean:

Observe the fearfulness of God-not that He's fearful, of course, but that He strikes fear in all who know Him. This is often displayed in the Bible. When the Lord parted the Red Sea to let His People through, and then brought down the waters on the Egyptians, the Israelites, next morning, saw the floating bodies, and sang-

Who is like unto Thee?

O Lord among Gods?

Who is like thee?

Glorious in holiness,

Fearful in praises,

Doing wonders.

Abraham was God's friend. But when the Lord came down to cut the Covenant with him, the Bible says, Genesis 15:12-

A great horror of darkness fell upon him.

Isaiah, it seems, was of the Royal Family of Judah, and had been around kings his whole life. But when King Uzziah died, he saw the Real King-

Then I said, 'Woe is me', for I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips. For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.

The Bible compares God to some Gentle Things, like a Father, a Mother, a Husband, and Friend. But these are not the only things He is likened to. The same Bible calls Him a Lion, a King, a Judge, and a Man of War.

Isaiah 63 shows the Lord in the livery of a Warrior-King. His garments are red, as if they had been dyed with wine. But it isn't grapes He has been trampling underfoot; it's His enemies.

This is the Lord! Some years ago, the United Methodist Church discussed removing all military references from its hymnal. They thought war imagery was not consistent with Christ and the Christian life. In the words of our governor, they tried to make our Lord into A Girly Man! He isn't! He is The Man Christ Jesus!

The Lord is a Man of War. And He demands your respect. You ought to love-of course you ought to love Him-but not only love Him. The same Bible that says, 'Love the Lord your God' also says, The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

The second message of our story is The Sovereignty of God.

The Lord often uses His People to do His will, but He does not depend on us. The nursery rhyme says God has no other hands but our hands; no other feet but ours.

Baloney!

He has the hands and feet of angels to do His Work if He wants to use them. And if He doesn't, He retains His Irresistible Word. And God said, 'Let there be light'. And there was light.

Our story highlights this truth. Neither Israel nor Samuel fetched the Ark back to His People. God Himself brought it back. And without needing your help or mine.

He does according to His will in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. And none can stay His hand or say to Him, 'What are you doing?'

The third message strikes even closer to home: The Lord is impartial in His justice. When the Philistines violated the Ark, He plagued their cities; when the Israelites did the same, He was no less stern. In fact, He was sterner with Israel. Because they knew better.

We need to remember this: When we say, 'God hates sin', we have to include our own. This is what's wrong with so much of the Evangelical Church in America. We crusade against abortion, same-sex marriage, and other social causes. And then we practice little self-examination and no church discipline.

We are acting as though God so loves us that He also loves our sins. But can't you see what's wrong with this? If God loved our sins, He couldn't love us. Because He loves us, He hates our sins, and commands us to repent of them. Or else.

God comes to us in our sins. But when He arrives, they have to get out. The Ark came back to Israel, but they didn't repent for another twenty years. You and I may not have twenty years. The time to repent is now.

Let us search and try our ways

And turn again to the Lord.

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