The Heavy Hand of the Lord


First Samuel 5 is a difficult chapter—a crystal-clear example of divine judgment and intervention. When we study it and consider the heavy hand of God, we have to remember that we’re dealing with events that happened a long time ago, around 1100 BC, and with what’s clearly an unrepeatable incident. It’s important that we approach passages like this one in light of the rest of the Bible. Scripture interprets Scripture in such a way that where one passage may not be as accessible as another, other portions enable us to approach those difficult texts properly.

The apostle Paul’s words are of help to us as a preface to 1 Samuel 5. Having just quoted a psalm of David, Paul immediately explains to his readers,

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Rom. 15:4)

He’s referring here to the Old Testament. In other words, the Old Testament was not only for believers then; it’s also for believers now. This ought to be any Christian’s starting point, knowing that even the challenging portions of Scripture are there in order that we may learn from them (2 Tim. 3:16).

If we stand far enough back from 1 Samuel 5, we’re able to see that God is victorious even when His people seem defeated. The chapter has four major movements through which we can trace this theme.

The Ark Captured

Chapter 4 of 1 Samuel provides helpful context for the events of chapter 5: the Israelites had suffered a dramatic, disastrous military defeat. The writer wants us to see the significance not only of only Israel’s defeat but also of the ark having been captured. Rather than highlighting it, as it were, with a yellow marker, he emphasizes the fact through repetition in 4:11, 4:19, 4:22, and again in 5:1: “The Philistines captured the ark of God.”

Earlier in chapter 4, we notice Israel treating the ark as a kind of lucky charm. They thought the wooden box and all it represented would be sufficient to deliver them from the Philistines (vv. 1–3). When the ark entered the camp, there was “a mighty shout” of excitement that resounded throughout Israel (v. 5)—a shout that was more than silenced in the defeat that followed.

In every generation, whenever people begin to worship the creature rather than the Creator, misery is sure to follow.

In Old Testament Israel’s history, there were perhaps two main points when their very survival was at stake. One was a few centuries after the events of 1 Samuel, in 587 BC, when the Jerusalem temple was destroyed and the people were exiled. The other point was surely this one, when God’s glory had departed from Israel, the Philistines having taken the ark (1 Sam. 4:20–21).

With that background in mind, we’re told that the Philistines brought the ark to Ashdod, one of their five military cities (1 Sam. 5:1). They were in complete control, so it seemed, of Israel and their God. Importantly, they placed the ark beside Dagon (v. 2), who was their main god. The Philistines were syncretists, meaning they believed in the existence of multiple gods. This is why rather than destroy Israel’s ark, they accommodated it. In their minds, the box was just another idol to be propped up among their pantheon of gods—nothing more than a trophy to memorialize their victory over the Israelites.

This syncretistic worldview is prevalent still today. Whether we see it in a politician’s sentiment that all faiths are equally true or in a friend who criticizes our Christian convictions for being too exclusive, the notion that the God of the Bible is just one among many gods is rampant. But in every generation, whenever people begin to worship the creature rather than the Creator, replacing the living God with idols of their own making, misery is sure to follow—as the following verses demonstrate.

Dagon Toppled

The narrative moves from the ark being captured and placed among the pagan pantheon to, maybe not so ironically, Dagon falling before the true God (1 Sam. 5:3–4). This happens not once but two times, the second more severe than the first, with Dagon’s head and hands cut off at the threshold. Perhaps the prophet Isaiah even had this picture in mind when he says of idols,

They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it,
 they set it in its place, and it stands there;
 it cannot move from its place.
If one cries to it, it does not answer
 or save him from his trouble. (Isa. 46:7)

The toppling of Dagon before the living God should weed out any notion in us that finds idolatry appealing. Simply put, idolatry is pathetic. When God says, “Have no idols; only worship Me,” He does so because He wants us to live as He created us to live. Every idol that we set up is self-depleting. It offers, but it can’t satisfy. It says, “Here is peace,” and leads only to chaos. It was true for the Philistines, and it remains true for us.

We should remember that while these things were happening in Ashdod, God’s people at Shiloh were in despair. God’s work in this instance is a lot like a split screen: on the one side, the ark is captured, and Israel is hopeless; on the other, God’s glory is being revealed in Ashdod through judgment. That is to say, though it appeared in Shiloh that God’s people were finished, the Word of God simultaneously makes clear that this wasn’t ultimately the case. God remained victorious despite Israel’s defeat.

Every idol that we set up is self-depleting. It offers, but it can’t satisfy.

The Philistines Terrified

After the ark was captured and Dagon was toppled, we find the Philistines “terrified” and “afflicted.” The reason? “The hand of the LORD was heavy against” them (1 Sam. 5:6). Indeed, the God Yahweh is a terrible God—i.e., His perfect ways bring terror and fear to His enemies. He terrified the Philistines, delivering immediate retribution so that they were able to realize a cause and effect in their actions. In this sense, God’s judgment on Ashdod is also an expression of His mercy. He’s patient, but His patience and tolerance for sin isn’t limitless. Rather than sweep their sin under the rug, allowing them to continue in it, He mercifully exposed it in judgment.

The severity in God’s judgment on Ashdod is sobering. It’s at this juncture that some drive a wedge between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. “I’m not keen on the God who terrifies, afflicts, and produces chaos,” they say. “I much prefer the God of love revealed in the New Testament.” But this logic is flawed, for the Old and New Testaments reveal the same God. The New doesn’t contradict the Old; it completes it. The point is this: even though His timing (in our eyes) is not always the same, the parameters within which God executes judgment are unchanging, from when He acted in Ashdod to when we one day face Him in eternity.

So, God intervened in immediate retribution, bringing the people of Ashdod to their senses (1 Sam. 5:7). Figuring the ark’s presence would be their solution, they quickly realized that it was their problem. Whereas Israel presumed on God’s power (4:3), the Philistines defied it. Aware of God’s judgment, they shipped the ark to Gath, then Ekron, and finally back to Israel (vv. 8–11). And the survivors among the Philistines—those “who did not die” under God’s heavy hand—cried out to heaven (v. 12).

This, incidentally, is the proper response to God’s judgment. Are we grieved by our sin? Do we cry out to God when His righteousness is brought to bear upon our iniquity? If the Philistines responded this way, how much more should God’s people do likewise?

God Glorified

This difficult narrative reveals two truths for our instruction and edification.

First, without the power and presence of God, the people of God are powerless. God’s people were defeated not because the Philistines were strong but because Israel was weak. They treated the ark as a mascot; their zeal for the Lord waned.

There is no refuge from God except that which is found in God.

Yet—and this is the second truth for our benefit—the defeat of God’s people is not the defeat of God. The Philistines themselves defied God and defeated Israel, thinking, as people do today, “I can defy Him and get away with it.” But their triumph was fleeting. God’s justice won.

And we, having the perspective of the cross, know that Christ’s own apparent defeat was ultimately a victory. Surely Jesus’ followers looked on the cross with horror, thinking, “The glory has departed.” But Paul tells us what was really happening: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15).

Ultimately, then, we ought to read 1 Samuel 5 in light of Christ’s victory, understanding that there is no refuge from this terrible God except that which is found in this terrible God: Jesus Christ, our Savior (Rom. 5:9).

This article was adapted from the sermon “The Heavy Hand of God” by Alistair Begg. Subscribe to get weekly blog updates.

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