One of the defining elements of living in a fallen world is that of the pervasiveness of idolatry. In some way that is the defining choice that everyone must make: the glorious Christ or the golden calf. We are made to worship and so worship we will. The only decision is who. And in a fallen world where we are under the bondage of our sin, the calf looks very golden and Christ non too glorious. But one of the other defining elements of living in a fallen world is God has no interest making this decision easy for us. That is God is in the idol smashing business. He will not give his glory to another. And he will make plain that he is is the supremely glorious one.
Summary of the text:
The Philistines, having defeated the Israelites in battle and captured the ark, take the ark into the temple of Dagon as a sort of prize of war and a proclamation that Dagon is superior to the LORD. The next morning the priests of Dagon enter the temple to find that the statue of Dagon at the center of the temple has fallen face down in front of the ark. The reset the statue. The next morning they again find the statue has fallen in front of the ark but this time the head and hands of the statue were lying in front of the door, separate from the body. In addition to all of this the judgment of the LORD visits the city, Ashod, where the ark is being held, and the people are afflicted with tumors (possibly the bubonic plague although it is not certain). The rulers of Ashod recognize the Lord’s hand is against them and want the ark out of the city. The ark is then passed around the cities of the Philistines, going from city to city, with panic and tumors visiting the people where ever the ark goes.
One of the glorious things about the Lord is he is accomplish many things all in the same act. The Lord punishes Israel for their unfaithfulness and lack of repentance by removing the ark from them and giving it to the Philistines. In doing so he effectively is removing the blessing of his presence from their midst. But at the same time, he is also doing something else. He is sending the ark as a sort of Trojan horse into the midst of the Philistines where he will prove the worthlessness of their Gods. The Philistines think putting the ark in Dagon’s temple will show Dagon’s superiority and Yahweh’s helplessness before the power of their god. But in moment of irony on the Lord’s part he turns the tables. The ark becomes the instrument to prove Dagon is a sham. The priests come in one morning to see Dagon who gave the Philistines the power to defeat Israel, lying prostrate before Israel’s God.
The priests are, apparently, a little dense and don’t get the message and so set back up the image of Dagon and go about their business, only to find the next morning that the image has toppled again but this time the head and hands of the statue have been cut off. While all this is happening, the people of Ashod are beset by terror and tumors as a judgment from God. The Philistines think they have proven their gods superior to the Lord by defeating the Iraelites but in God’s sovereign hand, the sign of their victory (the captured ark) proves to be the herald of their defeat, as the ark goes from being a war trophy housed in the temple of their false god to a kind of hot potato that is passed around the cities of the Philistines with plagues of fear and tumors following in its wake.
But in a larger way, Dagon lying prostrate before the ark is merely a type of what the Lord is always doing. He is in the business of exposing the lie of idolatry. They are all powerless before him. Every single one of them will lie wrecked and ruined before him and so too all who worship them. Psalm 115:4-8 read: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths but do not speak; eyes but do not see. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” These idols stand in stark contrast to God who is, “in the heavens and does all that he pleases” (verse 3).
Idols will always fall. Partly because by their very nature they cannot fulfill what they promise, but even more because God will not allow them to stand. He actively crushes them. His glory he will not give to another. And what is glorious is how he goes about that.
God’s greatest blow in crushing the power of idols was delivered on a hill called Calvary, where he crushed his Son. On the cross “he disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Christ]” (Col 2:15). On the cross the power of idolatry over us was broken when he defeated the enemies we never could just as through the ark he defeated the Philistines who had just defeated his people. On the cross, God exposed the sheer folly of idolatry and the boundless beauty of grace as he proved Isaiah’s claim given in Isaiah 46:1-4: “Bel bows down, Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts. They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity. Listen to me, “ house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and I will save”
The Israelites in believing that carrying the ark into battle would give them victory made one simple mistake. They thought Yahweh was like the idols. They thought if they carried him into battle his power would be with them for victory. But the simple truth is idols must be carried. The Lord carries us. And for that we should worship and adore him and trust him.