The fifth chapter of 1 Samuel focuses largely on the Philistines. Now, as we study the Bible, we see the Philistines as an enemy of God’s people – a group of people God and Israel deal with on a regular basis. However, too often, 21st century Christians fall into the trap of looking at these scriptures and interpreting them to mean that the “Philistines” of today’s world are anything secular, or outside of Christianity – that “the world” are the “bad people” that need to be subjugated, wiped out so that we “Christians” can have our way.
This is a completely WRONG WAY to read 1 Samuel.
Instead, I believe that the true way to read this part of Scripture is to see the Philistines as a picture of the “true enemy” that we are fighting (even today), which is Satan and the demonic beings under his command. And then, in a chapter such as 1 Samuel 5, there’s yet another way to see the Philistines – and that’s as US.
In 1 Samuel 5, God focuses on the Philistines and provides some very instructive things for us and our walk with God.
1 Samuel 5:1-5
After the Philistines captured the Ark of God, they took it from the battleground at Ebenezer to the town of Ashdod. 2 They carried the Ark of God into the temple of Dagon and placed it beside an idol of Dagon. 3 But when the citizens of Ashdod went to see it the next morning, Dagon had fallen with his face to the ground in front of the Ark of the Lord! So they took Dagon and put him in his place again. 4 But the next morning the same thing happened—Dagon had fallen face down before the Ark of the Lord again. This time his head and hands had broken off and were lying in the doorway. Only the trunk of his body was left intact. 5 That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor anyone who enters the temple of Dagon in Ashdod will step on its threshold.
Now, I imagine that if we could be there to see this scene, it would be hilarious!!
A couple more things to see this passage with a little more context is that in this time in history, it was very common for a victorious army to carry the idols or gods of the nation they had conquered back to their own temple and set them up beside their god in their temple. This was a national way of showing that “our gods are better than your gods!”
And you know, if we look at the Philistines today with a hint of sympathy, we realize that they are a lot like us. There are times when we put God in our lives, but not in the center position. We want Him to be a part of what we are doing, but not the main thing.
So, this leads us to the topic of idols. Do you have any idols in your life?
In the Old Testament, we see an idol as a wooden, stone or golden statue – a representation of a god. And, sometimes we think that ancient people were stupider than they really were. You see, even ancient people knew that these statues weren’t the actual gods, but merely representations of them.
And so, in that sense, they’re not very different from us. There are things in our own lives that we set up as idols.
So, what is an idol?
Tim Keller put it this way: “What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give…
An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I‘ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.”
In our modern day and age, we are tempted to “worship” many things because of the value we think that they can give us. Some of these things can include: your marriage, sexual pleasure, money, positional power, relational power, things that money can buy… the list goes on and on. Those things can become idols for us when we begin to believe we have security, value, or worth because of them.
Take the example of marriage. I’ve known many people who claim to be Christians, but when their marriage stops having perceived value for them, they put it on the shelf and go seek value elsewhere – either with a coworker, another friendship, another relationship, or breaking the marriage vow altogether and getting a new marriage.
What that shows is that there is something so deep in their heart that when it stops giving them value, or doesn’t provide the service that they thought they were going to get, they move to something else that they will effectively worship, hoping to get the value, security, or pleasure from that, instead of remaining in a troubled circumstance with the spouse that they already have.
Now, here in 1 Samuel 5, the Philistines simply set the Ark of the Covenant in the temple of their god. And, when they return the next day, they find their god basically bowing in worship to the Ark!
Now, for a second, consider how gracious and merciful God is toward the Philistines in this scene. Their idol hadn’t bowed before other gods like this, but there he was, face down. But, instead of getting the hint, they stood him back up, and find him the next morning not only bowing down before the Ark, but Dagon’s head and hands had been chopped off!
Here’s the applicable point for us Christians today: God is also gentle with us. He’s going to give us multiple opportunities to change our ways. But it’s going to get more intense.
In the remaining verses in chapter five, God basically invades the Philistine’s villages with plagues and rats to help them understand the curse that they’ll be under if they don’t get the Ark of the Covenant back to where it belongs.
If we profess to know Jesus as our personal savior, and if we profess to worship God, but don’t give Him the place that He desires, God will gradually turn the heat up in our lives to make us miserable! Yes, that’s right. I said it. You know, I honestly think that a lot of unbelievers have much better lives than Christians who try to live “both ways”.
In the book of Revelation, Jesus said, “I wish that you were either hot or cold, but since you choose to be lukewarm, I’m going to spit you out of my mouth like vomit!”
A lot of Christians try to have God, and yet try to have everything that the world offers them as well. And, my encouragement is: choose one or the other, but don’t try to have both, because that is the worst circumstance you can put yourself in.
If you’re going to choose God, you need to give Him the place in your life that He deserves and worship Him with all of your heart. But, if you’re going to chase after worldly things, don’t bother claiming that you’re pursuing God when you’re really not.
The Philistines learned that lesson the hard way. Are we doing the same thing? Are we setting up our own pursuits in the center of our hearts and placing God off to the side?
1 John 5:21 says:
Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God’s place in your hearts.
But, if we look at the original Greek writings, it translates more directly to:
Dear children, keep away from idols.
Man, I wish we’d all keep away from idols.
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