“Who Is Able to Stand, Before the Lord, This Holy God?”

In a battle with Israel, the Philistines had captured the ark of God. Phineas and Hophni had been killed also. When Eli heard of this, he fell from his seat beside the gate, broke his neck and died. The wife of Phineas heard all of this, and went into labor and gave birth to a child. She too died, and at her death she named the child Ichabod—“The glory has departed.” Her reckless husband had been killed, the priest Eli (her father-in-law) died from the stress of the news, and the ark had been captured; so, seemingly, the God of Israel had abandoned his post of caring for his people. Or perhaps he simply was unable to overcome the determination of Israel’s enemies (4:5-11).

I. Through an unnamed prophet in 2:27-36 and then through the boy, and future prophet and judge of Israel, God had revealed his purpose to destroy Phineas and Hophni. Once again, the Philistines came to battle Israel and routed them with the death of 4000 men of Israel. In consulting among themselves, the elders decided that victory would be assured by bringing into the camp the ark of the covenant. It had become for them a talisman, a material good luck charm, designed to “save us from the power of our enemies.” Ironically, and blasphemously, the very two God intended to destroy tended the ark as it came into the camp. It was not the ark that was needed, but repentance first of Phineas and Hophni and then of all the people for their trust in the ark and not the God of the ark. Both the Israelites and the Philistines viewed the ark in the same way. When the ark came in and the Israelites shouted, the Philistines said fearfully, “A god had come into the camp.” The story of the rescue of Israel from Egypt still was a powerful part of the collective knowledge of the inhabitants of Canaan leading the Philistines to fear that an end similar to that of the Egyptian army was about to occur to them. With a history of such powerful actions, surely the ark conveyed the favor of more than one god, for they asked, “Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods?” They were able, however, to rally their men to fight fiercely and avoid defeat and enslavement by the Israelites. They killed 30,000 foot soldiers, captured the ark, and Phineas and Hophni died. God refused to be reduced to a superstition by his people, and, in the process of destroying the sons of Eli, unleashed his just wrath on Israel through their enemies, the Philistines.

I. The triumphalism of the Philistines – 5:1, 2; The Philistines, now puffed with pride in their victory, decide that their dominance can be secured through adding to their god-house the ark within which the Israelites’ God resides. Surely now that the ark is added to the statue of Dagon, their prowess in battle will be unmatched by any group that might seek either to overwhelm them or resist them. By their own power, they supposed, they had been able to overcome Israel and their god, but with the cooperative power of two gods they would rise to virtual invincibility. They never considered, of course, that the god they thought that Dagon had overcome actually used them in the accomplishing of his holy purpose.

II. Yahweh undertakes for his own glory – 5:3-5 – Their misperception soon would be challenged, and their confidence soon was to be shattered. After one evening’s consultation between the “gods” Dagon was found flat on the ground, face downward before the ark. Unable to lift himself, Dagon depended on his devotees to lift him and “put him back in his place.” The next morning they found Dagon again fallen but with head and hands severed from his cold, stone body. The threshold against which he had fallen, thus shattering the symbols of both his knowledge and his power, would no longer be touched by his priests as they entered his house. The god they thought they had co-opted proved to be the only true God and now wrought havoc in their place of superstitious devotion. Their bravado had been brought to nothing for they had not really captured Yahweh but had given him opportunity to demonstrate in their stronghold, “I am God and there is no other.” The Philistines saw in person the taunting speech of Yahweh to all false gods conveyed later through Isaiah, “Do good or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified. Behold you are nothing, and your work is less than nothing; an abomination is he who chooses you” (Isaiah 41:24).

III. “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?” (Isaiah 66:1). To show that he is not confined to any place or any sphere of operation, Yahweh not only laid low the false idol in Dagon’s temple, but he made the bodies of the Philistines of Ashdod turn on them to cause misery and used the smallest of rodents to plague the land. They knew that no longer could they bear its presence for “his hand is hard against us and against Dagon our god” (5:7).  They moved the ark to Gath and then to Ekron where similar devastation was wrought by Yahweh. Similar afflictions came on the people in all five of the major cities (6:4, 17). They were affected with tumors (translated in the KJV as “emerods in their secret parts”), a deadly plague that caused widespread panic, and mice to “ravage the land” (6:5). Again they referred to the exodus from Egypt and Yahweh’s destruction of Egypt’s strength due to their hardness of heart (6:6). The elders advised that they must not be similarly hard, but send away the ark of God (though they had boasted so much in its capture), and that they must “give glory to the God of Israel”

IV. A humiliating admission of defeat (6:1-9). They sought with the sincerity of panic to be free of the devastation increasing in the five cities. The “priests and diviners” were asked for a scheme to placate the anger of the God of Israel so that he would “lighten his hand from all of you and your gods and your land.” They must include a “guilt offering,” ironically acknowledging that they had made themselves guilty before the God of another nation, implying that these events proved that his authority and honor was not limited to that nation. On the advice of the diviners, the lords of the five Philistine cities sent five golden tumors and five mice to accompany the ark as they sent it away. This was their acknowledgment that the plague had come from Yahweh, that his power and zeal for his own honor had overwhelmed them, and he had put to flight any protection Dagon might have given. They built a new cart, showing that it was specifically dedicated for this purpose. It was to be drawn by two milk cows that had never been yoked whose calves would be removed from them, showing that this was an act of abandonment of rights and purely non-aggressive. It was the best they could conceive of a surrender and desire for peace. The cows would pull the new cart, loaded with the ark and a box of the golden offerings, left to their own instincts either to be led by the God of Israel back to Israel or to take another path. They went straight to Beth-shemesh “turning neither to the right nor to the left,” clearly led there by the God whose power, holiness, and omnipresence was symbolized by the ark. The five lords of the Philistines followed it until they saw that it had been received by the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, and, surely relieved, they returned to Ekron. Perhaps they thought that their guilt was removed by this act and that now they would have nothing else to do with this angry God. He cannot be dismissed on such slight terms, nor can any escape standing before him in the final day of the judgment of all nations and every person. He can be propitiated by no symbol nor any mere type, but only by the blood of his beloved Son.

V. Holy reverence and unholy familiarity – “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28, 29). At their first sight of the ark, the men of Beth-shemesh rejoiced and took steps to receive back the ark with proper worship, reverence, joy, and appropriate handling. They used the wood of the new cart for fire, the cows for sacrifice, and got the resident Levites to set the ark in place fittingly. Carnal curiosity made some want to look into the ark and God struck seventy of them dead. He would not allow his holiness to be a mere object of curiosity either by Ashdod or Beth-shemesh, the Philistines or the Israelites. Like the lords of Philistia, so the men of Beth-shemesh made provisions for moving the ark of God from their presence, for “who is able to stand before this holy God?” It was moved to Kiriath-jearim where it resided for twenty years with Eleazar, son of Abinadab consecrated as its caretaker.

I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations. (Malachi 1:14).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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