Sermon on 1 Samuel 5:1-12 – “God Smashes Idols”

Sermon for Sunday, November 5th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Old Testament reading:

[1Sa 5:1-12 ESV] 1 When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon. 3 And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. 4 But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him. 5 This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day. 6 The hand of the LORD was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory. 7 And when the men of Ashdod saw how things were, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for his hand is hard against us and against Dagon our god.” 8 So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?” They answered, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be brought around to Gath.” So they brought the ark of the God of Israel there. 9 But after they had brought it around, the hand of the LORD was against the city, causing a very great panic, and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them. 10 So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. But as soon as the ark of God came to Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought around to us the ark of the God of Israel to kill us and our people.” 11 They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.” For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there. 12 The men who did not die were struck with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.

New Testament reading:

[Phl 2:12-18 ESV] 12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

Gospel reading:

[Mar 5:1-20 ESV] 1 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. 3 He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, 4 for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. 6 And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. 7 And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” 10 And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, 12 and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea. 14 The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 16 And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. 17 And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.

Introduction
The Israelites were defeated in battle by the hand of the Philistines who even took away with them the Ark of the Covenant of God. But the reader of the Book of Joshua is now told not to jump to any conclusions.

Here are two false conclusions that should be avoided:

1. The gods of the Philistines are greater than Yahweh, the God of the Israelites.
2. God doesn’t care about His people, the Israelites anymore.

At the end of the last chapter you might have been left with a tendency to think of those conclusions. But now God shows more of the picture of what is going on.

God SMASHES IDOLS.

And in doing so he shows that
the gods of the Philistines are not greater than He.
and
he shows that He opposes ALL who do not respect him, whether Israelites or Philistines. Jews, Gentiles, Scythians, or Barbarians.

God smashes idols and idol worshippers.

The Israelites were punished for their lack of respect for God and failure to worship Him. Now the Philistines are similarly punished for their lack of respect of God and failure to worship Him.

The account entails a “hot potato” situation. The Ark of the Covenant is the potato. And IT is very hot. The Philistines in Ashdod have it first and soon realize it is too hot for them to handle. They throw it to their Philistines relatives in Gath. But they don’t want it either. And soon it is bounced to Ekron. And, just like in the game, whoever has the hot potato looses.

I. A Hot Potato in Philistia

A. The Ark in Ashdod (v. 1-8)

First, the Ark is brought to Ashdod.

There were five prominent cities in ancient Philistia. They are Ekron, Gath, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Gaza.

The text doesn’t tell us exactly whey the Ark is first brought to Ashdod. Of course, at Ashdod we find that there was the “house of Dagon,” the supreme deity of the Philistines. But this isn’t unique. It seems that there were such temples or shrines to Dagon in a number of the Philistine cities. For example, in the time of the Judges (16:23) there was a house of Dagon in Gaza.

Well, looking at the five major cities, one thing notable is that Ashdod is the most central of them. So in capturing the Ark of the Covenant, perhaps bringing it to Ashdod was to bring it to the most secure place as a trophy of war.

And they set the Ark next to a statue of Dagon.

Putting the Ark in the house of Dagon is, in essence, a sign that they thought Yahweh was less than Dagon and would now be there as an attendant or servant in his household.

But it is not long before God makes clear WHO is to be worshipped.

So there is this “battle” of sorts between Yahweh and Dagon. But note that Dagon does not fight back. Why? Why does Dagon not fight back? Because he does not exist! Despite the Philistine so-called “God” have home court advantage, his statue tumbles to the ground.

The story makes clear that this was not a freak accident.

The first morning after the Ark is place in the House of Dagon, the people wake up to to find the statue of Dagon fallen face downward on the ground before the Ark. Now we see who should be worshipped! But the people assume that the idol has fallen by some accident. So they right him. They put him back upright. Did you see that, Dagon is powerless. He cannot right himself. The people who created the idol must themselves lift the idol back up. What a shame. But they move on. The people do what the people always do, they prop it back up! Not dealing with idolatry, but just propping back up.

But God doesn’t move on. On the second morning Dagon is found again fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of he Lord. Dagon is killed in his own house.

This is just one example of that truth that Paul wrote: “That at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow.” All will submit to God, either willingly and in joy, or stubbornly and by force. Even the enemies of God will bow at his feet. He alone is God and He alone is to be worshipped.

Well, the idol was not only face downward again, but this time his hand and his hands were cut off and lying on the threshold, the entryway into the temple.

This second time around, God makes it very clear. This was no accident.

Then we have one of these fascinating historical parenthesis in the text. “This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.” I quite love that phrase in the Bible. “To this day.” It is used a number of times in Genesis and especially in the books of Joshua and Judges in such a way as to say “You can go see for you self.” And it is not even really a challenge, but jus the author stating a fact. This heap of stones stands there “to this day.” Or this town is still called by this name “until this day.”

So clearly the book of Samuel was written while the Philistines were still around and their temple still functioning, for we heard that “all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.”

Well, the attack of the Lord was not merely upon the statue of the Philistine god, but also upon the Philistines themselves. “The hand of the LORD was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory.”

This causes them to want to pass the hot potato.

7 And when the men of Ashdod saw how things were, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for his hand is hard against us and against Dagon our god.”

They’ve got to get rid of it.

Well, I want to mention a particular idea I heard years ago because it is so ludicrous as to be comical. The idea is that the Ark of the Covenant was a nuclear power plant or something like this. And so it had radioactive material in it and this caused the tumors. Well, this is very creative. It explains why the Israelites honored the Ark and it explains the tumors. But there are some problems. Obviously it is massively anachronistic to this of nuclear reactors in the bronze age. But more importantly, for our sakes, it is a completely unwarranted reading of the Scriptures. We are not to make up fanciful stories, but to learn FROM the Word of God. Not to add to it. So I’ll go on the record as opposed to the Ark-Reactor theory.

So with the tumors, the Ark has got to go!

They don’t say (yet) “give it back to Israel.” They say, “send it away, anywhere but here.”

B. The Ark in Gath (v. 9-10)

So it goes to Gath.

But the Ashdod-ites don’t just sent the problem to Gath. There is a discussion among all of the “lords” the Philistines; that is, the leaders of the five cities. And the conclusion seems to be something like “The Ark doesn’t play nicely with Dagon in Ashdod but maybe it will be better elsewhere.”

Well, God quickly shows it is not just the people of Ashdod who ought to look out for the Ark.

In Gath, we find that “after they had brought it around, the hand of the LORD was against the city, causing a very great panic, and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them.”

So what do they do? Without any noted discussion, they just send it to Ekron. Hot potato!

C. The Ark in Ekron (v. 11-12)

“But as soon as the ark of God came to Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, ‘They have brought around to us the ark of the God of Israel to kill us and our people.’”

I really wonder who the “they” is here. Are the people of Ekron saying “they” (their brothers in Ashdod and Gath) are out to get them? Or are they saying somehow this was a ploy of the Israelites?

Anyways, all the Philistines cry out “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.”

The capture of the Ark of God wasn’t so great a victory for the Philistines after all.

II. God Opposes All His Enemies

So we see this truth: God opposes all his enemies. He has not switched sides from the Israelites to the Philistines. He opposes His enemies both within and without, both in Israel and in other nations.

And God smashes idols.

We can say he figuratively smashes that wrong conception of Him that the Israelites had. They thought they could strong-arm God to be on their side. He smashed that thought when He had the Israelites lose massively in battle.

Now, God literally smashes the idol of Dagon and punishes with tumors those who put their trust in that false god over Him.

We ought to make this conclusion: don’t be on the opposite of God! It is dangerous to be on the opposite side from God.

And similarly, we ought to conclude that there is only futility in idols, futility in trusting in our own power, futility in trusting in any other than God. Idols are nothing. And our plans are nothing, if they not the Lords will. Proverbs 16:9 – “The heart of a man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”

We see the futility of people, and the power of God.

III. God Still Smashes Idols

So I want this to be an encouraging sermon. God is all-powerful and God smashes idols. God STILL smashes idols.

You’ve probably heard many times, as I have, that while you likely don’t have any physical statues of idols in your house, there are yet many “idols” that you worship; money, sex, control, popularity, possession, etc. And this is true. All sin and fall short of the glory of God. We put other things in front of him. And you feel guilty, and you should feel guilty. And then a minister will commonly saying something like “you need to do better, you need to stop having idols.” But this isn’t encouraging. And its not telling you anything you don’t know. You need a more hopeful guidance and direction.

Fortunately, there is a more hopeful solution; a hopeful message… let us recognize that God STILL smashes idols. HE does it.

Well, then, you might say, what about us? Do we have ANY role in this? If God smashes idols, and I can’t smash them, what do I do?

We must recognized that GOD works IN YOU to smash those idols. The Holy Spirit works IN you. “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” [REPEAT: “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”]

Our confession says that “They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them.”

Here is an example. A horseback rider gets to his destination. How did he get there? The horse did the work! Funny that we say “I rode a horse.” Poor horse! He did he work. The horse, Mr. Ed is his name, must be saying “I CARRIED YOU, you didn’t anything.” Well, that is something like our sanctification, God causes us to move, even carries us. I don’t use the word “passive” to describe man in this scenario, but more like “Caused to act” or “Caused to move.” We move, but God works in us to will and to do.

Ultimately, our victory over our idols happens because of God. HE smashes idols as he turns us away from the desire to serve them.

What are you idols?

The best way to figure this out is to “fill in the blank.”

If only BLANK then I’d be happy.

If only I HAD MORE MONEY then I’d be happy.
If only I WERE MARRIED then I’d be happy.
If only I LOST 15 LBS then I’d be happy.
If only I DIDN’T HAVE TO WORK ALL THE TIME then I’d be happy.
If only PEOPLE WERE NICER TO ME then I’d be happy.

There. There are your idols.

But God doesn’t leave these be. He’s vigilant to knock them down. I think of the determined child in the nursery, every time you stack one block on top of another, he’ll knock it down! And God says “no idols. I will smash them.”

What should our desires then be?

Filling it in rightly:

If I focus on God then I am happy.
If I glorify God then I’ll enjoy Him forever.
If I trust in Him, He will direct my paths.

And all of this is possible because God smashes idols. He redirects you to Him. Your presence here proves that point. You wouldn’t be here but for God’s direction. He has smashed other idols in your life and taught you to worship Him on Sunday mornings and all other times.

That’s why we can “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” For the Lord does it. He changes our hearts and he works in us to will and to do the good pleasure of God. Praise be to God.