1 Samuel 4:1-11; 5: The Ark with Philistia
Do you remember the ark which the children of Israel made at Mount Sinai, to keep safe the two stones on which were written the Ten Commandments? Let us find, if we can, a little picture of the ark, and tell me all you can about it. It was very precious because the commandments were in it, and it was kept in the inner chamber, the most holy place, of the tabernacle. The Lord's power was with the ark. Do you remember how this power was shown when the people came to the Jordan, and when they took the city, Jericho? It would be a very sad thing for them to lose the precious ark; but they did once lose it, as you will see.
The people were fighting with the Philistines, who lived near them in the green meadows, toward the sea. They were the same Philistines who were enemies of Samson. The fighting was in some of the valleys that run from the hills where Israel lived out into the meadows where the Philistines lived. A battle was fought and Israel was beaten. What could they do? They remembered the ark, which had brought them the Lord's power at the Jordan and at Jericho. They sent for the ark from the tabernacle at Shiloh, hoping that it would give them victory. There was another battle, and again Israel was beaten, and the ark was taken by the Philistines.
The Philistines put the ark in the temple of their idol Dagon. The power of the Lord was with the ark, and in the morning the idol had fallen on its face before the ark. It was a strange idol with the body of a fish and the hands and face of a man. They set up the idol again in its place, but the next morning it had fallen again and the head and hands of the image were broken off. Also a sickness with boils came on the people of the place, and mice spoiled the grain growing in the fields. The people of the city were afraid of the ark. They sent it to another city. But in this place also the boils came upon the people, and mice spoiled the grain. They sent the ark to still another city. When the people of this city saw it coming, they were afraid that the sickness and the mice would come also upon them. What should the Philistines do with the ark? Wherever it was taken there were plagues, the boils and the mice. Our next lesson tells us what they did.
Our chapter tells of war between Israel and the Philistines. Let us see on the map where the Philistines lived, in the southern part of Canaan, in the broad green meadows by the sea and reaching back to the hills. The Philistines were a people who had come and settled on these shores, more intelligent and skillful than the native people of the land. They were dangerous enemies of Israel. The Philistines had five principal cities: Ashdod, Askalon, and Gaza were near the seashore; Gath was near the middle of the country, and Ekron was the most northern of the five cities. Find these cities on our little map. See too on the map the wall of hills rising from the meadows, and valleys in which are brooks coming from the hills and crossing the meadows to the sea. The valley near Beth-shemesh is the valley of Sorek, which we read of in the story of Samson. The one next south of this is the valley of Elah which we shall read of in the story of David and Goliath. The fighting in our story was in these valleys in the edge of the hills. Eben-ezer, "stone of help," where Israel was camped was probably near Beth-shemesh; Aphek, where the Philistines were, was probably near Gath.
Now comes the interesting part of the story. The army of Israel was beaten in a battle, and they said, "Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh." They hoped that the ark would bring them victory. Do you remember the ark, how it was made of wood and covered with gold, and the two golden cherubim on the lid? Why was the ark so holy? What was in it? What times do you remember when the ark showed a wonderful power? At the Jordan and at Jericho? The Philistines were afraid when they heard that the ark had come into the camp. Their words, "These mighty Gods," "These be the Gods," show how little these idol worshipers knew of the one true God whose laws were written in the ark. But again Israel was beaten, and the ark was taken by the Philistines. The ark had not lost its power, as we shall see, but it could help people only when the Lord saw that they were ready to be helped.
What now became of the ark? Follow it on the map. The Philistines took it first to Ashdod, and put it there in the temple of their idol Dagon. We heard of Dagon in the story of Samson. (Judges 16:23) The name Dagon means "fish," and the idol was part fish and part man, the body of a fish and face and hands of a man. How did the ark show its power in Dagon's temple? At the same time a sickness with boils came upon the people, and mice destroyed the grain in the fields. The mice are not mentioned in our lesson, but see chapter 6, verses 4, 5, and on. So they sent the ark from Ashdod. Follow it on the map to Gath, and then to Ekron. Everywhere it brought plagues, as Moses' word and rod had brought plagues in Egypt. The people were evil; the commandments could expose their evil, but could not give them blessing, because they did not obey them.
Does it seem strange that plagues should come with the ark? There are times when lovely things do not seem lovely to us; even kind words from friends annoy us; it is when we ourselves are not good and kind. At such times we do not enjoy the Bible; we do not find the strength and happiness it is meant to bring. It points out our faults, and annoys us.
1. Where was the Philistine country? Show me the five large cities of the Philistines.
2. What story that we have already learned belongs to the border land between Philistia and Israel?
3. From where did the children of Israel bring the ark into the camp? What became of it after the battle?
4. What was Dagon? What have we learned about him in the story of Samson? What more today?
5. Did the ark bring blessing to the Philistines?
In preparation for this lesson we should read carefully the full explanation of the story in E. 700, and the briefer explanations in P. 326, and in T. 203.
The Philistines here have the same meaning as in the story of Samson, an intellectual power which is not making itself useful to a heavenly life, but is proud and cares nothing for goodness. We saw this pride pictured in the lion which roared against Samson, and we shall see it pictured again in the giant Goliath who fought with David. This intellectual power without good life is called briefly "faith alone." (A. 9340)
How do you account for the many images and pictures in Egypt and elsewhere, part animal and part human? They were used by the ancients to express and emphasize certain human qualities and Divine qualities of the Lord. Afterward they forgot the meaning of the forms, and worshiped them as idols. (P. 255; A. 10393, 10394) Remembering that the sea represents the lower atmosphere of natural knowledge and thought, and a fish the affection for such thinking, we begin to see what Dagon the fish-god represented, and why it was in keeping with the character of the Philistines. (S. 23; E. 817; F. 52) But the lion was not strong before Samson, nor Goliath before David, nor Dagon before the ark.
We have spoken of the ark as bringing plagues upon the Philistines, and of Moses' rod as bringing plagues in Egypt. But in truth does the Lord ever send plagues or punishments? No, but His commandments and His power expose the evils in which people are. It was so when plagues came upon Egypt and upon the Philistines. It is the same with the plagues in Revelation 8 and 9. Explanations in F. 52, A. 938, and P. 326 help us recognize the boils and the mice as types of evil into which spiritual Philistines fall, those who are intellectually proud, but careless about good life. We will learn more about this in our next lesson.