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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 5

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-12


THE ARK OF GOD IN PHILISTIA (1 Samuel 5:1-12).

1 Samuel 5:1

The Philistines took the ark of God. The silence of Scripture is often as remarkable as what it tells us. From Psalms 78:60-64; Jeremiah 7:12; Jeremiah 26:9, we gather that from Aphek the Philistines marched upon Shiloh, and having captured it, put all whom they found there to the sword, and levelled the buildings to the ground. Especially their wrath fell upon the priests, in revenge for the bringing of the ark to the camp, by which the war was made a religious one, and the worst feelings of fanaticism aroused. Of all this the history says nothing, nor of the measures taken by Samuel under these trying circumstances. From his previous eminence, the government would naturally devolve upon him, especially as Eli's sons were both slain; and evidently he must have managed in some way to save the sacred vessels of the sanctuary, and the numerous records of the past history of the nation laid up at Shiloh. Whatever learning there was in Israel had its seat there; it was probably the only school wherein men were initiated in the knowledge brought out of Egypt; and it is one of the worst and most barbarous results of war that it destroys so much connected with human progress and civilisation, overthrowing with its violent hand as well the means of a nation's culture as the results thereof. Samuel evidently did all that was possible to counteract these evils; and as the Philistine army withdrew into its own country immediately after the destruction of Shiloh, probably to carry homo the rich spoils obtained there, he was apparently able to ward off the worst effects of the Philistine invasion, and by rapidly reorganising the government to save the people from utter demoralisation. But upon all this Scripture is silent, because it concerns the history of Israel on its temporal side, and not as it exemplifies God's spiritual dealings with nations and men. From Eben-ezer (see on 1 Samuel 4:1) unto Ashdod. This town, the Azotus of Acts 8:40, was with Ekron and other Philistine cities, assigned to the tribe of Judah

. In one of the sculptures brought from Khorsabad there is a representation of a battle between the Assyrians and the inhabitants of the Syrian sea coast, and in it there is a figure, the upper part of which is a bearded man with a crown, while from the waist downwards it has the shape of a fish (Layard's 'Nineveh,' 2:466). Moreover, it is swimming in the sea, and is surrounded by a multitude of marine creatures. Doubtless this figure represents Dagon, who, nevertheless, is not to be regarded as a sea god, like Neptune; but as the fish is the product of water, he is the symbol of nature's reproductive energy. Together with Dagon a female deity was commonly worshipped, called Atergatis, half woman and half fish, whose temple is mentioned in 2Ma 12:26. In the margin there she is explained as being Venus; but the ideas have only this in common—that Venus also, as rising out of the sea, symbolises life as springing out of water. As Dagon had a temple also at Gaza (Judges 16:23), and at the other cities of Philistia (Jerome on Isaiah 46:1), he was evidently the chief deity of the nation, and the solemn depositing of the ark in his temple, and by Dagon,—literally, "at his side,"—was intended as a public demonstration that the God of the Israelites was inferior to, and had been vanquished by, the national deity of the Philistines.

1 Samuel 5:3, 1 Samuel 5:4

On the morrow, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of Jehovah. I.e. he was in the attitude of adoration, and instead of triumphing over Jehovah, he was prostrate, as if compelled to worship. But his priests perhaps thought that it was an accident, and so they set the image in its place again. They also, we may be sure, took due precaution against any one entering his temple by stealth; but when early on the second morning they came with anxious minds to see whether any new prodigy had happened, they found their god not only prostrate, as before, but mutilated, and his head and both the palms of his hands were cut off—not broken off by the fall of the image from its place, but severed with deliberate care, and placed contemptuously upon the threshold, i.e. upon the door sill, the place where all must tread. Only Dagon was left to him. We cannot in English render the full contemptuousness of this phrase, because Dagon is to us a mere proper name, with no significance. In the original it conveys the idea that the head, the emblem of reason, and the human hands, the emblems of intellectual activity, were no real parts of Dagon, but falsely assumed by him; and, deprived of them, he lay there in his true ugliness, a mere misshapen fish; for dag, as we have seen, means a fish, and Dagon is here a diminutive of contempt. In spite of his discomfiture the Philistines were tree to their allegiance to their god, because, believing as they did in "gods many," he was still their own national deity, even though he had been proved inferior to the God of Israel, and would probably be rendered more particular and exacting as regards the homage due to him from his own subjects by so humiliating a defeat. For the gods of the heathen were jealous, fickle, and very ill tempered if any slight was put upon them. After all, perhaps they thought, he had done his best, and though worsted in the personal conflict, he had managed so cleverly that they had gained in fair fight a great victory.

1 Samuel 5:5

Henceforward, therefore, his priests and other worshippers carefully abstained from treading on the door sill, where his nobler members had lain, unto this day. Apparently the Books of Samuel were written some time after the events recorded in them took place, and we have remarkable evidence of the permanence of the custom in Zephaniah 1:9, where the Philistines are described as "those that leap on," or more correctly over, "the threshold." The custom, so curious in itself and so long continued, bears strong testimony to the historical truth of the narrative.

1 Samuel 5:6

But the hand of Jehovah was heavy upon them of Ashdod. I.e. his power and might were exercised in smiting them with severe plagues. A question here arises whether, as the Septuagint affirms, besides the scourge of emerods, their land was desolated by swarms of field mice. It is certain that they sent as votive offerings golden images of "the mice that mar the land" (1 Samuel 6:5); but the translators of the Septuagint too often attempt to make all things easy by unauthorised additions, suggested by the context; and so probably here it was the wish to explain why mice were sent which made them add, "and mice were produced in the land." Really the mouse was a symbol of pestilence (Herod; 2:141), and appears as such in hieroglyphics; and by sending golden mice with golden emerods the lords of the Philistines expressed very clearly that the emerods had been epidemic. This word, more correctly spelt haemorrhoids, has this in its favour, that the noun used here, ophalim, is never read in the synagogue. Wherever the word occurs the reader was instructed to say tehorim, the vowels of which are actually attached to the consonants of ophalim in the text of our Hebrew Bibles. In Deuteronomy 28:9.Deuteronomy 28:7 tehorim is mentioned as one of the loathsome skin diseases of Egypt, and though rendered "emerods" in the A.V; is possibly, as translated by Aquila, "an eating ulcer." Ophalim need only mean turnouts, swellings, its original signification being "a hill" (2 Chronicles 27:3); yet as the word was not thought fit for public reading in the synagogue, we may feel sure that it means some such tumours as the A.V. describes.

1 Samuel 5:7

His hand is sore upon us. The epidemic was evidently very painful, and, as appears from 1 Samuel 5:11, fatal in numerous instances. Connecting this outbreak with the prostrate condition and subsequent mutilation of their god, the people of Ashdod recognised in their affliction the hand, i.e. the power, of Jehovah, and determined to send away the ark, the symbol of his ill omened presence among them.

1 Samuel 5:8

The lords of the Philistines. Philistia was governed by a council of five princes, but whether they were elective or hereditary in the several towns is by no means clear. They are called "seranim," from seren, "a hinge," just as the cardinals of the Church of Rome take their name from the Latin word cardo, which has the same meaning. There is no ground for connecting the word with sar, "a prince." When Ewald did so he probably forgot that the two words begin with different letters—seren with samech, and sar with shin. Seranim is the word constantly used of the lords of the Philistines (Joshua 13:3; Judges 3:3; Judges 16:5, Judges 16:8, etc.; 1 Chronicles 12:9), though after being correctly so styled in 1 Samuel 29:2, they are popularly called in 1 Samuel 29:3, 1Sa 29:4, 1 Samuel 29:9, sarim, "princes." Let the ark of the God of Israel be carried about unto Gath. Unwilling to part with so signal a proof of their victory, the lords of the Philistines determine to remove the ark to another locality, but thereby only made the miraculous nature of what was taking place more evident to all. Of Gath but little is known; but Jerome describes it as still a large village in his days, and as situated near the border of Judaea, on the road from Eleutheropolis to Gaza.

1 Samuel 5:9

And they had emerods in their secret parts. The verb used here, sathar, is found in Hebrew only in this place, but is of common occurrence in Syriac and Arabic. Its ordinary meaning in both these languages is to "cover," "conceal," and the A.V; taking it in this sense, supposes that the boils were hidden, and translates as above. But the root has a double meaning, and signifies also "to destroy," though in this sense the Arabic has a slight difference in spelling, namely, shatara instead of satara. The old versions were evidently at a loss in understanding the meaning, though their renderings are suggestive, except the Syriac, which translates quite literally, but leaves thereby the difficulty untouched of the twofold meaning of the word, and the Syro-Arabic lexicons are uncertain which to choose. Some give, "and the emerods hid themselves in them," in the sense of gnawing and burrowing into the flesh, i.e. they became cancerous. Others take the alternative sense, and render, "and the emerods were burst upon them," i.e. became fissured and rent, and turned into open sores. Another translation has been proposed, namely, "the tumours or emerods brake out upon them;" but as the verb, both in the Hebrew and the Syriac, is passive, this rendering can scarcely be defended. Upon the whole, the most probable sense is that the tumours buried themselves deep in the flesh, and becoming thus incurable, ended in causing the death of the sufferers.

1 Samuel 5:10, 1 Samuel 5:11

The Ekronites cried out. Convinced by this second and more fatal plague that the ark was the cause of their punishment, the people of Ekron, when it was passed on to them from Gath, protested loudly against its presence. Compelled to receive it until the lords of the Philistines could be convened in council to decide upon its ultimate destination, the plague broke out so heavily among them that they were in utter dismay. For the rendering deadly destruction is untenable. Literally the words are, "a dismay of death;" but in Hebrew death added to a word of this sort simply means "very great." So "terrors of death" in Psalms 55:4 are very great terrors. In the next verse we learn that many did die, but the words used here describe the mental agony and despair of the people as they saw the ark, which had wrought elsewhere so great misery, brought unto them.

1 Samuel 5:12

The cry of the city went up to heaven. Not the word used in 1 Samuel 5:10, where it is an outcry of indignation, but a cry for help, a cry of sorrow and distress. Though in 1 Samuel 5:10 Ekronites is in the plural, yet in all that follows the singular is used. "They have brought about the ark to me, to slay me and my people … That it slay me not and my people." It is the prince of Ekron who, as the representative of the people, expostulates with his fellow rulers for the wrong they are doing him. But finally all join in his lamentation, and the whole city, smitten by God's band sends up its prayer to heaven for mercy.


1 Samuel 5:1-5


The facts given are—

1. The Philistines, acting on polytheistic principles, place the ark in their heathen temple, thus ascribing to it Divine honour, and yet indicating its inferiority to Dagon.

2. During the night their god Dagon falls to the ground.

3. Supposing the fall to be the result of some unaccountable accident, they replace their god, and on the next day find him even broken to pieces.

4. The event is memorialised by the establishment of a superstitious custom. The supernatural and ordinary events connected with Israel's history have a prophetic significance for future ages. The record is "for our admonition, on whom the ends of the world have come." There is another bondage than that of Egypt, another conflict than that of Dagon and the ark. Here are two powers in collision, and we have given us—


1. The fact is established that heathenism is doomed to perish. The occurrence in the house of Dagon is a single instance, in palpable form, of what has taken place in many lands, and will recur till every idol is abolished. No prediction in Scripture is more clear than that the day will come when paganism will cease to exist (Psalms 2:8; Isaiah 2:18; Isaiah 11:9). Events daily point on to it. Dagons fall in many lands. History is really but the completion of processes set in operation by God in ages past. Destruction is inherent in the essential falsehood of heathenism. The truth of God cannot be converted into a permanent lie (Romans 1:25). It is a mercy that God has so ordained things that only true worship can endure.

2. Heathenism is doomed to perish by contact with God's truth. Dagon might stand erect and receive the homage of men when he and they are left to themselves; but in presence of the ark, the visible manifestation of God's will to the world, he must fall on his face to the earth. Doubtless corruption in men, if left long enough on earth, would cause them to become extinct, because in the nature of things it tends to utter ruin of morals, society, health, and life. It is, however, the purpose of God to extinguish it without extinguishing the race of men, and that too by his revealed truth. Events prove that this has been the process. Britain ceased to be idolatrous when the light of life came to her shores. Hence the missionary enterprise; hence the need of "holding forth the word of life."

3. The downfall of heathenism is brought about by the secret, silent power of God exercised through his truth. There is suggestiveness in the hint that the fall of Dagon occurred during the silence of night. The fall was through the unseen power of God, operating by ways men could not trace, and that revealed its existence in its effects. The conquests of the gospel are instrumental. It is not history, though pure and impressive; nor precept clear and useful; nor sublime thought for the intellect; nor mere influence of character, though holy and elevating; but the quickening Spirit, who, in the depths of human nature working by means of the instrument, turns men to God. There is a profound secrecy and mystery in every soul's regeneration.

4. The final down fall of heathenism by means of the truth is brought about after repeated efforts to revive it. They placed Dagon on his seat again, and rejoiced once more in his sufficiency; but the Unseen Power wrought on with greater energy, till the head and hands, the seat and instruments of power, were cut off. Beautifully does Scripture thus indicate the ebbs and flows of the stream of truth in process of subjugating every principality and power to Christ. A thousand years with God are as one day. He gives free scope to men and principles. Yet the truth will prevail until the earth is "filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the deep."

II. The FRUSTRATION OF ALL EFFORTS TO DISHONOUR GOD'S REVELATION OF HIMSELF. The placing of the ark in the presence of Dagon was intended to indicate a belief in it as a power among men, but as a power inferior to that exercised by the Philistines' god. Jehovah was a deity, but yet a conquered deity. Hence the glory due to Dagon. Now the ark represented at that time the specific revelation which God had given for bringing to pass his purpose in the deliverance of the world from the curse of sin. The practical effect, therefore, of the Philistines' conduct was to rob revelation of its supremacy. The tendencies of human nature are constant; and now that the full revelation has been given in Christianity, there is the same effort to dishonour and discredit it before men by placing it in unwarrantable positions.

1. The insult offered to Christianity. There are two forms of insult.

(1) That offered by persons who simply recognise Christianity as one among the many and equally authorised powers for promoting the good of mankind. Human society is regarded as a whole, needing, for its intellectual, moral, and material development, a wise use of various educational appliances which God has provided. Religions, philosophies, statecraft, productions of men of genius, are all of God, and equally demand the respect and deference of men. An inspiration from the Almighty runs through them all, since they are his agents. Hence Christianity is just one of the religions of the world, doing its part in common with them. As a philosophy it may have a place among other systems. As useful in the management of peoples, statesmen may lay hold of it in support of other agencies; Christ may adorn the Pantheon in company with other neroes in thought and action.

(2) That offered by persons who regard Christianity as a power inferior to other agencies for influencing human destiny. There are few who would esteem it inferior as a religion, when compared with prevailing forms in non-Christian lands; but by some it is held to be inferior as compared with a pure theism and the higher philosophies. Its supernaturalism is branded as the crude product of unphilosophical minds. Its cardinal doctrine of atonement is declared to be at variance with first principles in morality. Unless divested of its outward garb, it is supposed to be unsuited to the higher order of intellect. Its power as a supreme authority is said to be on the wane, and pride is felt in placing its pretensions side by side with those of the modern Dagon.

2. The rebuke of those who offer the insult. Without dwelling on the sure disappointment and sorrow which come on those who dishonour Christianity by regarding it as merely one of the various powers equally deserving of respect, it may suffice to point out how—

(1) Facts show that all systems in rivalry with Christianity lose their vaunted pre-eminence; and this too, on the one hand, by the loss of their influence, and on the other by the permanent and growing power of Christianity. The wisdom of the Greek ceased to be a ruling force, while the truth of Christ won for him the Roman empire. The cold theism of the eighteenth century sank into obscurity as the great evangelical impulse of the Church of God developed its force. The men who pride themselves in antagonism to Christ have never done anything to regenerate the savage, to make the dying-bed peaceful.

(2) It is in the nature of the case that such a result should always ensue. No other religion is so fully attested as Divine. Every other system partakes of the imperfection of its authors; fails in motive power; is more of a criticism on man and his position in the world than a solvent of the deep spiritual cravings of the soul; and is liable to pass out of influence under the analysis of succeeding minds. The policy that would suggest to a statesman the use of Christianity as a tool for government thereby proves its moral instability. The unseen power of the "jealous God" will work in silence, and cause the "Name that is above every name" to have "in all things the preeminence.'' A refuge of lies means trouble and anguish.

General lessons:

1. History confirms faith in the sufficiency of the gospel for the conquest of heathenism.

2. In all use of means the power of the Holy Spirit should be recognised.

3. We must seek proof of the pre-eminence of Christianity in deeds such as no rivals can produce.

4. We may yet expect many boastful claims from human systems before men learn fully the lessons of history.

1 Samuel 5:6-12

Coercive providences.

The facts given are—

1. God visits the men of Ashdod with severe affliction.

2. In their perplexity they remove the ark to another locality.

3. The device proving a failure, and the men of Ekron refusing to receive the unwelcome symbol, a council of authorities decides to return it to Israel. Providence had so ordered events for high moral ends as to bring the ark into captivity. The influences were at work in Israel to issue in the result desired. Hence there arose a need for a turn in the course of Providence.


1. Imperfect acquaintance with the Divine will. These men had some knowledge of the Divine power in the ark, but could not learn the precise will of the strange god. One of the first things, therefore, is to prompt to an inquiry as to what is desired. But man, especially when grossly ignorant, is indisposed to search for light, and cannot bear very clear light. If men will not act because they do not know, they must be aroused to learn, or to do without knowing; for God's great ways must not be barred and blocked by man.

2. Unwillingness to be convinced of the Divine will. The fall of Dagon on the first night aroused the thought of a superior power, and the danger of keeping it from its natural place. This first gleam of light was extinguished by a new trial of Dagon's power to stand. A second failure brought more light, but the expedient of change of abode was adopted to evade the new and clearer suggestion. Men often do not like to know the path of duty. There is much ingenuity spent in evading the force of Divine teaching. If they will not follow increasing light when their doing so is necessary to the realisation of a Divine purpose, pressure must be brought to bear. Pharaoh, Balaam, and Jonah are instances of this.

II. The KIND OF COERCION EMPLOYED WILL DEPEND ON THE MENTAL AND SOCIAL CONDITION OF THE PEOPLE. Men are influenced strongly by events which touch their interests, and which come in such shape as to be adapted to their ordinary modes of thought and views of things. The people of Ashdod were highly susceptible to religious impressions, and their religious associations were entirely with the honour of their god. Philosophical arguments and high-toned reasons suited to pure Hebraism or Christianity would not have touched them. Moreover, by education and inheritance they were governed by the habit of associating bodily sufferings, when great, with a positive Divine purpose. Now, God governs men according to their capabilities, and reveals his will in ways conformable to their ruling ideas. Whether by miracle or natural coincidences, there is always adaptation to the minds to be influenced. This principle solves many events in Old Testament history, and shows the perfect reasonableness and even propriety of the pressure brought to bear on the benighted Philistines. God fits every rod to the back of the fools he smites, and speaks to every ear in accents suited to its delicacy or obtuseness.

III. The COERCION IS PROGRESSIVE IN INTENSITY. The select body of priests of Dagon first feel the hand of God, then the people as individuals, and then the entire community as such. Also, there was first a rude blow to the religious prejudices of the priestly body, and through them of the people; then an assault on the physical condition of multitudes; and finally a disastrous blow on the prosperity of the state. Men will answer religious arguments by religious arguments, and evade truth if possible; but touch their bodies and their fields, and some earnest inquiry as to the cause and intent will be evoked. Especially does material disaster induce effort to learn the truth when authorities are compelled to deliberate on possible remedies. In national providences the pressure at last reaches the rulers.

General lessons:

1. God uses pressure on each of us when our inclination runs against our true interest and his glory. Lot was led urgently out of Sodom.

2. The pressure used never crushes the will, but develops thought, and opens out lines of conduct for adoption.

3. It is important to study the meaning of events in our lives which are inevitable and disagreeable.

4. The coercive action of Providence will become less or more according as we turn from sin or harden our hearts. "The way of transgressors is hard."


Ch. 5; 6:1-9. (ASHDOD, GATH, EKRON.) ―

The ark among the heathen.

"And the ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months" (1 Samuel 6:1). The scene is now changed. Whilst there arises in every household in Israel a cry of mourning for the dead, Shiloh is ravaged and burnt with fire, and the yoke of oppression made heavier than before, the hosts of the Philistines return to their own country elated with victory. They carry with them the ark of the Lord, which had never before been touched by unconsecrated hands, or for ages exposed to the gaze of any but the priests; and the interest centres on the sacred symbol amidst its new and strange surroundings. It is first of all taken to Ashdod, three miles from the sea coast, the chief seat of the worship of Dagon, the national god of the Philistines (1 Chronicles 10:10); afterwards to Gath, ten miles distant (the native place of Goliath, and twice the temporary residence of David); and then to Ekron (1 Samuel 7:14), the most northerly of their cities. Although the other two cities of the Philistine Pentapolis, Gaza, the scene of Samson's death (Judges 16:21-30), and Askelon (1 Samuel 31:10; 2 Samuel 1:20), were deeply concerned in the events which attended its presence (1 Samuel 5:8; 1 Samuel 6:17), it does not appear to have visited them.

1. The time of its abode among the Philistines was for them a time of judgment. Although the ark when among the people of Israel seemed to be abandoned by God and destitute of power, it was now defended by him and clothed with might. The difference arose from the different circumstances in which it was placed; and in both cases it was shown that the possession of institutions appointed by God does not profit those who refuse to stand in a right relation to God himself, but rather serves to increase their condemnation. Judgment also is executed in many ways.

2. Judgment was mingled with mercy. The afflictions which they endured were "less than their iniquity deserved" (Job 11:6), and were "established for the correction" (Habakkuk 1:12) of their sins and the prevention of their ruin (Ezekiel 18:30). The God of Israel has supreme dominion over the heathen, "chastises" them (Psalms 94:10) for their good, and never leaves himself "without witness" (Acts 14:17).

3. The design of the whole was the furtherance of the purpose for which Israel was called, viz. to bear witness to the living and true God, and to preserve his religion separate and distinct from the idolatry and superstition of the heathen.

4. The effect of the display of his power in connection with the presence of the ark among them appears here and in their subsequent history. Consider these Philistines as—

I. TRIUMPHING IN THE CAPTURE OF THE ARK (verses 1, 2). "They brought it into the house (or temple) of Dagon, and set it by Dagon," as a trophy or a votive offering, ascribing their victory to him, and magnifying him as superior to Jehovah. The process described by the Apostle Paul (Romans 1:18-23) had taken place in them. Their worship was a nature worship, joined with the embodiment of their "foolish" imaginations in an image with which their god was identified. Dagon was "the god of natural power—of all the life-giving forces of which water is the instrument; and his fish-like body, with head and arms of man, would appear a striking embodiment of his rule to those who dwelt near the sea." When men have fallen away from the knowledge of the true God they—

1. Do honour to a false god; impelled by the religiousness of their nature, which will not let them rest without an object of worship.

2. Dishonour the true God, by declaring him inferior and subject to the false, and by "despising his holy things." The Philistines did not deny the existence of Jehovah; they were willing to account him one among "lords many and gods many," and regarded him as having a local and limited dominion. But the fundamental idea of the religion of Israel was that Jehovah is God alone, and demands the supreme and entire affection of man (Isaiah 42:8). "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," i.e. in my presence.

3. Give glory to themselves; are proud and boastful of .their wisdom, power, and success. Self is really the idol of all who forsake the Lord. But the triumph of the ungodly is short.

II. SMITTEN BEFORE THE PRESENCE OF THE ARK (verses 2-4). Almost as soon as they obtained possession of it, the victory which they thought they had obtained over him whose presence it represented was turned into disastrous defeat.

1. Their god was cast down and broken in pieces.

(1) Mysteriously. In the night.

(2) Significantly. "Fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord," as if in subjection, or rendering worship to the Lord of all.

(3) Irresistibly. Unwilling to lay the lesson to heart, they set him in his place again, but only to prove that their efforts on his behalf were abortive (Isaiah 45:9).

(4) More and more signally. Their very efforts affording occasion for a greater manifestation of Divine power, and one which could not be, as the first may possibly have been, attributed to accident. "The face, as a sign of its worthless glory and vain beauty, struck down to the earth; the head also, as the seat of the wisdom which is alienated from God and opposed to God; the hands, as a symbol of the powers of darkness which work therein, cut off" (Lange).

(5) Contemptuously. "Upon the threshold," as if fit only to be trodden under foot, Such, however was the blindness of his votaries, that they henceforth accounted the spot as peculiarly sacred (verse 3).

(6) Completely. "Only the fish stump was left." "Thus the kingdom of Satan will certainly fall before the kingdom of Christ, error before truth, profaneness before godliness, corruption before grace in the hearts of the faithful."

2. Their sustenance was wasted and destroyed (verse 6; 6:4, 5). "Mice were produced in the land, and there arose a great and deadly confusion in the city". The cornfields, the chief means of their subsistence and the source of their prosperity, rendered fertile, as they deemed, by the power and favour of Dagon, were wasted by a plague of field mice (not unknown in the history of other lands) under the special arrangement of Divine providence, that they might learn the vanity of their idol and the supremacy of Jehovah.

3. Their persons were afflicted with disease. "The hand of the Lord was heavy upon them of Ashdod" and "the coasts (territory) thereof," and "smote them with emerods" (verses 9, 12; either boils or hemorrhoids, bleeding piles—Psalms 78:66).

(1) Painful.

(2) Reproachful, because of the moral corruption sanctioned in connection with idolatrous worship (Romans 1:24-32).

(3) Instructive—concerning the self-control and moral purity which the true God requires in men. These things were adapted to show the folly of idolatry, the majesty of God, and the necessity of humiliation before him. Nor were they wholly without effect.

III. INSPIRED WITH DREAD OF THE ARK (verse 7), for such was evidently the prevailing feeling of the men of Ashdod, and of others subsequently, as more fully expressed in verses 11, 12. They attributed their afflictions to its presence—"His hand is sore upon us, and upon Dagon our god;" and feared a continuance of them. Hence they wished to get rid of it, as the Gergesenes desired Jesus to "depart out of their coasts" (Matthew 8:34).

1. The religion of the heathen is a religion of fear.

2. The fear of man in the presence of the supernatural bears witness to the sinfulness of his nature, or of his disturbed relations with the Divine.

3. It springs from a conviction or instinct of retribution, which, however, is often mistaken in its applications.

4. A servile, selfish fear drives away the soul from God instead of drawing it near to him, and is contrary to the reverential, filial fear in which true religion has its root (2 Timothy 1:7).

IV. STRIVING FOR THE RETENTION OF THE ARK (verses 8-12). The effect of their sufferings on the people of Ashdod was to lead them to resolve, "The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us;" but its removal was deemed a matter of such importance that they called a council of the lords (or princes) of the confederacy to determine what should be done with it. Whilst they may have felt toward Jehovah a like fear to that with which they regarded Dagon, they were unwilling to render honour to him by "letting it go again to its own place" (verse 11), still less to renounce their idolatry. They wished to retain the ark for their own honour and glory; and so indisposed were they to desist from their attempt, and acknowledge their fault, that even their own priests found it necessary to admonish them against "hardening their hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh" (verse 6; 1 Samuel 4:8). They sought to effect their purpose by sending it to Gath; and it was only when both Gath and Ekron were still more severely afflicted than Ashdod, many died, and the cry of distress "went up to heaven" (verse 12), that in a second council they consented to let it go.

1. The devices of men against the Lord are foolish and vain (Proverbs 21:30).

2. Their continued resistance to his will causes increased misery to themselves and others.

3. Their efforts against him afford opportunities for a wider and more signal display of his power.

4. What they are unwilling to do in the beginning they are, after much suffering, constrained to do in the end.

V. INQUIRING ABOUT THE RETURN OF THE ARK (1 Samuel 6:2-9). The Philistine princes, having resolved to send it back, called "the priests and soothsayers" together, to show them in what manner it should be done; and the answer they received, though not unmingled with the caution generally exhibited by heathen priests, was wise and good.

1. Men in all ages have had need of special guidance in Divine things. The very existence of a priesthood is a confession of such need.

2. Conviction often forces itself upon the most reluctant.

3. There is in men generally a deep feeling of the necessity of a propitiatory offering in order to avert Divine wrath—"trespass offering" (verse 3).

4. Even the light which shines upon the heathen indicates the need of the higher light of revelation. Their wisest advisers exhibit uncertainty and doubt (verses 5, 9).


1. By sending it back to its own place.

2. By the open acknowledgment of their transgression in the trespass offerings they present on behalf of the whole nation. "Give glory unto the God of Israel" (verse 5).

3. By providing the most appropriate and worthy means of making their offerings. "A new cart" (2 Samuel 6:3). "Two milch kine on which there hath come no yoke" (Numbers 19:2).

4. By the humble attendance of their chief men (verses 12, 16).

5. By confessing the incompatibility of the worship of Jehovah with the worship of Dagon. "And from this time we hear no more of the attempts of the Gentile nations to join any part of the Jewish worship with their own" (Warburton). Imperfect as their homage was, it was not unacceptable to him "who is a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repents him of the evil" (Jonah 4:2; Acts 17:27, Acts 17:30).

VII. PERSISTING IN THEIR ATTACHMENT TO IDOLS; We know not all the beneficial effect of the presence of the ark among them, in restraining them from evil and inciting them to good; but we know that—

1. They did not renounce their idolatry.

2. They did not cease from their oppression of Israel. And,

3. Were not permanently deterred from making fresh attacks upon them (1 Samuel 7:7), and by their opposition to the God of Israel "bringing upon themselves swift destruction."—D.

1 Samuel 5:3. (ASHDOD.)

The overthrow of idolatry.

"Behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the Lord." Idolatry still prevails over by far the larger portion of the earth. It is an ancient, persistent, and enormous evil. And we, like Israel of old, are called to be witnesses to the heathen of the living and true God; not, indeed, by keeping outwardly separate from them, nor for that purpose, and the preservation of the truth intrusted to us, by contending against them with the sword; but by going into all the world, and preaching the gospel to every creature. Our only weapons are those of truth, righteousness, and love.

"Nor do we need

Beside the gospel other sword or shield
To aid us in the warfare for the faith."—(Dante.)

When the ark was defended with carnal weapons, it was carried away by the heathen, and placed in the temple of Dagon; but he whom the sacred symbol represented smote the idol to the ground (1 Samuel 5:1-5). "Wherever he comes with the ark and the testimony, there he smites the idols to the ground. Idolatry must fall where the gospel finds a place." Concerning idolatry, notice—


1. False and unworthy conceptions of God. The instinct of worship was possessed by the Philistines; but their worship was rendered to a monstrous image, which was wholly destitute of, and opposed to, the perfections of the true God. It is the same with other idolatrous nations. Of the innumerable gods of India it has been said, "What a lie against his supreme majesty! Their number is a lie against his unity; their corporeal nature is a lie against his pure, invisible spirituality; their confined and local residence a lie against his omnipresence and immensity; their limited and subdivided departments of operation a lie against his universal proprietorship and dominion; their follies and weaknesses a lie against his infinite wisdom; their defects, vices, and crimes a lie against his unsullied purity and perfection." "Having no hope, and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12).

2. Great corruption of life and manners; gross sensuality, incessant strife, oppression, cruelty, etc. (Psalms 74:20). "The land is defiled, and vomiteth out her inhabitants" (Le 1 Samuel 18:25).

3. A downward tendency towards still greater darkness, corruption, and misery. "The true evil of idolatry is this. There is one sole idea of God which corresponds adequately to his whole nature. Of this idea two things may be affirmed, the first being that it is the root of all absolute grandeur, of all truth, and all moral perfections; the second, that, natural and easy as it seems when once unfolded, it could only have been unfolded by revelation; and to all eternity he that started with a false conception of God could not through any effort of his own have exchanged it for the true one. All idolatries alike, though not all in equal degrees, by intercepting the idea of God through the prism of some representative creature that partially resembles God, refract, and splinter, and distort that idea. And all experience shows that the tendency of man, left to his own imaginations, is downwards. Many things cheek and disturb this tendency for a time; but finally, and under that intense civilisation to which man intellectually is always hurrying, under the eternal evolution of physical knowledge, such a degradation of God's idea, ruinous to the moral capacities of man, would undoubtedly perfect itself, were it not for the kindling of a purer standard by revelation. Idolatry, therefore, is not an evil, and one utterly beyond the power of social institutions to redress; but, in fact, it is the fountain of all other evil that seriously menaces the destiny of the human race".


1. The proclamation of Divine truth, of which the ark may be accounted a symbol; the revelation of the righteous and merciful purposes of God toward men in his Son Jesus Christ.

2. The operations of Divine providence, by which heathen lands are rendered accessible, and their inhabitants disposed to pay attention to the truth; not only those which are afflictive, but also those which are benign (1 Samuel 5:6).

3. The influences of the Divine Spirit, by which false systems are shaken as by a "mighty rushing wind," and consumed as with fire, and lost souls are enlightened, purified, and saved. "By my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts" (Zechariah 4:6). He works in silence and secrecy; but the effects of his working become manifest to all. The light of the morning reveals them.


1. The adaptation of the means.

2. The work which has been already accomplished, and which is an earnest of and preparation for "greater things than these."

3. The predictions of the word (Numbers 14:21; Isaiah 2:18; Jeremiah 10:11; Malachi 2:11).


1. Pity the heathen "in the compassion of Jesus Christ."

2. "Go ye." "Give ye." "Pray ye."

3. Do all in faith and hope.—D.


1 Samuel 5:3


I. OF THE HEATHEN. Samson, calling on the name of Jehovah God, pulled down the temple of Dagon at Gaza, and showed the weakness of the idol. When the Philistines got possession of the ark of Jehovah, they placed it in another temple of Dagon at Ashdod, in order to re-establish the credit of their god. Great must have been their chagrin when they found the god of the victors prostrate before a sacred symbol connected with the God of the vanquished. But it was no easy thing to break their confidence in their own god. They set the idol up again, trying to persuade themselves, perhaps, that the fall had been accidental. The restoration of Dagon, however, only prepared for him and his worshippers a greater discomfiture. As the Philistines would learn nothing from the humiliation of their god, they had to behold with horror his mutilation and destruction. A plague fell at the same time on the people of Ashdod, like the plague of boils that smote the Egyptians in the days of Moses. They were filled with dismay, yet they would not restore to its place in Shiloh that ark which, as they owned, had brought such distress upon them (1 Samuel 5:7). They carried it from city to city, though in each place the Lord punished them. For some months they continued in this infatuated course. The lesson of the weakness of their own gods they learned very slowly, very reluctantly; indeed, they never turned from their idols. Dreading the judgments of Jehovah, they at last sent back the ark to the land of Israel; but their minds and hearts were not changed. All that they cared for was to be free of this terrible ark, that they might cleave undisturbed to their own gods and their own heathen usages.

II. OF UNGODLY MEN IN ALL NATIONS. An evil habit is reproved, an error refuted, or a vain hope in religion exposed; yet men will not abandon it. They have some excuse for it, and after it has been thrown down they "set it up again in its place." The lesson is repeated with emphasis more than once, and yet it is not learned. Ungodly and self-willed men fall on one excuse after another, rather than give up errors which suit their minds and evils to which they are addicted. They have no objection to keep religion as a talisman; but rather than be called to account concerning it, or compelled to choose between it and their own devices, they will send it away. They prefer even a weak Dagon, who lets them sin, to the holy God, who requires his people to be holy too. The Philistines continued to be heathens, notwithstanding the reproof and humiliation inflicted upon them, just as the Egyptians remained in heathen blindness after all the proofs given to them of the power of Jehovah over their gods and their Pharaoh. Alas! many persons in Christendom have solemn reproofs from God and exposures of their helplessness when he rises up to judgment, yet never turn to him. In their infatuation they first treat the ark with disrespect, then send it away. They dismiss God from their thoughts, and are as mad as ever on their idols.

["This chapter, with the following, strikingly illustrates the non-missionary character of the Old Dispensation. For centuries the Israelites were near neighbours of the Philistines, and yet the Philistines had no particular knowledge of the religion of the Israelites, and only a garbled and distorted account of their history. This religious isolation was, no doubt, a part of the Divine plan for the development of the theocratic kingdom; but if we look for the natural causes, we shall find one in the narrowness of ancient civilisation, when the absence of means of social and literary communication fostered mutual ignorance, and made sympathy almost impossible; and another in the national local nature of the religion of Israel, with its central sanctuary, and its whole system grounded in the past history of the nation, thus presenting great obstacles to a foreigner who wished to become a worshipper of Jehovah."—Dr. Broadus].—F.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 5". The Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/1-samuel-5.html. 1897.
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