The Defeat of the Philistines
Text: I Samuel 5:1-7:14
God’s Vengeance - I Samuel 5:1-5
The Philistines took the captured ark to the city of Ashdod and placed it in their idol temple. But the next morning, the idol of Dagon had fallen on his face before the Ark of the Covenant – a position of worship before someone greater. They put Dagon back into his place but the next morning the idol had fallen again on his face before the Ark of the Covenant, but this time his hands and head were sheared off on the threshold.
Oddly, it became a tradition of the priests of Dagon in Ashdod to not step on the threshold of their temple.
Problems Continue Wherever the Ark is Moved - I Samuel 5:6-12
Meanwhile, God send a plague of tumors on Ashdod and the cities it controlled. It became so bad that the people demanded that the ark be sent away. Thus, the lords of the Philistines gathered and it was decided to send the ark to Gath. However, when the Ark of the Covenant arrived in Gath, tumors broke out in that region. It is mentioned that the tumor afflicted the young as well as the old to note that this plague was not natural.
The ark was then sent to Ekron, but this caused an outcry from the people who were upset that this source of death was being sent to their city. There was a large uproar and the city was in confusion. Another council of the lords of the Philistines was convened and the people insisted that the ark be returned to Israel. I Samuel 5:11 said that the confusion had become deadly and I Samuel 5:12 said that people were dying and those who did not die were being struck with tumors.
The Philistines Return the Ark to Israel - I Samuel 6:1-12
We sometimes forget how quickly time passes in the brief accounts we find in the Bible. The ark has now been in the Philistines’ hands for seven months. The decision was reached to return the ark to Israel, but the question was how to do it and appease the God of Israel. Their priests and diviners told the Philistines that they had to send a guilt offering (or trespass offering) along with the ark so that God would stop punishing them. If they do this and the plagues stop, then they will know with certainty that God was the source of their problems.
The suggested offering was five tumors and five mice made from gold. Five because the Philistine society was run by five city-states operated by five lords. These cities were Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron. This is the first mention in the Scriptures that the Philistines were also being plagued by mice. The mice may have been the source of confusion in the cities.
Notice that the priests and diviners were not certain that this offering would actually appease the God of Israel. The suggestion was their best guess.
The priest and diviners warned the lords not to be stubborn like Pharaoh and the Egyptians who had refused to let the Israelites go and suffered as a result. This is a fascinating statement because it has been nearly 400 years since the Exodus and the Gentiles know the story well.
A further test was devised by putting the ark on a newly built cart and hitching two cows to the cart that had recently given birth and are producing milk. The cows' calves would be taken back to their homes. The people would watch and see if the cows would follow their natural instinct to follow their calves and go home or if they would head to Israelite territory. Then they would know if the plagues were by chance or caused by the God of Israel.
A wonder occurred. The cows pulled the cart straight toward Beth-Shemesh, traveling along the major road. The cows lowed as they went and did not deviate from the path. In awe, the Philistines followed the cart to the border of the town.
The Ark Goes to Beth-Shemesh - I Samuel 6:13-18
The wheat harvest was taking place at Beth-Shemesh, which tells us that the events took place in May. This also means the Ark was captured by the Philistines in October of the previous year.
The harvesters saw the ark approaching and rejoiced. The cart went to the field of a man named Joshua and stopped by a large stone in the field. The people used the wood of the cart to build a fire on the stone and offered the two cows as burnt offerings to God. Seeing all of this, the five Philistine lords returned to Ekron.
When the gifts were inspected, it is mentioned that there were more than just five mice. There was a golden mouse for each city and village controlled by the five lords. This hints that God’s anger was seen beyond just the walls of the cities where the Ark of the Covenant was placed.
- Did the priest acknowledge the power of God? Did they witness miracles? Did it cause them to convert and worship the true God?
- What does this tell us about people?
Violations Cause the Ark to be Sent to Kieriath-Jearim - I Samuel 6:19-7:2
For hundreds of years, God had told the people of Israel that He is to be treated as holy. God wasn't some casual creation of man. He and the things He had made for His worship were to be treated with the greatest of respect. Early on, two priests lost their lives because they treated God's worship in a casual manner. "Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. And Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD spoke, saying: 'By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified.'" So Aaron held his peace" (Leviticus 10:1-3).
A command that God had given was that the ark of the covenant was to be treated with extra care. Only the priests were allowed to see it, and then only once a year or when the tabernacle needed to be moved. "When the camp prepares to journey, Aaron and his sons shall come, and they shall take down the covering veil and cover the ark of the Testimony with it. ... And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary when the camp is set to go, then the sons of Kohath shall come to carry them; but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die. These are the things in the tabernacle of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry. ... But they shall not go in to watch while the holy things are being covered, lest they die" (Numbers 4: 5, 10, 20). Notice that God had carefully warned Israel of the consequences of looking at or touching the holy things in the Tabernacle.
Therefore, when the men of Beth Shemesh saw that the ark of the covenant was returned, they did the very thing God told them not to do. They touched the ark, opened it up, and looked inside it. God said that doing such things would result in death, so He carried out the punishment that He had promised long ago. 50,070 men died that day. The people understood the message. “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?”
They were too afraid to have the Ark of the Covenant remain with them so they sent a message to Kiriath-jearim and ask them to take the ark. Why this town? It was the largest town on the road going from Beth-Shemesh to Shiloh.
The men of Kiriath-jearim retrieved the ark and placed it in the care of Abinadab, who lived on a hill. Abinadab was likely a Levite and perhaps a descendant of Aaron. His son, Eleazar, was consecrated to care for the ark. There the ark remained for the next 20 years. Why it wasn’t taken back to the Tabernacle is a mystery. Perhaps the Israelites were fearful of moving the ark again without God expressing His desire. I Samuel 7:3 hints that the Philistines still occupied Israelite territory, so perhaps they fear the ark falling back into the Philistine’s hands. All of Israel was upset with the situation.
Samuel Gathers Israel at Mizpah to Atone for Their Sins - I Samuel 7:3-6
After twenty years, Samuel is no longer a child. He calls for a gathering of the Israelites at Mizpah. Instead of quenching their thirst, a drink offering was poured out to God. Instead of eating, the people fasted. They had come to realize they had angered God with their idol worship. They would not win their long war against the Philistines until they returned to worshiping only God. Thus, Israel removed the Baal and Ashtaroth idols and served God. They confessed that they had sinned against God.
The end of I Samuel 7:6 tells us that this was the time that Samuel became a Judge in Israel. He brought about a change in Israel, drawing them back to the Lord, and bringing about an end to the oppression of Israel by their enemies.
The Philistines Attack and Are Defeated - I Samuel 7:7-14
The Philistines heard about the gathering at Mizpah and despite it being deep in Israelite territory, the Philistines brought an army out against the people. This is another hint that much of this section of Israel was under Philistine control. This also implies that the gathering at Mizpah lasted for a while – long enough for the Philistines to hear of it and gather an army against the Israelites.
The people begged Samuel to ask God for help. Samuel offered up a young lamb as a burnt offering and God answered his prayer. There was a large thunderclap that caused confusion in the Philistine army. Thus, the men of Israel were able to defeat the Philistines and drive them as Beth-car. The location of this town is unknown, but it is suspected to be back toward Ekron.
A stone was raised by Samuel between Mizpah and Shen. Samuel named the stone “Ebenezer,” which means “stone of help.” Samuel called the memorial this because “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” It was likely set up in the same place Israel had their major defeat by the Philistines many years before (I Samuel 4:1).
The route was so complete that the Philistines did not cross into Israelite territory during the remaining days of Samuel’s rule as a judge. Cities that the Philistines had taken between Ekron and Gath were returned to Israelite control.
We also learn the Amorites, on the other side of Israel, also stopped their fighting with Israel during Samuel’s days.
- Compare the attack of the Philistines to what happens to God’s people when they draw back to God.