The Ark had fallen into the hands of the Philistines. In the language of the Psalmist, the Lord had delivered His strength into captivity, and His glory into the enemies’ hand. And the question was what the Philistines would do with God. By the treatment that they afforded God’s Ark and His people, they heaped contempt upon His name. The Ark they brought into Dagon’s temple as an offering to him by whose assistance they imagined that they had achieved the victory; and they set the Ark near Dagon’s image, in order that by this position it might set forth for all the Philistines the subjection of Jehovah to Dagon. Thus it is plain that all their thoughts were that Jehovah was an impotent and fallen deify, worthy of their scorn. But this is not all. Having put to flight Israel’s armies, they had hastened to Shiloh, massacred its inhabitants and slain God’s priests and this as fired by the vile ambition to destroy His service and memory from the face of the earth. So did the Philistines deal with Jehovah, now that they thought that He was in their power. As was stated, if ever a heathen people were worthy of doom, it was these Philistines at this juncture in their history. Such offences against the divine majesty, the insults such as they were heaping upon God’s name called for severest punishment. It was time for God to act.
The Lord must now bring forth His Ark not apart from but through the agency of the Philistines and thus in the way of their being made to know and confess that Israel’s God is the Lord and that Dagon is vanity. Further the Philistines must be judged and the punishment meted out to them must be commensurate with their offence with them justifying God by confessing that His strokes are doubly deserved. If these purposes were to be achieved, the Lord must multiply His signs and wonders in the land of the Philistines, harden the Philistines, while at the same time binding His plagues upon their hearts.
The Lord first laid His hand upon Dagon and spared the Philistines. Early in the morning the men of Ashdod went to the temple to learn how their deity had fared during the watches of the night in the presence of the Ark of God. That they feared the worst is indicated by their being on hand at that early hour. Thus they were not too surprised at discovering that Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the Ark of the Lord. The conclusion was inescapable that the only solution of the plight of their idol was Jehovah, His unseen hand casting his image to the ground. Dagon had not lost his equilibrium and fallen by his own weight. For, if so, how was it to be explained that the image had remained standing thru all the years of the past. Nor could the fall of Dagon have been the work of a human. What Philistine would want to harm Dagon! And as for the possibility of some Hebrew having committed the foul deed, that was far too remote. There were no Hebrews living in Ashdod. The position of Dagon as he lay on the earth was also revealing. He was fallen upon his face to the earth before the Ark. In a word, the testimony that the Lord had done it was conclusive; and the Philistines—the men of Ashdod—with this testimony in their hearts as put there by the Lord, were rationally convinced though unwillingly and to their great dismay,—convinced were they that Jehovah is the Lord and that Dagon is vanity. For the doing of God—it was a miracle that He performed—uttered just this speech. Yet the men of Ashdod, holding the truth in unrighteousness, took Dagon and set him in his place again to be worshipped and adored by them; for the Lord hardened their hearts.
But the following day at the same early hour they returned to the temple of their deity; and saw that he was again fallen on his face to the ground before the Ark of God, but this time with disgraceful damage to his image. The head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold. Only the stump of Dagon—the fish-stump, if he was a maritime deity—remained to him. Also the speech that rose from this doing of God was clear and unmistakable. It set forth Dagon and the entire coalition of anti- Christian powers represented by him, as prostrate before Christ, beaten and destroyed by the rod of His mouth and by the breath of His lips. It revealed to the Philistines, did this doing of the Lord, the supremacy of Israel’s God over all the not-gods of the heathen, definitely over Dagon, the vanity of the worship of these gods and the foolishness of trusting in them. And the Philistines—the men of Ashdod—understood as instructed by the Lord; for they were rational men, and what was known of God through His treatment of their idol was revealed in them. Understand did they that He with whom they had to do was Israel’s mighty God and that therefore the thing for them to do was to turn from their decapitated idol with its cut-off palms, serve, honor, and obey this God, and release their hold on His Ark.
But the Philistines would not hearken; they would not be wise, as it was the purpose of God to destroy them. Though the nothingness of Dagon had been fully exposed, and though it had been clearly demonstrated unto them that the Jehovah of the Hebrews was the God, they persisted in cleaving with their hearts to Dagon and to do him homage. Even the threshold where Dagon’s image had fallen came to be regarded by them as ground too sacred for their feet to tread. ‘‘Neither the priests of Dagon, nor any that came into Dagon’s house, tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod unto this day.”
As the Philistines were unwilling to be instructed by the voice of God as it had come to them through His dealings with their idol, He now laid His hand upon them. He smote Ashdod and the coasts thereof with a sore disease. The text in the English version makes mention of emerods (an obsolete form for hemorrhoids), a word denoting a painful swelling formed by the dilatation of a vein at the anus, hence piles. But the Hebrew text has ophelim, singular, ophel from the verb aphal to swell up, to be tumid. Hence an ophal is a hill; but the word is used as the designation also of a tumor and in general of any swelling appearing on the body of men and beasts. Further on in the narrative it is stated that the men of Gath. . . , had ophelim—tumors or boils—in their secret parts. But the Hebrew text reads, “that the men of Gath had ophelim breaking out on them.” It may also be therefore that the divine visitation consisted in the Philistines being smitten with boils from the sole of the foot to the crown of the head. The affliction was exceptionally grievous and deadly in its affect, whatever its nature may have been. The sacred text plainly brings this out. So at verse 12 (of chapter 5), where the statement occurs, “And the men that died not were smitten with the emerods: and the cry of the city went up to heaven.” There is a suggestion here and elsewhere of two distinct plagues and even of three. The thought conveyed seems to be that the wrath of God so operated as to effect the speedy death of many either immediately or by a plague not mentioned in the text and that all the rest were tormented by the plague of emerods. So, too, at verse 6, “But the hand of the Lord was heavy upon them of Ashdod, and he destroyed them and smote them with ererods, even Ashdod and the coasts thereof.” Here, too, the text plainly distinguishes between a divine working consisting in the Lord’s destroying them and that working of His according to which he smote the survivors with emerods. The text suggests that the hand of the Lord was heavy upon the Philistines in still another way: It wasted their land, that is, the produce of the field, by mice. That there was such a land-plague is indicated by the after mention of the trespass offering of the five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines. The most prominent character of the field-mouse, especially in southern countries, is its greediness in eating and rapid increase. At times these animals, so it is related, multiply with rapidity and suddenness, ravage the fields far and near, and produce famine and pestilential diseases among the inhabitants of the land. But the land-plague that was visited upon the Philistines was a wonder of grace; its purpose was the deliverance of the Ark through judgment; and the same must be said of the plagues that accompanied it. These plagues with all their attending misery and destruction, belong in the category of the ten plagues of Egypt and this by virtue of identity of purpose, of the foe to be overcome, of the God to be vindicated, of the interests to be promoted, and the people to be saved. The Egypt of the oppression reappeared in the Philistines, and the Pharaoh of that Egypt in the Philistine lords. They were one by common aim and purpose, by a common haughty pride, rebellion, utter contempt of the Lord and His people, and persistent and determined opposition to God’s will. As the Egyptians, so the Philistines, they persisted to the end in hardening their hearts, and accordingly their plagues grew in severity. This, too, is plainly indicated in the text. Verse 6 is a statement to the effect that the hand of the Lord was heavy upon them of Ashdod and that He destroyed them and smote them with emerods. But in Ekron according to verses 11 and 12, “there was a deadly destruction throughout the city” so that “the cry of the city went up to heaven.”
The men of Ashdod, to return now to these men, said, “The Ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us: for his hand is sore upon us and upon Dagon our god. Thus they openly declare that the severe humiliation of Dagon had indeed been the work of the Lord. Of this they had been rationally convinced all along. But holding the truth in unrighteousness, they had refused to admit it either to themselves or to one another. But they concluded that they could ill afford to prolong their silence, now that they perceived that the scope of the working of divine wrath had been so widened as to include also them. Their very lives were now at stake. And what was dearer to them than life. Something had to be done about the Ark or soon all would be dead men. So they reasoned among themselves, for they were afraid now, though harder of heart than ever as is indicated by their reaction to the Lord’s dealing with them and Dagon. They sent and gathered all the lords of the Philistines unto them, and said, What shall we do with the Ark of the God of Israel? Why should they have asked that? They well knew what they should do with the Ark of Israel’s God. They knew that they should reverently return it to its place. And they knew, too, that the hand of Israel’s God was heavy upon them because they obstinately refused to do just that. Implicit in this knowledge was the rational conviction that the plagues that rioted among them were the revelation of the wrath of Israel’s God. Yet in the same breath that they gave expression to this conviction, they asked, “What shall we do with the Ark of Israel’s God?” This amazing obstinacy on the part of the Philistines can be explained. They wanted to imagine that their capture of the Ark formed the undoubted testimony that they had emerged victorious from a warfare with Israel’s mighty God and that therefore His people—the people of Israel—were theirs now and forever for them to enslave and exploit, persecute and kill as they might choose, with Jehovah standing helplessly by, unable to do anything about it at all. Their sending away the Ark to its place would be for those proud men to admit that they were bowing before a will—the will of Israel’s God—that no man can resist and live. In a word, their sending away the Ark would be a concession on their part that all their imaginings were absurdly vain, that thus it was still true that Jehovah is the God of all the earth; that, being God, all creatures, definitely the Philistines, are so in His hand that without His will they cannot so much as move; that, this being true, they had not overcome Jehovah but had been overcome by Him, and that therefore their recent victories on the battle-field were, rightly considered, no victories at all by at bottom catastrophic defeats.
So the Philistines, now that the Lord had shifted His attack from Dagon to themselves, were in a state of great perplexity of their own creation, to be sure. On account of reasons cited above, they refused to send away the Ark to its place. On the other hand, they well knew that, as persisting in holding the Ark, they were all dead men. This then was their problem: how could they persist in holding the Ark of God, without being crushed by His power. It can also be stated thus: how could they make good their claim that they had conquered God, without perishing by His hand. That was their problem precisely; and for that problem—it was one of their own creation—they could find no solution, as there was none. But they were not yet ready to admit defeat. For the Lord was hardening their hearts. Perhaps the Philistine lords knew the way out of their quandary. They had hope. “So they sent and gathered all the lords of the Philistines unto them, and said, What shall we do with the Ark of the God of Israel?” And verily, these lords had the answer, so they wanted to imagine. They said to the men of Ashdod, “Let the Ark of the God of Israel be carried about to Gath.” But that, they well knew, was not the way out of their troubles. As confessing that Jehovah is the God, and as humbling themselves under His hand, they must release their hold on the Ark, and instead of carrying it about to Gath, send it away to its place. Certainly the revelation of God’s wrath was not limited to the city of Ashdod. Jehovah was the God of all the earth, with a power almighty and everywhere present. Yet, so the lords of the Philistines gave answer. For they were as obstinate as were the men of Ashdod; as vain in their imaginations; as unwilling to send the Ark to its place, and thus as determined to hold it captive.
And so they did. They let the Ark be carried about to Gath and thus chose death for the men of Gath, did these Philistine lords. Yet it must not be supposed that this was admitted either by these lords or by the Gathites. Especially these lords were stouthearted men. And they had to be for they were the leaders among their people. In times of national stress they must scoff at fear and by their word reassure the fearful, strengthen the weak, uphold the faltering and inspire all to deeds of daring. And so they did also in the present crisis. And the sacred text plainly indicates their reasonings. They said, now to the men of Gath, whither the Ark had been carried about, “It was not the hand of God that smote us—the men of Ashdod—it was chance that had happened unto us.” The reasoning is thoroughly atheistic. As far as the earth and its fulness is concerned, God is not. Hence the plague that had rioted among the men of Ashdod could have had nothing to do with God and with the presence of the Ark among them, and the treatment they had afforded it. There was no connection whatever. The plague had just happened, and, according to the law of averages, would not happen again, at least for a long time. Hence the Gathites had nothing to worry about, now that the Ark was being carried about to their city. Such was the thrust of the reasoning of these Philistine lords. And it seems that their words took effect, that the Gathites were reassured. For we do not read that they objected to having the Ark in their midst.
Yet despite their atheistic boasting, these Philistine lords were anything but at ease. The testimony of God in their hearts that they were in the grip of the Almighty was too clear and strong. But they were hard-hearted men—were these lords. So, holding the truth in unrighteousness, they had resolved to put the matter to a test, and thus persisted in tempting and contempting God. This is largely the explanation of their having ordered the removal of the Ark to Gath. The Gathites, they insisted, would be none the worse for having the Ark in their midst, and so the fear of their countrymen—which fear they also shared but without admitting it; for they were stout-hearted men —that the men of Ashdod had been smitten by God, would be proved groundless.