You Can’t Put God in a Box

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

1 Samuel 5:1-12 | July 4 - Sunday Morning,

Sunday Morning,
July 4
You Can’t Put God in a Box | 1 Samuel 5:1-12
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Heavenly Father, we come once again, not merely out of habit or custom, but out of our sense of deep need, that we want to hear from You. Give me the words to say and help me to say them in the right way, and give us ears to listen, that You may strengthen us, comfort us, perhaps rebuke us, change us, convert us, redeem us. We pray that You would do a mighty work in our midst through Your Word, we pray. Amen.

I invite you to turn in your Bibles to 1 Samuel, chapter 5, there towards the beginning of the Old Testament. This book, which looks at the history of Israel and moving from the period of the judges to the kingship, and this summer we are looking at the chapters that relate to Samuel in the first part of the book. This morning we come to 1 Samuel, chapter 5. Follow along as I read, beginning at verse 1:

“When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon. 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. 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. 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.”

“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. 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.” 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. 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. 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.” 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. The men who did not die were struck with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.”

It’s an amazing story, especially when you consider how grim things appeared at the end of chapter 4. Last week we saw that as the Israelites were defeated in battle from the Philistines and they were surprised, they had this great idea, “let’s bring the ark, surely this gold-plated box,” symbolic for the presence of their covenant God Yahweh, “surely the presence of the ark will mean that we are victorious over our enemies.”

But they presumed upon the Lord, treating the ark as a kind of trinket, a kind of magic amulet, and they were routed even worse than the first time, and chapter 4 the curtain closed with the leading men of the time, Eli, his sons Hophni and Phinehas, dead, and the ark transported, exiled out to their enemies, captured by the Philistines.

So we have the birth of this child at the end of chapter 4, whose name is given Ichabod, the glory has departed. You know, I’ve never baptized an Ichabod. It doesn’t seem to have made a comeback after this unfortunate event.

So chapter 4, the curtain closes. This is bad. The Israelites must have been thinking, “What does this say about our God? We thought our God was the God of the universe, the God of the heavens and the earth, the God above all gods, and here He is captured by the Philistines. And what does this say about their god Dagon? Might it be that our God is really not as powerful as we thought?”

If you’re honest, some of us can think something similar. I saw a professor tweet out these statistics this week, what percentage of Americans agree with the statement “I know God really exists and I have no doubt about it.”

Now, that’s hardly Christianity, that’s just a statement God exists, I don’t doubt it. The results, the silent generation, the World War II generation, 70%; Boomers, 59% agree with that; Gen X, 62%, and I’ll have you know that the only one that has gone up in the last 10 years are the Gen X’ers, so we’re representing; Millennials, 44%; Gen Z, 33%, and the decline for Gen Z is staggering. This report said 49% in 2014 agreed with that statement, “I know God exists and I don’t doubt it,” 39% agreed with it in 2016, and by 2018 the number was only 33%.

It’s not hard to find this sort of bad news. This is from 2019 from the Pew forum. This is 20 pages long. Here are just some of the headlines: “In US, Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” And here’s some of the charts: “In US, smaller share of adults identify as Christians while religious none [not the Catholic order, but the n-o-n-e-s] have grown,” and there’s chart after chart. Another headline: “In the United States, church attendance is declining,” “Broad-based declines in share of Americans who say they are Christian,” “Large generation gap in American religion, with the younger you are the less religious you are,” “In US, number of religious nones has grown by nearly 30 million over the past decades,” “Share of US adults who say they never attend religious services jumps 6 percentage points in a decade,” “Declining share of Christians and the growth of the religious nones, women more religious than men, but both are growing less religious,” “The share of Catholics down 9 points in the Northeast, the share of Protestants in the South down 11 percentage points,” and on and on and on.

Perhaps if you are a regular watcher of the evening news, or follow any sort of media, it’s not hard to conclude that my, oh, my has this country changed, and while we should admit that some changes have been for the better, there is a stigma with racism or abuse or other sorts of sins that didn’t exist 50 years ago and we’re thankful for that, but it’s also very, very easy to be discouraged and see the things that used to be unthinkable, now not only permissible but celebrated, and not only celebrated, but you will be forced to celebrate.

The size and the prestige and the influence of the Church has declined, and so it is easy to think that perhaps we are living in the days of Ichabod, the glory has departed.

This text in 1 Samuel chapter 5 reminds us of three essential truths we must never forget, no matter what the statistics may say, no matter what headlines may scream at us, three essential truths that the Israelites almost forgot and we must never forget.

Number one: Our God is above all gods.

The Philistines saw the capture of the ark and they interpreted it as the demonstration of Dagon’s power over Yahweh. Now who was Dagon? We don’t know exactly what he looked like, he was the Canaanite name of a god found in Mesopotamia in northern Syria for many centuries. He was the head of Amar’s pantheon, the father of the storm god Baal, who may be familiar to you. Some have thought his name was related to the word “fish” and that he looked like a fish, but later scholars don’t think that that’s correct. Others think his name came from the word for “grain” or “corn,” implying that he was some sort of vegetation god. Others think he was a military god. In any event, he’s a major god among the Canaanites and presumably he’s the national god of the Philistines at this time.

At first, the Philistines were afraid when the ark came to battle, but upon capturing the ark, they bring it from Ebenezer down the coast to the Philistine city of Ashdod and there they put it in Dagon’s temple. Why? Because they believe that the ark has been subjugated. The Israelites have been defeated and it is tantamount to the glory of their god Dagon, the Lord would serve Dagon just like the Israelites would serve the victorious Philistines. The battle that they won twice, the capture of the ark, everything seems to vindicate Philistine theology is true. They put on bumper stickers, not “Coexist,” just “Dagon rocks,” rock on, Dagon.

They were sure of it. But it was not so. The people come early the next morning. What a scene it must have been. Maybe they come to mock the ark of the covenant, or to see what the mighty god Dagon had done to the Israelite artifact, but when they get there, they’re surprised. Dagon has fallen face down before the ark, as if he is on his face to worship before the God of Israel.

Now we don’t know exactly how this happened. Did God make the ground shake overnight or the wind blow through, or just a flat out miracle and it fell down. However it happened, the statue is in a posture of worship before the box. Dagon bowing down to Yahweh.

They think, well, things happen, things go bump in the night. Maybe they said, “Did you feel something?” “Yeah, I felt. There was something…” “Didn’t you feel something last night?” “Yeah, I think I felt something last night.”

So verse 3 says, “They put him back in his place.” Now just for a moment there, it’s almost humorous. You would think that something would dawn on them, “This is our god. We gotta put him back on the shelf.” [laughter] Something is wrong with your god when you have to pick him up off the floor. [laughter]

But that’s the way it is with idolatry. We convince ourselves that the idols are strong, and there of course, there were idols that you could see and you could feel and you could bow before, but whatever our idols may be, surely the God in heaven laughs. You think that sex is worth giving your life for? Or some cushy retirement? Or your sports team? Or your recreation and hobbies? Your idols?

So the next day they come in and now not only is Dagon lying on the ground, but his head and his hands are cut off. Now what is this? This is a sign that Yahweh is at war with Dagon and Yahweh has proved victorious. There are several times throughout 1 and 2 Samuel where we see heads off, arms off, in each case it’s a sign of battle and to the victor goes the spoils. David and Goliath in chapter 17, when David slings the stone and the giant falls down, he cuts off his head.

When my older boys were younger and we would, “let’s play some, let’s act out some Bible story, they’re all peaceful, do David and Goliath.” Of course, I would be Goliath and they would love at the end not only to hurl the stone and knock me over, but the best part was to cut off my head. Not literally, I’m here.

David had the men who killed Ish-Bosheth in 2 Samuel 4, their hands and feet were cut off, 2 Samuel 4:12. Or Saul when he had been killed, his head was cut off, chapter 31, verse 9.

In other words, this is a sign of warfare between Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, and Dagon, the god of the Philistines, and Yahweh had clearly won. The gods, so-called, of the nations are nothing but feeble creations of human hands. Over and over in the Old Testament, God wants His people to see not only that idolatry is wrong, it is silly.

Isaiah 44, one of the famous passages, talks about a man. He plants a tree. He lets it grow. He cuts down the tree. He uses some of the wood and he throws it in the fire and he warms himself. He makes a fire and he bakes his bread over it. He roasts some of his meat. Then he builds a house with some of this wood. Then with some of this very same wood, which he’s burned in the fire, which he built for his house, then he makes an idol out of it and he bows down and he worships and he prays to it. What?

Psalm 115, ” Why should the nations say, “Where is their God? Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound.”

God is trying to teach His people this is not only wrong, it’s foolish. Why would you bow down to this inanimate object which cannot taste or touch or move or speak or hear?

Psalm 115 concludes: “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.”

And that cements what is true for all time, that we become what we behold, that each one of us will be reshaped according to the God that we worship. You will become like the God that you worship.

The God of Israel, we see, was not a local, tribal deity. He is the God who routed the gods of Egypt, defeated the gods of the Canaanites and the Babylonians. He made a spectacle on the cross of the powers of darkness.

We know from the Old Testament that the Lord is a shepherd. We love that precious imagery. We sing sometimes the Lord is the lover of my soul, and it’s true. The Lord also is a warrior, Exodus 15:3, Jeremiah 20, verse 11, and we lose something very important to biblical Christianity. When you can only sing soft, sweet songs about God, we should sing those, if all you can sing about God are about the lilies and about His loving arms around you and His wonderful touch and you never sing about the Lord who is a dread warrior, who conquers armies, who leads us into battle against the evil one, if you cannot sing those songs, then you have missed something fundamental about our God. The Lord is a warrior.
I’m so glad that we have such a wonderful pastor of worship with Nathan, so he won’t have us sing boyfriend/girlfriend songs that make it sound like God is a boyfriend/girlfriend, just hug me and love me and let’s slow dance together. There’s a tender intimacy with God and we know His sweet gentleness, but we also must approach this God with fear and know that He is a God above all gods.

Surely the Philistines could see this. He humiliated Dagon. There was nothing nice about it. Humiliated him on his home turf. So it’s like earlier in chapter 4, it’s as if the Israelites lose to the Philistines at home 28-3, and so the Philistines steal their mascot, this is really funny, we’re gonna steal, do these pranks and steal their mascot, and then the next week when they play in Dagon with the Philistines, they lose 100 to nothing. God is judge over all the earth.

Now, as we saw in chapter 4, our danger is that we not commit the sin of presumption, and that we think we just have God in our back pocket, and that we can just trot him out whenever we want, say the magic word and He’s always against the people that we don’t like. Well, sometimes the people He’s angry with are people like us, His own people, for our own sins. That’s what we saw in chapter 4, and we need to know that and we need to know this God in chapter 5, Lord over the nations. Not just one nation.

So He judged Israel when they sinned. He literally knocked Eli off his perch. But do you see what’s happening here? He also literally knocked Dagon off of his throne. He will knock down anyone who presumes to sit upon the throne in unrighteousness.

So if that’s Eli who is judging Israel, He’ll knock him off his chair. If it’s Dagon, the pagan god of the Philistines, He’ll knock him down from his throne.

Chapter 4, you cannot manipulate God’s power.

Chapter 5, you cannot contain it, either.

Which is why I entitled this sermon, “You Cannot Put God in a Box.” Literally.

They thought there was their God, a harmless box. But it was not the box, it was not the ark itself which possessed power, but what it represented and what God did wherever the ark went. So it wasn’t just there in the temple of Dagon where he was severed from head and limbs, but wherever they went.

Let’s go the next city, and there they’re covered in tumors. And on to the next city, and to the next city. Before long they said, “Don’t send the ark, we don’t want the parade of the ark to come to our town, get rid of the ark.”

Our God is a God above all gods.

Here’s the second lesson for us: God will surprise us with His power when He appears to be in the most trouble. God will surprise us with His power when He appears to be in the most trouble.

It appeared that the glory had left Israel. Ichabod. What good could possibly come from this moment? God had been captured. They had been warned in the Mosaic covenant that if they were sinful, they would be exiled, but now something even more cataclysmic seems to have occurred. God Himself has been exiled, outside of the camp, the great hope of Israelite worship and religion is that God would dwell in the midst, and now the box is gone.

But just when it seemed as if God was in trouble, of course He was not, He shows up with great power, and you see in verse 6, “The hand of the Lord was heavy against the people of Ashdod.” He terrified, afflicted them, with tumors. What are these tumors? We don’t know for sure. They could be boils or abscesses of some kind. Don’t know how to put this politely, possibly tumors of the groin or the bottom. The King James says, “He smote them with emerods.” Think about it not too long. [laughter]

Others see a connection with the mice in chapter 6 coming up and conclude that these are swollen lymph nodes, the cause of what we would call the bubonic plague. Whatever it is, it’s some sort of diseased swelling. It’s nasty, it’s dangerous.

They send the ark to Gath, the result panic and tumors.

They send the ark to Ekron, the result panic, death, tumors.

When the ark came into the Israelite camp in chapter 4, the Israelites celebrated, the Philistines were afraid, and then they captured the ark, and then the Israelites were afraid and the Philistines celebrated. Now the Philistines are once again terrified.

And in chapter 6, when the ark comes back to Israel, there will be celebration at first which will turn to fear as people die for looking at the ark. In other words, you do not mess around with the ark. There is a reason that we hear so often in Proverbs and elsewhere, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Why are we so foolish today? When we have more information than ever before. You have in your pocket right now, hopefully it’s set on vibrate, it’s in your purse, it’s somewhere off, you have in that phone in your pocket more information, more knowledge at your disposal, than is fathomable to anyone who has ever lived except in the last 10 or 15 years. You would have to go around the world to the greatest libraries of the world to have access to the information that you can just enter in a search and there it is, the answer to your questions. We have more knowledge, we have more facts, than ever before, and we are fools. Why? Because knowledge alone does not make us wise. It is the fear of the Lord. That may be what is missing most in our nation today.

If you want a simple prayer to pray for all of our leaders, to pray for people, pray for our neighbors, pray that there would be a return to the fear of the Lord.

We see in Israel’s history what happens when there is no fear of God before their eyes. When everyone does what is right in their own eyes, because they do not have, even if they believe a God exists, they do not have a God who thunders from on high. They do not have a God of holiness. They do not have a transcendent deity. They do not have a God who could be represented by a box such that if He enters your town and you are unrighteousness, you are smote with deadly pestilence.

These ark stories are all about the holiness of God, which ought to strike fear in the hearts of every sinner.

Why do we doubt God’s power? Or His ability to defend His name and accomplish His purposes? Just think of the Israelites. Imagine some years later around the campfire, reminiscing, “Remember how nervous we were? Remember how panicked we were? Remember when the ark left and went into the Philistines? Remember how afraid we were that we thought this was the end of the world, this was the end of Israel. You remember that?” And they’d probably chuckle and they’d sort of look at the ground, sort of embarrassed, “Yeah, I do remember that.” “And do you remember what happened next? Do you remember when they put the ark there in the temple of Dagon and Dagon fell down and the next day he fell down again and his head was off?”

Why do we fret about God’s ability to accomplish His purposes? Of course, this doesn’t mean we sit around and our passive, but it does mean God is never in trouble. Never. He did this one all by Himself; no prophets, no angels, no priests, no kings. In fact, how is He going to get the ark back to Israel? Well, how about a couple mommy cows, that’ll do. God will find a way.

I know it’s easy to think, “What is God up to? What is He up to in my life, which isn’t the way I thought it was gonna be? In our country? In my family?”

When you are tempted to think it’s all too far gone, all hope is lost, remember not all that appears to be Ichabod is really Ichabod.

These two stories, chapter 4 and chapter 5, help us get the right perspective. On the one hand, we cannot always be assured that God will come through for us in just the way we want Him to. That’s the sin of presumption in chapter 4, to think that God will always come just the way we want Him to because we’re always the good guys and they’re always the bad guys. He will always keep His promises, nothing can separate us from His love in Christ, but we cannot be assured that He comes through just the way we want Him to. That’s chapter 4.

And at the same time, we can be assured that He will always come through in just the way He ought to. Not the way we want to, but just the way He ought to. That’s chapter 5. Our God is never not in control.

Sometimes despite our formal theology, we aren’t sure that He’s really that strong. We can doubt in our hearts that really God wins, Christ wins.

Is your heart in the same place as your head? Are you living out your life as good as the theology that you profess?

About a year ago or so I was doing a radio interview or a podcast interview with a man who’s in a ministry and he’s a leader, I believe he’s in the Methodist church, and at one point we were talking about what’s going on in the country and all sorts of things that could give cause for alarm. He said something like this, this is from a Methodist: “Hey, would you go back and tell your Reformed guys to get serious about God’s sovereignty again?”

In other words, listen, you Reformed people are supposed to be the sovereignty people. So why are you freaking out about everything? You say you believe in this God of control, this God of providence, the God who works all things after the counsel of His will, so help the rest of the Church remember that. Our God is never not in control.

And here’s the third lesson, very briefly: One day every knee will bow before the true God of the universe.

See, it looked as if Dagon had won. But his “victory” was very short-lived. It didn’t take long before it was clear to everyone just who the real God was. Let me submit to you, that Dagon’s fall from his throne was the first fruits of Philippians 2:9-11: “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”

You see, they didn’t understand just how the ark worked. They didn’t understand what sort of Messiah Jesus was. They presumed here’s the Messiah, He comes and He gets the Romans off our backs and He starts winning military victories for us. That’s what they thought they were expecting with the coming of the Messiah into the camp, a great resounding victory. Until their expectations were shattered and it looked as if they had suffered an inexplicable defeat.

And it sure looked that way, on Friday. And it really looked that way on Saturday. But it looked much different on Sunday. Humiliation gave way to exultation. And the God that they were counting on, and the God that surprised them with defeat, surprised them even more with His resurrection.

So count on it. Every knee, every knee will bow. The hardest heart you can think of, maybe the hardest heart in this room, the hardest heart you can think of, one day, all the Dagons of the world will be cast down. The question is not whether you will bend the knee before Christ; that will happen. The question is whether you do it like Dagon, as a defeated for when it’s too late, or if you do it now, as a humble suppliant asking for mercy. You will bow the knee before Lord Jesus. You can do it now, or you can do it later. God calls you, He beckons you, He invites you, to do it now. One day every knee will bow before the true God of the universe. Let us not wait til later, let us bow the knee before Christ today.

Let’s pray. Our gracious heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word, for all that You teach us, all that you show us. We thank You for Your might, for Your power, for Your grace in calling us and drawing us to come, that You have given to us through the Spirit by Your Word, we pray hearts to bow and to worship, and as we worship, confessing our sin, coming before You for mercy, meet us here, strengthen us we pray. Feed us now around Your table. In Jesus’ name. Amen.