This summer, we are preaching through 1 Samuel. Rarely do I post my sermons on this blog, but today I’m making an exception. This sermon is about how God—as C.S. Lewis famously writes of Alsan—is not tame, but he is good.
You can download and listen below.
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They call it an “epigraph.” An epigraph is a short quote at the begging of a chapter or the whole book, often by someone famous. It’s designed to suggest a theme for the chapter or book; it’s to prepare the reader for the ideas that follow. A month ago, at a book sale, I picked up a commentary on 1 Samuel for $1. (I knew we would be preaching it soon.) I pulled it out this week and found this quote in opening:
“The hope of a broken world is to find men big enough to mend it.”
- John Buchan, A Prince of the Captivity 
I wrote in the margin, “What?! No!” I wrote that because that’s not the hope of the world. And it’s especially not the hope offered in 1 Samuel. As I read the commentary for about four more pages and got more mad, I was reminded of something I was once told: “Not all commentaries are created equal.”
As we turn to our passage this morning in 1 Samuel, I find that quote especially interesting because of what happens. In this passage, all the major characters in the book (Samuel, Saul, David) and all the minor characters (Hannah, Eli and his sons, Jonathon, and others), they all disappear. And God become central; God is the main character of this passage—not behind the scenes but center stage.
As we preach through the book this summer, this passage (chapters 4, 5, 6, and the beginning of 7), is the second largest passage we’ll take. It’s going to take me about 10 minutes to read it. I’ll do my best to read it well, if you’ll do your best to listen well.
But just to help you out, let me summarize it for you. The story centers on God’s conflict with both the Israelites and the Philistines. The Philistines are one of several enemies of Israel in the Old Testament. Most likely they came from across the Mediterranean Sea and have infiltrated the coastal regions and beyond. And they are constantly pressing further inland, and they have done so with some success for many, many years. And as this happens (they push in), Israel is constantly trying to press them out.
In this passage, there’s a battle and Israel loses. So, what do they do? They “fetch” the ark of God. The ark was a wooden box about the size of this communion table. In it was a copy of the Ten Commandments and a few other items. In the Old Testament, it was the physical manifestation of God’s presence among his people; it was the closest thing Israel had to an incarnation.
Though they fetched the ark, they lose again. This time, three religious leaders are killed. Their names are Eli and Hophni and Phinehas. If you weren’t here last week, that will perhaps seem harsh. But in previous chapters, God pleaded with them to change their ways. But they did not. They ran the temple like they were mafia and they needed to be disposed of.
Continuing: After the battle, the Philistines take the ark home and God goes to war against them. When their god Dagon had enough and when all of their cities had enough, they send the ark away. And when it comes back, sadly, Israel still mishandles God and people die. So they send the ark away—again.
If you have a Bible, please follow along with me as I read 1 Samuel 4:1b-7:2 [Because of length, I have not included the passage here. You can read it here.]
This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. Pray with me that he would be our teacher. Pray with me as we study this together . . .
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The outline for the rest of our time is simple. Only two questions. First, what is our God like? Second, how should we respond to him?
1. What is our God like?
We’ll start with the first question. What is our God like?
Let me qualify this, though. When I say we are going to talk about what God is like, I don’t mean what God is like in an exhaustive sense. I’m not going to try to say everything. In fact, in the future, in the “forever life with God,” we won’t exhaust God, which is why the new heavens and the new earth won’t be boring. It will be a place of increasing delight.
What I mean in asking, “what is our God like?” is to say that I want to talk about what this passage says in particular about God. I want to highlight, albeit briefly, two attributes of God that are heightened in this passage.
Two introduce these attributes, let me read famous passages from the book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I know what I’m about read has almost become cliché because Christians have referenced it so much . . . still, it’s just that good. Also, while it’s familiar to some, still there are others who need to be introduced to it. Speaking of Aslan, the lion character and the Christ figure in the book, we read this:
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver . . . . “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
And then in another place,
“He’ll be coming and going . . . “One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down . . . . Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
Not tame, but God. Not safe, but a good king. So with Aslan (a symbol of Christ), so with the ark (a symbol, in some ways, of Christ). These are the two attributes we see about God in this passage.
1. (a). God is not tame.
If I said, let me show you were God is un-tame in this passage, then you might be able to ask, where isn’t this shown? It’s everywhere. Let me pick a few places.
First, there is the statement in 4:4,
4 So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim . . .
Who is enthroned? Only those who have a throne, only those who have a kingdom, only those who are kings. God is enthroned; he has a kingdom; he’s a king, the king of the whole jungle, and he has a strong paw.
Let me show you what I mean by “paw.” Did you notice as I read the passage the repeated references to the “hand of the Lord”? There were eight of them (4:8; 5:6, 7, 9, 11; 6:3, 5, 9 [and 7:13]). For example,
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 (5:11).
Again, that was one. There are eight. God has a strong, heavy paw. And he’s not been declawed.
And then consider the Dagon story at the beginning of chapter 5. Generally speaking, I’m leery of war and battle language in sermons because it tends to be either overdone or domesticated. (For example, I think “prayer warrior” is too liberally applied and rarely do people die in “worship wars.”)
However, the story of the ark vs. Dagon calls for such battle language. The ark goes into the octagon, and in round one, Dagon is knocked to the ground. He can’t pick himself back up, so his trainers do so for him. Then, in round two, it’s a technical knockout. No hands, no head, Dagon’s done. And like humpty-dumpty, all of Dagon’s priests and all of Dagon’s worshipers, couldn’t put Dagon back together again.
But there is more about this untamed lion. Consider the way the ark goes on something of an anti-victory parade. If in October, the Philadelphia Phillies win the World Series of Baseball this year, then in early November, there will be a parade through downtown Philly to show off the spoils of war.
In this story, the Philistines “win” the ark but their victory parade becomes an anti-victory parade. Everywhere he goes, God’s hand is heavy. “Hey, we don’t want the World Series Trophy; send it to Baltimore!” Then Baltimore doesn’t want it. “Hey, send this thing to Pittsburgh!” And on it goes.
To be sure, from beginning to end of this story, God shows that he is not tame. In this way, we have a foretaste of the second coming of Jesus. When Jesus comes again, he will crush all impostors to the throne. In the New Testament letter of Philippians we read (2:9-11),
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
“Every knee will should bow.” What does this mean? It means that every Christians, every Muslim, every Hindu, every Jew, every secular atheist, everyone who has ever lived (including me and you) will one day bow the knee before Jesus, The Lion of Judah (Genesis 49:9; Revelation 5:5). Some will do it gladly and joyfully as a continuation of what they were doing in this life. Everyone else will be in for a terrible surprise.
Did you ever think about how God knocked Dagon over? I have. I don’t know the answer, but I wonder if he just breathed on him. Look at this verse from 2 Thessalonians 2:8 and how it describes the way that Jesus will one day destroy the Evil One,
And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.
One day our Savior will destroy the Evil One with the breath of his mouth. The way you and I take a pizza out of the oven and blow on it, that’s how God destroys evil.
Be sure about this, church, he’s not a tame lion.
1. (b). But he is good.
But this of course is not the only attribute we see in our passage, and thankfully so. God is also good.
Now, when we speak of God’s goodness, we could mean many different things (true things, helpful things, biblical things). In these verses, when I say “God is good,” what I mean is that God has a special love and care for his chosen people. Let me show you where I see this.
You’re familiar with the Exodus story, right? The story where God, with a strong hand delivered his chosen people from Pharaoh? It’s the story of when Pharaoh would not comply, that God’s crippled the entire nation of Egypt with 10 plagues and thereby delivered his chosen people from the most powerful leader of the most powerful nation on earth. You know this story, right? It’s famous, right?
Well, it’s famous to the Philistines, too. Twice in this passage, it’s mentioned. First in chapter 4 when the soldiers refer to it (4:8). Then, later in the story, the priests of Dagon refer to it (6:6). The gist of both references is this: let’s not let happened to us what happened to Egypt because even we pagans know that God loves his people and he won’t let anything stand in their way. God is good towards his chosen people.
And consider this one. Consider the cows that bring the ark home. The Philistines say, “Let’s come up with a plan, and if it works, then we’ll know that God is God.” So they do. They take cows that have never pulled a wagon, cows that are nursing their young, and they set them loose. (By the way, rookie cows that are also new mothers, wouldn’t ordinarily pull well or leave their young; this is like giving a 10-year old keys to the stick shift and seeing if they can make it to Allentown.) And where do these cows go? Straight back to Israel. As the passage says, “They turned neither to the right nor to the left” (6:12).
But we can be more specific. The cows (and you might not have realized this), they go back to a city called Beth-Shemeh. Did you know that in the book of Joshua, that this city is listed as one of the cities that is a headquarters for Israelite priests (Joshua 21:16). Think about that. God could have gone anywhere. He could have left Israel altogether as he left Philistine country. But where does he go? He goes back to his people, his priests. He’s saying, Let’s try this again.
Did they deserve him? And would they treat him the way he deserves when he gets there? No and no. And we don’t either. But our God is good. He loves his chosen people.
It’s as though God is saying to us in this passage, even when it looks like my grace is harsh, even if I must let you flounder for a time, I’m coming back. I love my people. I love you.
He’s not tame, but he is good.
2. How should we respond?
Well, we should get on to my second point or we’ll never finish. If this is what God is like, how shall we respond? As with the above point, I’m not attempting to be exhaustive. We can’t. But certainly we can learn from the negative examples in this passage.
How do people respond wrongly to God in this passage? Two ways. I’ll just lump them together because they are almost inseparable. The two ways are
- Superstition, not rightly esteeming God’s heaviness.
- Addition, not full submission.
Let me say them again. The two ways the people respond wrongly to God in this passage are,
- Superstition, not rightly esteeming God’s heaviness.
- Addition, not full submission.
What do I mean? They treat God so lightly that they think they can superstitiously manipulate him. As for addition, what I mean is that rather than turning from all other gods to worship the real God, instead people try to “add God” to their lives, as though YHWH was “in addition” to their other gods.
Consider the statement in 4:3,
3 And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”
The King James Version of “Let us bring the ark” says, “Let us fetch the ark.” They are treating God like a rabbit’s foot that can be fetched. Rather than the hard, prayerful activity of individual and corporate repentance, they so lightly esteem God that they try to manipulate him into giving them what they want: victory.
And consider the detail about Eli and his “heaviness.” Did you catch that? He’s an overweight guy and his own heaviness, in a sense, kills him. He’s crushed under the weight of his own glory. That might not seem like a big deal, but did you know that the words for “glory” and “honor” and “heavy” are all the same. It’s the word ka-vowd. And the name Ichabod (4:21), which means, “Glory departed” or “glory exiled,” is Ick-ka-vowd. In Chapter 2, Eli is rebuked for not treating God’s word as heavy. He honors something above God. And so a heavy man dies under the weight of his own heaviness because he did not esteem God and his glory as heavy.
This leads me to ask: Is God heavy in your life? Is he a weighty thing? Or is his word something easily ignored. Is the Bible a light thing to you? Or is God and his word something you bend your life to? When he challenges you, do you bend to him, or do you bend him to you?
And then there is the detail at the very end of the passage. When the ark finally comes home, they mishandle it. They “looked upon the ark of the Lord” (6:19). We don’t know exactly what they did, but we know it was wrong. I think it’s a little like this. What would you think if I saw the power of Three Mile Island, this nuclear power plant that looms so ominous on the Harrisburg horizon, and as I saw the tremendous power that it generates, I said, “I think I’m going to have a little looks-y at the reactor’s core, maybe get up close and handle some of the uranium.”
What would you think? You’d say, “Woah, woah, woah. Slow down. You don’t understand. That is power that is ‘for us.’ But we don’t play lightly with it.”
Finally (and this is my last verse to quote), look at 5:5,
5 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.
This, to me, is the saddest verse in the passage. Why? Well, we don’t know exactly what their motivation is for not stepping on the threshold, the place where Dagon was defeated. But we do know, as they knew, this: it’s the place where Dagon was defeated.
And every time they stepped over the threshold they are in some superstitious way acknowledging that this is the place where their God was defeated. And in this strange way they are not giving full submission to the “God of gods” but rather they seek to add a totem of respect to this God—just like they pay a totem of respect to all of their gods. That is, they go for addition not full submission. They go for superstition, not esteeming God’s heaviness.
And this is so sad to me because of what the verse should say, or could say. It should say, “And to this day, this is why the priests of Dagon no longer worship Dagon but they worship the Lord.” If I could talk to these priests, perhaps I would say something like, “Go deeper, Philistines! Press your worldview further! And when it fails you, when you have to glue your god back together again, don’t ignore this! See the failure of your worldview as an opportunity to grasp the real thing!”
And we can do this, too. We can be content to “add Jesus” to our life and give him superstitious homage. We can live our own lives, but “sprinkle a little Jesus on top” so we won’t go to hell. We must repent and get the real thing. Church, if you god is letting you down, don’t pick him up. Replace him with the real God who will never fail.
Earlier, I said that there were parallels between this story and the second coming of Jesus. That’s true. But did you also catch the parallels with the first coming of Jesus? Oh, church, as we close, let me encourage you with this.
Think about it: in this story, the king is surrounded by sinful, dysfunctional leadership and sinful, dysfunctional people. And this king—in the Samuel story—allows himself to be captured. He allows himself to brought by force behind enemy lines. And there, all by himself and all alone, he works a victory. And then, he returns to his people.
This is the gospel story. Jesus came to a sinful people, allowed himself to be captured, and when he died on the cross (alone and behind enemy lines), he worked a great victory. And now, anyone and everyone who comes to him in faith can become his chosen people, his royal subjects. What a story. He’s not tame, but he loves you.
The hope of the broken world is not that we have “men big enough to mend it” but rather the God-man Jesus Christ to save it.
1. Found in Andrew W. Blackwood, Preaching from Samuel, Baker Books, 1975 [original 1946]; quote from John Buchan in A Prince of the Captivity.
2. My expansion on of an insight into the passage from Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Samuel, p. 60.
3. See the interplay of these verses: Honor: 2:8, 2:29, 30!, 9:6, 15:30 / Heavy: 4:18, 5:6, 5:11 / Glory: 4:21, 22, 15:29 / Ichabod: 4:21.
[Photo Stefan Rayner / Unsplash]