Verses 1-5 (1 Samuel 5:1-5)
Here is, I. The Philistines? triumph over the ark, which they were the more pleased, the more proud, to be now masters of, because before the battle they were possessed with a great fear of it, 1 Sam. 4:7. When they had it in their hands God restrained them, that they did not offer any violence to it, did not break it to pieces, as the Israelites were ordered to do by the idols of the heathen, but showed some respect to it, and carefully carried it to a place of safety. Whether their curiosity led them to open it, and to read what was written with the finger of God on the two tables of stone that were in it, we are not told; perhaps they looked no further than the golden outside and the cherubim that covered it, like children that are more affected with the fine binding of their bibles than with the precious matter contained in them. They carried it to Ashdod, one of their five cities, and that in which Dagon?s temple was; there they placed the ark of God, by Dagon (1 Sam. 5:2), either 1. As a sacred thing, which they designed to pay some religious respect to, in conjunction with Dagon; for the gods of the heathen were never looked upon as averse to partners. Though the nations would not change their gods, yet they would multiply them and add to them. But they were mistaken in the God of Israel when, in putting his ark by Dagon?s image, they intended to do him honour; for he is not worshipped at all if he is not worshipped alone. The Lord our God is one Lord. Or rather, 2. They placed it there as a trophy of victory, in honour of Dagon their god, to whom no doubt they intended to offer a great sacrifice, as they had done when they had taken Samson (Jdg. 16:23, 24), boasting that as then they had triumphed over Israel?s champion so now over Israel?s God. What a reproach was this to God?s great name! what a disgrace to the throne of his glory! Shall the ark, the symbol of God?s presence, be a prisoner to Dagon, a dunghill deity? (1.) So it is, because God will show of how little account the ark of the covenant is if the covenant itself be broken and neglected; even sacred signs are not things that either he is tied to or we can trust to. (2.) So it is for a time, that God may have so much the more glory, in reckoning with those that thus affront him, and get him honour upon them. Having punished Israel, that betrayed the ark, by giving it into the hands of the Philistines, he will next deal with those that abused it, and will fetch it out of their hands again. Thus even the wrath of man shall praise him; and he is bringing about his own glory even when he seems to neglect it, Ps. 76:10. Out of the eater shall come forth meat.
II. The ark?s triumph over Dagon. Once and again Dagon was made to fall before it. If they designed to do honour to the ark, God thereby showed that he valued not their honour, nor would he accept it; for he will be worshipped, not with any god, but above all gods. He owes a shame (as bishop Hall expresses it) to those who will be making matches betwixt himself and Belial. But they really designed to affront it, and though for some hours Dagon stood by the ark, and it is likely stood above it (the ark, as its footstool), yet the next morning, when the worshippers of Dagon came to pay their devotions to his shrine, they found their triumphing short, Job 20:5.
1. Dagon, that is, the image (for that was all the god), had fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark, 1 Sam. 5:3. God had seemed to forget the ark, but see how the Psalmist speaks of his appearing, at last, to vindicate his own honour. When he had delivered his strength into captivity, and all seemed going to ruin, then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine, Ps. 78:59-65. And therefore he prevented the utter desolations of the Jewish church, because he feared the wrath of the enemy, Deut. 32:26, 27. Great care was taken, in setting up the images of their gods, to fix them. The prophet takes notice of it, Isa. 41:7; He fastened it with nails that it should not be moved; and again, Isa. 46:7. And yet Dagon?s fastenings stood him in no stead. The ark of God triumphs over him upon his own dunghill, in his own temple. Down he comes before the ark, directly towards it (though the ark was set on one side of him), as it were, pointing to the conqueror, to whom he is constrained to yield and do homage. Note, The kingdom of Satan will certainly fall before the kingdom of Christ, error before truth, profaneness before godliness, and corruption before grace in the hearts of the faithful. When the interests of religion seem to be run down and ready to sink, yet even then we may be confident that the day of their triumph will come. Great is the truth, and will prevail. Dagon by falling prostrate before the ark of God, which was a posture of adoration, did as it were direct his worshippers to pay their homage to the God of Israel, as greater than all gods. See Exod. 18:11.
2. The priests, finding their idol on the floor, make all the haste they can, before it be known, to set him in his place again. A sorry silly thing it was to make a god of, which, when it was down, wanted help to get up again; and sottish wretches those were that could pray for help from that idol that needed, and in effect implored, their help. How could they attribute their victory to the power of Dagon when Dagon himself could not keep his own ground before the ark? But they are resolved Dagon shall be their god still, and therefore set him in his place. Bishop Hall observes hence, It is just with God that those who want grace shall want wit too; and it is the work of superstition to turn men into the stocks and stones they worship. Those that make them are like unto them. What is it that the great upholders of the antichristian kingdom are doing at this day but heaving Dagon up, and labouring to set him in his place again, and healing the deadly wound that has been given to the beast? but if the reformation be the cause of God, before which it has begun to fall, it shall not prevail, but shall surely fall before it.
3. The next night Dagon fell the second time, 1 Sam. 5:4. They rose early, either, as usual, to make their addresses to their god, or earlier than usual, being impatient to know whether Dagon had kept his standing this night; and, to their great confusion, they find his case worse now than before. Whether the matter of which the image was made was apt to break or no, so it was that the head and hands were cut off upon the threshold, so that nothing remained but the stump, or, as the margin reads it, the fishy part of Dagon; for (as many learned men conjecture) the upper part of this image was in a human shape, the lower in the shape of a fish, as mermaids are painted. Such strong delusions were idolaters given up to, so vain were they in their imaginations, and so wretchedly darkened were their foolish hearts, as to worship the images, not only of creatures, but of nonentities, the mere figments of fancy. Well, the misshapen monster is by this fall made to appear, (1.) Very ridiculous, and worthy to be despised. A pretty figure Dagon made now, when the fall had anatomized him, and shown how the human part and the fishy part were artificially put together, which perhaps the ignorant devotees had been made to believe was done by miracle! (2.) Very impotent, and unworthy to be prayed to or trusted in; for his losing his head and hands proved him utterly destitute both of wisdom and power, and for ever disabled either to advise or act for his worshippers. This they got by setting Dagon in his place again; they had better have let him alone when he was down. But those can speed no better that contend with God, and will set up that which he is throwing down, Mal. 1:4. God, by this, magnified his ark and made it honourable, when they vilified and made it contemptible. He also showed what will be the end of all that which is set up in opposition to him. Gird yourselves, but you shall be broken to pieces, Isa. 8:9.
4. The threshold of Dagon?s temple was ever looked upon as sacred, and not to be trodden on, 1 Sam. 5:5. Some think that reference is had to this superstitious usage of Dagon?s worshippers in Zeph. 1:9; where God threatens to punish those who, in imitation of them, leaped over the threshold. One would have thought that this incontestable proof of the ark?s victory over Dagon would convince the Philistines of their folly in worshipping such a senseless thing, and that henceforward they would pay their homage to the conqueror; but, instead of being reformed, they were hardened in their idolatry, and, as evil men and seducers are wont to do, became worse and worse, 2 Tim. 3:13. Instead of despising Dagon, for the threshold?s sake that beheaded him, they were almost ready to worship the threshold because it was the block on which he was beheaded, and will never set their feet on that on which Dagon lost his head, shaming those who tread under foot the blood of the covenant and trample on things truly sacred. Yet this piece of superstition would help to perpetuate the remembrance of Dagon?s disgrace; for, with the custom, the reason would be transmitted to posterity, and the children that should be born, enquiring why the threshold of Dagon?s temple must not be trodden on, would be told that Dagon fell before the ark of the Lord. Thus God would have honour even out of their superstition. We are not told that they repaired the broken image; it is probable that they sent the art of God away first, and then they patched it up again, and set it in its place; for, it seems, they cannot deliver their souls, nor say, Isa. there not a lie in our right hand? Isa. 44:20.