“The Hand of the Lord”

Sermon: 1 Feb 2004

Texts: 1 Samuel 3-7


Main Idea:  God’s sovereignty

Purpose: Set forth the idea of the hand of the Lord as active in history.

Question: Did you know that the Philistines believed in “chance” as their explanation for everything?


            We really don’t have a lot of Scripture describing the work of Samuel as prophet, priest, or judge in Israel.  We do have, in wonderful detail, Samuel’s call.  Here’s what I want you to notice: God leaves nothing up to chance.  1 Samuel 1-2 teaches us that pregnancy is purposeful.  God planned for Elkanah and Hannah to be Samuel’s parents, at least for the first six  or so years of his life.  God further planned for Eli to be his guardian until Samuel reached his majority.  While Samuel turned out much better than Hophni and Phinehas, Samuel’s sons were almost as troubled as the sons of Eli.  The first set of boys supplied part of the pretext for the monarchy (God’s plan) and the second set, who lived a generation earlier, are responsible in part for Samuel’s ascension to being judge, prophet and priest in Israel.  I say that Samuel’s boys were part of the reason that Israel clamored for a king. Another contributing factor is that Samuel’s ministry was rather too local for the good of the whole nation.  Those in the outlying regions were largely deprived of the benefit of godly administration and executive direction.  The biggest factor: it was God’s timing.

            Samuel’s call orbits around an auditory theophany, which is a fancy way of saying: God spoke and Samuel heard His voice.  The Lord also appeared and stood before him in the house of worship at Shiloh[1].  These objectively discernible facts should give us pause in interpreting Samuel’s call as a dream, or as a vision.  That’s how I was taught the call of Samuel; it was as insubstantial as a vision in the night.  Generally, it was taught, if you saw God’s face, you would die.  The bible here tells us, in remarkable detail, that God spoke to Samuel in the wee hours, just before dawn. (The candlesticks had yet to be extinguished, they were supposed to burn throughout the night.)  God spoke and Samuel heard His voice; God appeared and, standing before Samuel, explained fully the judgment which was to come against Eli for his failure to restrain his wicked sons[2].  Thus, Samuel came to know the Lord, to recognize His voice and to “hear” the Word of the Lord directly from God.  That is what a prophet does.  He stands in the presence of God and hears the word of the Lord--he hears what God reveals to him and it is his job then to transmit the same to others.  Samuel learns to be prophetic when Eli counsels him to share what the Lord has said, no matter how difficult it may be for Eli to hear.  It takes courage to do what a prophet must do and it is often heart-breaking.  But this kind of sharing made Samuel’s reputation and in spite of the “word” of the Lord being rare in those days, people paid attention.  The word for rare in 3:1 also means “costly, weighty and splendid.”


            Indeed, for the next thing we read about is that the word of Samuel came to all Israel and they rose up against the Philistine oppressors[3].  God rightly declared that He was about to do something to make the ears of people quiver with terror.  God sent them forth to defeat.  4,000 men fell in the first battle.  Then, without specific instruction to do so, the elders went to Shiloh and commandeered the ark.  They took the ark with them in battle foolishly assuming that God was with them.  He was not.  The nation was so back-slidden, immoral and disloyal to God that 30,000 soldiers died, and Eli’s two worthless sons as well, the ark was stolen and Israel was completely humbled.[4]  The panic in the camp of the Philistines leads us to the first use of the expression “the hand of the Lord.”  The Philistines remembered what the hand of the Lord had accomplished against the Egyptians in days gone by--the Philistines seemed to recognize that God was for His people powerfully when His people were for Him!  The Israelites were foolish to assume that God was with them, that they could depart from His ways, worship any way they chose and as many gods as they chose and still call upon Him.  No one stands before God in his un-holiness, that is, in arrogant pride, unbelief or immorality.  No one.  The hand of the Lord is against such a person.  The ark of the covenant was the gracious dwelling place of God for those who reverenced Him, not some mascot dragged along to raise the spirits of the troops.  The obtaining of the ark was faithless and vain; it was rank superstition.  Two errors existed: misplaced reliance on the ark, and blatant neglect of the things of God--both errors co-existed in Israel at that time.  But, still, God sent them out to be dealt with by astonishing and terrible defeat.  The lesson is plain: be converted to God sincerely, inwardly or suffer death, humiliation and defeat.  Obey and prosper, disobey and perish is the biblical principle in place here as always.

            The “ark narratives,” contained in 1 Samuel 4-7, could have been named “the course of folly.”  In acting as superstitiously as they did, the Israelites were no better than pagans, and the Philistines were pagans.  What did they believe in?  They believed in many gods, many false gods--gods that actually were no gods at all.  Therefore the Philistines, in essence, ascribed to the view of a universe subject to blind chance.  If you and I think about it, we know that chance is a non-explanation; chance creates nothing, chance explains nothing.  While the Philistines correctly perceived that God had departed from Israel; but they didn’t know the remedy (repentance and conversion to God).  So they foolishly presented the ark as a war trophy to their god Dagon in Ashdod[5].

            Here’s what happened and what it meant.  The first night was tough for Dagon, when the priests returned to Dagon’s temple the next day, Dagon was prostrate before the ark--that is, in a posture of worship.  So we celebrate the true word, “every knee shall bow.”  The priests set the image of Dagon back up assuming, well, you know, accidents happen.  Perhaps they thought that a local earthquake happened--local to the temple?--while everyone slept.  After all, the had been a lot of celebrating.  The second night was even worse for Dagon.  The text records that his head and hands were severed--cut, not broken off--and placed on the threshold of the temple and the rest of the statue had been shattered into irrecoverable pieces!  Some read, only a stump remained.  The severed head and hands were a gesture, a message and that message contrasts strongly with the powerful and active hand of the Lord.  It was a declaration of victory in combat. In that culture a vanquished foe had his head cut from his body and the hands as well. The evidence of certain defeat before the Philistines must have been very disconcerting: Dagon had been dismembered by the hand of the Lord and yet they persisted in trying to explain it away as an accident, mere happenstance--instead of the hand of the Lord.  Of course, the priests of that cult never stepped on the threshold of their temples again--you can’t be too careful!  Deadly pestilence, with tumors, famine and desolation, had also broken out in Ashdod and the environs at the exact same time--probably just another coincidence. And, understandably, consequently, the people of Ashdod arranged for the ark to be shipped out to Gath.  The same thing happened in Gath, when the ark, their “war trophy” was displayed--tumors and death everywhere.  Another coincidence, of course.  The decision was quickly made to relocate the ark to Ekron.  In spite of the official view that the other two epidemics were merely happenstance, the decision to relocate the ark threw the people of Ekron into a panic.  The people of Ekron urgently petitioned the rulers of the Philistine pentapolis, Ashdod, Gath, Ekron, Askelon and Gaza, the five fortified cities of Philistia, to meet  and to arrange for the ark to be shipped home.  The sweet taste of victory was souring in their mouths by the Hand of God.  Seven months of this affliction were enough.  Incidentally, 1 Samuel 5-6 may represent the earliest recorded outbreak of the bubonic plague in history.


            The rulers called for the priests and diviners and they were told not to send it back empty-handed.  These counselors advised the rulers to have five gold tumors and five gold rats crafted as a guilt offering[6], in payment for the theft of the ark.  They also recommended that a new cart be built and that it be drawn by two cows who had recently calved to draw the cart to Beth Shemish.  Perhaps, they reasoned, the God of the Israelites will remove His hand from against us if indeed He is the cause of all this suffering.  In this respect, I want to share 1 Samuel 6:8-9:


"And take the ark of the LORD and place it on the cart; and put the articles of gold which you return to Him as a guilt offering in a box by its side. Then send it away that it may go.

"And watch, if it goes up by the way of its own territory to Beth-shemesh, then He has done us this great evil. But if not, then we shall know that it was not His hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance."


This may strike you as being very like the reading of tea leaves, but the preference of the Philistines was that they be able to explain away the terrible afflictions of their people as the result of mere chance--they resisted the idea of a God who is involved in and directing human history.  In this they sound remarkably like several modern schools of thought I can readily think of: natural philosophy, Darwinists, materialists and Marxists. 

            God proceeds to blow up their preferred random universe.  The cows, contrary to bovine nature, abandon their calves and without any human guidance head directly for Beth-Shemish, veering neither to the left, or to the right and arrive in the midst of the wheat harvest there.  The five Philistine rulers watched the whole process, from secret, and then returned to report their findings[7].  It is a sure thing that they were rejoicing to be rid of the ark and it may be that their allegiance to blind chance suffered a serious blow.  So those who were foolish enough to treat the ark disrespectfully, as a war trophy receive the just recompense of their folly.


            The people of Beth-Shemish, however, appear to have had their own issues of disrespect to deal with.  While it is true that they did offer up a sacrifice upon its return, some of the people there treated the ark as a mere curiosity: they looked into the ark.  The Lord smote 50,070 people because of this profaning of His ark of the covenant.  Because they stood before the ark in their un-holiness, without repentance, or conversion unto God, a slaughter greater than that effected by the Philistines befell them.  And it was this tragedy that finally got the attention of the nation Israel and a period of lamentation for corporate sin, some twenty years in duration, began.  And it was said, “Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God? And to whom shall He go up from us?”  That, of course, is the question.  Some men came from Kir-jath-je-a-rim and took the ark to Abinadab, whose son Eleazar was appointed to keep it for Israel.  For twenty years, Eleazar watched over the ark with deference and care--or so we may infer from the cessation of the outbreaks and plagues.  The hand of the Lord, according to the record at least, was stayed from further harming His people.


            At the end of twenty years, Samuel emerges as the judge of all Israel in that he calls a convocation at Mizpeh.  Judging was more about administration than about trying judicial cases, although he also did some of that. This act of nationwide consecration, consisted of pouring out water as a sign of contrition (inner dissolution through pain, misery and distress) with fasting and prayer, was taken by the Philistines as a prelude to war--a very reasonable presumption.  So they called up the troops and prepared to attack Israel at Mizpeh.  The Israelites, seized by panic by this development, called upon Samuel to keep crying unto the Lord.  He took a suckling lamb, at least seven days old, and offered it up whole, as a burnt offering unto the Lord.  Then, as the Philistines were about to attack, the Lord “thundered” against them and threw them into such panic that they broke rank and ran.  The Israelites pursued them and slaughtered them as far as Beth Car--an unknown place but some believe it was near the location of their tragic defeat some twenty years prior.  And that is where Samuel raised up the stone Ebenezar meaning “Hitherto the Lord has helped us.”  This reversal signaled a change in favor, or the attainment of right standing before God for Israel and “the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.” (7:13)


            The hand of the Lord is both the sovereignty of God and His active participation in history, past present and future.  When the people of God turned their back on Him and broke their covenants through sin, or even indifference, the hand of the Lord  was against them.  This is how it works when you are dealing with a holy and sovereign God.  If His hand is against you, He will cause you to encounter His wrath through loss, difficulty and defeat--He may even lead you straight into it.  But when your heart is sincerely towards Him, He will be both your advance and your rear guard.  We should learn that disobedience is very costly and that restoration can take much longer than we might wish. Again, the lesson is plain: be converted to God sincerely, inwardly or suffer death, humiliation and defeat.  The choice is ours because if we are sincerely converted to God, the hand of God will be for us and, eventually, if not immediately, our laments will be turned to jubilation and the sweet taste of victory will be in our mouths forever.                   Amen.

[1] The house of worship at Shiloh was a permanent structure--there were several cultic centers in Israel.  Each building served to replace the tent of meeting which had accompanied the people of Israel in the wilderness wanderings.  It contained rooms to house the Levitical priests who came to serve at the time of sacrifices--Samuel probably inhabited one of these priestly cells.  Door posts became relevant and folding doors replaced tent flaps.

[2] Disaster was to befall Eli, his sons Hophni and Phinehas (and Phinehas’ wife) as well as Shiloh itself.  Eli’s daughter-in-law observed that with the loss of the ark, the glory of the Lord had departed from their midst.  Death is the punishment for showing contempt for the priesthood (Deut. 17:12) which Eli’s sons did through abuse of their office.  Furthermore, as if any further indictment is necessary, Eli’s wicked sons were guilty of disobeying their parent (Deut. 21:18-21).  These are the just reasons God held for slaying them.  There was no atonement for their sins due to the sworn oath of the Lord! However, Eli remains implicated in their sins for failure to restrain them.  He joins them in death, at age 98, upon hearing that the ark of the covenant has been stolen.

[3] The Philistines were probably derived from Aegean cultures, possibly from Caphtor (Crete?).  They gave their name to the region: Palestine comes from Philistine. 

[4] The battle took place around 1200-1000 BC at Izbet Sartea.  This town was a primitive Israelite outpost, 2 miles east of Aphek, on the road to Shiloh.  The sins of Eli’s sons cost the lives of many soldiers.  A potsherd, or pottery fragment, known as the “Isbet Sartan Ostracon” was unearthed in the late 1970’s from a grain silo in the ruins.  It bore five lines of inscription, the fifth line was an alphabet.  The first four lines, according to William H. Shea, were deciphered to read: “Unto the field we came (unto) Aphek from Shiloh, The Kittim took it (the ark) and came to Azor, (to) Dagon, lord of Ashdod, (and to) Gath.  (It returned to) Kiriath Jearim  The companion of the foot soldiers, Hophni, came to tell the elders,’A horse has come (and) upon (it was my) brother for us to bury’” Eleven of the key words in the inscription appear in the parallel account of the capture of the ark in chapters 4-6.” If this reading holds up, it could be the earliest known extra biblical reference to an OT event and an OT person, Hophni.

[5] Dagon, the half man/half fish god, was identified with the generative and vivifying power of nature and with grain.  He was the father of Baal, the storm god of fertility.  Astoreth, the goddess of love and fertility, was Baal’s wife and she vied with Asherah, the mother goddess and consort of El.  El was the creator god in the early Canaanite pantheon.  Depraved sexuality was a ritualistic sign of the influences of Baal and Astoreth whose worship transpired in the oak groves on high places.  Participation in these fertility cults was a indicator of moral and spiritual degeneracy in Israel--idolatrous practices provoked Yahweh to wrath because they were violations of His covenant law: Thou shalt have no other gods besides Me.

[6] Called “asham,” this is the price paid for theft.  So these gifts were expiatory in nature.  But because the priests still adhered to the principle of chance governing everything, they added that the proposed remedy was only tentative--a possibility.  Symbolic expiation has a long history and every occurs within the Christian tradition as in tokens left at roadside shrines in Mexico.  These tokens could express either a petition, or thanksgiving.

[7] The priests designed an impossible task because they didn’t believe that God would prove Himself in this.