God is Not Safe

Bible Passage: 1 Samuel 5-6

Have you ever had something stolen from you? It’s a pretty nasty feeling. We’ve had a car stolen. I’ve had my wallet stolen more than once. It’s not a good feeling to know something is gone and you’re probably not getting it back.

Last week, Israel lost the most valuable thing they had – the ark of the covenant. And humanly speaking, it should have been the end of a religion. How could an ancient god recover from something like that? Let’s find out.

1 When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon.

The glory left Israel and went to Philistia, their enemies to the west. They set the ark up next to their own “god” as a trophy. Their purpose was to humiliate Israel and Yahweh.

3 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.

The position of Dagon suggests that he is worshipping Yahweh – face down before the ark. And in a funny way, the people have to pick Dagon up and put him back… because he has no power… because he’s not real.

4 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.

God turns the humiliation back on the Philistines. The fact that the head and hands were cut off signifies that Dagon is dead and powerless.

The message is clear. God is not going to share His glory with false gods. That’s true of the wooden and stone kind. It’s also true of the things we worship today. Success. Control. Money. Popularity. Entertainment. Relationships. Health. God will never be OK sitting on the shelf next to our other idols. The weight of His glory will always crush those other gods.

And it will crush us too. Watch what happens next.

6 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. 7 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.”

The Philistines make an observation that I don’t want us to miss. They say, “His hand is hard against us” – in other words, God is not easy-going. He’s not taking it easy on them. Verse 6 calls God “heavy-handed” – same word for heavy that we discussed last week. God’s glory rested heavy on His enemies. He literally afflicted them with a plague.

And God doesn’t need me to explain this away or “defend” His actions. He sent a plague on these people. He’s God and that’s what He did.

And after that, the Philistines play a game of hot potato with the ark. They send it from city to city and each time the people are afflicted with disease.

Finally, after seven months of this, they decide that trying to humiliate Yahweh was not worth it anymore. But they come up with a very strange plan of sending the ark home.

2 And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us with what we shall send it to its place.” 3 They said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty, but by all means return him a guilt offering. Then you will be healed, and it will be known to you why his hand does not turn away from you.”

This doesn’t sound like a bad idea. But it makes me wonder… why didn’t they just repent and worship the true God? There’s something instructive here. Putting God at a “safe distance” is no better than putting Him on a shelf, because we still think we are in control.

4 And they said, “What is the guilt offering that we shall return to him?” They answered, “Five golden tumors and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines, for the same plague was on all of you and on your lords. 5 So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel. Perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land. 6 Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had dealt severely with them, did they not send the people away, and they departed? 7 Now then, take and prepare a new cart and two milk cows on which there has never come a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them. 8 And take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart and put in a box at its side the figures of gold, which you are returning to him as a guilt offering. Then send it off and let it go its way 9 and watch. If it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth-shemesh, then it is he who has done us this great harm, but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by coincidence.”

This is an interesting plan. They are testing to see if Yahweh is really punishing them. They know about what happened to the Egyptians and they don’t want to make the same mistake. So, they are testing God.

And they have really “stacked the deck” against God. What do you think would normally happen if you separate two milk cows from their calves? Which direction do you think they will go? Home! Back to their calves! There is no logical reason why two cows would start walking the other direction… and pulling carts is not even the job of a milk cow. This is almost a joke. But watch what happens…

10 The men did so and took two milk cows and yoked them to the cart and shut up their calves at home. 11 And they put the ark of the Lord on the cart and the box with the golden mice and the images of their tumors. 12 And the cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went. They turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh.

Brothers and sisters, God doesn’t need us. He let the ark be captured and He got it back on His own. He doesn’t need our help. We don’t need to be worried about God’s glory.

We need to be far more worried about our own response to this God.

When the Israelites saw the cart coming, they rejoiced because the ark was back in Israel. And I wish that was the end of the story, but it’s not.

14 The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there. A great stone was there. And they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15 And the Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the box that was beside it, in which were the golden figures, and set them upon the great stone. And the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices on that day to the Lord.

19 And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the Lord. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the Lord had struck the people with a great blow. 20 Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?” 21 So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the Lord. Come down and take it up to you.”

This is the surprising part of the story. And I can’t read it without thinking of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark – the scene at the end when they open the ark and angel of the Lord melts the faces off all of the Nazis.

But these aren’t Nazis. The ark is back in Israel… why is God killing His own people? Why is He still being heavy-handed?

The short answer is because they broke at least three Levitical laws. They sacrifice cows instead of bulls. They parade the ark around instead of covering it. And some of them were stupid enough to look inside the ark.

But the big picture is that God is holy. He may be their God, but He is still holy.

And God is not OK with indifference to His holiness. He was just as dangerous to the Israelites as He was to the pagans. God is not easy-going.

In other words, He’s not safe.

In the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there’s a conversation between Susan and Mr. Beaver. The beaver explains to Susan that their king is a great lion named Aslan. Susan is surprised because she assumed their king was a man. She’s nervous about meeting a lion and she asks the beaver if he is safe. Mr. Beaver responds by saying, “Of course he’s not safe. But He is good. He’s the king!”

We’ve been spending a lot of time in the Old Testament. But please don’t forget – this is the same God. There is no difference between the character of this God and the character of Jesus. They are One in the same.

Jesus is not safe either. Jared Wilson wrote an entire book devoted to this idea – that the Jesus of the Bible is not the Jesus of our culture. It’s called “Your Jesus is Too Safe”.

In one chapter, he talks about the ark of the covenant. The ark represented the glory of God, the presence of God, and sometimes the judgment of God in the midst of His people. But Jesus was actually the glory, presence, and judgment of God walking among us!

Jesus was verbally abusive to the religious leaders. He drove businessmen out of the temple with a whip! Jesus revealed to us God’s grace, patience, and compassion as well. But He was no less than the glory of God walking among us.

We have to get used to the idea that God is both holy and merciful. He is both just and gracious. And we do actually see both in 1 Samuel. These people were all guilty of either rejecting God or treating Him with indifference. They tried to humiliate Him or they ignored His instructions. Things could have been much worse.

But instead, God wrote a story that again bears the marks of Jesus.

They mishandled the glory of the Lord… and so did we.

The wrong sacrifices were made. But one day God’s Son would be sacrificed in our place.

They put the ark on display among false gods – just as God’s Son was placed high on Calvary among criminals.

They tried to humiliate the God of Israel. At that time, he didn’t let it happen – but one day He would. Our Lord suffered the humiliation of the cross.

The false god fell before the ark – heads and hands cut off – dead and powerless. And how did Jesus appear?

See from His head, His hands, His feet

Sorrow and love flow mingled down

Did ever such love and sorrow meet?

Or thorns compose, so rich a crown

When I survey the wondrous Cross

On which the Prince of Glory died

My richest gain, I count but loss

And pour contempt on all my pride

The cross is the only place that the holiness and grace of God make sense, side by side. How can a holy God deal with people like me? I deserve the plagues. I deserve to be struck down for my indifference – for my rebellion – for my idolatry. I know it in my heart.

In the end, He is not OK with our idols – whether we are pagans or His church! And He is not safe. The cross shows us how serious God is about our sin. He must be pretty serious about it if dealing with it meant the death of His only Son. More than that, God’s anger for sin fell on Jesus. God was heavy-handed with His own Son for us.

He’s not safe – but He is good. I don’t know where you stand with Him today. I don’t know what you think of Him. But I do know what He thinks of you. You are either safe in Jesus or you are not safe at all.

Jesus is offered to us free of cost – no bargaining, no righteousness required. The only way to avoid the heavy hand of God is to receive Jesus empty-handed. Trying to earn God’s grace is the same thing as rejecting it.

Repent and believe for the kingdom of God is at hand!