The unthinkable has happened—the ark of the covenant has been captured by Israel’s archenemies, the Philistines. While it rested in the tabernacle, it was a symbol of God’s presence with His people. In the same way, its removal is a sign to Israel that ” ‘the glory has departed’ ” (1 Sam. 4:22); that is, that God has removed His presence to chastise His people for their sin. God has allowed the ark to be taken. However, as we will see, He is fully capable of bringing it back.
The Philistines take the ark to their city of Ashdod, site of the temple of Dagon, a fertility god worshiped not just by the Philistines but by other people groups in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Phoenicia during this time. The ark is set “by Dagon.” The Philistines may be placing the ark before their god as a symbol of his “victory” over the Israelites’ deity. Or they simply may be adding another deity to their own pantheon, trying, in their own way, to show respect to Yahweh. But God will not submit to be part of a pantheon. As Matthew Henry writes, “They were mistaken in the God of Israel when, in putting His ark by Dagon’s image, they intended to do Him honor; for He is not worshiped at all if He is not worshiped alone.” Thus, on the following morning, the Philistines find the statue of Dagon fallen from its pedestal and lying prostrate before the ark of the covenant. Their lifeless statue bows to Yahweh, but the Philistines themselves will not. Instead, they nonchalantly place the helpless Dagon back on his pedestal. But it is to no avail—the next morning he lies prostrate again, his head and hands having been broken off in his latest fall. Proceeding from folly to folly, the Philistines then begin to revere the threshold where Dagon’s body parts rested. “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,” Henry writes in his commentary.
Having humbled the Philistines’ deity, God then begins to afflict the Philistine people. Our text says He “ravages” them, probably a reference to sudden death, perhaps caused by bubonic plague spread by rats. Furthermore, He causes many to suffer in a lingering way with tumors. In numerous ways, God is displaying His power lest these pagan people question His supremacy.