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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 5

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-5


1 Samuel 5:1. “Ashdod.” One of the five Philistine satrapies, about thirty-two miles north of Gaza, and about a mile from the sea. It is now the little village of Esdûd.

1 Samuel 5:2. “Dagon.” One of the chief Philistine deities. “With regard to the image of Dagon, compounded of a man and fish, i.e., of a human body with head and hands, and a fish’s tail, see Stark’s Gaza and Layard’s Nineveh, where there is a bas-relief from Khorsabad, in which ‘a figure is seen swimming in the sea, with the upper part of the body resembling a bearded man, wearing the ordinary conical tiara of royalty, adorned with elephant’s tusks, and the lower part resembling the body of a fish.’ (Starke.) As the bas-relief represents (according to Layard) the war of an Assyrian king with the inhabitants of the coasts of Syria, most probably of Sargon, who had to carry on a long conflict with the Philistian towns, more especially with Ashdod, there can hardly be any doubt that we have a representation of the Philistian Dagon here. This deity was a personification of the generative and vivifying principle of nature for which the fish, with its innumerable multiplication, was specially adapted, and set forth the Giver of all earthly good.” (Keil.)

1 Samuel 5:4. “The word were is not in the original, and would be better omitted; the head and palms of Dagon, being cut off, were lying on the threshold. Here was the miracle, and it was very significant. It was done by the Divine power. The head and palms of Dagon, the chiefest of his members, the emblems of his strength, were lopped off.” (Wordsworth.) “Only the stump,” etc. Literally, “only Dagon, the fish (from dag, a fish), the ignoblest part, was left.” (Wordsworth.)

1 Samuel 5:5. “Therefore neither the priests—tread on the threshold,” etc. “Cf. Zephaniah 1:9. ‘On the same day will I punish all those that leap on (or over) the threshold.’ No doubt this phrase was intended (perhaps with some irony) to describe the worshippers of the Philistian Dagon.” (Hobson.)



I. God works in silence and in secret against false systems of religion to give men a public and sudden proof of their folly. Dagon’s downfall took place in the secrecy of the night: when daylight came, his destruction was made apparent. God’s kingdom of nature, and His kingdom of grace, are alike in this, that neither “come with observation” (Luke 17:20). All the winter nature seems to be at a standstill, but all the time secret preparation is going on beneath the ground and within the plants for the outburst of life and beauty in the spring. And in His spiritual kingdom there have often been times and seasons in which there has seemed to be hardly any true religious life left in the world, when solitary believers in God here and there have been ready to exclaim with the prophet of old, “I, even I only, am left” (1 Kings 19:14). But it has often been found that such seasons of darkness have been followed by a day in which the truth of God has won great victories in the hearts of men, giving proof that His spirit has been, during all the long night, working silently and secretly in men’s hearts. So it was before the downfall of Paganism after the coming of Christ, and before the overthrow of the Papal tyranny at the time of the Reformation. When the pious Israelite lay down that night and thought of the sacred ark of the covenant in the house of Dagon, he must have been ready to exclaim with the dying wife of Phinehas, “The glory is departed from Israel.” But God at that very hour was working in secret, and was dealing a heavy blow at the idolatry of the Philistines.

II. Even miraculous evidence does not always suffice to bring men to acknowledge God. Experience of the fallacy of the advice of a quack is the surest way, we think, to lead men to put faith in the advice of a skilful physician; and when men have had the powerlessness of the gods whom they worship proved to them by unmistakable evidence, we should expect them to be ready to embrace a religion based upon supernatural evidence if history and experience did not testify to the contrary. Dagon testified by his first fall that “an idol is nothing in the world” (1 Corinthians 8:4). But it brought no conviction into the minds of the Philistine priests. They “set him in his place again.” His second fall upon the threshold seemed to tell them that he was only fit to be trodden under foot, yet they venerated the spot upon which he fell. But the Philistines were not more unwilling to receive evidence of the truth than the majority of mankind. Israel was formed into a nation by miraculous power, and sustained miraculously for forty years, and over and over again were delivered from their distresses by miraculous interposition, yet God’s testimony concerning them is, “Ephraim is joined unto idols” (Hosea 4:17). The Son of God Himself proved that He came from the Father by His “mighty works,” but they made no impression upon the mass of the Jewish people. A delusion proved is not a delusion abandoned. And Our Lord Himself tells us the reason why. It is because “men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19).


1 Samuel 5:1-5. Dagon before the ark, or heathenism conquered at the feet of the living God.

1. In the domain of its power—its own abode (1 Samuel 5:1-2).

2. Through the secret demonstration of the power of the Lord (1 Samuel 5:3-4).

3. Amid the destruction of its power and glory—the face, as a sign of its worthless glory and vain beauty, struck down to the earth; the head also, as the seat of the wisdom which is alienated from God, and opposed to God; the hands, as a symbol of the powers of darkness which work therein, cut off (1 Samuel 5:3-5). The fall of heathenism.

1. It is thrown down before the power of God, manifesting Himself as present in His Word (the law and testimony in the ark).

2. Its power broken and destroyed through the secretly working power of the Spirit of God.

3. Ever a more and more glorious revelation of the power of God, which casts down heathenism in the light of the day of salvation.—Lange’s Commentary.

Where God comes with His ark and with His testimony, there He smites the idols to the ground; idolatry must fall where His gospel finds a place.—Berlenberger Bible.

If men’ did not mistake God, they could not arise to such heights of impiety; the acts of His just judgments are imputed to impotence. Dagon had never so great a day, so many sacrifices, as now that he seems to take the God of Israel prisoner. Where should the captive be bestowed, but in custody of the victor? It is not love, but insultation, that lodges the ark close beside Dagon. What a spectacle was this, to see uncircumcised Philistines laying their profane hands on the testimony of God’s presence! to see the glorious mercy-seat under the roof of an idol! to see the two cherubims spreading their wings under a false god! O the deep and holy wisdom of the Almighty, which over-reaches all the finite conceits of His creatures, who, while He seems most to neglect Himself, fetches about most glory to His own name! He winks and sits still on purpose to see what men would do, and is content to suffer indignity from His creature for a time, that He may be everlastingly magnified in His justice and power: that honour pleaseth God and men best, which is raised out of contempt.… If the Israelites put confidence in the ark, can we marvel that the Philistines did put confidence in that power, which, as they thought, had conquered the ark? The less is ever subject unto the greater; what could they now think, but that heaven and earth were theirs? Security and presumption attend ever at the threshold of ruin. God will let them sleep in this confidence; in the morning they shall find how vainly they have dreamed! Now they begin to find they have but gloried in their own plague, and overthrown nothing but their own peace.… Dagon hath a house, when God hath but a tabernacle; it is no measuring of religion by outward glory.—Bishop Hall.

The foolish Philistines thought that the same house could hold both the ark and Dagon, as if an insensible statue were a fit companion for the living God. In the morning they come to thank Dagon for the victory, and to fall down before him before whom they thought the God of Israel was fallen; and lo! now they find the keeper flat on his face before the prisoner. Had they formerly, of their own accord, with awful reverence, laid him in this posture of a humble prostration, yet God would not have brooked the indignity of such an entertainment. But seeing they durst set up their idol cheek by cheek with their Maker, let them go read their folly in the temple floor, and confess that He who did cast their god so low, could cast them lower. Such a shame doth the Lord owe all them which will be making matches betwixt Him and Belial. Yet they consider not, How should this god raise us who is not able to stand or rise himself? Strange they must confess it, that whereas Dagon was wont to stand, and themselves to fall down; now Dagon was fallen down, and themselves stood, and must help up with their own god. Yea, their god seems to worship them on his face, and to crave that succour from them which he was never able to give them. Yet in his place they set him again, and now lift up those hands to him which helped to lift him up and prostrate those faces to him before whom he lay prostrate. So can idolatry turn men into the stocks and stones which they worship: “They that make them are like unto them.” But will the Lord put it up thus? No, the next fall shall burst it to pieces; that they may sensibly perceive how God scorns a competitor, and that there is no agreement betwixt Him and idols. Now, what is the difference between the Philistines and the Papists? The Philistines would set God in the temple of idols; the Papists would set idols in the temple of God. Both agree in this, that they would make God and idols agree together.—T. Adams.

1 Samuel 5:3. Because you have broken your purpose, do not allow it to go unmended. Even the heathen, with so base a conception of divinity as Dagon was, when Dagon fell to the ground, lifted him up again and put him in his place. When, not your idol, but your bright ideal, falls to the ground, though its head and its feet be broken, lift it up and put it in its place again. Because you have broken faith and fealty to that which you meant to be, and meant to do, it is no reason why you should not swear again, and again go forward.—Beecher.

1 Samuel 5:4. The prevalence of idolatry in the heart of man. Dagon has still his temple there. The great idolatry of mankind is self.… Christ is the true ark of the covenant, and when He takes possession of the temple of man’s heart, then the Dagon of the place is dethroned; it loses its head and hands, its carnal wisdom and carnal works, at the very threshold of the sanctuary, but still the stump is left; however powerful the principle of indwelling grace may be, there is still the remnant of indwelling sin. And while we might unfeignedly desire that even the stump of sin and self were gone, we may well be thankful if no more be left.… We know not whether the priests of Dagon erected another idol upon the stump of the broken one; but this we know, that many idols are contending for the throne of man’s heart, and when one Dagon is deposed, he leaves his stump upon which another is quickly raised. But the same Almighty grace which cast down one shall triumph over all. The covenant ensures the death of sin, the life of grace, and the crown of glory, and when grace has brought you to glory you will rejoice to all eternity, that “only the stump of Dagon was left.”—Fenn.

Verses 6-12


1 Samuel 5:6. “He destroyed them.” From 1 Samuel 6:4-5; 1 Samuel 6:11; 1 Samuel 6:18, where, besides the votive offering referring to the bodily disease, a second, the golden mice, is expressly mentioned, it is clear that, in addition to the corporal plague, another, a land-plague, had fallen on the Philistines. “He destroyed them” (like “destruction” or “desolation,” in Micah 6:13, used of persons) denotes a wasting of the land, that is, of the produce of the fields, as the support of human life, by mice which “destroy the land” (1 Samuel 6:5). (Erdmann.) “We must go to the East for parallels to these ancient plagues. A parallel to this plague of mice is furnished in the recent history of Ceylon. In 1848, the coffee-crop of that fertile island was utterly destroyed by mice, and the people, losing their staple harvest, were reduced to the most terrible misery and want.” (S. Cox.) “Emerods.” “The disease we call bleeding piles,” a disease very common in Eastern lands, where the extreme heat induces indisposition to exercise, and the liver is very apt to grow sluggish and weak. The word is vernacular English for the Greek compound from which we derive the technical medical terms, “hemorrhoids, hemorrhage,” which designate a flow of blood. (S. Cox.) “The heathen generally regarded diseases affecting the secret parts of the body as punishments from the gods for trespasses committed against themselves.” (Jamieson.)

1 Samuel 5:8. “Let the ark of the God of Israel,” etc. The princes of the Philistines probably imagined that the calamity which the Ashdodites attributed to the ark of God, either did not proceed from the ark, i.e., from the God of Israel, or if actually connected with its presence, simply arose from the fact that the city itself was hateful to the God of the Israelites, or that the Dagon of Ashdod was weaker than the Jehovah of Israel; they therefore resolved to let the ark be taken to Gath in order to pacify the Ashdodites.” (Keil.) “Gath.” Also one of the five Philistian satrapies. Its site is not accurately known, but it is generally identified with the modern Tell-es-Sâfieh, 10 miles east of Ashdod, and about the same distance S. by E. of Ekron. (See Smith’s Biblical Dictionary.)

1 Samuel 5:10. “Ekron.” Another of the princely cities, now Akir.

1 Samuel 5:12. “The cry of the city went up to heaven.” “The disease is attended with acute pain” (Jamieson).

Note.—This chapter, with the following, strikingly illustrates the non-missionary character of the old dispensation. For centuries the Israelites were near neighbours of the Philistines, and had some acquaintance with their political and religious institutions. Yet the Philistines had at this time only a garbled and distorted account (1 Samuel 4:8) of the history of the Israelites, derived probably from tradition, and seemingly no particular knowledge of their religion, nor did the Israelites ever attempt, though they were in the times of Samson and David in close connection with Philistia, to carry thither a knowledge of what they yet believed to be the only true religion. This religious isolation was no doubt a part of the Divine plan for the development of the theocratic kingdom, guarding it against the taints of idolatry, and permitting the chosen people thoroughly to apprehend and appropriate the truth which was then to go from them to all the world. But if we look for the natural causes which produced this isolation in ancient times, we shall find one in the narrowness of civilisation of ancient times, where the absence of means of social and literary communication fostered mutual ignorance and made sympathy almost impossible, and another in the peculiarly national local nature of the religion of Israel, with its central sanctuary and its whole system grounded in the past history of the nation, presenting thus great obstacles to a foreigner who wished to become a worshipper of Jehovah. (Amer. Tranr. of Lange’s Commentary).



I. When judgment begins with the people of God it is certain to extend to the ungodly. If a human king is just he will visit his own family with punishment if they break the laws of his kingdom. But the very fact that he does so is a pledge that he will not spare the rest of his subjects if they are found guilty. Judgment will begin where transgression ought, least of all, to appear, and where, if it appear, it ought to be least tolerated; but should the same sins be committed by others, it may be regarded as certain that it will extend to them also. God deals with men as a good king and father deals with his children. He will certainly inflict chastisement upon those who are most nearly related to Him by moral character, but He will not spare those who are utterly ungodly. God’s ancient people, at this period in their history, needed chastisement, and they had it. He avenged the dishonour which had been done to His name by those whom He “had nourished and brought up” as His children (Isaiah 1:2) by a heavy visitation. But He did not spare the more guilty Canaanites. When judgment “begins at the house of God,” the question forces itself upon the mind, “Where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (1 Peter 4:17-18).

II. When the ungodly have been used as instruments of Divine chastisement, they are chastened themselves to teach them that they were not chosen for their moral excellence. Sometimes delay takes place in the execution of a criminal, not because there is any reason to show him favour, but that he may be used to bring others to justice. When he has been used for this purpose he finds that the same law which convicts them punishes him also. It is often so in the righteous government of God. He selected Nebuchadnezzar to be His battle-axe when Israel needed chastisement, but he was but a reprieved criminal, and when he had fulfilled the Divine purpose he was made to feel that it was so. Here the Philistines were made the instruments of God’s judgment upon His people, but they soon found that they had not been selected for this work because they were held in favour by Jehovah. The hand of God upon them soon taught them that they also were under His displeasure—that God had, in the language of the prophet, taken “the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of His fury, and put it into the hand of them that afflicted Israel” (Isaiah 51:22-23).

III. There may be an admission that God has smitten without true repentance. The Philistines confessed that the hand of Jehovah was sore upon them, and upon their god, but it led to no investigation into His claims to their homage—to no change in their disposition towards Him. Pharaoh acknowledged that “the Lord was righteous, and that he and his people were wicked” (Exodus 9:27), but his admission had no effect upon his conduct. Saul admitted that God had forsaken him, and was visiting him for his sin, but he turned not to Him who had smitten him, but, in direct opposition to the Divine command, sought counsel of a witch. Many men in every age are compelled to acknowledge that God is visiting them, yet they will not turn to Him in repentance. They may cry to God in their despair, but they give evidence that it is not sin that troubles them, but the punishment of sin. Like the Philistines, they would be rid of their suffering, but they are not willing to give up their Dagons, and to give glory and render obedience to the Lord of hosts.


1 Samuel 5:6. The hand of the Almighty, which moved them not in falling on their god, falls now nearer on their persons, and strikes them in their bodies which would not feel themselves stricken in their idol. Pain shall humble them, when shame cannot.—Bp. Hall.

1 Samuel 5:7. They should have rather parted with their sins than with the ark, and have said unto their sins “Get thee hence,” as Isaiah 30:22. What have we to do any more with Dagon who cannot save himself, much less us, from the Divine vengeance? Wicked men are glad upon all occasions to be rid of God and His ark, His ordinances, which they, Philistine-like, have rather as prisoners than as privileges.—Trapp.

The emerods were not a disease beyond the compass of natural causes; neither was it hard for the wiser sort to give a reason of their complaint; yet they ascribe it to the hand of God: the knowledge and operation of secondary causes should be no prejudice to the first. They are worse than the Philistines who, when they see the means, do not acknowledge their first Mover, whose active just power is no less seen in employing ordinary means than in raising up extraordinary; neither doth He less smite by a common fever, than by an avenging angel.—Bp. Hall.

1 Samuel 5:10. The struggles of the Philistines against Jehovah tended only to bring the ark nearer to its own home, and to bring more evils on its enemies. The sufferings of Ekron were worse than those of Ashdod, and the sufferings of Gath were more grievous than those of Ekron. So all the assaults of the enemies of the faith against the ark of Christ’s church will serve only to bring her nearer to her heavenly and eternal home.—Wordsworth.

Thus they send the plague of God up and down to their neighbours. Wicked men use to draw others into partnership of their condemnation.—Trapp.

1 Samuel 5:11. When man’s heart will not give up its worthless idols, though God’s hand draw it to Himself by affliction and suffering, then the distance between him and the God that offers to be with him becomes greater in proportion to the severity and painfulness of the suffering felt by the soul alienated from God and devoted to idolatry. We shall at last desire to be entirely away from God, as the Philistines at last resolved to carry the ark over the border, that they might have nothing more to do with the God of Israel, while, on the contrary, the ark should have warned them to give glory to the God of Israel, who had so unmistakably and gloriously revealed Himself to them.—Lange’s Commentary.

God knows how to bring the stubbornest enemy on his knees, and make him do that out of fear which His best child would do out of love or duty … It is happy that God hath such store of plagues and thunderbolts for the wicked: if He had not a fire of judgment, wherewith iron hearts might be made flexible, He would want obedience, and the world peace.—Bp. Hall.

1 Samuel 5:12. The cry that ascends to heaven over sufferings and afflictions that are the consequences of wickedness, is by no means a sign that need teaches prayer; it may be made wholly from a heathen point of view. The cry that penetrates into heaven is “Against thee have I sinned,” and is the expression of an upright, earnest penitence, which is awakened in the heart by the chastisement of God’s hand.—Lange’s Commentary.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 5". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/1-samuel-5.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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