The Hope of Lament
by Robby Higginbottom
1 Samuel 5:1-7
When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon. 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. 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.
This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.
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. 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."
1 Samuel 6:13-7:2
Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it. 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. 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. And when the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron.
These are the golden tumors that the Philistines returned as a guilt offering to the Lord: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron, and the golden mice, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and unwalled villages. The great stone beside which they set down the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.
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,Hebrew of the people seventy men, fifty thousand men and the people mourned because the Lord had struck the people with a great blow.
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?" 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."
And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the Lord. From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.
1 Samuel 5:1-7; 1 Samuel 6:13-7:2
Do you want to know what cynicism looks like in our day? Have you ever seen de-motivational posters? You might have seen a motivational poster on the wall at the office. There’s a beautiful picture of a tree or a lion, a bold word like CHANGE or LEADERSHIP, and a pithy statement to inspire whoever passes by. De-motivational posters look the same until you get close enough to read the fine print. “DESPAIR: It’s always darkest just before it goes pitch black.” These posters remind us that cynicism can be clever, even comical, but in the end, it leaves us feeling dark and hopeless.
In the early chapters of 1 Samuel, the Israelites would be tempted to hang a de-motivational poster on the wall. These chapters feel like the darkest moment just before it goes pitch black. They have been soundly defeated by their enemies. The ark of God has been captured, and the glory of the Lord has departed with it. They struggle to imagine a more hopeless situation. Though the details are different, can we relate to a darkness that tempts us to despair? If we spend much of our time focusing on the decline of culture, the mess of politics, and the state of the church, we can easily become cynical. “Are we not being soundly defeated? Has the glory of the Lord departed?”
In an age of cynicism, in a moment that seems so dark, where do we find hope? 1 Samuel 5 reminds us that there is no hope in other gods. Though we turn to other things when we lose hope in the one true God, these other “gods” always turn out to be lifeless and worthless, just like Dagon. Hope grows as we lament turning to other gods who can never really love us, help us, or deliver us. As hard as it is, the Lord is kind to allow our idols to fall to the ground or crumble in our hands. When we see our Dagon, headless and handless, bowing before the Lord, we realize how silly our idols are. They have afflicted us, and only God can heal us. Hope also grows as we lament turning to ourselves. We may not place our hope in something or someone else; instead, we hope in our own ability to figure it out, make it work, and soldier on. But whether we try to manipulate God or move on from Him, the attempt to replace Him with ourselves is doomed to fail.
So what shall we do? The Israelites couldn’t deny the darkness of their times; neither can we. But what we do in response to the darkness is key. Will we hang a de-motivational poster on the wall and laugh to keep from crying…or will we learn to lament? Will we process the darkness alone (and grow more cynical) or will we bring the darkness into the Lord’s presence (and grow more hopeful)? When the ark of the Lord went to Kiriath-jearim, “all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord” for twenty years (1 Sam. 7:2). Many of us struggle to lament for twenty minutes! May the Lord give us courage to bring our doubts and our complaints into His presence. There and only there will we find the ability to lay down our weapons and trust in the One who won the battle for us. There and only there will we see the Light that shines in the darkness—even our own—and begin to hope that the darkness has not overcome it.