Dagon’s Good News

If 1 Chronicles were a movie, it would begin with two hours and forty-five minutes of credits: Name after name scrolling across the screen, most of them (as far as we’re concerned) obscurities and nonentities and unknowns, forgotten fathers and sons and mighty men; all the bit players in the cast, the assistant assistant assistant to the assistant, key grips, dolly operators, best boys.

When the action finally gets underway, it begins with an extraordinary bang, a chaotic scramble of troops. We are already in the midst of a battle, the Philistines are already winning, the men of Israel already fleeing or falling on Mount Gilboa.

The Philistines have a specific target – Saul and his three sons. And they take down the sons. Three of the cornerstones of the house of Saul fall on the mountain, and only the cornerstone, the king himself, is left standing, alone with his armor bearer. Barely standing – he’s wounded by archers, shooting from a distance. The king from Benjamin, a tribe of archers and slingers (1 Chronicles 12:2), is downed by his tribe’s own specialty weapon. It’s as if some invisible, ironic hand has directed an arrow to this specific target.

Saul is wounded, and doesn’t want to be taken. He doesn’t want to end up mocked and abused and perhaps tortured before the assembled Philistine nobles. He doesn’t want to become a toy to be sported with. No “eyeless in Gaza” fate for him (as later for Zedekiah). Saul cannot even get his armor bearer to follow orders. When he asks him to thrust him through, he refuses and Saul has to finish the archer’s job himself. He’s a Goliath: A giant of a man, downed by missiles, finished off with a sword. But he’s worse off than Goliath, since Goliath at least had the dignity of being killed by an opponent.

Three pillars of the house of Saul have fallen, and the last destroys itself. The Chronicler summarizes the destruction of Saul’s house in a powerful sentence: “Saul died with his three sons, and all his house died as one” (v. 6; my translation). Descendants of Saul survive the battle, but the royal house collapses. And the Chronicler reinforces the death of Saul’s house with a fourfold repetition of the verb “die” (Hebrew, mot). Saul was dead . . . he fell on his sword and died . . . Saul died with his three sons . . . all his house died. A fourfold death for the four corners of the royal house. A four-cornered world dies on the slopes of Mount Gilboa.

Saul’s suicide is an appropriate gesture, though Saul may not intend it. Saul is indeed the killer of His own house. He destroys the last remaining pillar of his house when he destroys himself. His fall on his sword is the fall of a house built on sand, and great is its fall. We’re not informed of this until the end of the narrative, when the Chronicler tells us that Saul died “for his trespass which he trespassed against Yahweh” (v. 13). He did not guard the word of the Lord; he didn’t wait for Samuel before offering sacrifice (1 Samuel 13), he didn’t carry out the ban against the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15), and he sought a medium instead of seeking the Lord. His sins brought his downfall.

In the aftermath of the death of Saul’s house, time goes into reverse. Israel’s achievements are turned backward. Israel’s army was scattering when we first entered the scene, and after we hear of Saul’s death the narrative resumes that scene of flight (v. 7). Verse 7, though, is ambiguous. The men of Israel see that “they had fled.” Perhaps that reaches back to verse 1, and the antecedent of the pronoun is “men of Israel.” The most natural antecedent is “Saul and his three sons.” Before they die, they flee.

The men of Israel who live in the valley beneath Mount Gilboa see their flight and see the army scattering, and they know that they are unprotected. In fear, they flee their cities. When Israel entered the land, the Lord gave them cities they had not built, vineyards they had not planted, trees they had not pruned. The Lord chased away the Canaanites, so that a thousand fled before one Israelite. Now the Israelites are Canaanites, fleeing before an invading army, and the Philistines have taken the place of the conquering hosts of Yahweh. Philistines come to settle in cities they have not built and enjoy the fruit of vineyards they did not plant. It’s a conquest in reverse.

And what follows is like a reverse exodus. Philistines are related to Egyptians, so every time the Philistines invade and dominate Israel, it’s like a mini-sojourn in Egypt. But here the inverted exodus goes further. It’s not simply that the land comes under the dominion of the Philistines. It’s also that the Philistine gods are victorious, apparently victorious over Yahweh. When Yahweh delivered Israel from Egypt, He shamed the gods of Egypt. Now, the gods of Philistia shame Yahweh by shaming Yahweh’s anointed.

Saul spares himself some shame by killing himself, but he doesn’t spare himself all the shame. The Philistines find his body and the bodies of his sons the day after the battle. They take his armor, the glory of the warrior, and make it their own. And they also cut off his head. Once again Saul is Goliath. After David killed Goliath, he cut off his head with his own sword, and stripped his armor. The armor was deposited in the tabernacle, David’s confession that Yahweh defeated Goliath. The story of David and Goliath doesn’t appear in Chronicles; Goliath is mentioned very much in passing. Instead we see an Israelite giant having his head chopped off and his armor plundered. The Philistines parade Saul’s armor and head around Philistia. Saul doesn’t have to stand before his mockers, but his body is held up to mockery. The head and armor proclaim the good news of Israel’s defeat, good news proclaimed to the idols of Philistia and to the people. After this evangelistic crusade, the Philistines put the armor of Saul in the pantheon, the temple of gods, and the head in the house of Dagon. It’s good news for Dagon, a good day for Philistia.

Even the recovery of the bodies of Saul and his sons by the men of Jabesh is downplayed by the Chronicler. In Samuel, they walk all night to take the bodies from the wall of a Philistine city. The Chronicler tells us only that the men of Jabesh took the bodies of Saul and gave them a decent burial. We aren’t told where the bodies were, and from Chronicles it seems that they were still on the mountain where they had fallen. This reinforces the shame of Saul’s house and contributes to the gospel of Dagon: Dagon has defeated Saul utterly, and apparently upset Yahweh’s own plans by overthrowing Yahweh’s own anointed.

This is Dagon’s exceptional, excellent, very good day, and throughout Philistia the messengers announce the exception, excellent, very good news, the gospel of Dagon.

Dagon has had an extraordinary string of victories recently. Christians built the United States, but Philistines now inhabit the cities we built. Our capital cities are in the hands of idols and their worshipers. We have committed trespasses as a people, and so God has abandoned us. Obergefell – that was good news for Dagon. The Court’s recent overturning of the Texas abortion law – another victory for the Philistines. Mass murders seem to have become part of our daily news – not from war zones but from peaceful seaside cities like Nice and from prosperous metropolises like Dallas.

Worse, believers built churches but they have been taken over by idols. Our church leaders can’t seem to settle the complex question of the difference between male and female or the meaning of the word “marriage.” They are blind to the fact that the gospel itself is a romance, a story of a Bridegroom giving His life for the sake of His Bride.

But the good news of Dagon ultimately resolves into the good news of Yahweh. The Chronicler’s history begins with the apostasy of the king, but it doesn’t end there. After Saul comes David, and after all the other Saul-like kings in the history of Judah there is always another David. After Ahaz, a Hezekiah; after Manasseh, Josiah; after Josiah’s sons, Cyrus and Darius and other upstanding Persians who carry out the Davidic commission better than the descendants of David.

The Chronicler was writing after the return from exile to the community of the return, encouraging them in the project of rebuilding the temple and city, and laying again the foundations of a fallen Israel. He’s writing to a people that remembers the fall of another royal house – the house of David – and he’s reminding them that the house of David fell for the same reasons that the house of Saul fell. The Chronicler begins his entire book with the name Adam, and he begins his narrative with the fall of another Adam, Saul. But the book as a whole demonstrates that Yahweh overcomes the transgressions of kings and establishes His kingdom in spite of them. Adam fell, other Adams fall again and again, but Chronicles is ultimately about the promise of a Last Adam.

The good news of Dagon is short-lived. The collapse of Saul’s house is no accident, and it’s not Dagon’s doing. Behind Saul’s suicide is that invisible hand that guided the arrows. The verb “die” is used seven times in the narrative, and the climactic use is in verse 14. It doesn’t describe passive dying but an active “causing to die,” and the subject is not Saul but Yahweh. Saul’s house dies because Yahweh kills Him, the same Yahweh who killed the wicked sons of Judah (1 Chronicles 2:3). David wouldn’t raise his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and neither would Saul’s armor-bearer. But Yahweh will: He takes out not only the king but the whole royal house, the one He established. He will take down a house that transgresses, a king who refuses to guard His Word, who closes his ear to Yahweh’s prohpets.

We’ve seen Dagon’s house before. When the Philistines defeated Israel at the battle of Aphek during Samuel’s youth, the Philistines took the ark of the covenant and placed it in the house of Dagon. It was a trophy proclaiming the good news of Dagon’s victory over Yahweh. But it soon became clear that something else had actually happened. Dagon fell before the ark, doing homage to Yahweh’s throne, and eventually he was broken by the fall. The battle appeared to belong to Dagon and the Philistines, but what looked like Yahweh’s defeat was in fact His invasion.

Samson had the same effect on Dagon’s house (Judges 16). He was taken as a Philistine trophy, but became the agent of Philistia’s defeat. Saul doesn’t allow that possibility. He doesn’t want to bear the shame. Yahweh has abandoned him, and so he doesn’t have the courage to give himself over to the hands of the Philistines. He doesn’t believe that Yahweh can overthrow the Philistines through him. He’s right: He has committed a trespass, and Yahweh is no longer defending him. He no longer sought the Lord, and so the Lord was not found. A hero who is able to give himself to the Philistines can bring down the house of Dagon. Saul’s house collapses when all four cornerstones fall on one day of battle. Samson, though, Samson is given into the hands of Philistines, accepts the shame. And it is not Samson’s house that collapses but Dagon’s.

If the Philistines have taken our cities and our churches, we can still be agents of Yahweh’s victory. If we end up in exile or worse, it is because Jesus is sending us into new territory. The ark wasn’t captured, and neither was Samson. They were deployed. When God is with us, we are never captives. We are always invaders. Wherever He sends us, He sends us with better news than Dagon’s, the good news of Dagon’s ultimate defeat.

Peter J. Leithart is President ot Theopolis.