The Philistines placed the ark in the temple of Dagon, perhaps because they were showing contempt for the god of a defeated foe, but more likely because they wanted to add its power the power of their god and so become a more powerful people – this was a common practice in the middle east at that time. But they learned that the true God will not share his glory with another.
This is a lesson that needs to learned repeatedly. One obvious application is the modern practice of inter-faith activities. What the Philistines were trying to do, when they placed the ark in their temple, was to join the power of Yahweh and the power of Dagon together. For example, today it is common to say since Christians, Jews and Moslems worship only one God they can worship together. But that is an insult to the glory of the living God.
Seeing evidence of the Lord’s power does not bring about a change of heart. In chapter 4 the author records the awareness the Philistines had of God’s mighty acts in the past and of how that knowledge had not caused them to worship him; the same knowledge is mentioned in 6:6, again with no signs of true worship. Here are three examples of their attitude.
First, when the Philistine priests saw Dagon’s head and hands cut off from this stump, they would have realised the significance, because this was the way a triumphant army treated its enemies. What had happened in the Philistine temple was a complete victory for Yahweh. Yet, in chapter 5:5, when Dagon falls on the ground, the consequence is that the Philistines make a ruling that no-one should ever stand on that spot. The location of the defeat of their idol becomes a place of significance to them.
Second, when one city cannot cope with the consequences of the presence of the ark, they send it to another city, no doubt hoping that the next city would find the means of preventing the troubles recurring. This is a joint-activity to find a way to neutralise the power of God, but there is no sense of acknowledging his supreme authority.
Third, eventually they realise that they cannot defeat him, so they decide to send the ark back to Israel. When their plan to return the ark works, they are merely glad to be free of the Lord and his judgment, but they show no interest in God’s mercy. No doubt the priests of the Philistines were praised for their astuteness in getting rid of God.
The actions of the Philistines here is an example of Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:18ff regarding how sinners, despite knowing the truth of God’s power, persist in their rejection of him. Knowledge, even of God, by itself does not lead to repentance.