This is a “three-day story.” The first day is a very dark day. It looks as if the God of Israel is defeated and the glory is gone. In fact, there is a very poignant episode. After they lose the battle and the ark is captured and the old priest Eli dies, his daughter, the old new atheist, names her son Ichabod. “The whole thing is a pipe dream. Abraham was deluded. Moses was just wandering around in the wilderness. There is no God, no Yahweh. No glory. Life doesn’t mean anything. You’re born. You die. That’s it. Our son may as well know that as soon as he’s grown up. Ichabod. Glory’s gone.” That’s the first day. Heaven is silent. No hope. No glory. No one can understand why. Some days are like that.
Then there is the second day, a day of hidden combat. It is shrouded in mystery. It is the day Dagon falls down but gets propped back up. It is a day of ambiguity and anxiety. Some days are like that.
But this is a third-day story. On the third day, the story takes a 180-degree turn. The idol is overturned. The time of captivity is over. God is going to come home to his people because the third day is God’s day. That’s the day of hope. He’s the “third-day God.” This part of the story gets a little earthy — I would apologize for it, but it comes out of the text. God sent a plague that involved mice.
What the Philistines are afflicted with is hard to translate: The New International Version has “tumors,” kind of a polite choice. The Modern Language Bible is a little more literal: “The LORD’s hand lay heavy on the Ashdodites. He punished them with hemorrhoids, both at Ashdod and in its suburbs” (1 Samuel 5:6). The King James Version is just slightly more delicate: “they had hemorrhoids in their secret parts” (5:9; that’s where they usually go). The obvious question is, why would this detail make it into the Bible? What got into whoever was writing this material?
This detail is a very deliberate part of the story — here’s why. These were the Philistines — Israel’s enemies. There were very powerful; they had Iron Age technology. The writer wants the readers to know: Don’t be afraid of your enemies. Don’t envy them. Don’t try to be like them.
If for a while it looked like the Philistines were going to come out on top, don’t be deceived. That was first-day stuff. Third day was coming.
The writer wants us to know that in the presence of God’s judgment, the Philistines were embarrassingly human. All their iron swords, spears, and shields did them no good, because what they really needed was inflatable cushions to sit on, and while the Iron Age had arrived, the Inflatable Cushion Age was still centuries away.
One of the ways you can divide up Bible stories is by their time frame. One kind of story is the forty-day story. These are usually “wait-around-and-learn-patience” stories. Noah’s family was in the ark for forty days and nights of rain; the Israelites hung around Mount Sinai forty days waiting for the Ten Commandments; Elijah spent forty days in the wilderness hiding out from Jezebel. Jesus began his ministry by spending forty days in the wilderness; after the resurrection he and the disciples spent another forty days waiting for his ascension and then the coming of the Holy Spirit. The focus of these stories is on the need for people to be faithful, to persevere. Forty-day stories are Crock-Pot stories.
But there is another kind of story: the three-day story. These are stories about crisis and urgency — microwave stories. The focus here is not on the need for a human response at all. Here the pressure is so crushing that God must show up to rescue — or it’s curtains. Three-day stories are stories of desperate need and anticipation and hope hanging by a thread.
When a hero named Joseph was in prison, he said to Pharaoh’s cupbearer, “Within three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your position” (Genesis 40:13).
When Israel was trapped in slavery, Moses asked Pharaoh, “Let us take a three-day journey into the desert” (Exodus 5:3).
When the Israelites arrive at Sinai, God said, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. . . . And be ready the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people” (Exodus 19:10 – 11).
When Israel was afraid to go into the Promised Land, God said to Israel, “Be strong and courageous. . . . Three days from now you will cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land the LORD your God is giving you for your own” (Joshua 1:6, 11).
When Israel was threatened with genocide, Queen Esther said that she would fast for three days then go to the king to seek deliverance for her people.
Want to take a guess on how long Jonah was in the belly of the big fish? Yep, he was in there three days before he was released. His prayer the whole time he was in that big fish was, “God, just let me go out the way I came in.” At least I think that’s probably what his prayer was.
The third day was used so frequently in this way that it became kind of a technical expression meaning a time to wait for deliverance. “Right now, things are messed up. Right now, hope is being crushed. Right now, hearts are disappointed. But a better day is coming.”
In the book of Hosea, the prophet says it like this: “Come, let us return to the LORD. . . . After two days, he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence” (Hosea 6:1 – 2).
John Ortberg, Know Doubt: Embracing Uncertainty in Your Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).