Scripture reading – 1 Samuel 6
As Israel despaired the loss of the “Ark of the LORD” (4:11), the Philistines came to fear that its presence had brought the LORD’s judgment not only upon their god Dagon (6:3-4), but also upon the cities where it had been located. Ashdod, the capital city of Philistia, was physically afflicted and the men of that city declared, “the ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us” (5:7). When the Ark was moved to Gath, they felt the “hand of the LORD against the city with a very great destruction” (5:9). When the Ark was moved to Ekron, the people of that city “cried out, saying, They have brought about the ark of the God of Israel to us, to slay us and our people” (5:10). The Ekronites demanded the Ark be returned to Israel, for the judgment of the LORD fell heavily upon the people, “and the cry of the city went up to heaven” (5:12).
Desperate, the Philistines Return the Ark (1 Samuel 6:1-12)
The Ark of the LORD remained in Philistia for seven months, and its presence became a symbol of God’s judgment, rather than a trophy of war (6:1). Desperate, the Philistines called upon their religious leaders, and urged the ark be returned to its place (6:2). The priests suggested the Ark be returned to Israel, with “a trespass offering,” that He might be appeased and his hand of judgment be lifted (6:3).
It was determined the trespass offering should reflect the symbols of the plagues the people had suffered. They fashioned “five golden emerods [possibly skin boils, others suggest hemorrhoids], and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines [there were five major Philistine cities]” (6:4). The priests reminded the leaders that Egypt and Pharaoh had suffered when they hardened their hearts against Israel’s God (6:6).
The Philistine priests proposed the leaders “make a new cart, and take two milch kine [milk cows], on which there hath come no yoke, and tie the kine [cows] to the cart, and bring their calves home from them: 8And take the ark of the Lord, and lay it upon the cart; and put the jewels of gold…in a coffer [wooden chest] by the side thereof; and send it away, that it may go” (6:7-8). This they did to prove whether the plagues they had suffered were indeed God’s judgment, or simply chance. With the Ark sitting on the cart, and beside it the chest of gold ornaments for a trespass offering, the Philistines watched as the cows did not return to their calves, but instead pulled the cart a distance of nine miles, turning neither to the left, nor to the right (6:9-12).
Rejoicing, Turned to Sorrow (1 Samuel 6:13-21)
Reaping wheat in their fields, the people of Beth-shemesh “lifted up their eyes, and saw the ark, and rejoiced” (6:13). The cows pulled the cart into a field owned by a man named Joshua, and they stopped by a great stone (6:14). Remembering that Beth-shemesh was a Levite city (Joshua 21:13-16), we are not astonished when the men of that city removed the Ark from the cart, and cutting up the cart for its wood, they “offered the kine [cows as] a burnt offering unto the Lord” (6:14).
Unfortunately, rejoicing turned to tragedy, when the people of Beth-shemesh violated the sanctity of the Ark. Rather than cover the Ark, the inquisitive people looked inside the chest, and “fifty thousand and threescore and ten men (50,070)” were slain (6:19). They had treated as common, that which represented the throne, and the holy presence of God (6:19). As they mourned the deaths of their loved ones, the people asked, “Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God? and to whom shall he go up from us?” (6:20). Messengers were sent “to the inhabitants of Kirjath-jearim, saying, The Philistines have brought again the ark of the Lord; come ye down, and fetch it up to you” (6:21)
Closing thoughts: The LORD guided the cows pulling the cart bearing the Ark from Ekron, to His people in Beth-shemesh, and the lords of the Philistines were satisfied that all they had suffered was from Israel’s God (6:16). Sadly, the indiscreet people of Beth-shemesh, a Levite town, violated the law (Numbers 4:20), and by looking inside the Ark, defiled its holy nature.
“Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God?” (6:20)
The slain of Beth-shemesh serve as a reminder of God’s holiness, and judgment. Rightly, the Ark of the LORD was returned to Israel, and sovereignly, God had prepared a man to call the nation to repent, and turn to Him. His name was Samuel.
Copyright 2021 – Travis D. Smith