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Scripture reading – 1 Samuel 6

As Israel despaired the loss of the “Ark of the LORD” (1 Samuel 4:11), the Philistines came to fear that its presence had brought the LORD’s judgment not only upon their god Dagon (1 Samuel 6:3-4) but also upon the cities where it had been located. 

Ashdod, the capital city of Philistia, was physically afflicted. The men of that city declared, “The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us” (1 Samuel 5:7). When the Ark was moved to Gath, they felt the “hand of the LORD against the city with a very great destruction” (1 Samuel 5:9). Then, 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” (1 Samuel 5:10). The Ekronites went on to demand 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” (1 Samuel 5:12).

Desperate Philistines Returned the Ark (1 Samuel 6:1-12)

The Ark of the LORD remained in Philistia for seven months. Its presence became a symbol of God’s judgment rather than a trophy of war (1 Samuel 6:1). Desperate, the Philistines called upon their religious leaders. They urged the ark be sent to its place (1 Samuel 6:2). Therefore, the priests of Dagon suggested the Ark be returned with “a trespass offering” so that the LORD might be appeased and his hand of judgment be removed from the nation (1 Samuel 6:3). 

So, it was determined that a trespass offering would 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]” (1 Samuel 6:4). The priests then reminded the leaders all that Egypt and Pharaoh had suffered when they hardened their hearts against Israel’s God (1 Samuel 6:6).

Thus 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” (1 Samuel 6:7-8). This they did to prove whether the plagues they had suffered were indeed God’s judgment or simply coincidental. 

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. Instead, the cows pulled the cart a distance of nine miles, turning neither to the left nor the right (1 Samuel 6:9-12).

Rejoicing, Turned to Sorrow (1 Samuel 6:13-21)

While reaping wheat in their fields, the people of Beth-shemesh “lifted up their eyes, and saw the ark, and rejoiced” (1 Samuel 6:13). The cows then pulled the cart into a field owned by a man named Joshua. There they stopped by a great stone (1 Samuel 6:14). Remembering that Beth-shemesh was a Levite city (Joshua 21:13-16), we are not astonished that the men of that city removed the Ark from the cart and cut up the cart for its wood, and “offered the kine [cows as] a burnt offering unto the Lord” (1 Samuel 6:14).

Unfortunately, rejoicing turned suddenly to tragedy when the people of Beth-shemesh violated the sanctity of the Ark. Rather than covering the Ark, the inquisitive people looked inside the chest, and “fifty thousand and threescore and ten men (i.e., 50,070)” were slain (1 Samuel 6:19). The Levites had unwisely treated as common, the Ark which represented the throne, and the holy presence of God (1 Samuel 6:19). As the people of Beth-shemesh mourned the deaths of their loved ones, they asked among themselves, “Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God? and to whom shall he go up from us?” (1 Samuel 6:20). 

Messengers were then sent “to the inhabitants of Kirjath-jearim, who said, “The Philistines have brought again the ark of the Lord; come ye down, and fetch it up to you” (1 Samuel 6:21)

Closing thoughts: 

To prove the judgments suffered by the Philistines were from Him, the LORD had guided the cows that pulled the cart bearing the Ark from Ekron to His people in Beth-shemesh. The lords of the Philistines were therefore satisfied that all they had suffered was indeed from Israel’s God (1 Samuel 6:16). Sadly, the indiscreet people of Beth-shemesh had violated God’s law (Numbers 4:20) and by looking inside the Ark, defiled its holy nature. 

The people of Beth-shemesh were reminded that the God they served was holy and His judgment righteous. Rightly, the Ark of the LORD was returned to Israel. Sovereignly, He had prepared a man to call Israel to repent. That man’s name was Samuel.

“Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God?” (1 Samuel 6:20) 

Questions to consider:

1) Why did the Philistines call upon their priests and diviners? (1 Samuel 6:2)

2) Why did the priests of Philistia suggest having milk cows pull the cart bearing the ark and lead their calves to home? (1 Samuel 6:7-9)

3) Why did the LORD kill the men of Beth-shemesh? (1 Samuel 6:19)

Copyright © 2023 – Travis D. Smith

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