1 Samuel 6 – The Ark of the Covenant Is Returned to Israel
A. How will the Philistines get rid of the ark of the covenant?
1. (1-6) The priests of the Philistines suggest a way to relieve themselves of the burden of the ark.
Now the ark of the LORD was in the country of the Philistines seven months. And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, “What shall we do with the ark of the LORD? Tell us how we should send it to its place.” So they said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty; but by all means return it to Him with a trespass offering. Then you will be healed, and it will be known to you why His hand is not removed from you.” Then they said, “What is the trespass offering which we shall return to Him?” They answered, “Five golden tumors and five golden rats, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines. For the same plague was on all of you and on your lords. Therefore you shall make images of your tumors and images of your rats that ravage the land, and you shall give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps He will lighten His hand from you, from your gods, and from your land. Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? When He did mighty things among them, did they not let the people go, that they might depart?”
a. What shall we do with the ark of the LORD? When the Philistines first captured the ark of the covenant, they thought it was a great victory but as time went on the Philistines began to regard the ark as a burden, not as a trophy.
i. Why did they keep it for seven months? Because they were reluctant to give up such a wonderful “trophy” of what they at first felt was a great victory over the God of Israel. It can take a long time before we realize the futility of resisting God.
b. By all means return it to Him with a trespass offering: The Philistine priests had enough sense to know they had offended the LORD God. Therefore, they knew they should do something to express their sorrow and repentance before the LORD.
c. Five golden tumors and five golden rats: The specific offering recognizes that it was the LORD who brought the plague upon the Philistines. They said, “We know these plagues were not accidents. We know the LORD God of Israel has caused them. We apologize to the LORD God and ask Him to turn away His anger.”
i. We know the plague involved tumors (1 Samuel 5:6, 9, 12). We were not told in 1 Samuel 5 that the plague involved rats. Some think the tumors were the result of bubonic plague, carried by rats. Others think the rats were part of another plague or calamity mentioned in 1 Samuel 5:11: For there was a deadly destruction throughout all the city; the hand of God was very heavy there.
d. And you shall give glory to the God of Israel: Acknowledging God’s judgment is one way to give glory to the God of Israel. We often fail to give God this glory because we ignore His judgment or write it off as fate or bad luck.
e. Perhaps He will lighten His hand from you, from your gods, and from your land: The Philistines admitted that the God of Israel judged their gods and had jurisdiction over their lands. They confessed that He was Almighty God, yet they did not worship Him instead of their gods.
f. Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? Aware of the Exodus account, the Philistines rightly remembered that no good comes when anyone hardens their heart against the LORD. Even in a purely self-interested sense, it isn’t smart to harden your heart against the LORD.
2. (7-9) The Philistines decide how to return the ark, including a test to see if the judgment was from God or by chance.
“Now therefore, make a new cart, take two milk cows which have never been yoked, and hitch the cows to the cart; and take their calves home, away from them. Then take the ark of the LORD and set it on the cart; and put the articles of gold which you are returning to Him as a trespass offering in a chest by its side. Then send it away, and let it go. And watch: if it goes up the road to its own territory, to Beth Shemesh, then He has done us this great evil. But if not, then we shall know that it is not His hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance.”
a. Take two milk cows which have never been yoked: Here, the Philistines conducted an experiment. They thought all the calamity of the plagues was from the LORD God of Israel, but they were not 100% sure. So, they devised another test. Men are almost always reluctant to repent, and they guard against repenting “unnecessarily.”
i. The test was simple and stacked against God. By nature, two milk cows which have never been yoked should not pull a cart at all, instead they should have resisted their yokes. Additionally, they decided to take their calves home, away from them. The “maternal instinct” of the cows would draw them not towards the land of Israel, but back home to their own calves. The Philistines devised a test that “forced” the God of Israel to do something miraculous to demonstrate He really was the cause of the plagues.
b. Take the ark of the LORD and set it on the cart: God never wanted the ark to be transported by a cart. He wanted it to be carried by poles set in rings on the side of the ark (Numbers 4:14-15).
i. The ark didn’t have “handles” and was not to be carried by lifting it directly with one’s hands. Instead, it was to be carried by inserting gold-overlaid wood poles into gold rings at each corner of the ark. The poles were to remain inserted in the rings, and to be the source of contact with the ark. Apart from touching the poles, it was forbidden to touch the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:12-15).
ii. Though this way of transporting the ark was prohibited by the law, God excused them because of their ignorance of His law. “God winked at it in them, both because they were ignorant of God’s law to the contrary, and because they had no Levites to carry it upon their shoulders.” (Poole)
c. Put the articles of gold which you are returning to Him as a trespass offering in a chest by its side: The Philistines were wise enough to not open the ark of the covenant and set the articles of gold in the ark itself. Certainly, they were curious about what was in the ark, but they didn’t let their curiosity lead them into sin.
d. If not, then we shall know that it is not His hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance: Is it possible that the tumors and other judgments came by chance?
i. Some intelligent people fall into the delusion that chance possesses some kind of power. Jacques Monod, a biochemist, wrote: “Chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution.”
ii. But assigning such power to chance doesn’t make sense. Chance has no power. For example, when a coin is flipped, the chance it will land heads is 50%; however, chance does not make it land heads. Whether or not it lands heads or tails is due to the strength with which the coin is flipped, the strength of air currents and air pressure as it flies through the air, where it is caught, and if it is flipped over once it is caught. Chance doesn’t do anything but describe a probability.
iii. Many years ago a scientist named Carl Sagan petitioned the U.S. government for a grant to fund the search for intelligent life in outer space. He hoped to find evidence of life by using a super-sensitive instrument to pick up radio signals from distant space. When he received those radio signals, he looked for order and pattern, which demonstrated the signals were transmitted by intelligent life. In the same way, the order and pattern of the whole universe demonstrate that it was fashioned by intelligent life, not by chance. Scientists detect chance in the radio signals constantly (in the form of static with no pattern), but it tells them nothing.
iv. Realizing that nothing happens by chance should not make us think every event is full of important meaning from God. Some things just happen and have no great eternal purpose that we can discern. Christians can get off track by trying to see a message from God in everything. But nothing happens by chance. We live in a cause-and-effect world. “But wicked men will sooner believe the most uncertain and ridiculous things, than own the visible demonstrations of God’s power and providence.” (Poole)
3. (10-12) Against all expectations, the cows go towards the land of Israel.
Then the men did so; they took two milk cows and hitched them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. And they set the ark of the LORD on the cart, and the chest with the gold rats and the images of their tumors. Then the cows headed straight for the road to Beth Shemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and did not turn aside to the right hand or the left. And the lords of the Philistines went after them to the border of Beth Shemesh.
a. Then the cows headed straight for the road to Beth Shemesh: They should not have done this. The cows should have resisted the yoke because they were never harnessed before. They should have headed back for their Philistine homes out of concern for their young calves. But they headed straight for the road to Beth Shemesh. God didn’t leave this up to chance.
i. Not only were they headed straight for the road, they did not turn aside to the right hand or the left. They didn’t meander along the way; they went straight where they were supposed to go.
ii. This was a remarkable miracle. These two cows had never pulled a cart before, either alone or together. No driver led them, yet they left home, and walked the ten miles (16 kilometers) or so to a city they had never been to. They left their own calves behind and went straight on a certain road, with never a wrong turn, never a stop, never turning aside into the fields to feed themselves, never turning back to feed their own calves.
iii. As the cows went on the road back to Israel, we can imagine the Israelites mourning over the loss of the ark. Perhaps at that very moment they cried out to God, grieving because they thought the glory had departed. God’s glory had not left anywhere! The Israelites and the Philistines both resisted Him, so the LORD found a few cows to show His glory through.
b. Lowing as they went: This means the cows were not especially happy. They longed for their calves at home, yet they still did the will of God.
i. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament on the ancient Hebrew word ga-ah, translated lowing: “This root indicates an intense aversion which is expressed often in punitive or adverse action.”
ii. When people don’t believe there is a loving God who sits enthroned in the heavens and has a good plan for our lives, you can’t blame them for being afraid, for being proud, for being miserable. But for those who believe in the God of the Bible, there is no excuse for fear, pride, or misery. God is still on His throne! “As we go forth into the world, let us believe that the movement of all things is towards the accomplishment of God’s purpose.” (Meyer)
B. The ark at Beth Shemesh.
1. (13-15) The ark is received with honor and joy at Beth Shemesh.
Now the people of Beth Shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley; and they lifted their eyes and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it. Then the cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and stood there; a large stone was there. So they split the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the LORD. The Levites took down the ark of the LORD and the chest that was with it, in which were the articles of gold, and put them on the large stone. Then the men of Beth Shemesh offered burnt offerings and made sacrifices the same day to the LORD.
a. Rejoiced to see it: They felt something like the disciples felt on the day they saw the resurrected Jesus, because they felt they received God back to them from the dead. On this day as they were reaping their wheat harvest (between May and June), they knew the God of Israel was alive.
i. Of course, God was never dead and had never left them. But the Israelites felt as though God was dead, and they were as desperate, discouraged, and hopeless as if He really were dead. According to their feelings, it was as if the LORD God of Israel had risen from the dead.
b. The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and stood there: After being guided for some ten miles from the Philistine city, without stopping or going to one side or the other, the ark then stopped in Israelite land, at the exact field of one chosen man.
c. They split the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering: They knew this was the right thing to do in honor to God, yet it really cost them something. Cows and carts were expensive property.
i. In a strict sense their offering was against the Mosaic Law. First, they offered female animals to the LORD, which was forbidden (Leviticus 1:3; 22:19). Second, they made a burnt offering to the LORD away from the tabernacle, which violated the command in Deuteronomy 12:5-6. Yet God knew both their hearts and the remarkable circumstances, and He was no doubt honored.
d. The Levites took down the ark of the LORD: The Israelites were careful to let the Levites handle the ark, as was commanded by the law (Numbers 4:1-6, 15). Beth Shemesh was a priestly city (Joshua 21:16), so priests were on hand.
2. (16-18) The offering from the Philistines included with the ark.
So when the five lords of the Philistines had seen it, they returned to Ekron the same day. These are the golden tumors which the Philistines returned as a trespass offering to the LORD: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron; and the golden rats, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and country villages, even as far as the large stone of Abel on which they set the ark of the LORD, which stone remains to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh.
a. When the five lords of the Philistines had seen it: They wondered if all that had happened to them while they had the ark was an accident. So they set up an elaborate and difficult test for God to fulfill, and they personally observed to see if God would indeed meet the test. Their reaction isn’t recorded, but they must have been persuaded.
3. (19) The men of Beth Shemesh profane God’s holiness.
Then He struck the men of Beth Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck fifty thousand and seventy men of the people, and the people lamented because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter.
a. Then He struck the men of Beth Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD: The ark of the covenant was only to be touched and handled by specific Levites from the family of Kohath, and even they were commanded to not touch the ark itself (Numbers 4:15). The men of Beth Shemesh sinned by not only touching the ark, but also looking into it inappropriately.
i. We again notice God dealt with the Israelites more strictly than He dealt with the Philistines, who just transported the ark by a cart. God did this because the Israelites, who had His law, should have and did know better. It is sad to consider that the Philistines showed more honor to the holiness of God than the Israelites.
b. Because they had looked into the ark of the LORD: Because of the honor and glory of God there are things which He chooses to keep hidden, and it is wrong for men to pry into these secrets of God.
i. Isaiah 55:8-9 shows this thought: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” We need to respect the fact that God is God and we are not, and there are some things we just will not, and should not, know.
c. He struck fifty thousand and seventy men of the people: The manuscript evidence is pretty clear that the number recorded originally in the text was seventy, not fifty thousand and seventy. Seventy men dead in such an incident is still a great slaughter.
i. Basically, the Hebrew grammar can mean that out of fifty thousand men, God struck seventy of them. “We cannot come to any other conclusion than that the number 50,000 is neither correct nor genuine, but a gloss [marginal note] which has crept into the text through some oversight.” (Keil and Delitzsch)
4. (20-21) The men of Beth Shemesh appeal to the men of Kirjath Jearim to take the ark from them.
And the men of Beth Shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before this holy LORD God? And to whom shall it go up from us?” So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kirjath Jearim, saying, “The Philistines have brought back the ark of the LORD; come down and take it up with you.”
a. Who is able to stand before this holy LORD God? In their disrespect for God, the men of Beth Shemesh offended the holiness of the LORD. Now they knew the LORD was holy, but it didn’t make them want to be closer to God. It made them want to distance themselves from God.
i. The primary idea behind holiness is not moral purity (though the idea includes moral purity), but it is the idea of apartness, of being set apart – that God is separate, different from His creation, both in His essential nature and in the perfection of His attributes.
ii. When men encounter the holiness of God, they are not necessarily attracted to it. When Peter saw the holy power of Jesus he said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8). When the disciples on another occasion saw the holy Jesus shining out at the transfiguration, they were greatly afraid (Matthew 17:6). When we meet the holy God, we are excited and afraid all at the same time. It’s like going up on a roller coaster – you want to be there, but at the same time you don’t want to be there. Many of the thrill-seeking pleasures of our modern world are simply weak attempts to imitate the fulfillment we can only find by meeting the holy God.
b. Who is able to stand before this holy LORD God? In one sense, the men of Beth Shemesh showed a bad heart in asking this question. Their question made God seem too harsh instead of showing themselves to be too disobedient.
i. “Here they seem peevishly [angrily] to lay the blame of their sufferings upon God, as over-holy and strict: of their sins, the true cause, they say nothing; but take care to rid their hands of the ark, which they should have retained reverently.” (Trapp)
c. Who is able to stand before this holy LORD God? In another sense, the men of Beth Shemesh asked a good question. God is in fact holy and Who is able to stand indeed?
i. Holiness is not so much achieved through our own efforts, but it is received as we are new creations in Jesus. Holiness is part of the new man we are in Jesus (Ephesians 4:24), and we are invited to be partakers – sharers of Jesus’ holiness (Hebrews 12:10).
ii. Though God is holy, though He is apart from us, instead of building a wall around His apartness, God calls us to come to Him and share His state of being set apart. As it says in 1 Peter 1:16, God calls us to be holy, for I am holy. Holiness is not so much something we have, it is something that has us.
d. And to whom shall it go up from us? For the men of Beth Shemesh, the holiness of God was a problem, a problem that could be fixed by putting distance between themselves and God. Their question was not, “How can we be made right with a holy God,” but it was “Who can we give this problem to so the holiness of God is no longer a burden to us?”
e. They sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kirjath Jearim: We don’t know why they picked this village. Perhaps they had good relations with these men and thought they would take good care of the ark. Perhaps they had bad relations with them and wanted the LORD to curse them. Whatever the reason, the men of Kirjath Jearim received the ark and it stayed there for many years until King David brought it to the city of Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6).