1 Samuel 6 - The Ark of the Covenant 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. They put it in the temple of their god Dagon as a trophy, with the message that their god was greater than the Lord. But because God glorified Himself in the temple of Dagon, then by striking the Philistines with plagues in whatever city the ark would come to rest, the Philistines began to regard the ark as a burden, not as a trophy.

 

i. More than any other thing on earth, the Ark of the Covenant represented the presence of the Lord God of Israel. The Philistines (like the Israelites who carried the ark into battle) therefore thought that when they had the ark, they “had” the Lord. But they did not “have” the Lord at all. He had them, He was in control, and now they are on the defensive. God doesn’t have a problem, they do.

 

ii. Why did they keep it seven months at all? Because they were reluctant to give up such a wonderful “trophy” of what they at first felt was such a 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 with a trespass offering: The Philistine priests knew enough to know they have offended the Lord God. Therefore, they know they should do something to expresses 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 were saying, “We know these plagues were not accidents. We know the Lord God of Israel has caused them. We are apologizing to the Lord God and asking Him to turn away His anger.”

 

i. We know the plague involved tumors (1 Samuel 5:6, 9, 12). We had not been 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.

 

ii. Why would they put golden images of their tumors? “In testimony of their humiliation, that by leaving this monument of their own shame and misery they might obtain pity from God, and freedom from their disease.” (Poole)

 

iii. “Verse 4, by linking tumors, rats, and plague, strengthens the theory that the tumors were symptoms of bubonic plague spread by an infestation of rats, which, like human invaders, were capable of destroying a country.” (Youngblood)

 

d. And you shall give glory to the God of Israel: Acknowledging God’s judgment 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 are admitting that the God of Israel is judging their gods, and has jurisdiction over their lands. They are confessing that He is the Almighty God, yet they will not worship Him instead of their own silly gods!

 

f. Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? The Philistines rightly remembered that no good comes when anyone hardens their heart against the Lord. Even in a purely self-interested sense, it wasn’t smart to harden your heart against the Lord.

 

i. Even as it was shown in 1 Samuel 4:8, the Philistines were quite aware of the Exodus story. Here, they even know that the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts. Perhaps they had been reading in Exodus 8:15?

 

ii. The issue of hardening the heart is important, because Exodus also quotes the Lord saying, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7:3). So, who hardened Pharaoh’s heart? The answer is “both.” God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart against Pharaoh’s own desire. It was not as if Pharaoh wished to have a tender heart towards Israel, but God would not allow him. Pharaoh hardened his heart, and God confirmed him in his desire to have a hard heart.

 

iii. Hardness of heart is a terrible place for any Christian. The pagan Philistines had the sense to ask the question, why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? Do Christians today have the sense to ask themselves the same question? Hosea 10:12 speaks to our hardened, fallow hearts: Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord, till He comes and rains righteousness on you. The Philistines would prevent or cure hardness of heart by acknowledging their sin, God’s righteousness, and doing something to make it right before God.

 

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 are conducting an experiment. They think all the calamity of the plagues has been from the Lord God of Israel. But they are not 100% sure. So, they devise another test. After all, one never wants to repent 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, but they should have resisted their yokes. Additionally, they decided to take their calves home, away from them. The “maternal instinct” of the cows would have drawn 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 had really been the cause of the plagues upon them.

 

ii. “Such untamed heifers are wanton, and apt to wander, and keep no certain and constant paths, as oxen accustomed to the yoke do, and therefore were most unlikely to keep the direct road to Israel’s land.” (Poole)

 

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 the poles that were set in it (Numbers 4:15).

 

i. The ark didn’t have “handles” and was not to be carried by lifting it directly in 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. In 2 Samuel 6:6-7, Uzzah touched the ark to keep it from falling off a cart, but he did not touch it at the poles, and God struck him dead. Uzzah was wrong in his thinking that God would let the ark be damaged; in fact, it did not fall off the cart, and no thanks to Uzzah. Uzzah was also wrong in his thinking that there was something less pure about the ground than his act of pure disobedience.

 

iii. In light of God’s command, and punishment against Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6, why did God allow the Philistines to carry the ark by a cart without bringing severe judgment? 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 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)

 

iv. Do some object and say, “That isn’t fair!” Do we want complete fairness from God? Will we allow Him to show mercy where He wants to show mercy, or do we demand that He immediately judge each sin, each sinner, to the fullest extent of what that sin, what that sinner, deserves? Do we really want God to treat us that way, or only others?

 

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 was by chance that it happened to us: Is it possible that the tumors and other judgments came by chance?

 

i. Many people think things happen by chance. Some say the world was created by chance. People who are otherwise intelligent often fall into this delusion. 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” is crazy because chance has no power. For example, when a coin is flipped, the chance that 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 amount 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 other than describe a probability.

 

iii. When Carl Sagan petitioned the federal government for a grant to search for intelligent life in outer space, how did he hope to find it? By using a super sensitive instrument that could pick up radio signals from distant space. When he received those radio signals, he looked for order and pattern - which would demonstrate that the signals were transmitted by intelligent life. In the same way, the order and pattern of the whole universe demonstrates that it was fashioned by intelligent life, not by “chance.” Scientists detect “chance” in the radio signals constantly (in the form of unpatterned static), but it tells them nothing.

 

iv. Therefore, when someone says that the universe or anything else came about by chance, they are extremely ignorant, superstitious, or just parroting a line they have heard before and have unthinkingly accepted. Chance makes nothing happen; it is merely a way of described statistical probabilities. We live in a cause and effect world, and chance is not a cause, but God is the great cause.

 

v. 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)

 

e. What will happen? When unbelievers put God to the test, sometimes He ignores their arrogant action. But sometimes He blows their mind by doing what they never expected He would do.

 

3. (10-12) Against all expectation, the cows go 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 been resisting the yoke, because they had never been 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 wasn’t leaving 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 around the way; they went straight where they were supposed to go!

 

ii. What a miracle! Two cows who had never pulled a cart before, either alone or together. No driver leads them, yet they leave home, and march the ten miles or so to a city they had never been to. They leave their own calves behind, and go 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 are on the road back to Israel, can you see the Israelites mourning over the loss of the ark? Perhaps at that very moment they were crying out to God, grieving because they thought the glory had departed. God’s glory had left anywhere! The Israelites and the Philistines were both resisting Him, so the Lord found a few cows to show His glory through! Israel had no reason to mourn, even though they thought all was lost and there was no hope, because they thought the glory had departed.

 

b. Lowing as they went: This means the cows were not especially happy. They were longing 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.”

 

iii. God was able to overpower the instinctive nature of the cows. He can overpower our instinctive nature also. Who we are in Jesus has more power than who we are in Adam.

 

c. In Legends of the Jews, Ginzberg quotes the rabbis, saying the cows sang a song as they went:

 

Arise, thou, O Acacia! Soar aloft in the glory of thy splendor,

Thou who are adorned with gold embroidery.

Thou who are reverenced within the Holiest of the palace,

Thou who are covered by the two Cherubim!

 

d. This all shows us the incredible power of God. He leaves nothing to chance. This is our Father’s world, and even the cows fulfill His plan!

 

i. But if everything is fulfilling God’s plan, then how come my life is so tough? Why did I have, or someone else have, such a great tragedy?

 

ii. When we think like this, it shows we don’t understand God’s goal for our life, which is to make us godly, not to just make us comfortable. It also shows we are looking too short, and not trusting God to work things out in eternity. It also shows we are looking too narrow and don’t consider all God is doing outside of what we can see. Finally, it shows we are looking to ourselves and acting as if God owes us an explanation on everything. We have to accept there are going to be some things we just can’t figure out, and leave it up to God to figure those things out.

 

iii. 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: What joy! They would have felt something like the disciples felt on the day they saw the resurrected Jesus, because they would have felt they had 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 had never been dead, and God 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 go to one side or the other, now the ark stops 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 (though, since the Ark of the Covenant was there, it might be said that the holy place was “there”). Yet, God knew both their hearts and the remarkable circumstances and 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 there were priests on hand.

 

2. (16-18) Description of the trespass offering from the Philistines included with the return of 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 had wondered if all what 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 the personally observed, to see if God would indeed meet the test. Their reaction isn’t recorded, but they must have been persuaded! The Lord God of Israel had glorified Himself before the Philistines!

 

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 a box, and box containing sacred things (Exodus 25:16 and 16:33-34, Numbers 17:3-4). It 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). But the men of Beth Shemesh sinned by not only touching the ark, but also looking into it inappropriately.

 

i. We again notice God is dealing with the Israelites more strictly than He dealt with the Philistines, who just transported the ark by a cart. God does this because the Israelites, who had His law, should have, and did know better. Even so, it is sad to consider that the Philistines showed more honor to the holiness of God than the Israelites.

 

ii. “Men are very incompetent judges of these matters, because they do not understand all the reasons and causes of God’s judgments . . . there are many secret sins which escape man’s observation, but are seen by God, before whom many persons may be deeply guilty, whom men esteem innocent and virtuous. And therefore men should take heed of censuring the judgments of God, of which it is most truly said, that they are oft secret, but never unrighteous.” (Poole)

 

b. Because they looked into the ark of the Lord: There are things, because of the honor and glory of God, which He has chosen to keep hidden, and it is wrong for men to pry into these secrets of God.

 

i. In the book of Job, the friends of Job tried to explain the crisis in his life by saying it was because he had sinned, and all he needed to do was to repent and things would be fine again. This frustrated Job, because he knew he had not sinned in any way to bring the crisis upon himself. So, Job demanded that God tell him why the crisis and come, and so vindicate Job in front of his friends. But when Job demanded God tell him “why,” God responded: Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me (Job 38:2-3). There were secrets in the heart and mind of God, which Job had no right to demand to know, and the Lord had to deal with Job about this.

 

ii. Isaiah 55:8-9 shows this same 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.

 

iii. John Trapp writes, “Peter giveth charge against curiosity, as against theft or murder,” then he cites 1 Peter 4:15: But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. It is bad enough when we don’t mind our own business in regard to other people, but it is far worse when we don’t mind our own business in regard to the Lord.

 

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.

 

ii. “We cannot come to any other conclusion than that the number 50,000 is neither correct nor genuine, but a gloss which has crept into the text through some oversight.” (Keil and Delitszch)

 

4. (20-21) The men of Beth Shemesh appeal to the men of Kirath 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 had offended the holiness of the Lord. Now, they know the Lord is holy, but it doesn’t make them want to be closer to God; it makes them want to distance themselves from God.

 

i. One of the more successful movies of the 1990’s was a film titled Ghost. To see why the movie has been so successful, the studio took out a classified ad asking for response from people who had seen the movie six or more times. They had hundreds and hundreds of responses. One Burbank mother of two saw it more than seventeen times. An Ontario nurse racked up a dozen. A bank manager from Los Angeles said he watched it eight times. Why? The movie dealt with something that we are all attracted to, yet afraid of: the supernatural, something from another world. When modern man is interested in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Cocoon or E.T. or Field of Dreams or Ghost, we are trying, in our awkwardly modern way, to understand something beyond ourselves, something mysterious, and something different. But the Bible tells us what that different thing we are looking for is all about. It is God. It is His holiness. The essential idea behind the word for holiness in the Bible is something different, something set apart.

 

ii. The primary idea behind holiness is not moral purity (though the idea includes moral purity), but it is the idea of apartness - that God is separate, different from His creation, both in His essential nature and in the perfection of His attributes.

 

iii. 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 forth at the transfiguration, they were greatly afraid (Matthew 17:6). When we see how different God is from us, it can be frightening: Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before Him, all the earth. (Psalm 96:9) 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 you don’t. In fact, many of the thrill-seeking pleasures of our modern world are nothing but feeble 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 show a bad heart in asking this question. Their question makes God seem too harsh instead of showing themselves to be too disobedient.

 

i. “Why this exclamation? They knew that God had forbidden any to touch his ark but the priests and the Levites; but they endeavoured to throw that blame on God, as a Being hard to be pleased, which belonged solely to themselves.” (Clarke)

 

ii. “Here they seem peevishly 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 ask a good question. God is, in fact, holy, and Who is able indeed?

 

i. Holiness is not so much achieved through our own efforts, but it is received, as we are new men and women 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 apartness. As it says in 1 Peter 1:6, God calls us to Be holy, for I am holy. Holiness is not so much something we have, as much as 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 Kirath 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 Kirath Jearim will indeed receive the ark, and the ark will stay there some seventy years until David brings it to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6).

 

© 2001 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission