1 Samuel 6:9
And see, if it goes up by the way of his own coast to Bethshemesh, then he has done us this great evil: but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that smote us: it was a chance that happened to us.
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(9) It was a chance that happened to us.—The priests and diviners were not certain whether the plague had been sent by the offended God of Israel or had visited Philistia in the ordinary course of nature. This strange experiment would satisfy the minds of the Philistine people. If the cows, contrary to their expectation, kept on the road to Bethshemesh, this would be a sign that they were driven and guided by a Divine power, and it would be clear to all that the Ark was a dangerous possession, and that they were well rid of it. They would be assured then that the scourge they were suffering from came from the angry Israelite Deity. If, on the other hand, the animals, left to themselves, returned to their own stalls, which, evidently, the diviners expected would be the case—then the Philistines might safely retain the Ark, being confident that their late sufferings were simply the results of natural causes. It will be remembered (1Samuel 6:7) that these were milch cows, whose calves were shut up in the stall. The diviners felt quite sure that the cows, left to their own instincts, would, unless driven by some Divine power, come back to their young ones in the stall. What the priests and diviners advised was done, and the next two verses (10 and 11) relate how the restoration of the Ark was carried out in the way prescribed above.

1 Samuel 6:9. And see if it goeth up by his own coast — Without any guide; to Beth-shemesh — A city in the tribe of Judah, in the confines of both countries. Then he hath done this great evil — Hath inflicted this sore calamity upon us. This they might well conclude, if such heifers should, contrary to their custom and natural instinct, go into a strange path, and regularly and constantly proceed in it, without being guided by any one.6:1-9 Seven months the Philistines were punished with the presence of the ark; so long it was a plague to them, because they would not send it home sooner. Sinners lengthen out their own miseries by refusing to part with their sins. The Israelites made no effort to recover the ark. Alas! where shall we find concern for religion prevail above all other matters? In times of public calamity we fear for ourselves, for our families, and for our country; but who cares for the ark of God? We are favoured with the gospel, but it is treated with neglect or contempt. We need not wonder if it should be taken from us; to many persons this, though the heavies of calamities, would occasion no grief. There are multitudes whom any profession would please as well as that of Christianity. But there are those who value the house, the word, and the ministry of God above their richest possessions, who dread the loss of these blessings more than death. How willing bad men are to shift off their convictions, and when they are in trouble, to believe it is a chance that happens; and that the rod has no voice which they should hear or heed!Bethshemesh was the first Israelite town they would come to, being on the border of Judah. (See the marginal reference.) 9-12. Beth-shemesh—that is, "house of the sun," now Ain Shems [Robinson], a city of priests in Judah, in the southeast border of Dan, lying in a beautiful and extensive valley. Josephus says they were set a-going near a place where the road divided into two—the one leading back to Ekron, where were their calves, and the other to Beth-shemesh. Their frequent lowings attested their ardent longing for their young, and at the same time the supernatural influence that controlled their movements in a contrary direction. His own coast, or, border, i.e. the way that leadeth to his coast or border, viz. the country to which it belongs.

Then he hath done us this great evil; which they might well conclude, if such heifers should, against their common use and natural instinct, go into a strange path, and regularly and constantly proceed in it, without any man’s conduct.

It was a chance that happened to us: this evil came to us from some influences of the stars, or other unknown causes; which was a weak and foolish inference, depending upon a mere contingency, it being uncertain whether God would please to give them this sign, and probable that he would deny it, both to punish their superstition, and to harden their hearts to their further and utter destruction. But wicked men will sooner believe the most uncertain and ridiculous things, than own the visible demonstrations of God’s power and providence. And see if it goeth up by the way of its own coast to Bethshemesh,.... The nearest city to the land of the Philistines, which lay on their borders, and the borders of the tribe of Judah; see Gill on Joshua 15:10. Now the lords of the Philistines are directed by their priests to observe, whether these kine, that drew the cart on which the ark was, took the direct road to the borders of the land of Israel, and to Bethshemesh, the nearest city that lay on that coast: if so, they might conclude then,

he hath done us this great evil; that is, the God of Israel, whose ark this was; he had inflicted the disease of the emerods on them, and sent such numbers of mice into their fields, that had destroyed the increase of them:

but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that hath smote us; but that there is some other cause of it:

it was a chance that happened to us; and so might have been the case if the ark had never been taken or detained, and to be imputed to fate, or to the stars, or some secret causes they know not of.

And see, if it goeth up by the way of his own coast to Bethshemesh, then {e} he hath done us this great evil: but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that smote us: it was a {f} chance that happened to us.

(e) The God of Israel.

(f) The wicked attribute almost all things to fortune and chance, whereas indeed there is nothing done without God's providence and decree.

9. his own coast] His own border, as in 1 Samuel 6:12. See ch. 1 Samuel 5:6, note. “His” refers to the Ark. The neuter possessive pronoun “its” is not found in the original edition of the E. V. See The Bible Word-Book, p. 272.

to Beth-shemesh] = “House of the Sun,” probably the same as Irshemesh = “City of the Sun” (Joshua 19:41). It was a priestly city (Joshua 21:16) on the border of the tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:10), about 12 miles S.E. of Ekron. Its position is identified by the modern village of Ain Shems (= “Fountain of the Sun”) in the Wady es Sŭrâr, and is described by Robinson as “a noble site for a city, a low plateau at the junction of two fine plains,” the “valley” in which the Beth-shemeshites were reaping their wheat (1 Samuel 6:13). “Here are vestiges of a former extensive city, consisting of many foundations and remains of ancient walls of hewn stone … Enough yet remains to make it one of the largest and most marked sites which we had anywhere seen.” Biblical Researches, II. 224.

Beth-shemesh was the scene of Amaziah’s defeat by Jehoash (2 Kings 14:11-12): and with other towns was taken from Ahaz by the Philistines (2 Chronicles 28:18). Its name, and that of Har-cheres = “Mount of the Sun” (Jdg 1:35), which was evidently in the neighbourhood, point to an ancient sun-worship in the country.

then he hath done us this great evil] Observe the completeness of the test. If cows unaccustomed to the yoke drew the cart quietly; if in spite of their natural instincts they deserted their calves; if without human guidance they went straight to the nearest Israelite town; the obvious conclusion must be that they were controlled by a supernatural power, and that that power was the God of Israel. Compare Gideon’s ‘signs,’ consisting of phenomena contrary to expectation (Jdg 6:37 ff.).Verse 9. - His own coast, or "border." The ark throughout this verse is spoken of as if it were itself a deity. Beth-shemesh - i.e. "the house of the sun," also called Irshemesh, "city of the sun" (Joshua 19:41) - had evidently been in the time of the Canaanites the seat of this popular idolatry. It was now a city of the priests, situated in the tribe of Judah, on its northeastern border, next the tribe of Dan, and was the nearest Israelite town to Ekron. If, then, the kine, albeit unused to the yoke, left their calves behind, and drew the cart by the most direct route unto the land of Judah, they would give the required proof that the Philistines were smitten by the hand of Jehovah, and that it was no chance that had happened unto them. The Ark of God Sent Back. - 1 Samuel 6:1-3. The ark of Jehovah was in the land (lit. the fields, as in Ruth 1:2) of the Philistines for seven months, and had brought destruction to all the towns to which it had been taken. At length the Philistines resolved to send it back to the Israelites, and therefore called their priests and diviners (see at Numbers 23:23) to ask them, "What shall we do with regard to the ark of God; tell us, with what shall we send it to its place?" "Its place" is the land of Israel, and בּמּה does not mean "in what manner" (quomodo: Vulgate, Thenius), but with what, wherewith (as in Micah 6:6). There is no force in the objection brought by Thenius, that if the question had implied with what presents, the priests would not have answered, "Do not send it without a present;" for the priests did not confine themselves to this answer, in which they gave a general assent, but proceeded at once to define the present more minutely. They replied, "If they send away the ark of the God of Israel (משׁלּחים is to be taken as the third person in an indefinite address, as in 1 Samuel 2:24, and not to be construed with אתּם supplied), do not send it away empty (i.e., without an expiatory offering), but return Him (i.e., the God of Israel) a trespass-offering." אשׁם, lit. guilt, then the gift presented as compensation for a fault, the trespass-offering (see at Leviticus 5:14-6:7). The gifts appointed by the Philistines as an asham were to serve as a compensation and satisfaction to be rendered to the God of Israel for the robbery committed upon Him by the removal of the ark of the covenant, and were therefore called asham, although in their nature they were only expiatory offerings. For the same reason the verb השׁיב, to return or repay, is used to denote the presentation of these gifts, being the technical expression for the payment of compensation for a fault in Numbers 5:7, and in Leviticus 6:4 for compensation for anything belonging to another, that had been unjustly appropriated. "Are ye healed then, it will show you why His hand is not removed from you," sc., so long as ye keep back the ark. The words תּרפאוּ אז are to be understood as conditional, even without אם, which the rules of the language allow (see Ewald, 357, b.); this is required by the context. For, according to 1 Samuel 6:9, the Philistine priests still thought it a possible thing that any misfortune which had befallen the Philistines might be only an accidental circumstance. With this view, they could not look upon a cure as certain to result from the sending back of the ark, but only as possible; consequently they could only speak conditionally, and with this the words "we shall know" agree.
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