Read 1 Samuel 6
The Ark Returned to Israel
1 When the ark of the Lord had been in Philistine territory seven months, 2 the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we should send it back to its place.”
3 They answered, “If you return the ark of the god of Israel, do not send it back to him without a gift; by all means send a guilt offering to him. Then you will be healed, and you will know why his hand has not been lifted from you.”
4 The Philistines asked, “What guilt offering should we send to him?”
They replied, “Five gold tumors and five gold rats, according to the number of the Philistine rulers, because the same plague has struck both you and your rulers. 5 Make models of the tumors and of the rats that are destroying the country, and give glory to Israel’s god. Perhaps he will lift his hand from you and your gods and your land. 6 Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When Israel’s god dealt harshly with them, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way?
7 “Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. 8 Take the ark of the Lord and put it on the cart, and in a chest beside it put the gold objects you are sending back to him as a guilt offering. Send it on its way, 9 but keep watching it. If it goes up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then the Lord has brought this great disaster on us. But if it does not, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us but that it happened to us by chance.”
10 So they did this. They took two such cows and hitched them to the cart and penned up their calves. 11 They placed the ark of the Lord on the cart and along with it the chest containing the gold rats and the models of the tumors. 12 Then the cows went straight up toward Beth Shemesh, keeping on the road and lowing all the way; they did not turn to the right or to the left. The rulers of the Philistines followed them as far as the border of Beth Shemesh.
13 Now the people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley, and when they looked up and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight. 14 The cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock. The people chopped up the wood of the cart and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15 The Levites took down the ark of the Lord, together with the chest containing the gold objects, and placed them on the large rock. On that day the people of Beth Shemesh offered burnt offerings and made sacrifices to the Lord. 16 The five rulers of the Philistines saw all this and then returned that same day to Ekron.
17 These are the gold tumors the Philistines sent as a guilt offering to the Lord—one each for Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron. 18 And the number of the gold rats was according to the number of Philistine towns belonging to the five rulers—the fortified towns with their country villages. The large rock on which the Levites set the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh.
19 But God struck down some of the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they looked into the ark of the Lord. The people mourned because of the heavy blow the Lord had dealt them. 20 And the people of Beth Shemesh asked, “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God? To whom will the ark go up from here?”
21 Then they sent messengers to the people of Kiriath Jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the Lord. Come down and take it up to your town.”
The Philistines had the golden trophy, but it didn’t take long for them to realize this was not a prize they wished to keep. This passage tells us that they suffered from plagues of tumors and rats as a result of keeping the Ark of the Covenant. The Philistines had come to such a point of desperation that they were willing to get rid of the Ark and acknowledge the God of the Israelites as the true God so that they would be healed (v. 3).
Or were they? We see in verses 8 and 9 that this statement was conditional. The directions given for returning the Ark were to build a cart and attach it to two mother cows that had never been yoked. Then the Philistines would “watch and see” if the cows went on their own to Beth-shemesh, the closest Israelite town. Commentaries explain that these details are important, because cows would typically never leave their calves. And cows that had never been yoked would have no idea how to take a cart anywhere, much less 17 miles to a place they had never been. So, clearly, the Philistines were still experimenting to see if it was really God who was in control and could heal them.
When the cows inevitably arrived at Beth-shemesh, we see that the cart and the cows were offered as a burnt offering by the Levites there. This detail is also significant, because we know from Deuteronomy 31:9 that the Lord had given specific instructions on how to move His Ark (only on poles resting on the shoulders of priests). Because the Philistines had not followed this instruction, the Levites knew what they had to do. The Philistines hadn’t really acknowledged the true God…they were just desperate and trying one last ditch effort to get rid of the tumors and rats.
How often are we like the Philistines? Maybe we aren’t blatantly disowning God and worshiping false gods, but do we get desperate and adopt a “let’s try this” experimental attitude? When times get tough, do we start to pray, hoping God will answer the way we want? Do we test God when in difficult situations, finally turning to Him hoping He will provide the solution to our problems?
God doesn’t want or deserve our experimental testing of Him. He isn’t the last ditch way out—He is The Way. Just as the Ark was to be treated with respect and honor, our God deserves the same from us, because He is a good and loving Father. He wants a relationship with us based on trust, devotion, and love – not one that we treat as an insurance policy when things go wrong.
- How might you have treated God as an insurance policy, rather than a good and loving Father who wants a personal relationship with you?
- Is there any area of your life where you aren’t acknowledging God as God? Have you trusted Him with your schedule, your job, your kids, your relationships, your finances—or if there is some golden trophy that you’re holding on to and controlling yourself?
- Spend some time in prayer this morning asking God to reveal any area of your life where you haven’t acknowledged Him as in control. Just as the Israelites knew a burnt offering was required, ask God to forgive you for failing to acknowledge Him so that you can enjoy restoration with Him.
Did You Know?
The priests had to carry the Ark of the Covenant with poles, because Exodus 25:22 tells us that the Ark of the Covenant was a housing vessel for the Lord. If the priests accidentally touched the Ark they would instantly die, because God’s glory and presence cannot be touched by man. Our sinful natures cannot be in the presence of the Lord without the Holy Spirit residing within us. For more information about the Ark, read this article.
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