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1 Samuel 6:1-7:1

Text Comment

v.2       “diviners” Divination, the so-called science of discovering beforehand the will of the gods was forbidden in Israel. Israel had God’s Word and was to live according to it. And, mostly, the Bible regards divination as a crock. But, from time to time, the Lord uses it to accomplish his will (e.g. Balaam).

v.3       In effect, they will send compensation to Yahweh for their offense against him. By the way, the words “return” and “send away” are the same Hebrew word and it is the word used repeatedly for Pharaoh’s sending of Israel away, sustaining the link to the Exodus history in this passage (cf. v. 6). [Alter, com., 30] In Exodus the Israelites did not leave Egypt “empty-handed” but came out with large quantities of Egyptian gold.

v.5       There is probably some idea of magic here. By sending away the models of the plague from the land they hope to symbolize the banishment of the plague itself. The gold is the compensation to Yahweh.

Now, remember, “honor” is a key-word in this whole narrative, beginning in 2:29-30. The Philistines will honor the Lord when the Israelites did not. The word “honor” is the same root as the word “glory” – the glory departed from Israel because she did not honor the Lord – and the word “harden” in the next verse.

v.6       The history was well-known. Now the Philistine priests and diviners are better theologians than Hophni and Phinehas, the Israelite priests had been.

v.9       The logic of the scheme is clear enough. Natural instinct would incline the cows to head back home. This is all the more true because they took cows that had calved. The powerful instinct of these milking mothers would be to return to feed their young. What is more, if they had never been yoked, they would not be accustomed to any movement of this sort along a road. All idea of human interference in the movement of the animals is thus removed. Only under the impulse of some supernatural power would cows like these go up the road to Beth-Shemesh. [Evangelical forms of divination, e.g. “laying out a fleece” are usually not nearly so honest!]

v.12     The cows went directly to Beth-Shemesh, lowing all the way. The lowing probably indicates that the cows themselves seemed to be under an unnatural force. They are being driven, in distress, on a journey they cannot resist. They were lowing for their calves, but not heading toward them!

v.13     Wheat was harvested in May/June and the fact that the harvest was underway will explain why there were so many people there to greet the ark when it arrived.

v.16     The appearance of the ark was the occasion of an impromptu worship service, which completed the demonstration of the Lord’s hand in all of this. They went back content that they had done what they could and should have done. Their offering had been accepted. They returned to Ekron, the city most recently affected by the plague, to see what the results would be.

v.18     There were more gold rats than gold tumors, in violation of the orders given in v. 4. The medieval Jewish commentator, Kimchi, supposes that the people offered more gold rats as insurance that the villages would not be left unprotected and only the cities cleared of the plague.

v.19     Israel was glad to have the ark returned, but still had not been cured of its sacrilegious approach to God.

By the way, as your margin indicates, most Hebrew texts and the LXX have 50,070 instead of 70 (the word for 50,000 comes after the word for 70 and there is no “and” between the two numbers, a further sign that the text is corrupted). Josephus mentions the lower number without comment. It is an illustration of how easily numbers especially were corrupted in copying. 50,070 would be many times the population of Beth Shemesh. 70 is an entirely believable number.

v.21     Kiriath Jearim was, apparently, a sanctuary site and so a more appropriate resting place for the ark, even temporarily. The people of Beth Shemesh obviously didn’t want to make a second mistake, keeping the ark where it was not appropriate.

7:1       On the hilltop was the appropriate place for the ark (cf. high place, which was, at this time, regularly the site for worship).

No careful reader of this narrative can fail to be jarred by its conclusion. The ark was lost to Israel for seven months. While in the territory of the Philistines it had wrecked destruction everywhere, the demonstration that Yahweh was the living God and not a worthless idol such as the Philistine’s worshipped. The Philistines got the point themselves. They didn’t become followers of Yahweh, as they should have, but they knew they and their gods were no match for him, and they sent his ark, his portable shrine back where it came from.

And they did so in a way that, while first designed to test whether Yahweh really had been judging them for the capture of his ark, demonstrated beyond doubt that the Lord controlled events in the world, that he was the sovereign God, and not only in Israel, but in Philistia as well.

The ark’s return to Israel at Beth Shemesh was greeted with great joy. We are not told what Israel thought and how she lived during the seven months the ark was in Philistia. We are not told whether the people had repented of those sins for which their defeat in battle and the loss of the ark had been God’s judgment. But, at least, when the people of Beth Shemesh saw the ark, they rejoiced, and when it stopped in the field, it was their first instinct to drop their tools and to have an impromptu worship service, to offer sacrifices to God. So far so good!

But, then in vv. 19-20, there is a jarring finale. Seventy men of Beth Shemesh are struck dead for some act of irreverence toward the ark. And seventy is a symbolic number. Many more committed the sin; the seventy perished as representatives of the whole! It is not said precisely what sacrilege they committed. The NIV’s “looked into the ark” is an interpretation of the Hebrew, not the only possible translation. That might have been the sin. It was long thought in Jewish tradition, Josephus had this view, that the punishment was due to the fact that the sacrifices were offered without the supervision and participation of priests. It is interesting also that the levitical law required that the burnt offering be made with males without blemish. The animals used were females. The LXX has a completely different text which reads, “The sons of Jeconiah did not rejoice with the rest of the men of Beth Shemesh when they saw the ark of the Lord…” According to the LXX, it was for this sin of failing to rejoice over the ark’s return that 70 of their number were executed.

Whatever the offense, it is clear that some gross infidelity against the sanctity of the ark, which, of course, is a symbol of the presence of God himself, had been committed by these people and they were judged for it. It is interesting that in v. 12, the cows who pulled the cart on which the ark was returned to Israel are said to have gone straight up the road, “they did not turn to the right or to the left.” In Deuteronomy (5:32; 17:11) and in Joshua (1:7) that same phrase, in reference to the Word and Law of God, is a picture of complete obedience. When a man turns from the law of God neither to the right nor to the left it means that he is keeping it faithfully. There may be an intended contrast here. The cows were more obedient to the Lord than the Israelites were!

Nor are we told precisely how they died. But it is interesting that the word the NIV renders “blow”, at the end of v. 19, is the same word that is rendered “plague” in 4:8. The Philistine suffered plagues, as the Egyptians had before them, and now, perhaps, the Israelites did as well.

In any case, we know what the jarring finale means because the narrator gives us his “evaluative viewpoint” in the words of the men of Beth Shemesh that he quotes: “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?”

God’s holiness had been offended by the actions of these people and all of the rejoicing at the return of the ark, the offering of sacrifices, all that seemed to be such a new beginning, counted for nothing in the face of the sacrilege that was then committed against the holiness of God. It had consumed the Philistines and now it consumed the Israelites as well. Hardly the happy ending we anticipated when we saw the ark going up to Israel on the cart pulled by the lowing milk cows!

“Behold the goodness and the severity of God,” Paul says. But we are much more interested in beholding his goodness than his severity. That is perhaps natural enough, but if it leads us to being careless about his severity, his holiness, then we put ourselves in danger. And there is reason to believe that a large part of American Christianity has put itself in that danger. And that is so for two reasons, or, I should say, because they make two mistakes in the reading of this text, 1 Samuel 6:19.

  • First, they do not think that it applies to them, living as they do in the age of the Spirit, the New Testament.

There would be many evangelicals who would read 1 Samuel 6:19 and, without hesitation, assume that such a thing would happen, could happen, only in the Old Testament. God was much more strict, much less gracious in that day and in that Mosaic epoch. G. Bromley Oxnam, the prominent United Methodist bishop of the middle 20th century, put it more polemically: “the God of the Old Testament is a dirty bully.”

Christians recoil from that thought, but a large number of them, nevertheless, accept that God treated people far more harshly in what they think of as the “age of the law” than he does now in what they think of as “the age of the gospel.” There is, however, precious little evidence to prove this and a great deal to disprove it. Think of just this from the New Testament itself.

  1. Acts 5: Ananias and Sapphira were executed for cheating on their tithe.
  2. 1 Corinthians 11: some Corinthian church members had lost their lives for their irreverence toward the Lord’s Supper – an event not dissimilar to that recorded in 1 Samuel 6:19!
  3. The Book of Hebrews contains many warnings to folk in the churches to which it was written, to the effect that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and that our God is a consuming fire. Indeed, the judgments of the Lord against Israel in the OT are cited as exemplary warnings for us. Don’t be unfaithful as they were or you will get what they did.
  4. Revelation 3: the threat the Lord makes to the church in Laodicea.
  5. Or, even, in John 5, the Lord’s later remark to the man he had healed at the pool of Bethesda. “Stop sinning or something worse will happen to you.”
  6. Then, of course, all the terrible judgment scenes, so many of which come from the Lord’s own mouth!
  7. Remember, it is in Romans 11, in the NT, that we are told to behold “the goodness and the severity of God.”

How is 1 Samuel 6 different from Matthew 7 and the Lord’s terrible, “Depart from me, I never knew you!”? And how is the Lord’s judgment of these 70, who had offered sacrifices to the Lord, different from his casting away from himself those who, at the judgment, could say and would say that they had cast out demons in the Lord’s name, but, according to him, they still had not done his will?

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and both his goodness and his severity are thus the same. And so the question the men of Beth Shemesh asked is a question we are to ask as well!

It was the Lord Jesus, after all, in his famous parable of the sower and the soils, who spoke of people who have an initial joy but have no root and eventually fall away. He is describing people like those at Beth Shemesh who would have thought their participation in the sacrifices, their joy at the ark’s return, would have rendered them immune to the Lord’s wrath. But their indifference to God’s holiness finally found them out!

The very many warnings in the Bible about a superficial and insincere faith, warnings which come in the form of illustrations such as this one in 1 Samuel 6 as well as in the sermons of the prophets and the letters of the Apostles, are precisely designed to force upon our conscience the issue of the seriousness and the sincerity of our faith.

Richard Baxter wrote, “Seriousness is the very thing wherein consisteth our sincerity. If thou art not serious, thou art not a Christian. It is not only a high degree in Christianity, but the very life and essence of it. As fencers upon a stage differ from soldiers fighting for their lives, so hypocrites differ from serious Christians. [‘The Saints Everlasting Rest, in Practical Works, p. 46]

Texts such as the one before us, are designed to make us serious Christians, to make us fearful of being light and insubstantial and insincere Christians. And those texts, full of judgment, thunder and lightning, come as well in the NT as the OT. There is no difference. Now as then it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, a statement made, in both the OT and the NT, to people who thought themselves God’s people, and to many who were in truth God’s people.

So, we must put the question to ourselves as well: “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?”

  • But, there is a second reason why many evangelical Christians do not take seriously the warning that is here for us in 1 Samuel 6:19: they give the wrong answer to the question of v. 20.

The simple assumption of many Bible readers in our day would be that the answer to the question posed in v. 20 would be: “Why, those who believe in Jesus Christ.” The way anyone stands in the presence of the Lord is in the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. We have no righteousness of our own. Our righteousness, as Isaiah put it, is “filthy rags.” To stand before a holy God one needs real righteousness, perfect goodness, complete obedience to God’s will. We don’t have it. But Christ does and offers to give it to all who trust in him. As we sang this morning:

            O great Absolver, grant my soul may wear

The lowliest garb of penitence and prayer,

That in the Father’s courts my glorious dress

May be the garment of thy righteousness.

            Yea, thou wilt answer for me, righteous Lord;

Thine all the merits, mine the great reward;

Thine the sharp thorns, and mine the golden crown;

Mine the life won, and thine the life laid down.

Or, as Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him [i.e. Christ] who had no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

All of that is true, of course, most gloriously true! We could never stand before the holiness of God in our own deeds and expect anything from him but punishment. Let no one take our crown in proclaiming justification by faith, our acquittal in the judgment of God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness reckoned to us through our faith in him. We will happily admit that the question posed in 1 Samuel 6:20 can be answered in terms of justifying faith. It is, for example, answered that way in Revelation 7 (vv. 9, 13-14).

But, that being said, that is not the Bible’s customary answer to the question posed in 1 Samuel 6:20! In Psalm 24:3, for example, we have a similar question put:

            “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?

Who may stand in his holy place?”

And what answer is given?

            “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an

Idol or swear by what is false.”

The answer to the question in 1 Samuel 6:20 is that those who are faithful to the Lord in their living will stand before his presence. You get this all through the OT prophets and then you get it again in the NT. The Lord sends away those who thought they were saved because, he says, “you did not do the will of my father in heaven.” At the day of resurrection, he says, men will awake and those who have done good will rise to live and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. James tells us that true religion amounts to helping the needy and keeping oneself uncorrupted by the world.

Indeed, picking up the same thought of “standing before the Lord,” Paul says that we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of the deeds done in the body, whether good or evil.

Clearly, we cannot be righteous before God in our own righteousness. We must have the righteousness of Christ. But a question like 1 Samuel 6:20 is designed precisely to force upon us that very question: do we have the righteousness of Christ? Have we trusted in him? Do we have a living faith in Christ the Savior? And one key way of testing the genuineness of faith is to see whether it produces an obedient, reverent, devoted life.

In the case of these men from Beth Shemesh, those 70, they thought themselves right with God, they participated in the worship of God, but their hearts were far from him. They had only an outward faith, a faith sufficient to produce an outward conformity. But when that faith was tested it was shown up to be insincere, unreal. They didn’t love and fear the holiness of God, not really? They didn’t revere his name, not really? They didn’t keep his commandments, not really? And on the occasion of the ark’s return, they were tripped up. It didn’t occur to them not to do what so offended God, because their hearts were far from God.

This, brothers and sisters, is a very common problem in the church. Such insincere faith is widespread. Always has been. And so, throughout the Bible, warning after warning of every kind, to keep us thinking about our faith, our lives, to keep us careful to be not only hearers of the Word but doers of it.

The fact is, the Israelites, the people who supposedly belonged to the Lord, were no more protected against the punishment of infidelity than the pagans around them! The difference between heaven and hell is not and never has been between those who belong to the church and those who do not, but rather, between those who belong to Christ by a living faith and those who do not, whether they are in the church or outside of it.

There is a peace that passes all understanding that is to fill the hearts of those who know the love of God and who know that they have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. But that peace, the entire Bible testifies, is not incompatible with or inconsistent with a serious concern to live a holy, devout, and obedient life before the Lord. It is not incompatible with what Peter calls making our calling and election sure by the faithfulness of our living before and with our God. It is not incompatible with the terrible seriousness of commitment that led even the Apostle Paul to say that he beat his body and made it his slave, lest having preached to others, he himself might be disqualified for the prize.

It is the paradox of the Christian life. The safest and the most secure Christian, the Christian most at peace in his heart, is the one who takes with the greatest seriousness these warnings he or she finds everywhere in the Bible and, so, “works out his own salvation, her own salvation, knowing that it is God who is within you to will and to act according to his good pleasure.”

It is interesting to me that in the church’s past, when God’s Spirit has been moving most mightily, and people have enjoyed the strongest impressions of his utterly free saving grace and love, of the perfection of Christ’s righteous as now belonging to them, they have, at the same time, been most careful to live seriously and obediently and devoutly. They have never thought there was a contradiction between free grace and justification by faith and the absolute necessity of Christians, who have been saved by grace, living a devout and consecrated life. The one must lead to the other. If not it must be doubted if faith is genuine.

“An old Highland minister said of a time of revival that during it they were ‘like men walking on ice,’ they had to be so watchful over every word and thought not to slip and so grieve the Holy Spirit, who was working amongst them and resting over them in His love.”

Well, revivals are just powerful concentrations of normal Christian experience. The principles are the same at any time. And true faith, perhaps not so powerfully, but still really, cares always to live according to God’s will.

I want us all to be happy Christians, serene in the knowledge that we stand before the Lord not in our own righteousness, but that of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. But, I want us, at the same time, to be serious Christians, deadly serious, absolutely committed to the proposition that real and living faith in Christ will transform the life and that those who love God will keep his commandments. So, when we come across the texts that remind us of God’s entirely free grace and Christ’s perfect righteous given to us as if it were our own, to make us as if we had never sinned or been sinners, we will grab hold of those texts with all our might. I love, you love those texts that teach us how free the grace of God truly is; that teach us that if we but believe in Jesus Christ all our sins, no matter how terrible, how constant, how inexcusable, are swept away and buried in the deepest sea — all because Christ died for them. But, I also want to love those texts that teach me that God cares vary much about the life I live and that warn me that I must live a life faithful to him. And, when we come across warnings such as the one before us tonight, we will grab hold of those texts also with all our might.

To answer the question of 1 Samuel 6:20 with “the one who believes in Jesus Christ” is calculated to put churches and Christians to sleep. To answer it instead, as the Bible does, with “he who has clean hands and a pure heart” will force us, daily, to confess our sins and seek anew the righteousness of Jesus – for consecrated Christians who try to live a holy life are the one who fully appreciate how far short they fall of God’s standards – , but it will also make us careful to remember that faith without works is dead!