Chapter 6 of 1 Samuel is the conclusion to the story which began in chapter 4. In chapter 4, the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines on two occasions. And on both occasions, the Israelites were defeated and suffered heavy losses. But most importantly, on the second occasion, Eli’s two worthless sons were killed and the ark of the Lord was taken captive. And you’ll remember that when old Eli heard the news, he fell over and broke his neck and died. It was God’s will for Eli and his sons to die, because Eli’s sons were worthless men who stole from the people and who stole from the Lord and who defiled the Lord’s sanctuary by the immorality; and, even though Eli knew what they were doing, he did not remove his sons from the priesthood. And since Eli did not remove his worthless sons from the priesthood, the Lord took matters into his own hands and he removed them from the priesthood and he removed Eli from the priesthood; and in due course, the Lord would raise up for himself a faithful priest who would serve the Lord faithfully unlike Eli and his sons.
So, it was the Lord’s will for Eli and his sons to die. That all happened in chapter 4. Then, in chapter 5, which we studied last week, we read that the Philistines took the ark of the Lord and placed it in the temple of their god, Dagon, as if to say that their god was greater than Israel’s God. But do you remember what happened? The next morning, when the Philistines went into their temple, they discover that Dagon had fallen on his face before the Lord. They picked him up and put him back in his place. But the next morning, they found that Dagon had once again fallen before the Lord; and this time, his hand and hands had been cut off. And if that wasn’t enough to convince them that Israel’s God was the true God and Dagon was nothing, the Lord sent a plague on the Philistines.
And I explained last time that though the Lord had suffered humiliation and defeat when his army was defeated and his ark was taken captive; and though he was brought into Dagon’s temple and into the heart of darkness; nevertheless the Lord was — in a sense — raised up over his enemies and he demonstrated his victory over Dagon and over the Philistines. And the Lord Jesus also suffered humiliation and defeat when he was crucified on the cross and buried in the ground. And for a time it seemed that the Devil had triumphed over the Lord Jesus. But then, after suffering humiliation and defeat, the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead and he was exalted over all his enemies who have been disarmed and defeated forever. And since he has been exalted over all, we must all yield our lives to him, because he is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Instead of living for ourselves, we ought to live for him, trusting in him for the forgiveness of our sins and obeying him as our King.
So, the story of 1 Samuel 4 and 5 points us to the good news of the gospel and to Christ’s victory over Satan and over death on our behalf. And so it should be no surprise to learn that the story of 1 Samuel 6 points us to the good news of the gospel as well.
As I said, this chapter is the conclusion to the story that began in chapter 4 about the Philistines. In this chapter, the Philistines decide to send the ark of the Lord back to Israel. In verses 1 to 12, the Philistines work out what to do with the ark and what gifts to offer the Lord. And in verses 13 to the first verse of chapter 7, we read about the ark in Beth-Shemesh and in Kiriath-Jearim.
Verses 1 to 12
Let’s turn now to verses 1 to 12. And we’re told in verse 1 that when the ark of the Lord had been in Philistine territory for seven months, the Philistines called for the priests and diviners and asked them what shall they do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we should sent it back. You see, they had suffered enough. The Lord had demonstrated his superiority to Dagon. And the Lord has devastated their cities by sending the plague on them. They had suffered enough and they now wanted to return the ark.
The priests and the diviners answered them in verse 3 by saying that when they return the ark, they must not send it away empty, but they must send with it a guilt offering for the Lord. Now, it’s unclear whether these pagan priests and diviners were aware of God’s law, but in the book of Leviticus, the Lord gave Moses instructions about all the different offerings the people were to make to him. And in Leviticus 5, he mentions the guilt offering. Now, when we studied that passage on Wednesday evenings, I explained that the guilt offering should probably be referred to as the reparation offering, because that name captures better the unique purpose of the offering. The guilt offering, or the reparation offering, was designed to provide reparation or compensation to the Lord for sin. When someone sinned by stealing something, they were required to return the stolen property. But they were also required to bring an offering to the Lord to make up for their sin. Sin is a debt which needs to be paid for with a sacrifice. Of course, all of those Old Testament sacrifices point ultimately to Christ, who offering himself as the perfect sacrifice to pay for our sin and guilt. But that’s the idea behind the guilt offering or the reparation offering. You gave something to God to make up for your sin. And that seems to be the motivation here as well. The Philistine priests and diviners realised they had offended the God of Israel by taking his ark. They have sinned against him. Therefore, as well as returning that ark, they have to offer him something more to make up for their sins. They have to give him something else to compensate him for what they did to him when they captured his ark.
And so, the Philistine priests and diviners went on to say that if they send a guilt offering, or a reparation offering, then they will be healed of the tumours that God had sent on them. So, let’s pay for our sin; and then the Lord will take away the plague. And if that happens, they say, then you’ll know why his hand has not been lifted from us. So, up to that time, his hand was heavy on them, because he was angry with them and was punishing them. But once they send him an offering, then he’ll remove his hand from them and the plague on them will cease.
Well, what they said made sense to the rest of the Philistines; and so they ask in verse 4: ‘What guilt offering should we send to him?’ You’ve told us to send a guilt offering. We’re willing to do that. But what kind of guilt offering will be acceptable to him? And they answer: ‘Five gold tumours and five gold rats.’
It seems odd — doesn’t it? — but they suggest five gold tumours and five gold rats in accordance with the number of the Philistines rulers. I mentioned last week that the Philistines ruled over five cities. Each city had its own ruler. And so, send a gold tumour and a gold rat for each of the five rulers. But why golden tumours and rats? Well, they mention golden tumours because the Lord afflicted them with tumours. And I mentioned last week that some commentators think the reference to golden rats here means the plague was caused by rats. So, the priests and diviners are saying that the guilt offering should look like the tumours they’re suffering and they should look like the rats which caused the plague. However, one of the commentators suggests that the words of verse 4 should be translated: ‘Five gold tumours, that is, five golden rats.’ After all, what do golden tumours look like? Well, perhaps they were small and round and looked a little like rats. In any case, they say in verse 5 that they must make models of the tumours and thereby pay honour to Israel’s God. If they do that, perhaps he will be willing to accept their offering and lift his heavy hand from them and from their gods and from their land.
And then, according to verse 6, the priests and diviners warned the Philistines not to harden their hearts as the Egyptians and the Pharaoh did. They’re referring to the time of the Exodus when God sent one plague after another on the land of Egypt. If the Egyptians and Pharaoh had given in immediately and had let the Israelites go, their country would not have been devastated as badly as it was. But because they stubbornly refused to let the Israelites go, they suffered all ten of God’s plagues. Well, the priests and diviners are saying, don’t make the same mistake. Don’t harden your heart. Don’t be stubborn. Send the ark of the Lord away and that will be the end of the plagues on our land.
But that’s not the end of their advice. In verses 7 to 9 they set up a test to make clear whether or not all of this was from the Lord. Get a new cart ready, they said, because the ark of the Lord should not be placed on any old cart. And get two cows that have calved and that have never been yoked; and hitch them to the cart; and take away their calves from them. And then place the ark on the cart and let’s see what happens. If the cows and cart make their way to Beth-Shemesh, an Israelite city, then you’ll know this is from the Lord. But if the cows and cart don’t head for Beth-Shemesh, then you’ll know the Lord had nothing to do with the plague which had devastated them.
Well, if the cows and cart made it to Beth-Shemesh it would be clear that the hand of the Lord was in it, because there’s no way the cows would head for Beth-Shemesh unless the Lord was guiding them. You see, the cows had never been yoked. If you’ve ever had to train a puppy to get used to a leash, then you’ll know that animals do not like being tied up. Cows that have never been yoked are unlikely to cooperate. And cows that have had calves will not normally want to leave their calves. And so, under normal circumstances, what ought to have happened is the cows should have turned around and headed straight for their calves. But on this occasion, the cows headed away from the calves and they went straight for Beth-Shemesh, because the unseen hand of the Lord was guiding them. The fact that they lowed all the way suggests that they made their way along the road against their will. Their natural impulse was to turn back, but the Lord kept them going straight ahead. And, of course, they were pulling not just the cart, but the ark which was on the ark as well as the guilt offering to the Lord.
Verses 13 to 7:1
In the second half of today’s passage we read how the ark first came to Beth-Shemesh and then it was sent to Kiriath-Jearim. So, whenever the people of Beth-Shemesh looked up from their work in the fields and saw the ark, they were overjoyed. Finally, after seven long months, the ark had returned to Israel. The cart stopped in the field of a man named Joshua. This, of course, is not the Joshua who led the people through the River Jordan and into the Promised Land, but is another, later, Joshua. And the people chopped up the cart and used its wood to build a fire in order to sacrifice the cows to the Lord. And we read in verse 15 that the Levites took the ark of the Lord, as well as the guilt offering, and placed it on the rock. The Levites were that tribe of Israel whom the Lord had set apart from everyone else to look after the tabernacle and everything in it, including the ark. Whenever the ark had to be moved, the Levites were the only ones allowed to move it. And there would have been Levites in Beth-Shemesh, because it was a city set apart for the Levites.
Jump down to verse 19 now and to what happened next. God struck down some of the men of Beth-Shemesh, because they looked into the ark of the Lord. Probably that should be translated, ‘they looked upon the ark’. The ark of the Lord was so holy that no one was allowed to look at it, except for the High Priest who was only allowed to approach the ark in the tabernacle once a year. Whenever the ark was being moved, it was covered with a linen sheet so that no one would be able to see it, because whoever looked upon it would die. But, at Beth-Shemesh, some of the men looked at the ark and they died. And the people mourned because of this heavy blow which the Lord dealt against them. And the men asked: ‘Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?’ It seems to them that no one can stand before the presence of the Lord and live. And so, if the ark of the Lord is that dangerous, then they don’t want to have it around them. And so, they decide to move it to another place. And so, we read in verse 21 that they sent messengers to Kiriath-Jearim and asked the people there to come and take the ark of the Lord. And they came and took it to Abinadab’s house on the hill. And they consecrated his son to guard the ark of the Lord.
There are bits of this story which parallel the story of the Exodus when Moses and the Israelites left Egypt to make their way to the Promised Land. For instance, look back to verse 3 where the priests and diviners said: ‘If you return the ark of the God of Israel….’ The word translated ‘return’ can also be translated ‘send away’; and the same word is used in Exodus 5:1 where Moses and Aaron went to the Pharaoh in Egypt and said: ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go.’ That is: ‘Send away my people’. It’s the same word used in 1 Samuel 6. And the same word is used many times to refer to the Exodus.
Then, when the Israelites left Egypt, they did not go empty-handed, did they? No, the Lord moved the heart of the Egyptians to give the Israelites articles of silver and gold. And so, we’re told, they plundered the Egyptians. And here, in 1 Samuel 6, the priests and diviners advised the Philistines not to send away the ark of the Lord empty-handed, but to send with it the golden tumours.
And then, of course, the priests and diviners referred directly to the Exodus in verse 6 where they warned the Philistines not to harden their hearts as the Egyptians did. And they compare sending the ark of the Lord away to sending the Israelites away.
So, there are these parallels between this story and the story of the Exodus. And what happened after the Exodus? Well, the Lord led his people to Mount Sinai; and as they gathered at the foot of the mountain, the Lord came down from heaven to the top of the mountain. And there was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud. And the mountain was covered in smoke, because the Lord came down in fire. And the mountain trembled violently. And there was a a trumpet blast, which got louder and louder. And the Lord came down and spoke to Moses. And we read in Exodus 20 that when the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear; and they stayed at a distance; and they said to Moses: ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’ The Israelites at Sinai realised that their God is holy and mighty and powerful and terrifying. And they did not dare come near him.
And what do we find in 1 Samuel 6? The Israelites in Beth-Shemesh realised that their God is holy and mighty and powerful and terrifying. And they did not dare come near him, but wanted to send his ark away.
Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this Holy God? The Israelites at Mount Sinai realised the Lord is holy. The Israelites at Beth-Shemesh realised the Lord is holy. And the Israelites at Mount Sinai asked for a mediator, didn’t they? They asked for someone to stand between themselves and this Holy God. They asked for someone to approach this Holy God on their behalf. They asked for someone to speak to this Holy God on their behalf and to speak to them on God’s behalf. This Holy God was too terrifying to approach, because he alone is holy and sinners cannot come into the presence of a Holy God and hope to live. But was there someone who could stand in the presence of God on their behalf?
Well, the Israelites at Mount Sinai had Moses. He was able to approach the Lord and speak to him face to face on their behalf. And as we’ll see next week perhaps, Samuel took on the role of representing the Israelites before the Lord and interceding for them. In due course, the Lord would raise up a new priest to replace Eli, who would stand in the presence of the Lord and intercede for the people. But ultimately, of course, the one who stands in the presence of a Holy God to represent a sinful people and to intercede for them is the Lord Jesus Christ.
He offered himself on the cross as the perfect, once-for-all, never-to-be-repeated sacrifice for sins. And through faith in him, we are washed and cleansed from the guilt of our sins and set free forever from the condemnation we deserve. And having offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sin, the Lord Jesus has entered the true tabernacle, the true temple, which is heaven itself. And there in heaven, he stands before this Holy God, where he makes intercession for his people. In other words, he’s there, at God’s right hand, praying for us and for all his people that we might receive everything we need for salvation while we wait to enter the glory to come.
And through faith in Christ, and covered by his blood, you are able to come before the Lord to worship him and to pray to him. God is still holy. He is infinitely and eternally and unchangeably holy. He is still terrifying and nothing sinful or unclean can ever enter his presence. But united with Christ by faith, you can come before this Holy God to worship him and to pray to him. If you trust in Christ, you can come before his Holy God, because Christ has sprinkled you with his blood and cleansed you.
And then, one day, one day, you’ll be able to come into the presence of God in glory; and you’ll be able to stand in the presence of the Lord, this Holy God. You’ll be able to stand in his presence and be with him forever, not because of any goodness of your own — because even your best deeds are spoiled by sin and guilt — but because of Christ the Lord, who suffered and died in order to bring you to God.
In the book of Exodus, the Israelites at Sinai realised that they could not stand in the presence of the Lord, this Holy God. In 1 Samuel 6, the Israelites at Beth-Shemesh realised that they could not stand in the presence of the Lord, this Holy God. By yourself and on your own, you cannot stand in the presence of the Lord, this Holy God. By yourself, you will die in his presence, because his holiness will burn against you and destroy you. But united with Christ by faith, washed and cleansed by him, and covered in his perfect goodness, you will be able to stand in the presence of the Lord, this Holy God forever and forever. And so, this story about the ark teaches us that you need to trust in Christ the Saviour, and you need to keep trusting in him, because only those who are united with Christ by faith can ever hope to come into the presence of the Lord, this Holy God.