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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 6

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary



(1 Samuel 6:1-21) The Philistines return the Ark to Israel. The Citizens of Beth-shemesh forget its Sanctity. Their Punishment.

Verse 2

(2) What shall we do to the ark of the Lord?—During the seven months which followed the great Philistine victory of Aphek, the Ark remained in the country of the enemies of Israel. It was removed from temple to temple in the various cities, but the same doom always followed it. The inhabitants of the city where was the Ark were smitten with deadly abscesses, in addition to which, from the statement in 1 Samuel 6:5, a plague of field-mice during the same period probably desolated the land. In their distress the Philistine rulers, determining to get rid of the fatal trophy of which they were once so proud, consulted their priests and diviners as to the most graceful and effective way of returning the captured Hebrew emblem. The “diviners” in the counsels of all the nations of antiquity occupy a distinguished place. We hear of them under different designations, as magicians, sorcerers, soothsayers, augurs, oracles, &c. They plied their strange trade, now with the aid of arrows, now with the entrails of slain animals, now with observation of the stars, now with the watching of natural signs, the flight of birds, &c. These men, who in one form or other dabbled in occult science, and perhaps here and there were aided by evil and unclean spirits, but who more frequently traded on the credulity and superstition of their fellows, occupied a considerable position among the nations of antiquity. We hear of them frequently among the Israelites, who seem to have adopted this class of advisers from the heathen nations around them. Isaiah (Isaiah 3:2) specially mentions them, and reckons these diviners among the leading orders of the State. The English Version, however, with singular inconsistency, renders the word in that same passage by “prudent;” possibly, it has been ingeniously suggested, owing to the translators being displeased at finding the professors of a forbidden art ranked so highly among the chosen people.

In the first verse the LXX. add, “and the land swarmed with mice,” another of the many explanatory additions so common in the Greek translation of the Hebrew.

Verse 3

(3) Send it not empty.—The advice was to propitiate with gifts the powerful Hebrew Deity, whom they imagined was offended and angry at the insult offered Him—the being placed in an inferior position in the Dagon temple.

The priests and diviners evidently thought that the Hebrew Deity, in some way resident in the “golden chest,” was a childish, capricious deity, like one of their own loved gods—Dagon, or Beelzebub, lord of flies. Their people had insulted Him; He had shown Himself powerful enough, however, to injure His captors, so the insults must cease, and He must be appeased with rich offerings.

Verse 4

(4) Five golden emerods, and five golden mice.—It was a general custom in the nations of antiquity to offer to the deity, to whom sickness or recovery from sickness was ascribed, likenesses of the diseased parts; so, too, those who had escaped from shipwreck would offer pictures, or perhaps their garments, to Neptune, or, as some tell us, to Isis. (See, for instance, Horace, Carm. i. 5.) Slaves and gladiators would present their arms to Hercules; captives would dedicate their chains to some deity. This practice has found favour in more modern times. In the fifth century Christians—Theodoret tells us—would often offer in their churches gold or silver hands and feet, or eyes, as a thank-offering for cures effected in reply to prayer. Similar votive offerings are still made in Roman Catholic countries.

Verse 5

(5) Images of your mice.—This is the first mention of the plague of “mice” in the Hebrew text. The Greek Version had (see above) carefully appended to the description of the bodily disease the account of this scourge which devastated the land of Philistia. In these warm countries which border the Mediterranean vast quantities of these mice from time to time seem to have appeared and devoured the crops. Aristotle and Pliny both mention their devastations. In Egypt this visitation was so dreaded that the mouse seems to have been the hieroglyphic for destruction. The curse then weighed heavily in Philistia, both upon man and the land.

Verse 6

(6) As the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts.—We have here the traditional account of the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, no doubt, as it was preserved in Philistia. These constant references to the story of Moses and the Exodus are indications of the deep impression those events had made on the surrounding nations; hence the value they set on the Ark, which they looked upon as the visible symbol of the mighty Hebrew God. The argument here used by the priests and diviners is:—You all remember the well-known story of the obduracy of the powerful Egyptians in connection with these Israelites, yet even they in the end had to let them go. You Philistines have had the experience of one plague; will you, like those foolish Egyptians, harden your hearts till you. like them, have been smitten with ten?”

Verse 7

(7) Now therefore make a new cart.—The note here in the Speaker’s Commentary is interesting. “This was so ordered in reverence to the Ark, and was a right and true feeling. (See Numbers 19:2; 2 Samuel 6:3.) So our Lord rode on an ass ‘whereon never man sat’ (Mark 11:2), and His holy body was laid in Joseph’s ‘new tomb, wherein never man before was laid’ (Matthew 27:60; Luke 23:53). For the supposed peculiar virtue of new things, see Judges 16:7-11.”

Verse 8

(8) In a coffer by the side thereof.—The reverent awe with which these Philistines treated the Ark, which had, they supposed, wrought them such great evil, presents a strong contrast to the careless curiosity of the men of Beth-shemesh with regard to the same sacred object—a careless curiosity, which was punished, as we so often find in the case of acts of sacrilege, with extreme severity.

Verse 9

(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 (1 Samuel 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.

Verse 12

(12) Went along the highway, lowing.—But the dumb beasts did what the idol priests and diviners scarcely considered possible, for God’s hand drove them. The narrative here throughout is evidently unadorned, very easy and natural, and speaks of primitive customs, telling its story of the Divine interference of the Glorious Arm” with exquisite simplicity and truth.

The dumb beasts went on their strange way with their golden burden, the princes of the Philistines following them, awe-struck, at a distance.

Verse 13

(13) And they of Beth-shemesh.—Beth-shemesh, or “House of the Sun,” nearly equivalent to Heliopolis, “City of the Sun,” was a priestly city. It would thus have seemed that this was a fitting home for the Ark of the Covenant to rest in for a time. Shiloh, the old sanctuary, was, we know, now desolate and ruined; but the priests and Levites, from what follows, evidently had forfeited their old position as guides and teachers of the people. Beth-shemesh was no fit permanent dwelling for the Ark of God. The story of the priestly life in the once famous Shiloh during the latter years of Eli indicated how utterly incapable the Levitical families were to influence and guide the people. The subsequent conduct of priestly Beth-shemesh on this memorable occasion, therefore, is not to be wondered at; at first they seem to have rejoiced at the sight of their lost sacred treasure, but an act of careless irreverence called down a swift and unexpected punishment.

Verse 14

(14) The field of Joshua, a Beth-shemite.—The great stone—most likely a mass of natural rock rising from the soil—was the occasion of the cart being stopped there, Beth-shemesh and its suburbs being a city of the priests (Joshua 21:16). The presence of Levites, among whom were doubtless priests, is natural. These were, of course, the principal men of the city and its suburbs, and they were familiar with all sacrificial rites prescribed by the Law. The offering of these sacrifices at Beth-shemesh, although the Tabernacle never had been stationed there, was no transgression against the law, for now the Ark of the Covenant was present, the occasional throne of the glory-presence of the Eternal, before which the sacrifices were really offered.

Verse 16

(16) They returned to Ekron.—The five Philistine princes, when they had watched the strange scene from a distance, returned; their mission was accomplished, and the question solved as to the source of the plagues which had visited their country.

Verse 17

(17) The golden emerods.—The offering of the golden emerods (or tumours), including one for each of the five principal cities. In the preceding chapter only Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron are mentioned as abiding places of the Ark, but there is no doubt that during the “seven months” the sacred chest was for a long or short period located in each of the five towns, in the Dagon temple which each of the cities possessed.

Verse 18

(18)And the golden mice.—We have here a far greater number of “golden mice” mentioned as being offered in expiation than appear specified in the directions of the priests and diviners (1 Samuel 6:4). The truth was that whilst the human sickness was confined to the five cities, the plague of field mice no doubt extended over the whole country. The inhabitants of all the villages were anxious to do their part to propitiate the insulted Hebrew God, and to get rid of the plague which was devastating their fields and vineyards; hence this large offering, so much in excess of what was suggested by the diviners.

The great stone of Abel.—The LXX. Version reads here, “And this great stone on which they placed the Ark of Jehovah, which is in the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite, is a witness unto this day.” With this reading the Chaldee Targum substantially agrees. The Hebrew text here is hopelessly corrupt; the copies which the Greek translators and the Chaldee Targumist apparently had before them, instead of the word “Avel” (Abel), which signifies mourning, read the word ăven, a stone, and the punctuation of v’ad, “and unto,” in the last clause was evidently (v’ed), “and a witness.” If the reading Avel be the true one (“even unto the great Avel”), then the conjecture of R. D. Kimchi is probably right, that this stone was known as the Great Avel (or Abel), “the great mourning,” owing to the terrible judicial calamity, related in the next three verses (1 Samuel 6:19-21), which happened there. With this slight change a very good sense is obtained.

Verse 19

(19) They had looked into the ark.—Some commentators consider that the words here should be rendered, “because they had looked at the Ark” with a foolish irreverent staring, which dishonoured the holiness of the sacred mercy-seat; but it is better far to preserve the rendering of our English Version, which is also the favourite Rabbinical explanation of the original. It seems probable that the chief men of the city, most of whom were priests and Levites, after the festive rejoicings which accompanied the sacrificial feast celebrating the Ark’s joyful return, heated with wine, lost all sense of reverence, and determined to use this opportunity of gazing into that sacred chest of which they had heard so much, and into which no profane eye in Israel had ever peered, since the golden Cover—on which the glory of the Eternal loved to rest—had sealed up the sacred treasures in the wilderness. Perhaps they wished to see those grey Sinai tablets on which the finger of God had traced His ten solemn commandments; perhaps they excused themselves by a desire to learn if the Philistines had violated the secrets of the holy chest.

Even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men.—Here it is perfectly clear that the present Hebrew text, which the English Version literally renders, is corrupt. The system of writing letters for numbers, as we have seen, constantly has occasioned great discrepancies in the several versions, &c. Here the arrangement of the letters which express this enormous number is quite unusual, and taken by itself would be sufficient to excite grave doubts as to the accuracy of this text. The number of stricken ones, 50,070, is simply inconceivable. Beth-shemesh was never a large or important place; there were, in fact, no great cities in Israel, the population was always a scattered one, the people living generally on their farms. Dean Payne Smith computes the population of Jerusalem in its best days as under 70,000. The various versions, LXX., Chaldee, &c, vary in their rendering of these astounding figures. Josephus, Antt. vi. 1, § 4, in his account of this occurrence speaks of the smitten as numbering seventy. This is probably the correct number. A strange reading, which the LXX. inserts here, deserves to be quoted; it is another proof of the uncertainty of the text at the close of this sixth chapter: “And the children of Jechoniah among the Beth-shemites were not pleased with the men of Beth-shemesh because they saw the Ark, and he smote them, &c.” Erdmann, in Lange, is inclined to believe the LXX. Version represents the true text, and thus comments on it: “The reason of the sudden death of the seventy of the race of Jechoniah is their unsympathising and, therefore, unholy bearing towards the symbols of God’s presence among His people, which showed a mind wholly estranged from the living God—a symptom of the religious moral degeneracy which had spread among the people, though piety was still to be found.”

Verse 20

(20) Who is able to stand?—There is some superstition involved in this exclamation, “Whither shall we send this awful visitant?” The men of the priestly city of Beth-shemesh strangely connected their invisible King with that golden Ark, which, sacred though it was, was but a lifeless chest of wood and gold.

Yet through their superstition we can discern a deep consciousness of sin and shortcoming, which argued well for the future reformation of the religious life of the people—a grand work, which we shall soon sec Samuel the prophet labouring so faithfully and so successfully to bring about. These poor sinners, discerning the cause of the fatal stroke which had fallen upon their brethren, felt too surely that they were none of them any better really than those who had fallen victims to their impiety, and were fully sensible that sinners could not dwell in the presence of God. Carried away by this feeling of awe before the purity of the invisible King, they cried, “To whom shall He go up from us?”

These poor Hebrews felt the same fear as John was sensible of centuries later, when at the feet of the glorified Son of Man he fell as dead; but they, less blessed than John and the children of the kingdom, had no Redeemer there to raise them up with the loving whisper: “Fear not; I (whom thou dreadest) am He that liveth and was dead.” (Sec Revelation 1:17-18.)

Verse 21

(21) Kirjath-jearim.—Kirjath-jearim should be spelt and pronounced Kirjatb-jearim, the “city of woods” (wood-ville, wood-town, wooton). Its modern name is Kurzet-el-Erab, “the city of grapes,” the woods being in later days replaced by vines.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 6". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-samuel-6.html. 1905.
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