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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 6

Garner-Howes Baptist CommentaryGarner-Howes

Verses 1-9

First Samuel - Chapter 6

Philistines Counsel, vs. 1-9

Trouble for the Philistines, because of their wrongful possession of the ark of the Lord, began the very first night they had it. As they continued to hold it in their pagan hands the hand of the Lord became heavier and heavier on them. More and more of them died, or became ill, until there must have been a great decimation of the population of Philistia. Besides this it appears from verse five that there was an infestation of mice in the land at the same time. Though the Scriptures do not say that the Lord sent the mice because of the ark the Philistines suspected that it was the cause of them also. Yet for seven long months they stubbornly persisted in keeping it in their control, not wishing to admit that their troubles were caused by their trespass against the Lord. They were forerunners of those today who will not confess that they are transgressors against the Lord, persisting in sin to their condemnation.

At last they sent for their pagan priests and fortune-tellers to counsel them as to steps to relieve their land from the plagues of the emerods and mice. They admitted that the problem probably stemmed from the ark of the Lord. The counselors proposed a test to find out if the ark was really the cause. They were to make up a rich offering of gold to put with the ark to send it back as a trespass offering to the Lord. The offering should consist of five golden emerods and five golden mice representing the five lords of the Philistine cities. This would be on behalf of the people and the lords, and would be an admission that the Lord had brought their plagues on them. Perhaps then the Lord would take away His heavy hand upon them.

These pagan religious leaders reprimanded the people for postponing for so long the return of the ark to Israel. They were reminded of how the Lord had brought such terrible and severe judgment on the land of Egypt in the long ago because they would not allow the Israelites to leave. Yet even Pharaoh had not persisted interminably; he had at last allowed them to leave. Now the Philistine lords should not keep hardening their hearts until their land was destroyed.

But it was with reluctance that they agreed to return the ark, to thus admit that Israel’s God was greater than theirs and that they were unable to resist Him. They would make the test just as hard as possible and set an unlikely challenge for Him. They would build a new cart, which would not have been yet tried by the rigorous demands of the roads. They would take two milk cows, unbroken to the yoke, with young calves, to pull the cart. The calves would be shut up in separation from the cows. Then they would be turned loose to pull the cart with the trespass offering on it. If the unnatural happened and the cows turned toward the coast (or border) of Israel, the road to the nearby Israelite city of Beth-shemesh, then they would admit that the Lord was indeed the cause of their woes. However, if the cows did what would be expected and headed straight back to their calves, it would be an indication that it was coincidental and not the plague of the Lord at all.

Verses 10-18

The Ark Sent Home, vs. 10-18

The Philistine lords adopted the proposal of their priests and magicians. They found the two untrained milk cows with young calves, tied them to the new cart, shut up the calves, laid the ark and the box of gold emerods and mice on the cart and let them go. The cows took the shortest route to the Beth-shemesh road, then went straight up the highway toward the country of Israel. It was against their nature, and the cows did not want to go, for they lowed for their calves all along the road. The mighty power of Israel’s God compelled them to do what they did not naturally want to do.

The Philistine lords followed the cows at a distance, all the way to Beth-shemesh to see what would happen. It was about eight straight­line miles from Ekron to Beth-shemesh, but the cows did not stop anywhere, nor did they turn off the road to the right or to the left. But when they reached the first field of the Israelites, that of a man of the place whose name was Joshua, they stopped still beside a huge rock in his field. The people were harvesting their wheat, and when they looked up to see the ark coming home they rejoiced and interrupted their work.

In stopping by the great stone there seemed to be a suggestion that here were the makings of a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Lord. So the men of Beth-shemesh chopped up the cart for fuel and sacrificed the two cows to the Lord. Then the Levites came and took the ark and the coffer of gold jewels and set them on the rock. They proceeded then to make more offerings and sacrifices unto the Lord.

The Philistine lords had seen enough. They were forced to admit that God had judged them by their plagues for their misuse of His ark and their misconception of His power. They turned and went back to their cities. The five cities (named above) are now designated, each one sharing in the trespass offering of the golden mice and emerods, together with their tributary villages and countryside. At the time when the inspired author of First Samuel wrote the great stone of Abel still stood as a monument of the event in the field of Joshua the Beth­shemite.

Verses 19-21

Israelite Woes, vs. 19-21

Now there occurs an interesting event. The Philistines had handled the ark for seven months and, while many of them were stricken with the plague, there is no account of any being stricken dead for touching the ark. But here at Beth-shemesh a great number of the men died because they removed the lid of the ark and looked inside it. Why the Israelites, who were the people of the Lord, and not the pagan Philistines? Surely the answer lies in the fact that the laws of God were given for Israelites who had taken God’s law willingly upon them (Exodus 19:5-8; Exodus 24:3-8). It was not given for the Philistines unless they willingly came into the Hebrew worship. The Israelites knew that they should not profane God’s holy ark (see Numbers 4:17-20).

Leading Hebrew scholars think that an error got into the ancient manuscripts relative to the great number of men of Beth-shemesh who were stricken for looking into the ark. It does seem there would hardly be so many as 50,070 people living at Beth-shemesh. It is pointed out that the number is written differently from all other places in the scriptures, so that it is probable that some copyist put it down wrongly. Of course no one now knows how many may actually have been killed. The paramount lesson remains; one must respect the holiness of God. He cannot approach him without the Intercessor.

The upset survivors asked a pertinent question for all ages, "Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God? and to whom shall he go up from us?" The only One who could do this was their promised Messiah, the Christ of the New Testament. By atoning for sin on the cross at Calvary He is able to stand before the holy Lord God and to remove His terror from those who look to Him in salvation as their Intercessor.

The people of Beth-shemesh sent to Kirjath-jearim asking the people of that town in Benjamin, near the border with Judah, to come and take the ark to their place.

Lessons from chapter six: 1) The Lord is supreme over all power, there is none beside Him; 2) the world must ultimately confess that the God of Israel is the God of the universe; 3) the Lord made all things, and He can turn their natural tendencies to the unnatural to suit His purposes; 4) God’s people will be chastised, or judged, for disobedience to His commandments.

Bibliographical Information
Garner, Albert & Howes, J.C. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 6". Garner-Howes Baptist Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ghb/1-samuel-6.html. 1985.
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