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CRITICAL AND EXPOSITORY NOTES—
1 Samuel 6:1. “Country,” literally the field. It probably signifies the cultivated plain.
1 Samuel 6:2. “Diviners.” “That is, the organs of the Deity, who reveal His counsel and will through the mantic art, and whose decision is final. After it had been determined in the council of the princes (1 Samuel 5:11) to send back the ark to the Israelites, the priests and soothsayers are to tell how it shall be sent back.” (Erdmann).
1 Samuel 6:3. “Trespass-offering.” Asham, literally guilt, then a gift presented as compensation for a fault. The gifts appointed by the Philistines as an asham were to serve as compensation and satisfaction to be rendered to the God of Israel for the robbery committed upon Him by the removal of the ark, and were therefore called asham, though in their nature they were only expiatory offerings” (Keil).
1 Samuel 6:4. “Five golden mice,” etc. “It was a prevalent custom in heathen antiquity to make offerings to the gods expressive of the particular mercy received. Those saved from shipwreck offered pictures of the shipwreck in the temple of Isis; slaves and captives, in gratitude for the recovery of their liberty, offered chains to the Lares; retired gladiators, their arms to Hercules; and in the fifth century a custom prevailed among Christians of offering in their churches gold or silver hands, feet, etc., in return for cures effected in those members.… A similar custom still prevails among the heathen in India” (Biblical Commentary). The offering of the Philistines was not, however, a thank-offering, it was rather a talisman or charm. “From the ancient writers of Arabia we learn how a talisman, or charm of this kind, was composed. They held that all earthly things are but shadows of heavenly things, and that the celestial forms have an overruling influence on all earthly forms of life. Thus, for instance, if they wished to give a man a talisman that would make him safe against the bite of serpents, they got the exact moment of his birth. Their books told them what planet “ruled his birth,” what planet was then in full lustre. They waited for the moment when this planet was “out of combustion,” i.e., was not shining at its strength—the moment in which, thus shorn of its strength, it entered into the constellation which they called the Serpent. The favourable moment having arrived, they made a tiny stone or metal image of a serpent, engraved certain mystic letters upon it, and here was the talisman. So long as the man carried that about with him, no serpent could hurt him. Ancient literature is full of marvellous stories of the power of these talismans.… It is this talismanic method that is alluded to in this passage, for, instead of reading “Ye shall make images,” etc., we ought to read, “Ye shall make talismans of your emrods, and talismans of your mice.” (S. Cox.) “The Philistine astrologers could not but have heard that God had shown His Divine complacency with the brazen serpent, set upon a pole in the wilderness. This they, with their notions, would regard as a telesme (talisman), and as that image of a serpent was effectual against the plague of serpents, they might not unreasonably infer that similar images of their own inflictions might be equally effectual; indeed, there have not been wanting persons to suggest that the whole of this set of ideas regarding telesmes may have originated in a distorted view of this transaction.” (Kitto.)
1 Samuel 6:6. “As the Egyptians.” “Another testimony from the heathen to the truth of the Pentateuch, and a proof that God’s judgments on Egypt were not without salutary effects on idolaters.” (Wordsworth.)
1 Samuel 6:7. “Make a new cart,” etc. “The new cart and the young cows, which had never worn a yoke, corresponded to the holiness of the ark of God. To place it upon an old cart, which had already been used for all kinds of earthly purposes, would have been an offence against the holy thing; and it would have been just the same to yoke to the cart animals that had already been used for drawing, and had had their strength impaired by the yoke. The reason for selecting cows, however, instead of male oxen, was no doubt to be found in the further object which they hoped to attain.” (Keil.)
1 Samuel 6:9. “Bethshemesh.” “House of the sun,” an Israelitish priestly city on the border of Judah and Dan (Joshua 21:16.) about twelve miles from Ekron.
1 Samuel 6:13. “Though it was a priestly city the inhabitants of Bethshemesh are expressly distinguished from the Levites.” (Erdmann.) “Wheat harvest.” Therefore about May or June.
1 Samuel 6:14. “Field of Joshua.” “One who bore the same name as he who had brought Israel and the ark into Canaan.” (Wordsworth.) “A burnt offering.” “It was lawful to offer the sacrifice here, because wherever the ark was offering might be made.” (Erdmann.)
1 Samuel 6:18. “The Philistines offered as many golden mice as there were towns and villages in their five states; no doubt because the plague of mice had spread over the whole land, whereas the plague of boils had only fallen upon those towns to which the ark had come.” (Keil.) “Great stone of Abel.” Great stone is not in the original. Abel means mourning, and some commentators think the stone was so named because of the lamentation mentioned in 1 Samuel 6:19. Keil, Erdmann, and others, however, for Abel read Eben or Aben—a stone, as in 1 Samuel 6:14-15.
1 Samuel 6:19. “Fifty thousand,” etc. In some Hebrew manuscripts the statement reads seventy men, fifty thousand men. Some do not contain the words fifty thousand, and Josephus speaks of only three score and ten. These considerations, added to the unlikelihood that Bethshemesh had so many inhabitants lead commentators to reject the words fifty thousand as an interpolation, or to read (as Patrick and others) seventy men; fifty out of a thousand.
1 Samuel 6:21. “Kirjath-jearim,” i.e., city of woods or forests (Psalms 132:6), in the territory of Judah (Joshua 9:17; Joshua 18:25-26), generally identified with the present Kuryet-el-Enab. “It was the nearest large city to Bethshemesh, on the way to Shiloh, to which, perhaps, they supposed that the ark ought to return.” (Wordsworth.) “The inhabitants belonging to the Hivite tetrapolis were the sacred servants of the sanctuary, and, therefore, the proper parties to whom, in the emergency, the custody of the ark should be committed. Bethshemesh, being in a low plain, and Kirjath-jearim on a hill, explains the message, ‘Come ye down, and fetch it up to you.’ ” (Jamieson.)
NOTE.—“After the transaction recorded in this chapter, we hear no more of any attempts among the Gentile nations to join the Jewish worship with their own. They considered the God of Israel as a tutelary deity, absolutely unsociable, who would have nothing to do with any but his own people, or with such particularly as would worship him alone, and, therefore, in this respect, different from all other tutelary gods, each of which was willing to live in community with the rest.” (Warburton.)
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE CHAPTER
THE RETURN OF THE ARK
I. No change is needed in God to effect a change in His dealings with sinful men. The physician is as good when he is inflicting pain as when he is giving pleasure. It does not need a change of disposition in him to cause him to cease from giving pain to his patient; the change must be in the sick man himself. When a sinner feels that matters are not right between him and his God, he thinks that he should be in a better position if he could only change God’s disposition towards him; but no change is needed on the part of God. It is in the character and disposition of the sinner that the change must be made, if he is to have rest and hope in his relation to God. When the Philistines felt that the hand of the Lord was heavy upon them, they changed the place of the ark, thinking thereby to pacify God’s displeasure, and change His disposition towards them. But what was needed was not change on the part of the Eternal God, but change in their relations towards Him.
II. Divine blessings may be turned into curses if men get into wrong relationship to them. Sunlight is intended by God to be a blessing to men. But the light of the sun brings pain to a man whose eyes are diseased. The suffering comes from his eyes and the sun not standing in that relation to each other which God intended they should do. Fire is a great blessing to man while it is kept in its right relation, while it is used as God intended it should be used, to minister to his bodily comfort. But if fire lays hold of his raiment, or his dwelling, a good gift of God becomes a curse, by getting into a wrong relation. And as it is with the material gifts of God, so it is with His spiritual gifts. All the Divine ordinances are intended as means of blessing and sanctification to the heart of men. Yet to some that which was ordained to bless becomes a curse—that which ought to be a savour of life becomes a savour of death. Men through ignorance or indifference do not put the Divine ordinances to a right use—get into a wrong relationship to them, and thus that which was designed to bless becomes a curse. The ark of God was designed by Him to be a means of grace and blessing to Israel by helping them to realise the presence and favour of the unseen God. It would also have become a blessing to the Philistines if they had considered the lessons which the fall of Dagon before it was designed to teach them. But the heathen disregarded the voice of God which spoke to them, and thus the presence of His ark became the means of judgment, because they stood in a wrong relation to it. And its return to Israel, which ought to have been an occasion of unmixed joy, was marked by a judgment upon the men of Bethshemesh, because of the thoughtless irreverence of their conduct—because they lacked a right conception of the holiness of the God whose presence the ark symbolised.
III. The human conscience testifies to the need of an atonement for sin. The heathen, ignorant as they are of the revelation of God, offer gifts and sacrifices to their deities. The Philistines here thought it expedient to try and make some expiation of their trespass against the God of Israel, and such a feeling of the need of atonement is found in almost every people in the world. And this feeling does not grow weaker in proportion as men possess the revelation of God. The conviction of the great distance between the holy God and sinful man increases as men grow in their knowledge of Him—the nearer view men have of His purity and greatness, the more are they disposed to exclaim with the men of Bethshemesh, “Who is able to stand before this Holy Lord God?” It is when the artist places his most finished work beside the real landscape that he realises how very far short he has come—the more closely they are compared the more clearly does he see the perfection of the one, and the imperfections of the other. And the more men know of God—the more they become acquainted with Him by the manifestations of His power and moral attributes, the more deeply convinced do they become of their own imperfections, and the more do they cry out for some atonement. When the Bethshemites, on the return of the ark, “offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices the same day unto the Lord,” they were not only obeying the Levitical law, but they were acting in conformity to a law written in their hearts, and written with more or less distinctness in the hearts of all men. The offering of the Lord Jesus Christ is not only said to be “offered to God,” but also to the conscience of man (Hebrews 9:14; Romans 5:11). The return of the ark also reminds us—
IV. That the enemies of God’s Israel are not always to retain the portion of His children. A battle was fought in Eden, and the great enemy of God and man took from man his God-given inheritance. And from that day until now the “kingdoms of the world and the glory of them” have been held by Satan (Luke 4:5-6). This earth is still, to a great extent, in the hands of the enemies of its rightful possessor. But it is being won back. Each generation sees drawing nearer the day when there will be “great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ” (Revelation 11:15). And this earth will be given back to men who have themselves been redeemed from the bondage of Satan. As Israel lost their ark so the world has been lost to man by his own sin; but it will not be always in the hands of his enemies—those who have returned to their allegiance to their rightful sovereign will one day inherit a redeemed earth.
OUTLINES AND SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS
1 Samuel 6:1. This was a long while for God’s people to be without that visible pawn of His presence and glory; so that they might seem to be as forlorn and forsaken of Him. Such a misery may befall any people, to be bereft of God’s ordinances; or any soul, to be for a time without the sense of His gracious presence and light of His countenance. But God hath promised to His, to be a “little sanctuary unto them” (Ezekiel 11:16), and “not to leave them,” or if He do so, yet “not to forsake them,” (Hebrews 13:5), provided that they look on all other comforts as so many Ichabods, till He return unto them in mercy and loving-kindness.—Trapp.
It had wont to be a sure rule, wheresoever God is among men, there is the Church; here only it failed. The testimony of God’s presence was many months among the Philistines, for a punishment of His own people whom He left; for a curse to those foreigners who entertained it. Israel was seven months without God. How do we think faithful Samuel took this absence? How desolate and forlorn did the tabernacle of God look without the ark! There were still the altars of God; His priests, Levites, tables, vails, censers, with all their legal accoutrements; these, without the ark, were as the sun without light, in the midst of an eclipse. If all these had been taken away, and only the ark remaining, the loss had been nothing to this, that the ark should be gone and they left; for what are all these without God, and how all-sufficient is God without these!—Bp. Hall.
Greater dishonour is done to God by those who call themselves His people, yet continue to slight and abuse the singular advantages with which they have been long favoured, than by the attacks of his avowed enemies. Hence He may often seem as it were to desert His own cause, and suffer the declared enemies of His name to triumph for a time, rather than take part with hypocritical pretenders, who with their lips profess that they know and serve Him, but in works deny Him. Thus He permitted the sacred symbol of His own presence to fall into the hands of Philistine idolators, rather than to remain dishonoured by idolatrous Israelites.—Lindsay.
1 Samuel 6:2. They say not, “What shall we do with it,” for they were most of them resolved to send it home; but “What shall we do to it? How shall we send it home as it ought to be sent?” For they know that it is the manner that maketh or marreth an action. Sure it is that in divine matters men must look that not only the body of their service be sound, but that the clothes be fit.—Trapp.
1 Samuel 6:5. These sorcerers, like Balaam and Caiaphas, ignorantly spake the truth, and promoted God’s glory and honour. Peradventure.—Idolators are always at uncertainty, and walking in darkness, know not whither they go.—Trapp.
1 Samuel 6:6. Samuel himself could not have spoken more divinely than these priests of Dagon.… All religions have afforded them that speak well; these good words left them still Philistines and superstitious. How should men be hypocrites if they had not good tongues.… Who would think that wisdom and folly could lodge so near together that the same men should have care both for the glory of the true God, and the preservation of the false?—Bp. Hall.
The exact knowledge that the Philistine priests and soothsayers had of the punitive revelations of God against the Egyptians, and of the cause of them in the fact that the people hardened themselves against Him, is an eminent example of His government of the world, which was closely interwoven with the history of revelation in His kingdom, and in which he penetrated with the beams of His revealed light the darkness of heathenism which surrounded His people, and made preparation for the revelation of the New Covenant, which was to embrace the whole world. They were in such light to seek the Lord in their ways, if haply they might feel after Him and find Him.—Lange’s Commentary.
1 Samuel 6:12. And the lords of the Philistines went after them. And so, as servants and pages, they attend upon the ark, which erst as conquerors they carried captive.—Trapp.
1 Samuel 6:19. As it is hard not to overjoy in a sudden prosperity, and to use happiness is no less difficult than to forbear it, these glad Israelites cannot see, but they must gaze; they cannot gaze on the glorious outside, but they must be, whether out of rude jollity, or curiosity, or suspicion of the purloining of those sacred implements, prying into the secrets of God’s ark. Nature is too subject to extremities, and is ever either too dull in want, or wanton in fruition; it is no easy matter to keep a mean, whether in good or evil.… There was no malice in this curious inquisition: the same eyes that looked into the ark looked also up to heaven in their offerings; and the same hands that touched it offered sacrifice to the God that brought it. Who could expect anything now but acceptation? Who could suspect any danger? It is not a following act of devotion that can make amends for a former sin.—Bishop Hall.
God had just vindicated His own honour against the Philistines; it must now be seen that He would be sanctified in them that come nigh Him (Leviticus 10:3). It is obvious to observe how the doctrine of atonement, and its necessity in the case of sinners, is taught in this and similar lessons as to the awful holiness of God.—Biblical Commentary.
1 Samuel 6:20-21. Many appear joyful at the revival of religion, and numbers unite in external observances, who have no inward reverence for the Divine majesty.… Instead of this reverence, the carnal heart substitutes a slavish fear; and when rebuked for presumption or contempt, or alarmed with discoveries of the justice and holiness of God, it will, with the Gadarenes, or with these Bethshemites, request the Saviour to depart, and vainly seek to escape the Lord’s displeasure, by an entire forgetfulness of Him.—Scott.
When God, so to speak, only passes by us, through some temporary taste of His presence, it is a favour which He may also impart to sinners. But that He may make His abode in us, as He promises in so many passages of Holy Scripture, that He may be willing to remain with us and in us, for that there is demanded great purity in every respect.—Berlenberger Bible.
The attribute of holiness is, to our own apprehension, so essential to the mere idea of God—is in itself so obvious and self-evident, that we may at times be inclined to wonder at the frequency with which it is stated and enforced in the Scriptures. But the view of the Divine character out of which this feeling arises, is itself the creation of those scriptural declarations on the subject; and the formation of this high conception of God was the use they were designed to serve, and which we thus find that they have served. It may also be remembered, that to the Hebrews the enforcement of this doctrine was of an importance which it is scarcely in our power to understand or appreciate fully. The surrounding heathen—indeed all the heathen, had very different and inferior notions of the gods they served. Holiness was not their attribute. They were very capable of sin; and the choice of good in preference to evil was not essential to their nature. These were above men in their essence and in their sovereign powers; but in character they were men, and not always good men. There was no one attribute by which Jehovah was so pointedly distinguished from the gods of the nations as by this. Its maintenance, its constant assertion, was therefore of the utmost importance among a people whose tendencies so often were to merge the worship of their own Lord in that of the neighbouring idols. This attribute set a great gulf between them which could not be overpassed so long as its presence was constantly kept before the mind of the people … There was another and more general use in it, in which we share the benefit with them. It is a check to sin, and an incitement to righteousness. It seems impossible for anyone to realise a clear and distinct idea of the holiness of God—that sin, that whatever defiles, is abhorrent to His pure and holy nature, without hearing His voice crying unto us—“O, do not that abominable thing which I hate.”.… Instead of imitating the ignorant Bethshemites, in putting away the ark of God from us, because we cannot stand before His holiness, let us rather strive after assimilation to Him, that we may be enabled to keep the ark among us.—Kitto.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 6". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent