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THE ARK RETURNED TO BETH-SHEMESH
1 Samuel 6:20. And the men of Beth-shemesh said, Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God?
TILL we come to behold some extraordinary interposition of the Deity, we have in general a very slight sense of his majesty and greatness: but when we see any remarkable display of his power, we are apt to forget all his other perfections, and to think of him with insupportable terror. We have a striking instance of this in the Israelites, when they saw God’s decision of their controversy with Aaron on the subject of the priesthood: “They said, Behold, we die, we perish, we all perish: whosoever cometh any thing near unto the tabernacle of the Lord shall die: shall we be consumed with dying [Note: Numbers 17:12-13.]?” Thus, in the passage before us, the men of Beth-shemesh, who had just before manifested so little respect for the Lord as to treat his ark with impious irreverence, no sooner felt the tokens of his displeasure than they exclaimed, “Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God?”
We propose to consider,
The grounds and occasions of this question—
To understand it aright, we must consult the whole of this and of the preceding chapter.
God had prevailed over the idolatrous Philistines—
[God had, for the punishment of his offending people, delivered the ark into the hands of their enemies: and the Philistines having triumphed, as they imagined, over the God of Israel, placed the ark, as a trophy, in the temple of Dagon their god. They had before “offered a great sacrifice to Dagon, when, as they supposed, he had delivered Samson into their hand [Note: Judges 16:23-24.]:” and now they endeavoured to do him still greater honour, by placing, as they imagined, the God of Israel at his feet. But behold, their God, without any visible cause, fell prostrate before the ark; and, when set up again in his place, again, the very next night, fell down before the ark, having both his head and his hands broken from the trunk. Should they not have learned from this that their idol had neither wisdom nor power to effect any thing [Note: 1 Samuel 5:1-5.]?
But when they would not understand from this sign the superiority of the God of Israel, Jehovah smote multitudes of them with a pestilence, of which they died; and multitudes also with emerods (which are supposed to be a very grievous kind of piles [Note: See Psalms 78:65-66.]); insomuch that they were constrained to acknowledge that “his hand was sore upon them, and upon Dagon their god [Note: 1 Samuel 5:6-7; 1 Samuel 5:11-12.].” Wearied with their sufferings, they sent the ark to Gath: but there the same judgments were inflicted on the people, both small and great: so that they got it removed to Ekron; where the people were terrified at the prospect of experiencing the like calamities, and soon united in the general wish for its dismission from their country. Another judgment also which God inflicted on them contributed to make them anxious to restore the ark without delay, and to appease the wrath of him whose symbol it was: their country was suddenly overrun with mice, which destroyed all the fruits of the earth. A consultation therefore was held by all the priests and diviners, to ascertain the best method of testifying their sorrow for the indignities offered to Jehovah: the result of which was, to send back the ark, with representations in gold both of the mice and of the emerods, five in number, one for each of the lords who ruled the country, and who were therefore fit representatives of the whole people.
But in their mode of executing this they shewed how reluctant they were to part with the ark, or to acknowledge Jehovah’s power. They put the ark on a cart, and yoked two milch kine to it, and left them to go whither they would; taking care however to shut up their calves at home, that, if they should, contrary to all their natural inclinations, go directly to the way of Beth-shemesh, it might be evident, beyond all possibility of doubt, that they were constrained to do so by the invisible power of Jehovah [Note: 1 Samuel 6:1-11.].
In all this, however, God glorified himself, and shewed that the whole creation was subject unto him, and that He alone was “God over all the earth [Note: 1 Samuel 6:12.].”]
He had punished also his own presumptuous people—
[The men of Beth-shemesh received the ark, as it became them, with joy and gratitude; and immediately offered the kine a burnt-offering to the Lord. But soon they lost that reverence which they had been ever taught to feel towards that symbol of Jehovah, and with impious curiosity looked into the ark, which was not so much as to be seen by any except the high-priest, and by him only once in the year. For this profane conduct God smote the men of Beth-shemesh, even “fifty thousand and threescore and ten men,” or, as it probably should rather be read, “fifty out of a thousand, even threescore and ten men.” Terrified at this judgment, especially as connected with all the judgments that had been inflicted on the Philistines, the men of Beth-shemesh were as desirous to get rid of the ark, as ever the Philistines themselves had been. Instead of humbling themselves before him for their sin, they thought only of their punishment; and were willing rather to part with Jehovah himself, than to conciliate his favour by suitable humiliation.]
Such were the grounds of this desponding question. We now proceed to state,
The answer to be given to it—
Whatever reason for despondency there was in their apprehension, there was none in reality.
Doubtless the wicked can never stand before God—
[God is a holy Being, that “cannot look upon iniquity” without the utmost abhorrence of it. The profane sinner, however he may “contemn God,” and “puff at his judgments,” will have far other thoughts of God when once he begins to feel, either in his body or in his mind, the effects of his displeasure. Behold, how changed was the voice of Nebuchadnezzar, when he recovered from the malady which God had inflicted on him [Note: Daniel 4:30; Daniel 4:34-35.]! and what a contemptible “god” did Herod appear, when worms were devouring his vitals [Note: Acts 12:21-23.]! Or look at Belshazzar, with his knees smiting together at the sight of the hand-writing on the wall [Note: Daniel 5:6.]; or at Felix, when Paul “reasoned with him of righteousness, temperance, and the judgment to come [Note: Acts 24:25.]:” how little were these persons able to stand before the Majesty of heaven! And shall it be thought, that when they shall be summoned before his tribunal in the last day, they will be able to make good their cause? No: they will wish for rocks and mountains to fall upon them and to “cover them from the wrath of the Lamb.” Now they may justify themselves, and condemn the righteous; but in that day, we are assured, “The ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous [Note: Psalms 1:5.].” Nor will the presumptuous and disobedient professor stand before God: for “not every one that saith unto Christ, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of our Father which is in heaven.” Men may plead that they have eaten and drunk in his presence, and done many wonderful works in his name; but the Lord Jesus will say to them, “Depart from me; I never knew you, ye workers of iniquity [Note: Matthew 7:21-23; Luke 13:25-27.].”
O that every sinner would consider this; and that every professor of religion would search and try his ways! — — —]
But the true believer has no cause to dread his presence—
[Even the removal of the judgments from the penitent Philistines is sufficient to shew that God delighteth in mercy, and that “judgment is his strange act,” to which he is greatly averse. But there are numberless promises made to the believer, promises which may “embolden him to enter into the holiest with the blood of Jesus” in his hand, just as the high-priest, on the day of annual expiation, entered with the blood of his sacrifices within the veil. Though he is in himself a guilty and corrupt creature, in Christ he stands before God without spot or blemish [Note: Ephesians 5:27.]: yea, “though his sins have been red as crimson, they are washed away, and he is made white as snow.” Let him only be steadfast in the faith, and he has nothing to fear [Note: Hebrews 3:6; 1 John 2:28.]. Whilst he shews forth his faith by his works, he may expect to enjoy that “peace of God which passeth all understanding [Note: Hebrews 6:11; Isaiah 32:17.]:” and especially, whilst he is filled with love, and therein bears the image of his God, he may look forward to the day of judgment with confidence and joy [Note: 1 John 3:18-21; 1 John 4:16-17.] — — — Know then, Believer, that “in Christ you may have boldness and access with confidence unto the lather by the faith of Christ [Note: Ephesians 3:12.];” and that in due time you shall “be presented faultless before him with exceeding joy [Note: Jude, ver. 24.].”]
Observe then, from this subject,
How great an enemy to our welfare is slavish fear!
[What might not the Philistines and the Beth-shemites have obtained, if, instead of sending the ark from them through slavish terror, they had humbled themselves before it, and sought mercy of the Lord? But so it is with persons who are filled with slavish fear; they wish to banish that which inspires them with terror, rather than to part with their sin, which alone makes God an object of dread. Hence they will resort to any thing for peace, rather than to God himself, who alone can give them peace. But let this be a fixed principle in our minds; that, whatever judgments we either feel or fear, we will not entertain hard thoughts of God. Let us bear in mind, that he is infinitely more willing to give than we are to ask; and that those who “come to him in the name of Jesus he will in no wise cast out.”]
What a comfort to the soul is the knowledge of Christ!
[The dissolution of the world, and the coming of Christ to judgment, have nothing in them terrific to the true believer. He has a refuge, and an hiding-place; yea “Christ himself is to him a sanctuary,” where he is hid from the fear of evil [Note: Isaiah 45:17.] — — — O that we did but cultivate this knowledge more! Christ is the true ark, which contains that law that was fulfilled by him, and is covered by the mercy-seat, from whence mercy is dispensed to all his believing people. Into that ark we may look; not indeed with unhallowed curiosity, but with an humble desire to understand all the mysteries of redemption. The cherubim that overshadowed the mercy-seat intimate to us, not only what the angels in heaven are doing, (for they are constantly endeavouring to look into this mystery [Note: 1 Peter 1:12.],) but what we also should do. St. Paul, after preaching Christ for twenty years, still pressed forward for a further knowledge of him; and with the same view we also should be “searching the Scriptures which testify of him.” This is a knowledge in comparison of which all things else are as dung and dross [Note: Philippians 3:7-10.]: and the more we attain of it, the more shall we be transformed into his image [Note: 2 Corinthians 3:18.], and be rendered meet for the glory which he has prepared for us [Note: Colossians 1:12.].]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 6". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany