(1 Sam. 5 and 6).
"And the ark of God was taken." Four times over do we read these momentous words in the chapter preceding, so important was the event in the mind of the Spirit of God, by whom every word of Scripture is inspired. Nor are we left in any doubt as to why this dire catastrophe was permitted to happen in Israel: "For they provoked Him to anger with their high places, and moved Him to jealousy with their graven images. When God heard this, He was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel: so that He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent which He placed among men: and delivered his strength into captivity, and his glory into the enemy's hands" (Ps. 78:58-61).
The moral condition of Israel at the time of the taking of the ark is thus revealed to us. We might suppose, from the account given in Samuel, that it was for the sins of Eli alone that the loss of the ark occurred; but not so, there was a national cause as well. It was not the prowess or valour of the Philistines, as they might vainly suppose, but God Himself who deliberately and intentionally "delivered His strength into captivity." The inspired penman in the its book of Samuel tells us nothing of "high places" and "graven images," but God, by the hand of the psalmist, has it recorded that it was for their idolatry that "He was wroth and greatly abhorred Israel" not only because of the wickedness of their priests. "Like people, like priest," is almost invariably true. In His just government, God usually allows people to have what they persistently seek after, which does not in any degree lessen their guilt.
What a calamity to Israel was the loss of the ark from their midst! In the verses immediately following those quoted above, from the 78th psalm, we hear of the calamitous consequences of its departure from the land: "He gave his people also unto the sword; and was wroth with his inheritance. The fire consumed their young men, and their maidens were not given to marriage. Their priests fell by the sword, and their widows made no lamentation" (ver. 62-64). So must it ever be: what we sow, we reap, whether as a nation, or as individuals, for "God is not mocked!" Solemn, yet blessed thought; for what would soon become of the world if God withdrew from it His moral government, or ceased to discipline His people?
From that hour Shiloh lost the prestige among the tribes which it had enjoyed since the days of Joshua - a period of more than three hundred years (see Josh. 18:1; 19:51). "He refused the tabernacle of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim; but chose the tribe of Judah, the mount Zion which He loved" (Ps. 78:67, 68). Shiloh then became the standing memorial of the nation's sin at that time, and was so referred to by the prophet Jeremiah five hundred years after: "But go ye now unto my place which was in Shiloh, where I set my name at the first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel... and I will cast you out of my sight, as I have cast out all your brethren, even the whole seed of Ephraim " (Jer. 7:12, I5).
Ephraim was given the place of firstborn by Jacob over his brother Manasseh - the place of privilege; but the failure of the tribe caused the place of God's sanctuary to be removed from the territory of Ephraim where it had been, and it became finally settled in the inheritance of Judah, at Jerusalem. "Our Lord sprang out of Judah," and we have here illustrated the truth found everywhere in Scripture, namely, that when the first man fails, and everything entrusted to him falls into ruin, God comes in and introduces Christ, "the second Man," under whose headship and in whose hands everything is unalterably secured: "For all the promises of God in Him are Yea, and in Him Amen, unto the glory of God by us " (2 Cor.1:20).
"And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it from Ebenezer unto Ashdod. When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon " (chap. 5:1, 2).
The holy ark of the covenant of Jehovah is dragged from the "stone of help" (Ebenezer) to the shrine of the unclean Dagon! They would probably show it some superstitious reverence; for, though the nations never changed their gods, as did foolish Israel, they were not averse to multiplying them. They may have looked upon the two cherubim, with their extended wings overshadowing the mercy seat of the ark, as dual deities, for they say in the previous chapter, "Who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness." They seem to mix the mighty acts which God had done in Egypt with those in the wilderness.
To us who have New Testament light, "an idol is nothing in the world; "but to these worshipers of Dagon, all idols represented a divinity good or evil. But the God of heaven and earth will brook no rival, "nor is there any beside Him;" and He has decreed that "to Him every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that He is Lord." This important truth is illustrated here among the Philistines; they set the ark by their Dagon, apparently in token of his triumph over "these mighty gods of the Hebrews." In the morning they find "Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the Lord." There lay Dagon, the mute witness of his impotence. His devoted worshipers, set him up again, only to find him in the morning fallen again upon his face before the ark, with the loss of both his head (which speaks of intelligence) and his hands (which speak of action and of deeds) - there he lay helpless, a dumb idol as he was, that can neither see nor hear, nor know.
Head and hands gone, what will he do now? Strange indeed that his devotees should after this regard or respect him any more; but, as Bishop Hall long ago remarked, "It is just with God that those who lack grace shall lack wit too; and it is the work of superstition to turn men into the stocks and stones they worship."
Having thus executed judgment on the dumb god of the Philistines, as He had before done on those of Egypt, God smites the men of Ashdod, as He also smote the Egyptians with all manner of plagues.
"But the hand of the Lord was heavy upon them of Ashdod, and He destroyed them, and smote them with emerods, even Ashdod and the coasts thereof. And when the men of Ashdod saw that it was so, they said The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us: for His hand is sore upon us and upon Dagon our god" (vers. 6, 7).
Knowledge brings responsibility, and light entails the obligation to walk by the light:, the truth known, and not followed, will but the more increase the weight of judgment to be meted to those that refuse it - awful consideration for those living in a land of Bibles, like our own -, and especially for those of our young people who grow up where the truth is so clearly taught, yet fail to receive the love of it that they might be saved. "Many stripes" must surely be their portion who thus know their Lord's will, but do it not so well acquainted with the letter of truth, yet fail or refuse to receive it and subject themselves to it!
Seeing these tokens of God's wrath and power with them, the men of Ashdod resolve to rid themselves of the presence of that which distressed them. A conference of their lords is then called, and they decide to transfer its place of abode to Gath. But here too God's hand is heavy upon them. They were smitten "with a very great destruction: and he smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had emerods in their secret parts." God "is no respecter of persons; "and at the great white throne both "small and great" must stand before Him to be judged every man according to his works.
"They carried it about," it is said; in procession, probably, making a display and sport of it, as they had formerly done with poor Samson when a captive and blind. But here they have to do with Samson's God, and pay dearly for the insult offered Him who is able to vindicate Himself. "Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine. And He smote His enemies in the hinder parts: He put them to a perpetual reproach " (Ps. 78:65, 66).
From Gath the ark is sent to Ekron, but the Ekronites, warned by the experience of their neighbors, protest loudly against its residence with them; and there, too, God's wrath was felt and His power manifested against them; "for there was a deadly destruction throughout all the city; the hand of God was very heavy there... and the cry of the city went up to heaven." Another general assembly was called, and it was resolved to send the ark away, and back to the place whence it came. They were as eager now to rid themselves of it as they were anxious before to obtain possession of it.
"And the ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months. And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, What shall we do to the ark of the Lord? tell us wherewith we shall send it to his place " (chap. 6:1, 2).
It was their "lords," before; now it is the "priests and the diviners," "church and state," as men say. So it was with Christ, of whom the ark was a striking and instructive type; the world's politics and its religion were combined against Him, to rid the earth of His presence. "Get Thee out, and depart hence, for Herod will kill Thee," was the officious Pharisees' advice to Him on one occasion (Luke 13:31. At another time the Gadarenes "began to pray Him to depart out of their coasts" (Mk. 5:17).
Lords and priests, in combination, as here among the Philistines, want to get rid of Him; want Him out of the world His very hands had made! "For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom Thou hast anointed, both Herod and. Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together" (Acts 4:27); and it was " the Chief priests and elders" who "persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus" (Matt. 27:20). Yes, the world, political and religious, cast their vote against Him, though He had done naught but good in their midst: and He is no more wanted now than at that time. Let those redeemed by His precious blood remember this, and "come out from among them, and be separate."
It being finally settled that the ark should not remain with them, the next question was, how to rid themselves of it; and what method of its deportation and the means of its conveyance:
"And they said, If ye send away the ark of the God of Israel, send it not empty; but in any wise return Him a trespass offering: then ye shall be healed, and it shall be known to you why his hand is not removed from you. Then said they, What shall be the trespass offering which we shall return to Him? They answered, Five golden emerods, and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines: for one plague was on you all, and on your lords. Wherefore ye shall make images of your emerods, and images of your mice that mar the land; and ye shall give glory unto the God of Israel: peradventure He will lighten his hand from off you, and from off your gods, and from off your land (chap. 6:3-5).
"Ye shall make images," they say. Oh, how the idolatrous heart of man does love an image something to see, some tangible object, something to be sensed! This has ever been the sin to which man is most prone, and it is therefore strongly prohibited in the very first commandment (see also 1 John 5:22).
So they make to themselves images, five golden emerods and five golden mice - both things unclean - the emerods, unclean in themselves, like a running sore; and the mice, unclean ceremonially (see Lev. 11:29; Isa. 66:17). Thus, in their blindness, instead of propitiating, they were offering insult to the Holy One of Israel with their unclean offering. Therefore it is, "peradventure He will lighten his hand from off you. "
It was near the time of harvest, and the mice had evidently wrought havoc with the ripening grain. Some translate "field" instead of "country" of the Philistines, as if they had, out of fear of its too near presence, allowed the ark to remain in the open fields. "Then shall ye be healed," they say, smarting under their chastisement, and were taught to entertain a wholesome respect for the captive "ark of the God of Israel." "The botch of Egypt, and emerods, and the scab, and the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed," were, according to Deut. 28:27, marks of the curse of an offended God. And it was healing that the Philistines were most concerned about remedy, not for their diseased souls, but for their suffering bodies. And how many today are all eagerness to obtain healing for the body, while utterly indifferent to God's remedy for the sin sick soul. How greedily men and women swallow the lie of Christian Science, because it promises healing for their bodily ills, altogether regardless of its deadly anti-Christian doctrines for the soul.
There is, thank God, no limit to His power to heal the body; but Christ's great commandment to us is, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." That is the only scriptural way to seek healing for the body, and all things else of a temporal nature. "First things first" should mean to every one, the soul's interests before all else; for He who came from heaven, and died upon the cross to save us, said: For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? "To induce this "mighty God of the Hebrews" to relieve them of their plagues, they think to appease Him with a present, a trespass offering, as Jacob thought to appease the wrath of his brother Esau. But it is "the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul;" "And without shedding of blood is no remission;" "Ye were not redeemed with corruptible things; as silver and gold," writes Peter, "but with the precious blood of Christ." "The heathen, in his blindness," however, does not, or will not know this. And he is not alone in this blindness, for is not "enlightened" Christendom largely involved in the same blindness? - trusting in gifts of gold and bloodless sacrifices to appease offended justice, instead of the atonement by the precious blood once shed on Calvary?
The Philistine priests and diviners had good knowledge of what Jehovah had done in Egypt some 350 years before, for they say to their people, "wherefore then do ye harden your hearts, as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts, when He (Jehovah) had wrought wonderfully among them - did they not let the people go? "Then they give advice how to proceed.
"Now therefore make a new cart, and take two milch kine, on which there hath come no yoke, and tie the kine to the cart, and bring their calves home from them and take the ark of the Lord, and lay it upon the cart; and put the jewels of gold, which ye return him for a trespass offering, in a coffer by the side thereof; and send it away, that it may go. And see, if it goeth up by the way of his own coast to Beth-shemesh, then He hath done us this great evil: but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that smote us: it was a chance that happened to us" (chap. 6:7-9).
It was a most severe test; nothing but the power of God could cause the cows, contrary to nature, to go as they did straight on to Bethshemesh, the nearest Israelitish town, some nine or ten miles distant. Everything was against the ark's getting safely out of the land; the cattle were unaccustomed to the yoke; they knew not the road to Beth-shemesh; no driver nor overseer had they to guide them; they had the strongest instinct of animals - love for offspring - to turn them back; and what is common to domestic animals, an inclination for home. Yet they "took the straight way to the way of Bethshemesh, lowing as they went," showing thus that they were impelled by the unseen, irresistible power of their Creator. "And the lords of the Philistines went after them unto the border of Beth-shemesh." Thus, "those that thought to triumph over the ark, were made to go like menial servants after it," as Matthew Henry remarks. Yes, "in the thing wherein they dealt proudly, He was above them!"
How like this was to the departure of Israel out of Egypt. The Egyptians, at first so eager to retain them, were at last, after their chastisement, as anxious to get rid of them. "When he shall let you go, he shall surely thrust you out hence altogether." "They were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry" (Ex. 11:1; 12:39). And, like the ark here, they came not out of the land of their bondage empty, but loaded with gifts of gold and jewels from their erstwhile captors. They came out with a high hand, too, with Pharaoh and all his host as a retinue of honor (though they meant it not so); and like the Philistines, they, too, stopped at the border of their land, the Red Sea, where they met their righteous doom (see also Ps. 105:37, 38) - The several references in the text to God's dealings with the Egyptians lead us to look for some analogy with the events recorded here.
"And they of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley: and they lifted up their eyes, and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it."
Did they rejoice as Abraham rejoiced to see Christ's day, "and was glad?" (John 8:56). How few souls in Israel seem to have lamented the absence of the ark from the land, yet it should have been, and was to every devout Israelite, the object most sacred and cherished in the tabernacle; for it was, compared with all the rest, as the kernel to the shell, and as the heart to the body. It was that around which all the other parts were grouped. Within it were kept the two tables of the law, beautiful figure of Christ who could say as none other could. "Thy law is within my heart." See with what affection David speaks or sings of this emblem of Jehovah's presence among them. He was not indifferent to it, as the former generation of his people appear to have been, for he says, "Surely I will not come into the tabernacle of my house, nor go up into my bed; I will not give sleep to mine eyes, or slumber to mine eyelids, until I find out a place for the Lord, a habitation for the mighty God of Jacob" (Ps. 132:3-5).
Oh, that the ark's blest antitype, our Lord Jesus Christ, might have a like place in our thoughts and heart - affections, and that we might say with the "sweet psalmist of Israel," " I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength" (Ps. 18:1).
"And the cart came into the field of Joshua, a Beth- shemite, and stood there, where there was a great stone; and they clave the wood of the cart, and offered the kine a burnt offering unto the Lord. And the Levites took down the ark of the Lord, and the coffer that was with it, wherein the jewels of gold were, and put them on the great stone: and the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices the same day unto the Lord" (vers. 14, 15).
Beth-shemesh was a priestly city (Josh. 21:16), and though they who offered the sacrifices here are called Levites, they were probably priests of the Levites, either of the waning line of Ithamar or the ascendant branch of Eleazar. According to the strict letter of the law, the animal offered in sacrifice for the burnt offering was to be a male, but here the rule is waived; the circumstances were unusual, as in the days of Hezekiah, when "many of Ephraim and Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulon, had not cleansed themselves, yet did they eat the passover otherwise than it was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, The good Lord pardon everyone." He is a discerner of the heart, and even in the stern days of the law He had compassion.
The men of Bethshemesh were busily, and worthily, occupied in harvesting their grain when the ark appeared, just as the shepherds of Bethlehem were faithfully guarding their flocks by night when apprised by the rejoicing angels of the birth of the infant Saviour. "The devil visits idle men with his temptations; God visits industrious men with His favours," we quote again from Matthew Henry. Gideon was busy threshing wheat when the angel of the Lord appeared to him. "I being in the way, the Lord led me," says the trusty servant of Abraham. And when the Lord shall come again, it matters little whether we are found on our knees in prayer, or studying our Bibles, or at meeting, preaching, or at our ordinary employments, harvesting wheat or threshing it, tending sheep or minding children; if we are "in the way" of His commandments, honestly and industriously occupied in the work given us by Him to do, we may at His appearing, like the Beth-shemites when they saw the ark, rejoice to see it.
Three times "the great stone" on which the ark rested is mentioned (vers. 14, 15, 18). In the final reference it is called "the great stone of Abel." This has no allusion to Abel the first martyr; the word "Abel," as used here, means a meadow. To quote from the Biblical and Theological Dictionary, "This word signifies mourning, and hence wet, moisture;" and wherever Christ is received in the heart there is bound to be freshness of soul; the dew of heaven will rest upon us-, "there shall be showers of blessing," and our souls will have pasture. The stone of "Abel" was a "great stone," like the foundation of God which standeth sure. His purposes of grace, through Christ, are founded on "a rock that stands forever," and all the powers of hell shall not prevail against it.
But God "smote the men of Beth-shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, even He smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men;* and the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter " (ver. 19).
* There is some confusion in the Hebrew MSS. here. The Numerical Bible has "seventy men."
How like poor, foolish, meddlesome man! He must pry into most holy things with unholy hands ; while the things he is encouraged to investigate and inquire into, he neglects." Search the Scriptures" is the command of God to him; but in this, alas, he has no interest. God says to him, "Have not I written to thee excellent things in counsels and knowledge, that I might make thee know the certainty of the words of truth?" (Prov. 22:20); but for this "certainty" man cares but little, while for the uncertainties of "occult science" and curious profitless speculations, he displays great taste. The desire for a forbidden thing was a large element in our first parents' transgression. There are "secret things" which belong unto the Lord our God (Deut. 29:29). but there is abundance that He has revealed, and of this, alas, we all know too little. The divinely appointed place of the ark was within the holy of holies, behind the veil, where none but God's high priest might enter, and he once a year, and "not without blood" and a cloud of incense. God intended to teach them the most profound reverence for this symbol of His holy presence. The sin of the men of Beth-shemesh, therefore, was indeed very great-all the more inexcusable as, being priests or Levites, they should have known the veneration with which the ark should have been regarded: "For the priest's lips should keep knowledge " (Mal. 2:7). Above all others they should have known the sacredness of that into which they irreverently. pried. How easily God's best gifts may become a curse, if abused! He who had so wonderfully, of His unmerited grace, blessed Israel, smote them because "they rebelled, and vexed his Holy Spirit" (Isa. 63:10).
"And the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter." They lamented their punishment rather than their sin which made the punishment necessary. So the murderer Cain complained that his punishment was greater than could be borne - without one word of regret or sorrow expressed concerning the greatness of his unnatural crime. The Beth - shemites, like the Philistines before them, are now desirous to be quit of that very object they had a short while before welcomed with such gladness. "Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God?" they exclaim in consternation. He was too "holy" for them; and instead of rejoicing and profiting by such a check on evil in their priestly town, they are only concerned to have the ark removed. Sinful man chafes under God's restraints upon evil. The day is fast approaching when he will throw off all restraints, and say, "Let us break their bands asunder, and Cast away their cords from us."
"And they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kirjath jearim, saying, The Philistines have brought again the ark of the Lord; come ye down, and fetch it up to you" (ver. 21).
Kirjath-jearim was a strong city belonging to Judah, and lay in the direct route to Shiloh; but God, for the sins of the priests and the people there, had rejected it forever as the "place of His rest." In Judah His ark was to remain, until brought with "circumstances of pomp and splendour" by David to its settled resting-place in Jerusalem, "the mount Zion which He loved."