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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 6

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-21



1 Samuel 6:1, 1 Samuel 6:2

The ark of Jehovah was in the country—literally, the field, i.e. the territory—of the Philistines seven months, during which long time the people wherever the ark was deposited were afflicted in their persons with a most painful malady. The princes determined, therefore, to restore it to Israel, and convened the priests and the diviners, that they might advise them as to the manner in which this purpose should be best carried out, lest some error or want of due reverence might only serve to increase their sufferings. It would be the duty of the priests to see that the proper ceremonial was observed in moving the ark, while the diviners would decide what day and hour and special method would be lucky. The importance of the diviner, qosem, is shown by his being mentioned in Isaiah 3:2 in an enumeration of the leading orders in the state. He is placed there between the prophet and the elder or senator; but the A.V; displeased perhaps at finding one who practised a forbidden art nevertheless described as practically so valued, translates the word prudent. Literally it means a divider or partitioner, because it was his office to separate things into the two classes of lucky and unlucky. Tell us wherewith, etc, Though this translation is tenable, the right rendering is probably how. The princes did not assume that gifts must accompany the ark, but inquired generally as to the best method of restoring it. So the answer of the priests and diviners is not merely that expiatory offerings are to be made, but that the ark is to be sent back in such a way as to give proof that Jehovah had intervened, or the contrary (Isaiah 3:7, Isaiah 3:8, Isaiah 3:9).

1 Samuel 6:3, 1 Samuel 6:4

A trespass offering. The offering that was to be made when the offence had been unintentional (Leviticus 5:15). Why his hand is not removed from you. A euphemism for "why your punishment continues to be so severe, without sign of abatement." If healing follows the gift, you will know that the malady was Jehovah's doing. The trespass offering was to consist of five golden emerods, and five golden mice, it being an old heathen custom, still constantly practised abroad, of presenting to the deity tokens representing the deliverance wrought for such as had implored his aid. Thus Horace ('Carm.,' 1 Samuel 1:5) speaks of the custom of hanging up in the temple of Neptune the clothes in which a man had escaped from shipwreck. Slaves when manumitted offered their chains to the Lares; and the idea is so natural that we cannot wonder at its prevalence. One plague was on you all. Rather, "is on you all." It did not cease until the ark had been restored. The Hebrew has on them all; but as all the versions and several MSS. read you all, the substitution of them is probably the mistake of some transcriber.

1 Samuel 6:5

Mice that mar the land. The idea of a plague of field mice is, as we have seen, due to one of those many unauthorised insertions of the Septuagint by which they supposed that they removed difficulties from the way of their readers. As the ancients use the names of animals in a very generic way, any rodent may be meant from the jerboa downwards; but probably it was the common field mouse, arvicola arvensis, still common in Syria, which multiplies with great rapidity, and is very destructive to the crops, and so became the symbol of devastation and pestilence (see on 1 Samuel 5:6). When, as Herodotus relates (Book 2:141), the Assyrian army of Sennacherib had been defeated, because a vast multitude of field mice had overrun his camp and gnawed asunder the bow strings of his troops, the Egyptians raised a statue to Hephaestus, holding in his hand a mouse. But very probably this is but the literal explanation by Herodotus of what he saw, while to a well instructed Egyptian it represented their god of healing, holding in his hand the mouse, as the symbol either of the devastation which he had averted, or of the pestilence with which he had smitten the Assyrian army (see on 1 Samuel 5:6).

1 Samuel 6:6

Wherefore do you harden your hearts, as the Egyptians and Pharaoh? On this reference to Egypt see on 1 Samuel 4:8. It is remarkable that they so correctly point out that it was the obduracy of the Egyptians which made their punishment so severe. Yet finally even they, in spite of their determined opposition were compelled to let Israel go. So now the question is whether the Philistines will restore the ark on the warning of one plague, or whether they will hold out till they have been smitten with ten.

1 Samuel 6:7

Make a new cart, and take, etc. The Hebrew is, "Now take and make you a new cart, and two milch kine." The transposition of the A.V. throws undue stress upon the verb make, whereas the Hebrew simply means that both the cart was to be new, and the heifers untrained and unbroken to the yoke. Both these were marks of reverence. Nothing was to be employed in God's service which had been previously used for baser purposes. No animal was deemed fit for sacrifice which had laboured in the field. The separation of the kine from their calves was for the purpose of demonstrating whether the plague after all was supernatural, and it is remarkable what great care the Philistine priests take against confounding the extraordinary with the Divine. If, however, the kine act in a manner contrary to nature, their last doubt will be removed.

1 Samuel 6:8

Put the jewels of gold … in a coffer. Instead of jewels the Hebrew word signifies any article of workmanship, and so figures, images wrought in gold. They were to be placed reverentially at the side of the ark, for it had wrought them so great evil that they had learned to look upon it with awe.

1 Samuel 6:9

His own coast, or "border." The ark throughout this verse is spoken of as if it were itself a deity. Beth-shemeshi.e. "the house of the sun," also called Irshemesh, "city of the sun" (Joshua 19:41)—had evidently been in the time of the Canaanites the seat of this popular idolatry. It was now a city of the priests, situated in the tribe of Judah, on its northeastern border, next the tribe of Dan, and was the nearest Israelite town to Ekron. If, then, the kine, albeit unused to the yoke, left their calves behind, and drew the cart by the most direct route unto the land of Judah, they would give the required proof that the Philistines were smitten by the hand of Jehovah, and that it was no chance that had happened unto them.

1 Samuel 6:12

The kine took the straight way. The Hebrew brings out the directness with which the heifers took the route to Beth-shemesh very forcibly. It says, "And the kine went straight in the way upon the way to Beth-shemesh; they went along one highway, lowing as they went," i.e. they went in one direct course, without deviating from it. Nevertheless, their continual lowing showed the great stress that was laid upon their nature in being thus compelled to separate themselves from their calves. And the lords of the Philistines went after them. I.e. behind them, leaving the kine free to go where they chose. The usual position of the driver of an ox cart in the East is in front. Conder ('Tent Work,' 1:274) describes the view up the great corn valley of Sorek to the high and rugged hills above as extremely picturesque, and this it is, he adds, which was spread before the eyes of the five lords of the Philistines as they followed the lowing oxen which bore the ark on the "straight way" from Ekron to Beth-shemesh. The ruins of the latter place, he says, lie on a knoll surrounded by olive trees, near the junction of the valley of Sorek with the great gorge which bounded Judah on the north.

THE ARK AT BETH-SHEMESH (1 Samuel 6:15-20).

1 Samuel 6:13

And they of Beth-shemesh. More exactly, "And Beth-shemesh was reaping its wheat harvest," the whole population being in the fields. Though a priestly city, we find in 1 Samuel 6:15 the Levites distinguished from the ordinary inhabitants, as though they and the priests formed only the ruling class. In the valley. Now called the Wady Surar, branching off into another valley on the south. Robinson speaks of the site of Beth-shemesh as a very noble one, being "a low plateau at the junction of two fine plains." The wheat harvest takes place in Palestine in May, and consequently the disastrous battle of Eben-ezer must have been fought in the previous October.

1 Samuel 6:14

Stood there, where there was a great stone. Probably a mass of natural rock rising through the soil. This they used as an altar, breaking up the cart for wood, and sacrificing the kine. In this joyful work all the people seem to have joined, though the sacrifice would be offered only by the priests.

1 Samuel 6:15

The Levites took down the ark. Naturally, in a city of which priests formed the ruling caste, the people would be acquainted with the general nature of the regulations of the law. Apparently it was only after the sacrificial feast that they forgot the reverence due to the symbol of Jehovah's presence among them.

1 Samuel 6:16

They returned to Ekron the same day. The lords of the Philistines would of course take no part in this rejoicing, but, having seen the ark restored, and the people busied in making preparations for the sacrifice, returned immediately home.

1 Samuel 6:17, 1 Samuel 6:18

The golden emerods. We have here and in 1 Samuel 6:18 an enumeration of the gifts differing from, without being at variance with, that in 1 Samuel 6:4. They are still five golden emerods, for which the name here is not ophalim, but tehorim, the word always read in the synagogue (see 1 Samuel 5:6). From its use in the cognate languages it is pretty certain that it is rightly translated in our version. But besides these there were golden mice, according to the number of all the cities, etc. The priests had named only five mice, one for each of the lords of the Philistines; but the eagerness of the people outran their suggestion, and not only the fenced towns, but even the unwalled villages sent their offering, lest they should still be chastised. Country villages. Literally, "the village" or "hamlet of the Perazi." The Septuagint, a trustworthy authority in such matters, makes the Perazi the same as the Perizzite. Both words really signify "the inhabitant of the lowland," i.e. of the plain country of Phoenicia; but from Zechariah 2:4, where Perazoth is translated "towns without walls," and from Ezekiel 38:11, where it is rendered "unwalled villages," we may conclude that it had come popularly to mean an open village, though literally, in both these places, it means "the hamlets of the lowland." Even unto the great stone of Abel, etc. All this part of the verse is exceedingly corrupt, and requires large interpolations to obtain from it any meaning. Both the Vulgate and the Syriac retain the unmeaning word Abel; but the Septuagint gives us what is probably the true reading: "and the great stone whereon they set the ark of Jehovah, which is in the field of Joshua the Beth-shemeshite, is a witness unto this day" (comp. Genesis 31:52; Isaiah 30:8).

1 Samuel 6:19

He emote the men of Beth-shemesh, etc. In this verse also the text is undoubtedly corrupt. The Septuagint ascribes the sin not to all the people, but to "the sons of Jeconiah, who were not glad when they saw the ark, and he smote them." But as this reading is not supported by the other versions we may pass it by. The numbers, however, are evidently wrong. Fifty thousand men would imply a population of 250,000 people, whereas Jerusalem itself in its palmiest days never had a population of even 70,000. There were no large cities among the Israelites, but a scattered population living upon their fields, and with a few small walled towns here and there to protect them and their cattle in any sudden emergency. Kennicott, however, has satisfactorily explained the mistake. In the old way of denoting numbers by the letters of the alphabet an 'ain = 70 had been mistaken for a nun with two dots = 50,000. The Syriac has 5000, that is, a nun with one dot. We must add that the Hebrew is not fifty thousand and threescore and ten men, but "seventy men, fifty thousand men," without any article between, and with the smaller number first, contrary to Hebrew rule. The occasion of the calamity was probably as follows:—As the news of the return of the ark spread from mouth to mouth, the people flocked together to take part in the sacrifice. which would of course be followed by a feast. Heated thereat by wine, perhaps, and merriment, they lost all sense of reverence, and encouraged one another to look into the ark and examine its contents, though the words need not absolutely mean more than that "they looked at the ark." Even so the men of Beth-shemesh, as a city of priests, must have known that death was the penalty of unhallowed gazing at holy things (Numbers 4:20), and it is more than probable that those who were smitten were priests, because in them it would be a heinous sin; for it was a repetition of that contempt for religion and its symbols which had been condemned so sternly in Eli's sons. The mere seeing of the ark was no sin, and had given the people only joy (1 Samuel 6:13), but as soon as they had received it the priests ought to have covered it with a vail (Numbers 4:5). To leave it without a vail was neglectful, to pry into it was sacrilege. Because Jehovah had smitten many of the people, etc. This clause should be translated, "because Jehovah had smitten the people with a great smiting." The sudden death even of seventy men in an agricultural district, especially if they were the heads of the priestly families there, would be a great and terrible calamity, enough to fill the whole place with grief.

1 Samuel 6:20, 1 Samuel 6:21

Who is able, etc. Literally, "Who is able to stand before Jehovah, this holy God?" A punishment so severe following upon their unhallowed temerity made the inhabitants of this city of priests eager to pass the ark on to others. They therefore sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kirjath-jearim to request them to fetc.h it away. Kiryath-yarim—for so it ought to be pronounced—means the city of forests—Woodtown, softened among us into Wooton. It was chosen apparently simply because it was the nearest town of any importance, and was therefore identified in early Christian times with the modern Kuriet-el-'anab, grapetown, the woods having given way to vines, and which is about ten miles off, on the road to Mizpah. Conder, however, doubts the correctness of this view, and places Kirjath-jearim at Soba (see 'Tent Work,' 1 Samuel 1:18 1 Samuel 1:22).


1 Samuel 6:1-9

Seeking light.

The facts are—

1. The Philistines, oppressed by Providence, are uncertain what to do with the ark.

2. They, consulting the priests and diviners, are advised to send the ark away with all due honours and safeguards in case it is sent at all.

3. They are instructed how to carry out the advice, and warned not to refuse so to do.

4. Having done their best, they are to learn the truth from the issue. The incidents recorded furnish an instance of men seeking light. The events of the past few months had clashed with their material interests, and a series of observations had given rise to the opinion that these events were traceable to a restlessness on the part of the Hebrew Divinity. They did not wish to send back the ark. At the same time, there might be some error in the observations already made; and if so, the troubles of the land and the presence of the ark would be a mere coincidence. This then was more than an ordinary case of perplexity. The Philistines knew the ark to be a superior power. Their doubt was whether it was indicating its mind by the events which troubled the land, and if so, what should be their conduct in relation to it. Thus the crude ideas and superstitious conduct of heathens embrace truths which find expression in modern experience.

I. There ARE IN HUMAN LIFE SEASONS OF DEEP PERPLEXITY, WHEN MEN WANT TO KNOW THE TRUTH CONCERNING GOD. More intelligently than the Philistines, we believe in God as the Lord of all, and the ever present Worker in human affairs. Although events move on in well defined lines of natural order, we know that God uses them to indicate his will, in conjunction with the intimations furnished by his word and Spirit. "The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord." But amidst the voices that fall on the ear, and owing to dulness of perception, the soul sometimes is in great doubt concerning the mind of God, and what course should be pursued. This is especially true when events run counter to our desires and apparent interests, and when pride of spirit is cherished. Home may be wrecked. Business may bode disaster. Great decisions have to be taken. In each God has a will of his own, and conduct must have primary regard to him. The desire to do right is out of proportion to the perception of what in the particular instance is right.

II. The COURSE TO BE ADOPTED FOR THE REMOVAL OF PERPLEXITY. The Philistines proved themselves to be men of good sense by the course they took. The particular methods of obtaining more light will always depend on the spiritual state and previous attainments of those seeking it; yet the main lines pursued will be the same. Summarising then the reference here to men of experience, and the advice given by them, we see a course available for all.

1. To act on the experience of the past. The priests and diviners were the embodiments of generations of experience in matters pertaining to the gods. Their advice, therefore, was the product of experience. Likewise forevery man there is a rich store of wisdom in the events of his own life, in the records of history, in the judgment of contemporaries. Experience is a process which gradually enkindles and feeds a lamp within the spirit of a man. It is one of God's ways of making our path plain. Especially should the experience of others both show us the line of duty and warn us of the risk of shutting our eyes to the light. The reference to the experience of Pharaoh, under circumstances in some respects similar to theirs, was extremely judicious on the part of the Philistine priests.

2. To fulfil all known religious obligations. The advice to send back the ark intact, with due honours and with emblems of confession of sin, was based on the best religious knowledge of the people. The only way of ascertaining the real mind of the Hebrew Divinity was to honour and propitiate it. In this crude conception we have a great principle. Our escape from many perplexities depends largely on our careful performance of such religious duties as are imposed by our present knowledge. No man can know the will of God as he ought unless he obey that will as far as he knows it, and at any cost. If prayer is a clear duty, pray; if confession of sin, confess: if some great act of self-denial, perform it. The perceptive powers are clearer when calmed by true practical religion. The discharge of high duties fits for discerning others. A sound spiritual condition, conserved by daily observance of religious obligations, is a powerful solvent of doubts. "If any man will do the will of God, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God."

3. To supplement these means by watching carefully for new indications. The Philistines were to do all in their power to enable them to judge the significance of coming events. We cannot always make occasions for Providence to reveal itself; but we can fulfil all conditions for observing clearly, and then can watch the indications of the will which we know does speak to us in daily life, in the word and in the "still small voice." Then, acting in a reverent spirit, straitness will yield to a "large place," and darkness will be made light before us.

General lessons:

1. God has means of helping even the most ignorant to a fuller knowledge of his will.

2. By what wise and unlooked for methods God accomplishes the realisation of his purpose among men who do not love him!

3. How superior the privileges of those who in mental darkness can cry direct for more light to the Father of light!

1 Samuel 6:10-15

Restored blessings.

The facts are—

1. The kine bearing the ark, contrary to their instincts, go away from their home to Beth-shemesh.

2. The men of Beth-shemesh, seeing the returning ark, leave their occupations, and express their joy in sacrificial worship.

3. The Levites, exceeding their privileges, open the ark and examine its sacred contents.

4. The representatives of the Philistines observe the issue of their experiment and return. The rapid succession of incidents connected with the restoration of the ark illustrates several important truths.

I. The SUPREMACY OF GOD OVER HIS CREATURES. As a human device, the means for ascertaining the will of the God of Israel were excellent; and it is a mark of condescension that God should thus use imperfect men to effect his purpose. The men argued that he who commands disease and the ravages of vermin can, if disposed, effect his will through the agency of other creatures. God is not indisposed to exert his great power, should moral cause exist, even through the actions of men who act up to the measure of light attained to. The departure of the kine from their home and young to a strange land was a remarkable instance of the control of God over the strongest instincts. The seeming unnaturalness of the event is owing to our one-sided views of God's purposes and methods. It was contrary to their nature, as ordinarily exercised, to go from home. It was not contrary to the nature of things for them to do the will of their Maker.

1. It is a reality in every case of animal life that God's will is done. All creatures are "HIS." He formed their powers and gave them tendencies. Therefore every creature, in following its ordinary course, is actually carrying out a Divine intent. In this the kine were one with all cattle. Animals exist not for themselves. The end of their existence is moral and spiritual. The fabric of the universe and the lower creatures are for the development of the spiritual and eternal. In the case of the kine a great spiritual end was subserved—the restoration of the ark and consequent development of the "kingdom which cannot be moved." The original appointment of instinct and the specific control of it are acts identical in kind—supernatural.

2. There are other instances of special control. Balaam's ass was used to reprove the prophet. The lions were restrained from touching Daniel. In either case, as here, the event was connected with a manifest spiritual purpose; and who shall say that he who governs men and calms the sea shall not be free to control the movements of kine, as truly as when on his way to Jerusalem he guided the ass on which he sat?

3. It is a means of teaching important truth. This subordination of the most powerful impulses to the high purposes of God sets forth the truth that the most powerful natural attachments must yield to the requirements of the kingdom of God; as well perhaps as that, in coming years, the inferior creatures will subserve the advance of Christ's kingdom as certainly as that they will share in its blessings (Isaiah 11:6, Isaiah 11:7; Matthew 13:32).

II. The JOY OF RESTORED BLESSINGS. The men of Beth-shemesh were the first honoured with a sight of the ark, and with the instinct of the true Israelite they appreciated the boon.

1. The blessing now received was very great. The significance of the ark to Israel cannot be fully expressed. Its return from captivity meant to the people a reinstatement in the favour of God. Their cry of anguish and the intercession of Samuel had been heard. Likewise the Church, after seasons of chastisement and loss of privilege, knows the greatness of the boon when God makes "the place of his feet glorious," and comforts Zion with the light of his countenance.

2. The restoration was unexpected. Both as to the fact and the means there was no anticipation of what occurred. Men were called from common toils to share in a great spiritual joy. Thus does God in his mercy break in on the cares and sorrows of common life with blessings in excess of our hopes. Israel was not able to devise means of delivery from Egypt, and surprise filled their minds when they saw the salvation of God. Christ's appearance after death even took away the power of utterance (Luke 24:36-41). "For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee."

3. The expression of joy was natural. It was most proper for a nature toned by recent chastisement to rush from the occupations of life to bid welcome to the long wept for ark of God. The recovery of property, the return of a lost son, nothing, could stir such deep feelings as the sign of the restored favour of Jehovah. The sacrifice of the kine was a form of penitence, homage, and gratitude culminating in highest joy. There is no joy like that of God's assured .presence and favour. It is a gladness beyond that of the time when corn and wine increase. "Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing."

III. UNLAWFUL CURIOSITY. A debased condition is not recovered from suddenly. Despite the repentance for past sin and gratitude for return of God's favour, the low tone of life consequent on former practices remained. As a consequence of the singular combination of good and bad qualities at this hopeful turn in affairs, the joy of the day was marred by a wicked, profane curiosity. This was the more culpable because the inhabitants were chiefly Levites, who must have been acquainted with the very strict prohibition to manifest any rude curiosity in reference to the sacred symbols (Exodus 3:5; Exodus 19:21; Numbers 4:20).

1. Curiosity, though useful in the acquisition of knowledge, is sometimes wicked.

(1) In human affairs, as when it consists in an idle intrusion into the secret business or sorrows of others, or endeavour to obtain information with malicious intent.

(2) In Divine things, as when it consists in a restless craving to know the secret purposes of God; or an endeavour to subject the Divine nature to the same kind of criticism and analysis as the work of his hand; or a fruitless endeavour to solve the mystery of his sovereignty in relation to the existence of evil; or a rude, irreverent attempt to penetrate into the great "mystery of godliness," the person of Christ.

2. The wickedness of such curiosity is evident; because of—

(1) The relation of man to God. God is the infinite, eternal, holy One, of whom all that is is but the dim shadow. No ideas, no beings, not even the totality of the material and spiritual universe, are commensurate with him. On the other hand, man is only one among many creatures, limited in power, defective in nature, and incapable even of knowing the mysteries within his own breast. The moral evil in man unfits him for the vision of God even so far as that is possible to holy beings. The reverence due to God is due also in measure to man from man when justice and fellow feeling bar the way to secret things.

(2) The habit is destructive to all that is good. In no instance is evil better known by its fruits than in that of curiosity carried into Divine and human things. It is the ruin of reverence, which is the essence of worship, the guardian of all that is good in life, the crowning grace of conduct, and the spring of manifold virtues. It, when prevalent, renders man distrustful of his fellows, and loosens the bonds of home. No society can exist where all reverence is dead, and unbridled curiosity is its death.

IV. AN IMPORTANT DISCOVERY. The five lords of the Philistines witnessed the restoration of the ark and the joy of the men of Beth-shemesh, and they became wiser men. They carried back the information that Jehovah was indeed the Destroyer of Dagon, the Controller of disease, the Lord of the brute creation, and unchanged Friend of Israel. Thus in defeat there was a triumph. Thus have we an indication of what will yet be. The foes of the Church of Christ will learn that he does hold the mastery over all. Ebbs there may be in the prosperity of the Church, but the power will reassert itself, and men will marvel both at the means and the fact. A great discovery will be made to all creatures when, after the conflict of ages with the world power, the true Israel of God shall rejoice in the perfect and everlasting presence of their Lord.

1 Samuel 6:17-21

Trophies and chastisement.

The facts are—

1. An enumeration by the Israelites of the golden images sent with the ark.

2. A terrible chastisement on the men of Beth-shemesh for their profane curiosity.

3. An effort to send the ark away, consequent on the terror created. These closing incidents of the restoration introduce for consideration—

I. The TROPHIES WON IN THE CONFLICT WITH foes of the Church of God. The golden emerods and mice were expressions of pagan superstition, and yet of submission to the superior power of Jehovah. In so far as they represented the five lords of the country, they were, in the eyes of Israel, evidence of the extent to which the might of Jehovah had been recognised. As the pot of manna and Aaron's rod were kept as memorials of what God had done, and prophetic of what he would do, so these images were noted in the annals of the time as signs of the same power in conquest. The remembrance of them would inspire courage, and also suggest due fear. The Church of Christ has won many trophies. Christ himself has led "captivity captive." He has in many instances snatched learning, science, art, statesmanship, and literature from the hand of the enemy, and made them contribute to the splendour of his kingdom. The extent to which trophies have been gathered deserves a register as truly as that given of the offerings of the Philistine lords. A calm reflection on this subject will inspire the Church for new efforts, and awaken gratitude for the past.

II. CHASTISEMENT FOR SINS OF PROFANITY. The joy of restoration was soon beclouded by the sorrow of death. The death of seventy men for the sin of treating the ark of God profanely raises the question of what there can be in such sins to merit so severe a chastisement. A general answer to such a question is that we are not in a position to determine for God the form, time, or extent of punishment due to sin. None can adjudge sin correctly but the perfectly holy One. There may be far more in an act than comes to the surface. Hence a reverent spirit is mostly concerned to know the fact. But there are a few considerations which may throw a little light on the apparent severity of the chastisement.

1. The essential evil of the sin. Much difficulty arises from not considering that some sins, and this especially, are a most virulent moral poison. They are at the very antipodes to the true spirit of love and obedience. Hence the dire consequences of their prevalence come more sharply into view when we remember the special contagion of example in such cases as these; for profanity of spirit is easily caught from example, and at once lowers the entire nature of a man.

2. The liability to fall into it. Not only is the sin heinous, and spread by example, but there is a predisposition to it which gives to the slightest encouragement from without double power. The evil already in man is good soil for such seed. If a sinful nature means aversion to a holy God, then it requires only a small encouragement to turn that aversion into the positive form of disregard of the Divine presence.

3. The privileges of the transgressors. Punishment is always proportionate to privilege abused. As officials in the service of God, the Levites were doubly criminal. Those who grow up amidst the sanctities and quiet reverence of the sanctuary or pious home commit deadly sin when they think or act towards God profanely. Had we all the details of the behaviour of the men of Beth-shemesh, no doubt the grossness of their conduct would stand out in fearful contrast with the privileges they had enjoyed as servants of the altar.

4. The bearing on ages to come. Every sin bears on the future, and so does its punishment. The deterrent effect of punishment is important; and its infliction with this reference is equitable, seeing that the sin acts on others and in ages to come. The effect of the death of the men at Beth-shemesh was seen in the salutary fear that came on all. "This holy Lord God!" It was a great gain to the world to have driven home this great truth. Nor would the effect end there. God has taught the entire world by the terrible things in righteousness which have been recorded. Here is one of the means of the education of the future race. Men are more reverent for what they read in the Old Testament.

5. The infliction of death is a prerogative of God. God sets the appointed time. Temporal death is not less of God when it comes gradually. Its direct infliction is the form in which he marks his disfavour and impresses his creatures. If seventy men sin, and commit in the civil religious state of Israel a capital crime (Numbers 4:5, Numbers 4:15, Numbers 4:20), they of course must pay the prescribed penalty. It is an awful thing to die by the sudden stroke of God, but a more awful thing to be in a state of mind to deserve it. Practical lessons:

1. Let us keep watch over the first risings of a spirit of levity.

2. Cultivate in young and old, by all conceivable means, reverence for all things connected with the worship of God.

3. Remember that the severity of God is really mercy to his creatures as a whole.



The return of the ark.

On the taking of the ark Israel sank to the lowest point of degradation. But "when the night is darkest then dawn is nearest." And the return of the sacred symbol was the first gleam of returning day. It was—

I. RESTORED BY DIVINE FAVOUR (1 Samuel 7:10-12), which was—

1. Exceeding abundant (1 Timothy 1:14). The people of Israel do not appear to have made any effort for its restoration, but God remembered them, and for their sake constrained their enemies to send back the precious treasure. "That is free love which never has been desired, never has been deserved, and never can be requited."

2. Shown in an extraordinary manner. It was brought by creatures acting contrary to their natural instincts, under a Divine impulse, in a direct line to the nearest border city of Israel—Beth-shemesh (the house of the sun); a sign to Israel as well as the heathen. "Two kine knew their owner as (Isaiah 1:3) Hophni and Phinehas knew him not" (Lightfoot). God's favour often comes by the most unlikely agencies and means. His power is universal, and all things serve him.

3. Unexpected and surprising (1 Samuel 7:13). It was the time of harvest, and the men of Beth-shemesh were pursuing their ordinary secular occupations, thinking nothing of the ark, when they suddenly lifted up their eyes and beheld it approaching. It was found by them like "the treasure hid in the field."

4. Distinguishing. Shown toward Beth-shemesh beyond other cities, and toward Joshua beyond any other man; for some reason, perchance, in the people as well as in the locality. The city we know was a priestly city (Joshua 21:10). "We shall probably be doing them no wrong if we suppose that they regarded its presence as an honour to themselves. It distinguished their township above all the cities of Israel."

II. RECEIVED WITH GREAT JOY (verses 13-18). We can imagine how promptly they put aside their harvest work and gathered with one accord around the sacred object. Their joy was the joy of—

1. Gratitude for the favour shown toward them (1 Kings 8:62-66; Ezra 6:16, Ezra 6:17).

2. Devotion (verses 14, 15). "They offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices (peace offerings) unto the Lord."

3. Hope; for in it they saw a proof of the power of God over the heathen, and a promise of their own freedom and prosperity.

4. And the day of their abounding joy was commemorated by means of the great stone on which the ark and the coffer containing the jewels of gold were set, "which remaineth unto this day."


1. Their conduct consisted of "looking into (or upon) the ark." Whether they actually pried into it is uncertain. Whatever may have been the precise nature of their conduct, the spirit in which they acted was their chief offence in the sight of him who "looketh at the heart." There may be much sin in a look.

2. Their sin was great; exhibiting want of reverence and godly fear, presumption, perhaps rationalism, recklessness, profanity (Le Joshua 10:3). A spirit of intelligent curiosity and inquiry is of unspeakable worth, being the principal means of discovering truth and promoting human progress; but it should be ever joined with humility and reverence, as it has been in the greatest minds. "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." The fact that Beth-shemesh was a city of the priests would lead us to expect better things of its inhabitants. "It is not improbable that in their festive rejoicing they may have fallen into intemperance, and hence into presumptuous irreverence, as it is thought was the case with Nadab and Abihu" ('Sp. Com.').

3. Their punishment was severe; for "of fifty thousand men, seventy died a sudden death" (Hengstenberg; verse 19). What is sent as a blessing is often turned by men themselves into a curse.

4. The effect was morally benefical on the people generally. "Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God?" etc. (verse 20).

(1) A conviction of his transcendent and awful holiness. "Our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29).

(2) A feeling of their own deep sinfulness, which the former never fails to produce (Isaiah 6:5; Luke 5:8).

(3) A persuasion of the necessity of "righteousness and true holiness" in those among whom he dwells; for their request to the inhabitants of Kirjath-jearim, "Come ye down, and fetch it up to you," was the expression of something more than selfish dread (1 Samuel 5:7), being caused by the belief that it would be more worthily honoured by others than by themselves. The conduct of a single city sometimes reveals the moral condition of a whole nation. And Israel was evidently not prepared to receive openly and fully the sign of God's presence among them, nor, until they should have passed through long and painful discipline, any further signal manifestation of his favour.

IV. REINSTATED IN RESPECTFUL BUT IMPERFECT HONOUR (verse 21; 1 Samuel 7:1). From Beth-shemesh it was taken (not to Shiloh, which had been rendered unworthy, and was now perhaps in ruins, but) to Kirjath-jearim (city of forests or woods, Psalms 132:6), where it was—

1. Settled among a willing people, and in the house of a devout man—Abinadab, "on the hill." "God will find out a resting-place for the ark." When one people prove themselves unworthy of it, and wish to part with it, he will provide another people of greater worth, and ready to welcome it. "It is no new thing for the ark to be in a private dwelling house."

2. Placed under special and proper guardianship. "Sanctified (consecrated) Eleazar his son to keep the ark from profane intrusion." Even in the most corrupt times there are individual instances of true piety. These are honoured of God, and for their sakes others are spared (Isaiah 1:9).

3. Disassociated from the tabernacle and its services. After the capture of the ark the desecrated tabernacle appears to have been removed from Shiloh to Nob, where we find it long afterwards (1 Samuel 21:6), attended by more than eighty priests, and subsequently to Gibeon (1Ki 3:4; 1 Chronicles 16:39; 1 Chronicles 21:29; 2Ch 1:3, 2 Chronicles 1:6, 2 Chronicles 1:7), where it finally fell into decay and perished; the ark itself remained in Kirjath-jearim about seventy years, when it was removed to the house of Obed-edom (2Sa 6:3, 2 Samuel 6:11. Gibeah = the hill), and shortly afterwards to Jerusalem, where it abode "in curtains" until deposited in the temple of Solomon. The separation was anomalous, preventive of the full observance of the prescribed order of Levitical services, and indicative of the imperfect moral relations which subsisted between the people of Israel and their Divine King.

4. Long disregarded by the nation. No public assemblies appear to have met at the place where it stood; no sacrifices to have been offered there, no festivities held, as previously at Shiloh. It is not even mentioned again until the time of David, when it was said, "We inquired not at (or for) the ark in the days of Saul" (1 Chronicles 13:3). Its neglect was permitted because its proper use was impossible until a thorough internal reformation and more complete union of the nation should be effected. "It was made evident that the nation was not yet worthy to receive the perfect fulfilment of the promise, 'I will dwell in your midst.' They endeavoured to dispose of the ark in the best possible way. It was buried, as it were, in Kirjath-jearim until the time when God would bring about its joyful resurrection" (Hengstenberg).—D.

1 Samuel 6:13. (BETH-SHEMESH.)

The ark in harvest.

It was in the time of harvest that the ark was restored to Israel. Whilst the cornfields of the Philistines were wasted by an extraordinary plague, the valley of Beth-shemesh was covered with golden grain, and the men of that city were busily occupied in gathering it in (Ruth 1:6). But at the sight of the sacred symbol they left their secular occupation, gathered around it with great joy, and spent the day in "offering burnt offerings and sacrificing sacrifices to the Lord" (1 Samuel 6:15). We may regard the harvest as representing material blessings, which are more richly bestowed at this season of the year than any other; the ark as representing spiritual blessings: "the law which came by Moses," and "the grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ;" the throne of grace, and the mercy and grace which are there obtained. And the fact just mentioned suggests a comparison between the former and the latter. Both come from the.same hand; but spiritual are superior to material blessings, inasmuch as they—


1. In the principle from which they proceed. The one class of benefits from benevolence in general; the other from benevolence in the form of mercy. "According to his mercy he saved us" (Titus 3:5).

2. In the mode by which they are communicated. The operation of the laws of nature (Genesis 8:22; Jeremiah 5:21); the gift and sacrifice of his only begotten Son. "Through Jesus Christ."

3. In the nearness with which the great Benefactor comes to us. "Thou visitest the earth" (Psalms 65:9); but "blessed is the man whom thou choosest and causest to approach unto thee" (Psalms 65:4), in that closer fellowship which those who are reconciled in Christ enjoy, and whose hearts are the temple of thine abode, the habitation of thy Spirit. "Revelation is the voluntary approximation of the infinite Being to the ways and thoughts of finite humanity; and until this step has been taken by Almighty grace, how should man have a warrant for loving him with all his mind, and heart, and strength?" (A.H. Hallam).


1. The one pertains to the body, the other to the soul.

2. The one to man considered simply as a creature, needing support; the other as a sinner, needing forgiveness, renewal, salvation.

3. The one pertains to time, the other to eternity; "bread that perisheth," "bread that endureth to everlasting life" (John 6:27, John 6:51); "that good part which cannot be taken away" (Luke 10:42).

III. PRODUCE MORE EXALTED JOY. "Rejoiced." "The joy in harvest" (Isaiah 9:3).

1. In its relation to God. The one is felt less and the other more directly in him. The difference is very much the same as that which exists between the joy felt at receiving a present from a friend at a distance, and that of seeing his face and holding personal intercourse with him. And what are all the harvests which the earth ever produced compared with one smile of the Father's countenance, one whisper of Divine love? (Psalms 4:6, Psalms 4:7).

2. In its influence on the heart; elevating, purifying, enlarging, strengthening, satisfying it.

3. In its power over circumstances. The joy of our harvest may be speedily turned into sorrow by bereavement (verse 19) and other afflictions; but the joy which is felt in God is independent of outward circumstances, lifts the soul above them (Habakkuk 3:17, Habakkuk 3:18), lives in death, and is perfected in heavenly bliss.


1. With respect to the Giver. His bestowment of "fruitful seasons, filling our heart with food and gladness," incites to some return to him (Exodus 23:14-17); but his bestowment of mercy and grace, to the "whole burnt offering" of the man himself (Romans 12:1).

2. With respect to our fellow men. The one incites to the giving of "those things which are necessary for the body" (Exodus 23:11); the other incites (and effectually constrains) to the giving of what is good for the whole man, body and soul; to self-sacrifice, and the "peace offerings" of brotherly kindness, and of charity toward all men.

3. The whole course of life; not in one or two acts merely, but in a continued service of love to be completed in eternity.


1. If God has bestowed upon you temporal good, rejoice not in it so much as in spiritual.

2. If he has withheld it, rejoice in the higher good which is yours.

3. "Seek first the kingdom of God," etc. (Matthew 6:33).—D.


1 Samuel 6:19, 1 Samuel 6:20


I. THE OFFENCE. The Philistines are not blamed for sending away the ark of God on a wooden car. They did not know, or, if they knew, they had no means of observing, the mode of carriage by Levites which had been prescribed in the Mosaic law. In placing the ark on a new car never before used, and drawn by young cows that had never before worn a yoke, the Philistines meant to show respect. But the men of Beth-shemesh, being Israelites, and having Levites among them, knew, or ought to have known, the laws regarding the sacred ark. So they were more severely judged. Their familiar handling of the ark was a presumptuous sin. Irreverence had grown during the years of misgovernment and license through which Israel had passed. It is evident that before the people would have dared to send for the ark to Shiloh, and take it into the field of battle, they must have lost much of the veneration with which their fathers had regarded the symbol of Jehovah's presence. And now the men of Beth-shemesh actually presumed to look into the ark, perhaps to ascertain whether the Philistines had put any gold into it, besides the golden offerings which they had placed in a separate coffer. So doing, they forgot, or wilfully broke, the law which allowed none of the people at large so much as to approach the ark, and required that the priests should cover it with a veil, before the Kohathites might carry it; and in carrying it those Levites might not lay their hands upon it, but were commanded to bear it on gilt staves passing through golden rings in the four corners of the sacred chest. Indeed the Kohathites, though thus honoured as the bearers of the ark, were forbidden not only to touch it, but even to go into the most holy place to see it covered under pain of death.

II. THE PENALTY. The Lord saw it needful to restore reverence for his law and for the ark of his testimony by striking a blow at presumption which would not be soon forgotten. Accordingly, seventy of the country people at Beth-shemesh were smitten with death. On the same ground, a few years later, was Uzzah the Levite stricken dead because he put his hand on the ark of God. What a warning against irreverence! For this cause men may die close to the ark of the covenant, perish beside the mercy seat. Nay, that which is the greatest blessing may be turned by presumption into the greatest disaster. The savour of life may be turned into a savour of death. It is especially a warning to those who "name the name of the Lord." The ignorant and profane are judged, but not so strictly as those who "profess and call themselves Christians;" just as the Philistines were afflicted with boils, but the Israelites were visited with death. God is much displeased with listless minds, irreverent postures, and heedless spirits in his Church. No doubt it may be pleaded that such faults come of want of thought, and not of any evil intent; but want of thought is itself a very grave offence in such a matter as the service of God. Even levity is inexcusable; for, at all events in adult persons, it comes of hardness of heart, ingratitude to Christ, neglect of reflection on sacred themes and objects, engrossment of thought and affection with the things which are seen, and an indifference to the presence and purpose of the Holy Spirit. Let us study reverence. "God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the holy ones, and to be had in reverence of all that are round about him."—F.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 6". The Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/1-samuel-6.html. 1897.
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