The Ark's Return from Philistia

This article was written by Rev. Bernard Woudenberg in the October 15, 1965 issue of the Standard Bearer.

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And the men did so; and took two milch kine, and tied them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home: And they laid the ark of the LORD upon the cart, and the coffer with the mice of gold and the images of their emerods, And the kine took the straight way to the way of Bethshemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left; and the lords of the Philistines went after them unto the border of Bethshemesh. 1 Samuel 6:10-12

For seven months the ark of Israel's God had been in the land of the Philistines, and there was no longer any question with the Philistines that he was not under their power but that they were under his. The God of Israel had smitten them with the pestilence much in the same way he had smitten the Egyptians many years before. Everyone was covered with boils, open, sore and draining; many had died. It happened wherever the ark was brought, whether Ashdod, Gath or Ekron. No one could escape it. With swift destruction the hand of the God of Israel descended upon them. No incantation could drive it away. No form of medicine was able to heal. The invasion of mice which had gone before seemed bad at the time; but this was far worse. The damage done to Dagon in his temple was now all but forgotten because of the suffering that filled the land. The people cowered in fear. 

At last the priests and diviners, the wise men of the Philistines, were called together to do something to save the nation. There was no longer any question what the trouble was. Everyone knew and took it for granted, as much as they disliked the thought. The ark of Israel's God had proved to be for them, not a great victory as they had first expected, but their curse. The only question for these learned men was, "What shall we do to the ark of the Lord? tell us wherewith we shall send it to his place." The ark of Jehovah had to be sent away. The only thing they feared was that they might not do it in the right way so that still greater judgments might descend upon them. 

For these wise men of Philistia, the answer did not seem difficult. Quickly they answered, "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." To them it was assumed an unquestionable fact that with sufficient offering anyone could be bought off, be he a god or be he a man. In fact, so sure were they of this that they considered it a way of proving whether it was actually the ark which brought this affliction to them or not, for they still cherished deep within them the hope that somehow it could be found that it was not Israel's God that was causing their troubles after all. But if it were, there could be little question that he could be bought off with an offering. 

Moreover, when the people asked, "What shall be the trespass offering which we shall return to him?" they were ready with an answer for that too. 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. Wherefore then do ye harden your hearts, as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts when he had wrought wonderfully among them, did they not let the people go, and they departed?" The temptation was just too great. With pious overtones, the Philistine priests could not resist acting as though this all was the fault of the people and not of them. They had to make it sound as though it had been evident to them all along that Israel's God was not to be tangled with. But at the same time they were quite convinced that he could be influenced and changed by the mere presentation of a little gold if it would be molded in the proper shape, the shape of the curses which were upon them. These were the kind of incantations which they practiced upon their god, and they could not think of Jehovah as being any different from these. 

But still underneath there was that nagging hope, that hope that some way could be found to show that it was not Israel's God at all. So piously but dishonestly, they continued their instructions, "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 Bethshemesh, 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." It was perfectly evident, by force of the pestilence that lay upon their land, they had to acknowledge the greatness of Israel's God. But they didn't want to. To the very last, they were looking for a way to prove that he had nothing to do with it, that everything that came upon them was merely chance. For this purpose they had devised this subtly clever plan. They knew of no stronger attachment in nature than that of a mother animal for its young. This attachment they would pit directly against Israel's God. If his ark was to be returned to its place, it would have to be by means of two fresh milk cows which would have to leave their young. It was very evidently their hope and wish that he would not be able to do it. They wanted so badly to believe that he wasn't really a god. 

But such was not to be. No sooner had they built their cart, placed the ark and their offerings upon it, and attached their milk cows to it but these cows began to go directly along the road to Bethshemesh in Israel. The purpose of God was with Israel and not with the Philistines, and to them again he sent his ark. The milk cows of the Philistines left their young behind without swerving to left or to right. The hand of the Lord directed them. There was no stopping. As the lords of the Philistines looked on, the cart with the ark upon it came to the border, passed over it, and then stopped. It had come to its destination. 

Most amazed were the men of Bethshemesh. They were busily engaged with the gathering of their wheat harvest in the field. Suddenly they looked up and saw the ark of Jehovah setting upon this new made cart. They recognized it immediately. For the last seven months in Israel, everyone had been very much aware of the fact that the ark of the covenant was in those heathen hands. It was their shame. They had often ignored it when it was with them; but once it was gone, they had been most conscious of its absence. Often these same people had gazed down this road into Philistia wondering what had become of the ark of their God. Now they knew. It had returned. Jehovah had restored the symbol of his presence to them. 

The men of Bethshemesh were overjoyed. By the place where the ark of the covenant stood there was a great rock conveniently located, and all that was needed was there. Quickly calling the Levites, they had the ark taken down off the cart. With the wood of the cart they made a fire upon the rock, and the milk cows that had pulled the cart they used for the sacrifice. There in the field of Joshua the Bethshemite, they offered a great sacrifice unto God. It was a feast of celebration and joy. The lords of the Philistines watching from their side of the border saw it. Silently, perhaps sullenly, they returned to their cities conscious as never before of the greatness of Israel's God whom they hated with all their heart. 

But all was not well in Israel as that celebration might have seemed to indicate. There was still in Israel that sin which had led them into trouble in the first place. They honored him with their lips and in visible ceremonies, but in their hearts they looked upon him little differently than the heathen looked upon their gods. The ark of the covenant was to them a kind of idol, a sort of magical charm which they could use and manipulate in whatever way they chose. This was the way in which they had used it in the battle of Ebenezer. Hophni and Phinehas had carried the ark into battle without any regard to the commands of God, thinking that its presence there was bound to be an omen for their God. God had shown them the foolishness of this through their defeat; but as yet they had not understood and repented. Now as the ark was brought back to them again, they received it with a great celebration; but with their hearts they did not understand and repent. 

The evidence of this superficial attitude which they held toward the ark of God was in that which they did at the conclusion of their celebration. Moved by curiosity, they suddenly decided that they would look into the ark to see what it really contained. They knew the commandments of the law concerning the ark. They, the common people, were not even supposed to see the ark uncovered, much less to handle it and look within it. Their knowledge of this statute was evident from the fact that they called the Levites in the first place to take the ark down from the cart which had brought it from Ekron. They observed this provision when it was convenient; but they also felt that they were quite free to ignore it. They had offered their sacrifice to God, they had given him their celebration, now he ought to be satisfied and they wanted to know what was really in the ark. Perhaps they even offered the excuse among themselves that they had to see if the Philistines had taken anything out of it. But before God this was all as nothing. He saw the hearts of the people with all of their hypocrisy and insincerity. He would not be satisfied with a mere fancy celebration. In wrath he stretched forth his hand, until 50,070 men of Israel in the territory of Bethshemesh were dead. 

Now suddenly the men of Bethshemesh knew. The God of Israel, their God, would not be satisfied to be treated lightly. He demanded the utmost in their service, even their all. But sadly they reacted little better to the judgment of God than had the Philistines. They cried out in fright, "Who is able to stand before the holy Lord God? and to whom shall he go up from us?" They were moved to fright; but not unto repentance. Their only concern was where they could send the ark, how they could get rid of it. The ways of idolatry were deeply imprinted in their hearts. They thought that they could banish Jehovah merely by sending away his ark. 

But it was an evil day in Israel, and it was actually difficult to find a place to send it. During the seven months which had passed since Eli's death, no high priest had been ordained to take his place. The tabernacle at Shiloh had been closed and was used no longer. The official worship of Jehovah was discontinued. In desperation the men of Bethshemesh sent a message to the men of Kirjathjearim saying, "The Philistines have brought again the ark of the Lord; come ye down, and fetch it up to you." And rather than see the ark further dishonored they did it. But they had no proper place to keep it either. Quietly they stored it away in the house of one Abinadab, a Levite and a priest. There it remained unrecognized and unnoticed by the people until the days of David the king. It was still in captivity because of the sins of the people.