The glory of the LORD is a heavy burden to his enemies, but a light to bask in for the people who belong to him through Jesus.
1 Samuel 6:1-18
When the ark of the Lord had been in Philistine territory seven months, 2 the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we should send it back to its place.”
3 They answered, “If you return the ark of the god of Israel, do not send it back to him without a gift; by all means send a guilt offering to him. Then you will be healed, and you will know why his hand has not been lifted from you.”
4 The Philistines asked, “What guilt offering should we send to him?”
They replied, “Five gold tumors and five gold rats, according to the number of the Philistine rulers, because the same plague has struck both you and your rulers. 5 Make models of the tumors and of the rats that are destroying the country, and give glory to Israel’s god. Perhaps he will lift his hand from you and your gods and your land. 6 Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When Israel’s god dealt harshly with them, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way?
7 “Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. 8 Take the ark of the Lord and put it on the cart, and in a chest beside it put the gold objects you are sending back to him as a guilt offering. Send it on its way, 9 but keep watching it. If it goes up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then the Lord has brought this great disaster on us. But if it does not, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us but that it happened to us by chance.”
10 So they did this. They took two such cows and hitched them to the cart and penned up their calves. 11 They placed the ark of the Lord on the cart and along with it the chest containing the gold rats and the models of the tumors. 12 Then the cows went straight up toward Beth Shemesh, keeping on the road and lowing all the way; they did not turn to the right or to the left. The rulers of the Philistines followed them as far as the border of Beth Shemesh.
13 Now the people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley, and when they looked up and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight. 14 The cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock. The people chopped up the wood of the cart and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15 The Levites took down the ark of the Lord, together with the chest containing the gold objects, and placed them on the large rock. On that day the people of Beth Shemesh offered burnt offerings and made sacrifices to the Lord. 16 The five rulers of the Philistines saw all this and then returned that same day to Ekron.
17 These are the gold tumors the Philistines sent as a guilt offering to the Lord—one each for Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron. 18 And the number of the gold rats was according to the number of Philistine towns belonging to the five rulers—the fortified towns with their country villages. The large rock on which the Levites set the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh.
“The Ark of the Lord had been in Philistine territory seven months.”
When we read this sentence, it should feel like a punch in the guts to Israel. It’s like saying “The State of Origin shield had been held by NSW for seven consecutive seasons.” Reading this verse, we should get a sinking feeling in our stomachs on behalf of Israel.
We don’t know what these seven months have been like on the ground for Israel, but the loss of the Ark (their most tangible, sacred symbol of God’s intimate love and protection) must have brought on shame, uncertainty and fear.
But it hasn’t been all roses over in Philistine country either. For the past seven months, the Ark has been causing havoc wherever it goes. The Philistines have shunted it from town to town because nobody wants it, and they’re finally ready to give it back.
The departure of the Ark from Israel is likened to the departure of the glory of the LORD (4:21). In Hebrew, the word for ’glory’ shares the sense of the word for ‘heavy’. The ‘glory’ of the LORD is also a ‘heaviness’, and right now the Philistines are feeling the ‘weight’ of God’s mighty hand upon them. They’re desperate for it to lift.
During the seven months since they carted the Ark away from its rightful home, the Philistines have come to revere it, in a wary kind of way. They’re hesitant to just shove it back into Israelite territory, in case this further angers the LORD. So they call their priests and diviners (vs 2) and ask them how to get rid of it nicely.
Quite brilliantly, the Philistines look to Israel’s history for the answer. We know this from vs 6: ‘Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When Israel’s God dealt harshly with them, did they not send the Israelites out so that they could go on their way?’
The presence of the Ark in Philistine territory, and the way the Philistines finally send it on its way, echoes the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt and their eventual release. While Israel was enslaved in Egypt, the Egyptians suffered plagues, just as the Philistines have done during the tenure of the Ark. When Israel was finally released, they took a giant cache of gold jewellery with them; now, the Philistine priests advise that the Ark be sent back, similarly laden with gold.
Of course in this case, the gold is fashioned into the shapes of rats and tumours. Yes, this is one of the weirder stories in the Bible. The Philistine priests appear to be taking a stab in the dark with their unorthodox solution. Their best guess, based on what they’ve heard about the God of Israel, is that they can appease him by not only returning the Ark to its home, but by acknowledging the LORD as the source of the plagues and making an offering as reparation. The gold shapes tick those boxes. The Philistines are giving this weird solution a go and hoping to find out if they’re right about God and what he’s done here (3, 8).
When the cows bearing the Ark head straight for Beth Shemesh, a town of the Levites, it confirms that the watching Philistines got it right. Incidentally, the language used of the cows—‘they did not turn to the right or the left’—is repeatedly used in the Bible to describe a person who walks in the way of the LORD. But almost every person of significance in the Bible ‘turns aside’ at some point. It’s possible the narrator is using this to make the point that God’s hand was steering the cows straight, or maybe it’s a dig: even a pair of cows can walk in a straight line, but the kings of Israel can’t stay on track (as we’ll find out in the books of Samuel – spoiler).
When the Ark lands in Beth Shemesh, the Israelites appear to treat it with the respect it deserves. The Levites (i.e. the priests) take it down from the cart, and everyone prepares sacrifices and burnt offerings in front of it. For a moment, it looks like Israel understands the ‘weight’ of the glory of the LORD.
Head: Based on Israel’s history, the Philistine priests figure out the right way to treat the Ark of the Covenant and give it back to Israel, so that the unpleasant weight of God’s hand will lift from them.
Based on Israel’s history, do you think Israel is going to treat the Ark (and by extension, God himself) the right way from now on?
Heart: When you think about the ‘glory of God’, does it feel like a burden on your heart—something heavy to fear? Or does it feel like a light—something beautiful to bask in?
How does Jesus make a difference to where you stand in the face of God’s glory?
Hands: How might it change the way you pray, if God’s glory is at the centre of your prayers? How might it change the way you live, if God’s glory is at the centre of your life?
Dear Heavenly Father,
You are glorious. We can’t truly understand how perfect, awesome, terrifying and amazing you are. As sinners, we shouldn’t be able to approach you, but should rightly fear you and not be able to stand in the presence of your glory. Your hand should be heavy upon us because of our sin.
Thank-you that because of Jesus, your glory doesn’t have to be scary or too much for us to bear. Thank-you that Jesus stands beside us and brings us into your family, as beloved children who have nothing to fear. Thank-you that we can stand in your presence and bask in your glory, knowing that Jesus has lifted the burden of our sin, lightened our hearts and made it possible for us to enjoy you forever.
A song to listen to: Glory to God Forever
Kamina Wust- Creek Road Presbyterian Church- South Bank