Israel hits rock bottom: Judgement on the Levites of Beth-shemesh. 1 Samuel 6:12-7:2

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 6:12-7:2

This morning we come to the fourth of the four ark stories in 1 Samuel. It’s been a little while so let’s remember together:

  • In the first, the ark was taken to the battle of Aphek, thinking that God would help them against the Philistines if the ark was there, even if they didn’t deal with their sin and unfaithfulness.
  • In the second, the ark was captured and the high priestly family of Eli was judged; he and his two sons died.
  • In the third, the ark wreaked havoc on the Philistines and their gods, as Yahweh took matters into his own hands and defeated the Philistines. They begged for it to leave because of the plagues on them.
ark-travels
The journey of the ark of the covenant

Today, we have the story of how the ark came back to Israel.

Remember from last time the Philistine test. They were sure that their plagues were from Yahweh, but just to be doubly sure they said – if the cart with the ark on it went straight to Beth-shemesh, that would be a sign for them.

And they stacked the deck against this happening by having no one lead the cart, by picking two milk cows that had never carried a cart before, and by locking up their calves in the barn so that the cows would have to overcome their instincts not to go to them, but to Beth-shemesh in Israel.

And then our story begins . . .

The ark returns to Israel

12And the cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went. They turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh.

Yahweh takes control of the situation and leads the cows to the right city – even though the cows were lowing for their calves. Now the Philistines know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Yahweh was the one who judged and defeated them, since the Philistine lords are sneaking around to see what  would happen, and saw this.

A cause for celebration

13Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it. 14The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there. A great stone was there.

This harvest would have been in May or June. And this is why so many people are out in the fields to see this cart with two cows and the ark on it. Can you imagine? The ark of God pulling up next to your field with no one leading it?

And they gave thanks and gave offerings to God.

And they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15And the Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the box that was beside it, in which were the golden figures, and set them upon the great stone. And the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices on that day to the Lord.

And then the humorous scene of the Philistine lords sneaking around Beth-shemesh comes to an end.

16And when the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron. 17These are the golden tumors that the Philistines returned as a guilt offering to the Lord: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron, 18and the golden mice, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and unwalled villages.

V. 18 goes on . . .

The great stone beside which they set down the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.

The stone is a witness to these amazing events, of how God single-handedly defeated the Philistines and brought the ark back to Israel.

But then disaster strikes. 

 19And he (the Lord) struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon/into the ark of the Lord. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the Lord had struck the people with a great blow.

If before they rejoiced about the ark, now they mourn.

According to Numbers 4:15, 20 no one was to touch the ark, and only priests were allowed to look at it. Here it appears that some of the men of Beth-shemesh were looking it over or even looked into it, which would have involved touching it. And so they are judged for failing to obey the Law of Moses.

Now, this might seem harsh but consider this. This was a Levitical town, that is, a place where Levites lived (Joshua 21:16; 1 Chronicles 6:54-59).And not only that, they were from the clan of the Kohathites, which was in charge of transporting the ark and the other holy things of the tabernacle (Numbers 4:4). And they were specifically instructed that the priests must cover the ark, and “after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die” – Numbers 4:15.

So they knew, or certainly should have known that what they were doing was very wrong (For a similar incident see 2 Samuel 6:6-9) (The LXX or Greek Old Testament has an alternative explanation for the judgment. It says, “the descendants of Jeconiah did not rejoice with the people of Beth-shemesh when they greeted the ark of the Lord, and he killed seventy men of them.”) (70, and not 50,070 seems to have been the original number in the text.)

20Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?”

Instead of acknowledging their wrong, they blame God, as if God is arbitrary. And then they are like, ‘how do we get rid of this thing?’ And so they look for a new town for the ark.

21So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the Lord. Come down and take it up to you.” 7:1And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the Lord.

As we saw, Kiriath-jearim is 9 miles north of Beth-shemesh. The ark was put in a house, not out in open view. It appears that Eleazar was a priest (it was a common priestly name; 2 Samuel 6:3-4 and 1 Chronicles 13:7-11 portray his brothers as priests), so he could rightly care for the ark.

Then the story ends.

2From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.

Things were just really bad for Israel.

  • Despite God’s punishment of the Philistines, militarily and politically they were still dominating Israel and causing great suffering.
  • There was not a functioning high priestly family to lead the people.
  • The tabernacle at Shiloh was destroyed and things were in disarray.
  • And now the Levites of Beth-shemesh, who were the ones who should have known how to care for the ark are judged. Even when God gave them something to rejoice about, they are so disconnected from God that they also offed God, just as the Philistines had done, and were judged.

And so now the ark is in Kiriath-jearim, with Israel afraid of it and it has been there for twenty years and nothing is changing. And this is where they hit rock bottom. They can’t take it anymore. Something has to change.

And so finally it says, “all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.” They knew what could be from their history as a people when God blessed them. But they saw where they were and they mourned. This is what Paul calls godly sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10).

They moved from blaming God, ‘you didn’t help us at Aphek, you judged us at Beth-shemesh’ to taking responsibility for their sin and unfaithfulness. And this is what we will see in the next story, the whole nation repents and begins to follow the Lord under Samuel’s guidance.

Here’s a question –

Why?

Why as individuals or even as a congregation, do we so often have to hit bottom to come to our senses? Why does it have to get so bad before we make the difficult choices that need to be made to set things right? So that we submit to God and walk in his ways? Why are we so stubborn, or as Scripture sometimes calls it, “stiff necked”?

And finally an exhortation –

Act!

 If this is where you are, or where you are headed (you don’t actually have to hit rock bottom) act! Right now! Act to make things right!

Set aside your sin and unfaithfulness and come back to a right relationship with God and serve him with your whole heart. Stop blaming God or others or life circumstances, and take responsibility for your own choices and repent.

The futility of lucky charm religion. 1 Samuel 4:1b-10

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 4:1b-10

This morning we are back into our series on 1 Samuel. And today we begin a sequence of four stories that focus on the ark of the covenant, and which don’t even mention Samuel. These stories show Israel’s sad state at this time and God’s judgment on their unfaithfulness. And they also tell how Israel came to a place of repentance that sets up the narration of Samuel’s ministry in chapter 7 and beyond.

Our story today is about a battle between Israel and the Philistines, starting in the last half of v. 1 of chapter 4.

Israel is defeated

1bNow Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle.

The Philistines were settled along the coast in five key cities. They were the archenemies of Israel at this time and were dominating them militarily (some of the Israelites were forced into servitude – 4:9). The battle took place in Aphek about 20 miles north of Philistine territory and about 20 miles west of Shiloh (where the tabernacle/temple was). Israel was encamped at Ebenezer, probably just East of Aphek. Israel suffered a great loss.

3And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?”

When ancient peoples fought, as they saw it, it really involved a fight between the God or gods of the two nations. And so if you lost it meant that your god was defeated, or perhaps it would be interpreted that your god was unhappy with you. And this was certainly the case for Israel’s God, Yahweh – the only true God. The Lord God is all powerful, so he must have allowed this, as the Elders surmised.

So the Elders of Israel come up with a plan.

“Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

(One is justified in wondering why the Elders didn’t consult Samuel.) The ark of the covenant looked something like this.

ark of the covenantIt was approximately 4x2x2 in size and covered in gold. (Exodus 25:10-22). On the top were two cherubim; angel-like creatures. It served as the visible throne of Israel’s invisible God. He sat, as it were, above the cherubim. As v. 4 says, the Lord, “who is enthroned on the cherubim.” (Also, Jeremiah 316-17; Isaiah 37:16; Psalm 99:1-3) In other places it is also called God’s footstool, which is also throne language (1 Chronicles 28:2; Psalm 99:5; 132:7).

Now it wasn’t necessarily wrong to bring the ark. The ark was used in battle, for instance when Israel defeated the city of Jericho (Joshua 6). And the title for God here, “Lord of hosts,” refers to God as the leader of his armies, both human and angelic.

The problem is that the diagnosis of their defeat is too shallow. In truth God allowed them to be defeated because of their unfaithfulness – which is highlighted here by the mention of “the sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas.” As we have already seen these two sons of Eli the high priest were publicly known, flagrant sinners. And Eli did not stop them from being priests while they broke God’s law.

The proper course of action would have been to seek the Lord and to repent of their sins, thus restoring God’s blessing to their lives. But they didn’t think the problem was with them. They just thought that if the ark came, God would come and help them. As v. 4 says,  “that it (the ark) may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”

The story goes on,

5As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded (or shook).

Israel has new morale and boldness, because they think that God is now with them. [The shout here and the movement of the earth echoes the story of Jericho – Joshua 6:6-21].

6And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?”

You can feel their concern rising. And they must have sent some people to check out what was going on, because next it says,

And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness.

Here their fears are on open displayThey don’t quite get the details right – they talk about Israel’s gods and think the plagues took place in the wilderness, but they have heard of how Yahweh’s power struck the Egyptians. And now here is the visible presence of Yahweh, his throne, in the Israelite camp, which must have been quite unusual for the Israelites to do, at least with the Philistines, since they say, “nothing like this has happened before” – v. 7.

They can only say, “Woe to us, woe to us.” This is certainly what the Elders of Israel had wanted, to put fear into their enemies. But then something suddenly changes, because they don’t stay afraid.

9Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”

After having said “Woe to us” twice, here they rally and call each other to “be men” twice. Instead of giving up, they decide that they need to fight harder than they ever have to overcome such a powerful foe, so that they don’t become the slaves of the Israelites.

And then the story ends,

10So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell.

Even though they brought the ark, the Israelites suffered a much worse defeat, more than seven times the losses.

Israel’s problem

The title today is “The futility of lucky charm religion” A lucky charm is something that you think has power to protect you and give you success. In Israel’s time of difficulty – a military defeat – instead of coming to God and repenting and moving into faithfulness, they treated the ark of the covenant as a lucky charm; as an object that would bring God’s power to protect them and give them success. Instead of right relationship with God, they went with a mere object that represents God to bring them the help they needed.

I say “The futility of lucky charm religion,” because we see the results of this – their defeat was increased over seven-fold. 

This just isn’t how a relationship with God works. God and the things of God are not magical. God can’t be manipulated by us. It is God who is important above all else, including the ark that represents him. And right relationship with God is important above all else – and not other things that represent God to us.

Well, there is –

A challenge for us

– in this story. Sometimes we act just like these ancient Israelites. We are not walking in right relationship with God; we are unfaithful to God. And when God disciplines us with hard times for this – instead of dealing with the real issue – our unfaithfulness (hey, the problem can’t be with me!), we look to things that are connected to God and think that these will guarantee that God will take care of us.

  • Perhaps coming to church is a lucky charm for some. You are walking sin, but think, “If I go to church I believe God will take care of me.” Well, going to church is great. But it can’t take the place of repentance and walking in a right relationship with God.
  • Perhaps it’s calling yourself a Christian. You are unfaithful to God, maybe you don’t even have a relationship with God, but you think, “If I identify as a Christian God will take care of me.” Identifying as a Christian is wonderful. But it can’t take the place of having a right relationship with God. Calling yourself a Christian is not a substitute for actually being a real, faithful Christian.
  • Maybe it’s wearing a cross or having a cross or a crucifix on your wall. There is nothing wrong with this. But jewelry or artwork that represents God will not save you in the day of trouble. Only being in a right relationship with God can do this.
  • Maybe it’s your connection to a godly person. You know that you are not walking with God, but if you know someone or have a family member who is godly you think, “God will take care of me too.”

None of these things are wrong, just as it wasn’t wrong to bring the ark. They are wrong only when we make them substitutes for dealing with the core issue of our sin and unfaithfulness. And given our undealt with unfaithfulness, we turn these things into lucky charms which can’t protect us and take care of us.

No, God is patiently waiting for you to turn from your unfaithfulness and come into a right relationship with him through confession of you sins, repentance and finding forgiveness. And then God will make his power and love known to help you and take care of you.

[This is also the message of Jeremiah in chapter 7 to a later generation of Israelites, who thought that God would not judge their sin because they had the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. Jeremiah refers back to this episode in 1 Samuel. That’s because, as we will see next time, the tabernacle/temple at Shiloh was destroyed, even as the ark was captured by the Philistines. God brings judgment, not salvation when we turn his things into lucky charms.]