No sooner had the Ark arrived in Gath than there occurred there, too, a new revelation of the wrath of God over the unrighteousness of the Philistines. “The hand of the Lord was against the city with a very great destruction: and he smote the men of the city, both great and small, and they had emerods in their secret parts.” So had the plague followed the Ark to Gath and broken out in that city. Still the Philistines persisted in saying that it was a chance that happened to them. This is indicated by the fact that the matter is put to a second test. The Ark of God was removed to Ekron, but over the protests of the Ekronites. They cried out, did the men of Ekron, “They have brought about the Ark of the God of Israel to us, to slay us and our people.” And “they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, Send away the Ark of the God of Israel, and let it go again to its own place, that it slay us not and our people.” And verily “there was a deadly destruction throughout all that city; the hand of the Lord was very heavy also there”. And it was the same plague. Thus in every city where the Ark of God was imprisoned, there rioted that plague, there reigned supreme death and destruction. And as to the city last smitten, its “cry went up to heaven.”
And the Philistines, in all likelihood the Philistine lords, 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 its place?” These lords are now ready to release their hold on this symbol and to admit defeat. The evidence that they were being judged and destroyed by the Lord was now too overwhelming. They resolved to send away the Ark to its place, not because they had undergone a change of heart but because they perceived that they were doomed to extinction, should they persist in fighting God. It was to save themselves from this doom, that they finally bowed their stiff necks, and conceded that Jehovah is the God. For once more they put the matter to a test. For the third time they demand of God that He prove to them that it is He by whom they were being smitten. Though rationally convinced, they continued to ask for signs. For, being depraved men, they did not want to believe, nor did they. It was in their unbelief that they asked the priests and the diviners to give counsel.
And the priests and the diviners did give counsel. The Ark, they said, must not be restored empty but with gifts. These gifts are to be a trespass offering, because the anger of the God of Israel must be appeased. “Then,” said these diviners, “ye shall be healed, and it shall be known to you why his hand is not removed from you.” The Philistine lords inquire what they should send, and received the answer: “Five golden boils and five golden mice.” The number five is expressly fixed on with reference to the five princes of the Philistines. And then these Philistine priests and diviners give utterance to a remarkable admonition. They say, “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 reproachfully among them, did they not let the people go, and they departed?”
This might be the speech of a living faith in God and of a true contrition of heart, as far as the form of the words are concerned. But actually it is not, as it proceeds, does this speech, from hearts that still are hard, hearts still untouched by the redeeming grace of God. This is evident from the remainder of the counsel. Their counsel is to the effect that a new cart and two hitherto unyoked milch cows are to carry back the Ark with the presents. The calves were to be taken along, but afterwards to be carried from the drawing cows, back into the house, that is, into the stall. “And send it away that it may go,” said the diviners, “and see if it (the Ark as drawn by the cows) goeth by the way of its own coasts to Bethshemesh, then he—the Lord—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.” So do these priests and diviners advise that the matter once more be put to a test.
This final test was truly ingenious in a sinful way. The cows that drew the Ark were not led or driven by human hands but allowed to wander where they would, and their calves were brought home from them. The Philistines thought to make it as difficult for God to prove that His hand was upon them as they knew how; for they did not want to be convinced. But the Lord in His wrath once again spoke to them. The cows took not the straight way to the way of their calves, after which their animal flesh was yearning, but as driven by the unseen hand of God they took to the straightway to the way of Bethshemesh, of the land where dwelt the people of Israel, lowing as they went—for their flesh yearned after their young—turning not aside from the right or to the left. What astonishing new evidence that the plagues came from God! And the Philistine lords saw; for they followed the Ark as drawn by the cows even to the borders of the Israelite territory, hoping against hope that the cows would stray from that straightway in search of their young. This, to be sure, would have been the normal thing for these animals to do. But they kept steadfastly to the way that led to Bethshemesh. And the Philistine lords returned to their country and continued to make war against the people of Israel, thus indicating that even with this new evidence of God in their hearts they persisted in saying, to their own ultimate destruction, that it was a chance that had happened to them, that is, that the plagues came not from the Lord. The obstinacy of the Philistines (of man apart from Christ) is truly amazing. It has but one possible solution. The Lord sovereignly hardened their hearts. To end with this obstinacy in the Philistines is to be utterly unable to account for it. Yet, even as hardened by the Lord, the Philistines set free the Ark, and thereby confessed, that they were in the grip of the Almighty, as to their heart, and mind, and will, and whole being; thus confessed, with the plagues of God laid upon their heart, that God is God and none else. And through their expiatory sacrifices of golden mice and emerods, they also confessed that they were sinful and that God was righteous, yet not as truly humbling themselves under God’s mighty hand, but as moved by a carnal fear. As is evident from verse nine, these diviners meant not to present the Philistines’ being smitten by the hand of God as a fact but as a possibility. And therefore it was advisable to do everything to appease the wrath of God. The plagues might have come from Him. And the case of the Egyptians was referred to in order to strengthen the exhortation. The Ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months, chapter 6:1. The seven months was a time of uninterrupted plagues.