So had the Lord driven the kine by which the Ark was being drawn in the straight way to the way of Bethshemesh. And they of Bethshemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley, when they lifted up their eyes and saw the Ark and they rejoiced to see it. The cart came into the field of Joshua, a Bethshemeshite. Here by a great stone the animals were stopped not by human hands but by the Lord Himself. The Bethshemeshites bestirred themselves. Coming forward, the Levites took down the Ark of the Lord, and the coffer that was with it, and put the jewels of gold, contained therein, on the great stone. The Bethshemeshites clave the wood of the cart, and offered the kine a burnt offering unto the Lord. More burnt offerings were offered and sacrifices sacrificed the same day unto the Lord. But the joy of the men of Bethshemesh was suddenly turned to mourning, when the Lord smote of their number 50,070 people, chapter 6:19.
(Some interpreters have great difficulty with the text at verse 19, “And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the Ark of the .Lord, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and three score and ten men. . . These interpreters cannot see why the clause “and he smote” is repeated, and why the text has “the people” again after the “men of Bethshemesh”. Lut certainly the reason is obvious. These repetitions are necessary for a correct understanding of the text, the first section of which sets forth the reason of the divine visitation (they looked at the Ark of God), while the second indicates the number that were slain. Further, assuming that the text is here defective, these interpreters adopt the reading of the Septuagent, “And the children of Jeconiah among the Bethshemeshites were not glad that they saw the Ark, and he smote them,” namely, these sons only, whose number is given as 70. But this is a sheer interpolation. Nothing is said in the context about the race of Jeconiah. Finally, the reading 50,070 is held to be corrupt on the ground that the words “fifty thousand men” are wanting in Josephus and in some Hebrew MSS. So these words are eliminated from the text and the words “three score and ten” retained and made to apply to the sons of Jeconiah, who suddenly died, it is said, because they rejoiced not with their brethren, when they saw the Ark, thus died because of their unsympathizing and therefore unholy bearing toward this symbol of God’s presence among His people.
But certainly the words “fifty thousand men” must be retained. The statement that the Lord smote this number of men agrees with the notice that “the people lamented because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter. The correctness of the statement is also born out by the action of the terrified Bethshemeshites, according to which they had the Ark removed out of their midst and conveyed to Kirjathjearim. This terror and the action it inspired must remain unexplained, if the Lord smote only seventy persons and smote them because they rejoiced not when they saw the Ark. For the Bethshemeshites on a whole did rejoice. Why then should the death of the seventy have caused them to fear for their lives? To eliminate from the text the words “fifty thousand men” is to reduce the entire passage—the verses 19-21—to a collection of meaningless statements).
The Lord then slew 50,070 of the Bethshemeshites. Why did He do that? The reason given is that they looked into or at the Ark. The Hebrew preposition allows either of these readings. But the reading “and they looked at the Ark” is doubtless the correct one. It is favored by the context. With so many of their number dead, the men of Bethshemesh in their terror asked, “Who is able to stand before the Lord? and to whom shall he go up from us?” The scope of the revelation of divine wrath in their midst amazed them, which would be hard to explain on the ground that they had actually been guilty of removing the mercy seat—the Ark’s lid—and peering into the Ark. Had this been their offence they would have been too aware that the death that stalked among them was just retribution for them to be surprised. Besides, their saying, “Who is able to stand before the Holy God” indicates that in their minds they had offended by approaching the Ark and thus by entering the Lord’s presence to offer offerings on the great stone; that, in a word, the Lord was angry with them because in large numbers they had crowded about the Ark, fixed their gaze upon it, and rejoiced in its presence. But they could know from their law that they had done a thing forbidden on pain of death. The fundamental passage to which we must go back is Numbers 4:20, “but they—the common Levites—shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered, lest they die.” During the period of Israel’s wanderings, when the camp set out, the priests only went into the tabernacle and covered the Ark of God and the other furniture of the sanctuary. This task had to be performed by the priests as unassisted by the common Levites. No one but they might look at the uncovered Ark, much less touch it. When the camp set out, it was hidden from view by its covering. The ground of this prohibition to touch and to look at the Ark lies in the opposition that exists between man, guilty and by reason thereof impure and depraved and the righteous and holy God. Only the justified and the pure of heart in Christ can see God, dwell with Him and not be consumed but live.
But of this the people of Israel and in particular the Bethshemeshites were unmindful. They were doing evil in the Lord’s sight. They had forsaken Him, Who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt, followed other gods, of the gods of the people, that surrounded them, provoking the Lord to anger. And the Lord’s anger was kindled and He delivered them into the hand of their adversaries so that they could no longer stand before their enemies, and they were greatly distressed. Besides the incursions of the enemy, there was the internal strife by which the nation was being torn. Chaos reigned supreme. Every man was doing that which was right in his own eyes. Such was the state of affairs during all the period of the judges. The Lord had over and over scourged Israel through the agency of the adversary and as often delivered them out of the hand of those that spoiled them. And yet they would not hearken. The days of the judges were evil days. And the night that had settled on the nation was never darker than when this period was drawing to a close. Lawlessness and idolatry abounded. The nation was being oppressed by the Philistines. The sacrifices at the sanctuary were being corrupted by wicked priests; and the Lord was silent; and the faithful in Israel were troubled. Then the Lord raised up Samuel, and there were again visions breaking through and spread abroad. Israel again had a prophet, and his word came to all Israel, and the Lord let none of his words fall to the ground, so that all Israel knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet unto the Lord. And though their hearts were far from God, the apostate nation was reassured, and concluded that their salvation was nigh. And though they repented not, their expectation ran that high, that they even had dared to risk a war with the Philistines. But the Lord smote them before their enemies. And because He “greatly abhorred Israel” on account of their high places and graven images, “He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh and delivered His strength into captivity and His glory into the enemy’s hand.” But the Lord delivered His Ark. He stretched out his hand and smote the Philistines with His wonders and after that they sent away the Ark to his place and thereby confessed that Israel’s God is the Lord. And when the Bethshemeshites saw the Ark, they rejoiced to see it. Yet they had reason to hide themselves in the dens and the rocks of their mountains; for the Lord was again among them—the Lord, who is a consuming fire—and they had not put away the strange gods from among them and prepared their hearts unto the Lord to serve Him only. In a word, they had not repented. True, they did offer burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices that same day unto the Lord. But to what purpose was their sacrifice, if they repented not. It was a worship without a soul, dead formalism, iniquity. They must put away the evil of their doings from before the Lord’s eyes and realize that obedience is better than sacrifices. But the Bethshemeshites, like all the people of Israel at that time, were without spiritual discernment; for they were carnal. And in their carnality they again imagined that the Lord was for them in their sins. Had not His hand been heavy on the Philistines? And was not the Ark again in their midst? And so these sinful and impenitent men, as vainly imagining that they could stand in their sins before the face of Holy God and live, rushed into the presence of His throne—the Ark—and made merry. Their behavior was an insult to God. It bespoke an esteem of the Lord as low and contemptible as that of the Philistines. Such reviling of God’s name could not go unpunished, even though in this case the revilers were Israelites. For God is no respecter of persons. So the Lord smote “many of the people with a great slaughter/’ Fifty thousand and seventy of their number—men of Bethshemesh—were overthrown.
The men of Bethshemesh were afraid. If previously they had rejoiced at sighting the Ark, now the presence of this symbol in their midst filled them with a great dread. “And the men of Bethshemesh said, who is able to stand before this holy Lord God?”Who? “He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart . . .” he shall abide in God’s tabernacle and dwell in His holy hill.. But of this the men of Bethshemesh—and not only these men but likewise the people of Israel in general—were willingly ignorant. So, instead of putting away Baalim and Ashtaroth and serving the Lord only, thus instead of forsaking their abominations and prostrating themselves before the Lord in true contrition of heart, they cry, “Who is able to stand before the Lord,” as if they did not know. And rather than repent of their sins and exhort their people—the people of Israel—to do likewise, in order that they might be able to stand before this holy Lord God, they resolved to rid themselves of the Ark. For they also said, “and to whom shall he go up from us?” And they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kirjathjearim, saying, The Philistines have brought again the Ark of the Lord; come ye down and fetch it up to you.” They refrained from revealing the judgment by which they had been overtaken in connection with the Ark, and their reason for not wishing to keep it. That the men of Kirjathjearim, as a result of receiving in their midst the Ark of God, might be visited by a like catastrophe, seemed not to trouble the Bethshemeshites. They were bent solely upon self-preservation; and this they sought not in the way of repentance but in the way of ridding themselves of God.
The men of Kirjathjearim came and carried the Ark into the house of Abinadab in the hill, and sanctified Eleazer his son to keep watch and guard over the Ark, the purpose being to render it inaccessible to the multitude in order to prevent a reoccurrence of the catastrophe that had struck in Bethshemesh in connection with the Ark.
Though the Ark of God was again with Israel, the night that had settled upon the nation continued. Firstly, the Ark was not carried back to the holiest place of the tabernacle in Shiloh but stationed in the house of Abinadab and there rendered inaccessible even to the high priest. This was a real calamity for every God-fearing Israelite. For the Ark was Jehovah’s throne and, as sprinkled with the blood of the atonement, the seat of divine mercy. It was thus the outstanding symbol of the covenant and the chief instrument of its working. But the Ark was now in Kirjathjearim. The believers would go to the tabernacle—God’s house—but without finding God there; and the high priest could make no covering for the accumulative sins of the nation on the great day of atonement. For Jehovah was not there in the Holiest place to smell the sweet savor of the priest’s sacrifice and to bless by the mouth of the priest the worshipping multitude without. The Lord had withdrawn from His people; He was holding them at arm’s length, so to speak, hiding from them His face. The whole worship in connection with the Ark was not; and it was not during the entire judgment of Samuel; for the people of Israel must learn that obedience is better than sacrifice. Secondly, the oppression of the Philistine domination continued uninterrupted. For though the Philistines had brought back the Ark, they had ceased not to persecute God’s people. Indeed it is expressly implied in verse 9 of (chapter 7) that their dominion had continued.
The loss of that worship, God’s hiding His face from His people, and the weight of Philistine rule was the cause of much sighing and lamenting among the faithful in Israel. But the nation failed to put away the strange gods from among them, and prepare their hearts to the Lord to serve Him only. Seeing their tears and hearing their groaning—“all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord” (verse 2)—Samuel “spake unto all the house of Israel, saying, if ye are returning unto the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you and prepare your hearts unto the Lord and serve him only: and he will deliver you out of the hands of the Philistines.” The children of Israel did so. Gathering them all to Mizpeh, Samuel prayed for them unto the Lord. And they “drew water, and poured it out before the Lord, and fasted on that day, and said there, We have sinned against the Lord.” This public confession of sin by the whole nation took place some twenty years after the resting of the Ark in the house of Abinadab. A new day had dawned for the nation.