1 Samuel 6 COMMENTARY (Pulpit)

1 Samuel 6
Pulpit Commentary
And the ark of the LORD was in the country of the Philistines seven months.
Verses 1, 2. - The ark of Jehovah was in the country - literally, the field, i.e. the territory - of the Philistines seven months, during which long time the people wherever the ark was deposited were afflicted in their persons with a most painful malady. The princes determined, therefore, to restore it to Israel, and convened the priests and the diviners, that they might advise them as to the manner in which this purpose should be best carried out, lest some error or want of due reverence might only serve to increase their sufferings. It would be the duty of the priests to see that the proper ceremonial was observed in moving the ark, while the diviners would decide what day and hour and special method would be lucky. The importance of the diviner, qosem, is shown by his being mentioned in Isaiah 3:2 in an enumeration of the leading orders in the state. He is placed there between the prophet and the elder or senator; but the A.V., displeased perhaps at finding one who practised a forbidden art nevertheless described as practically so valued, translates the word prudent. Literally it means a divider or partitioner, because it was his office to separate things into the two classes of lucky and unlucky. Tell us wherewith, etc, Though this translation is tenable, the right rendering is probably how. The princes did not assume that gifts must accompany the ark, but inquired generally as to the best method of restoring it. So the answer of the priests and diviners is not merely that expiatory offerings are to be made, but that the ark is to be sent back in such a way as to give proof that Jehovah had intervened, or the contrary (vers. 7, 8, 9).
And the Philistines 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 his place.
And they said, 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.
Verses 3, 4. - A trespass offering. The offering that was to be made when the offence had been unintentional (Leviticus 5:15). Why his hand is not removed from you. A euphemism for "why your punishment continues to be so severe, without sign of abatement." If healing follows the gift, you will know that the malady was Jehovah's doing. The trespass offering was to consist of five golden emerods, and five golden mice, it being an old heathen custom, still constantly practised abroad, of presenting to the deity tokens representing the deliverance wrought for such as had implored his aid. Thus Horace ('Carm.,' 1:5) speaks of the custom of hanging up in the temple of Neptune the clothes in which a man had escaped from shipwreck. Slaves when manumitted offered their chains to the Lares; and the idea is so natural that we cannot wonder at its prevalence. One plague was on you all. Rather, "is on you all." It did not cease until the ark had been restored. The Hebrew has on them all; but as all the versions and several MSS. read you all, the substitution of them is probably the mistake of some transcriber.
Then said they, What shall be the trespass offering which we shall return to him? 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.
Verse 5. - Mice that mar the land. The idea of a plague of field mice is, as we have seen, due to one of those many unauthorised insertions of the Septuagint by which they supposed that they removed difficulties from the way of their readers. As the ancients use the names of animals in a very generic way, any rodent may be meant from the jerboa downwards; but probably it was the common field mouse, arvicola arvensis, still common in Syria, which multiplies with great rapidity, and is very destructive to the crops, and so became the symbol of devastation and pestilence (see on ch. 5:6). When, as Herodotus relates (Book 2:141), the Assyrian army of Sennacherib had been defeated, because a vast multitude of field mice had overrun his camp and gnawed asunder the bow strings of his troops, the Egyptians raised a statue to Hephaestus, holding in his hand a mouse. But very probably this is but the literal explanation by Herodotus of what he saw, while to a well instructed Egyptian it represented their god of healing, holding in his hand the mouse, as the symbol either of the devastation which he had averted, or of the pestilence with which he had smitten the Assyrian army (see on 1 Samuel 5:6).
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?
Verse 6. - Wherefore do you harden your hearts, as the Egyptians and Pharaoh? On this reference to Egypt see on 1 Samuel 4:8. It is remarkable that they so correctly point out that it was the obduracy of the Egyptians which made their punishment so severe. Yet finally even they, in spite of their determined opposition were compelled to let Israel go. So now the question is whether the Philistines will restore the ark on the warning of one plague, or whether they will hold out till they have been smitten with ten.
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:
Verse 7. - Make a new cart, and take, etc. The Hebrew is, "Now take and make you a new cart, and two milch kine." The transposition of the A.V. throws undue stress upon the verb make, whereas the Hebrew simply means that both the cart was to be new, and the heifers untrained and unbroken to the yoke. Both these were marks of reverence. Nothing was to be employed in God's service which had been previously used for baser purposes (comp. Mark 11:2). No animal was deemed fit for sacrifice which had laboured in the field. The separation of the kine from their calves was for the purpose of demonstrating whether the plague after all was supernatural, and it is remarkable what great care the Philistine priests take against confounding the extraordinary with the Divine. If, however, the kine act in a manner contrary to nature, their last doubt will be removed.
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.
Verse 8. - Put the jewels of gold... in a coffer. Instead of jewels the Hebrew word signifies any article of workmanship, and so figures, images wrought in gold. They were to be placed reverentially at the side of the ark, for it had wrought them so great evil that they had learned to look upon it with awe.
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.
Verse 9. - His own coast, or "border." The ark throughout this verse is spoken of as if it were itself a deity. Beth-shemesh - i.e. "the house of the sun," also called Irshemesh, "city of the sun" (Joshua 19:41) - had evidently been in the time of the Canaanites the seat of this popular idolatry. It was now a city of the priests, situated in the tribe of Judah, on its northeastern border, next the tribe of Dan, and was the nearest Israelite town to Ekron. If, then, the kine, albeit unused to the yoke, left their calves behind, and drew the cart by the most direct route unto the land of Judah, they would give the required proof that the Philistines were smitten by the hand of Jehovah, and that it was no chance that had happened unto them.
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.
Verse 12. - The kine took the straight way. The Hebrew brings out the directness with which the heifers took the route to Beth-shemesh very forcibly. It says, "And the kine went straight in the way upon the way to Beth-shemesh; they went along one highway, lowing as they went," i.e. they went in one direct course, without deviating from it. Nevertheless, their continual lowing showed the great stress that was laid upon their nature in being thus compelled to separate themselves from their calves. And the lords of the Philistines went after them. I.e. behind them, leaving the kine free to go where they chose. The usual position of the driver of an ox cart in the East is in front. Conder ('Tent Work,' 1:274) describes the view up the great corn valley of Sorek to the high and rugged hills above as extremely picturesque, and this it is, he adds, which was spread before the eyes of the five lords of the Philistines as they followed the lowing oxen which bore the ark on the "straight way" from Ekron to Beth-shemesh. The ruins of the latter place, he says, lie on a knoll surrounded by olive trees, near the junction of the valley of Sorek with the great gorge which bounded Judah on the north. THE ARK AT BETH-SHEMESH (vers. 15-20).
And they of Bethshemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley: and they lifted up their eyes, and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it.
Verse 13. And they of Beth-shemesh. More exactly, "And Beth-shemesh was reaping its wheat harvest," the whole population being in the fields. Though a priestly city, we find in ver. 15 the Levites distinguished from the ordinary inhabitants, as though they and the priests formed only the ruling class. In the valley. Now called the Wady Surar, branching off into another valley on the south. Robinson ('Later Bibl. Res.,' 153) speaks of the site of Beth-shemesh as a very noble one, being "a low plateau at the junction of two fine plains." The wheat harvest takes place in Palestine in May, and consequently the disastrous battle of Eben-ezer must have been fought in the previous October.
And the cart came into the field of Joshua, a Bethshemite, and stood there, where there was a great stone: and they clave the wood of the cart, and offered the kine a burnt offering unto the LORD.
Verse 14. - Stood there, where there was a great stone. Probably a mass of natural rock rising through the soil. This they used as an altar, breaking up the cart for wood, and sacrificing the kine. In this joyful work all the people seem to have joined, though the sacrifice would be offered only by the priests.
And the Levites took down the ark of the LORD, and the coffer that was with it, wherein the jewels of gold were, and put them on the great stone: and the men of Bethshemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices the same day unto the LORD.
Verse 15. - The Levites took down the ark. Naturally, in a city of which priests formed the ruling caste, the people would be acquainted with the general nature of the regulations of the law. Apparently it was only after the sacrificial feast that they forgot the reverence due to the symbol of Jehovah's presence among them.
And when the five lords of the Philistines had seen it, they returned to Ekron the same day.
Verse 16. - They returned to Ekron the same day. The lords of the Philistines would of course take no part in this rejoicing, but, having seen the ark restored, and the people busied in making preparations for the sacrifice, returned immediately home.
And these are the golden emerods which the Philistines returned for a trespass offering unto the LORD; for Ashdod one, for Gaza one, for Askelon one, for Gath one, for Ekron one;
Verses 17, 18. - The golden emerods. We have here and in ver. 18 an enumeration of the gifts differing from, without being at variance with, that in ver. 4. They are still five golden emerods, for which the name here is not ophalim, but tehorim, the word always read in the synagogue (see 1 Samuel 5:6). From its use in the cognate languages it is pretty certain that it is rightly translated in our version. But besides these there were golden mice, according to the number of all the cities, etc. The priests had named only five mice, one for each of the lords of the Philistines; but the eagerness of the people outran their suggestion, and not only the fenced towns, but even the unwalled villages sent their offering, lest they should still be chastised. Country villages. Literally, "the village" or "hamlet of the Perazi." The Septuagint, a trustworthy authority in such matters, makes the Perazi the same as the Perizzite. Both words really signify "the inhabitant of the lowland," i.e. of the plain country of Phoenicia; but from Zechariah 2:4, where Perazoth is translated "towns without walls," and from Ezekiel 38:11, where it is rendered "unwalled villages," we may conclude that it had come popularly to mean an open village, though literally, in both these places, it means "the hamlets of the lowland." Even unto the great stone of Abel, etc. All this part of the verse is exceedingly corrupt, and requires large interpolations to obtain from it any meaning. Both the Vulgate and the Syriac retain the unmeaning word Abel; but the Septuagint gives us what is probably the true reading: "and the great stone whereon they set the ark of Jehovah, which is in the field of Joshua the Beth-shemeshite, is a witness unto this day" (comp. Genesis 31:52; Isaiah 30:8).
And the golden mice, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both of fenced cities, and of country villages, even unto the great stone of Abel, whereon they set down the ark of the LORD: which stone remaineth unto this day in the field of Joshua, the Bethshemite.
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 threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the LORD had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.
Verse 19. - He emote the men of Beth-shemesh, etc. In this verse also the text is undoubtedly corrupt. The Septuagint ascribes the sin not to all the people, but to "the sons of Jeconiah, who were not glad when they saw the ark, and he smote them." But as this reading is not supported by the other versions we may pass it by. The numbers, however, are evidently wrong. Fifty thousand men would imply a population of 250,000 people, whereas Jerusalem itself in its palmiest days never had a population of even 70,000. There were no large cities among the Israelites, but a scattered population living upon their fields, and with a few small walled towns here and there to protect them and their cattle in any sudden emergency. Kennicott, however, has satisfactorily explained the mistake. In the old way of denoting numbers by the letters of the alphabet an ain = 70 had been mistaken for a nun with two dots = 50,000. The Syriac has 5000, that is, a nun with one dot. We must add that the Hebrew is not fifty thousand and threescore and ten men, but "seventy men, fifty thousand men," without any article between, and with the smaller number first, contrary to Hebrew rule. The occasion of the calamity was probably as follows: - As the news of the return of the ark spread from mouth to mouth, the people flocked together to take part in the sacrifice. which would of course be followed by a feast. Heated thereat by wine, perhaps, and merriment, they lost all sense of reverence, and encouraged one another to look into the ark and examine its contents, though the words need not absolutely mean more than that "they looked at the ark." Even so the men of Beth-shemesh, as a city of priests, must have known that death was the penalty of unhallowed gazing at holy things (Numbers 4:20), and it is more than probable that those who were smitten were priests, because in them it would be a heinous sin; for it was a repetition of that contempt for religion and its symbols which had been condemned so sternly in Eli's sons. The mere seeing of the ark was no sin, and had given the people only joy (ver. 13), but as soon as they had received it the priests ought to have covered it with a vail (Numbers 4:5). To leave it without a vail was neglectful, to pry into it was sacrilege. Because Jehovah had smitten many of the people, etc. This clause should be translated, "because Jehovah had smitten the people with a great smiting." The sudden death even of seventy men in an agricultural district, especially if they were the heads of the priestly families there, would be a great and terrible calamity, enough to fill the whole place with grief.
And the men of Bethshemesh said, Who is able to stand before this holy LORD God? and to whom shall he go up from us?
Verses 20, 21. - Who is able, etc. Literally, "Who is able to stand before Jehovah, this holy God?" A punishment so severe following upon their unhallowed temerity made the inhabitants of this city of priests eager to pass the ark on to others. They therefore sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kirjath-jearim to request them to fetch it away. Kiryath-yarim - for so it ought to be pronounced - means the city of forests - Woodtown, softened among us into Wooton. It was chosen apparently simply because it was the nearest town of any importance, and was therefore identified in early Christian times with the modern Kuriet-el-'anab, grapetown, the woods having given way to vines, and which is about ten miles off, on the road to Mizpah. Conder, however, doubts the correctness of this view, and places Kirjath-jearim at Soba (see 'Tent Work,' 1:18 22).

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.
Courtesy of Open Bible