1 Samuel 4:1b-6:21
The Folly of False Worship

Copyright © 2016, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter.  All rights reserved.
www.biblicaltheology.com   Scripture quotes from KJV


There is little doubt that members of the Christian faith understand and support the practice of worshipping the LORD.  Since the biblical narrative does not provide a single formula or model for worship, different faith groups worship the LORD in many different ways.  How we worship is not as important as the necessity that we actually do participate in the worship of the LORD who we love.  Worship is not a spectator sport, but a sincere and personal veneration of the LORD, the creator of the universe, who has reached down through time and space to touch your heart and provide you with a means of forgiveness simply because He loves you, and desires you to respond to His grace in faith.

However, an honest introspection of our worship will likely reveal that Christians actually put very little effort into worship, replacing a personal veneration with corporate attendance at a meeting where one watches a program take place.  When people miss the opportunity for true worship, they leave the experience unchanged and no closer to the LORD.

By the time that Eli’s sons, Phineas and Hophni were responsible for Temple administration, the worship of the LORD had been lost.  Faith had been entirely replaced by religion, a system of rites and rules that the Israelites believed appropriated for themselves some form of righteousness.  This is not unlike modern religion that serves the same purpose: devoid of true faith in God its adherents believe that they find some form of righteousness through their religious activity.

However, God is not mocked by the behavior of those who replace Him with their own plan.[1]  There are consequences that result from rebellion against God’s instruction, and Israel would experience the devastating consequences that would result from the sin of Eli and his sons.

Samuel 4:1b – 2.  Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Ebenezer: and the Philistines pitched in Aphek. 2And the Philistines put themselves in array against Israel: and when they joined battle, Israel was smitten before the Philistines: and they slew of the army in the field about four thousand men.

Devoid of dependence upon the LORD, the nation of Israel, characterized as a somewhat loose federation of the tribes of Israel, had become fully engaged in the intrigue of the pagan world within which they were immersed.  Rather than conquer the Promised Land as they were commanded by God, they chose to conquer only that which they needed to gain independence, and literally moved into the pagan communities in the region, taking on their belief systems and much of their culture.  A large part of that culture included the frequent fighting between tribal groups.  One of the most persistent powers in the region were the Philistines, maritime immigrants from Greece who were skilled in the fabrication of iron instruments, including weapons.

By rejecting God, the Israelites stepped out from under His “hand of protection,” exposing themselves to the intrigue nations.  Their immediate southwestern border with the aggressive Philistines would become a continual example of their replacing God with their own agenda, and God’s judgment that would come upon them would be significant.  Far better prepared for warfare, the Philistines were a formidable enemy, one that Israel would have been wise to leave alone.  Led by the sons of Eli, Israel engaged the Philistines in a border battle between the Philistine village of Aphek, and the Israelite village of Ebenezer.  Again, separated from God’s protective hand the Israelite army went up against a prepared army and suffered great losses.

The Israelite response was instructive.  Aware of their history, the appropriated for themselves what they thought was the ultimate battle weapon.

GOD WILL NOT BE USED

1 Samuel 4:3.  And when the people were come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, Wherefore hath the LORD smitten us to day before the Philistines? Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies.

The Israelites remembered that in previous generations, the Ark of the Covenant was brought with them into battle as a symbol of God’s presence with them.  However, the difference was that in those early days, the people called upon the LORD for help, and by depending upon Him, they found deliverance.

These Israelites entirely missed the point.  They thought that the Ark of the Covenant was little more than a talisman, a magic tool to be used to guarantee victory.[2]  We might recall that Samuel was sleeping next to the Ark when He was called by the LORD.  The Ark had lost its holiness to the people.  They had long forgotten the rules that God had placed upon the handling and use of the Ark, rules that were intended to maintain its holiness among the people.

1 Samuel 4:4.  So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from thence the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, which dwelleth between the cherubims: and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

Both the Israelites and the Philistines knew something of the history of the Ark, though in both communities their remembrance was vague and inaccurate.  Israel thought that the Ark would assure their victory as they thought it had done in the past, not realizing that their behavior only reinforced their sin.  Eli and his sons should have known of the holiness of the Ark, but did not.  They were responsible to the nation (and before God) for the care and preservation of the Ark, yet they were eager to show their power and prowess by bringing the Ark into the engagement with the Philistine army.

1 Samuel 4:5.  And when the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again.

The response of the Hebrews was reasonable.  They had just lost a great number of their own in battle with the Philistines.  There were wives, children, family members, and friends who were grieving their losses.  Upon seeing the Ark the people were incited to great joy, ignorantly thinking that by bringing the Ark, Hophni and Phineas had brought the LORD with them to battle.  They now thought themselves to be invincible, for certainly, no person can destroy God.[3]

1 Samuel 4:6-8.  And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, What meaneth the noise of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews? And they understood that the ark of the LORD was come into the camp. 7And the Philistines were afraid, for they said, God is come into the camp. And they said, Woe unto us! for there hath not been such a thing heretofore. 8Woe unto us! who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty Gods? these are the Gods that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness. 9Be strong, and quit yourselves like men, O ye Philistines, that ye be not servants unto the Hebrews, as they have been to you: quit yourselves like men, and fight.

It is believed that the distance between the camps of the Philistines and Israel was about two miles.  The shouts of the Hebrews was loud enough to carry the distance over the desert, certainly attracting the attention of the Philistines.  Upon investigation, they found that the Ark of the Covenant had been brought into the camp, and their similar ignorance of the true nature of the Ark caused them no little fear.  They were reminded of how, every time the Ark was brought into battle, the Israelites won an overwhelming and miraculous victory.

The reference to the LORD as “their gods” is instructive as it demonstrates their lack of understanding of the nature of God.  Their world view held to a pantheon of hundreds of gods, deities that served to explain virtually every event of nature that they did not have an explanation for.  For example, thinking that a god of rain brings rain, they would hold that their rain god was real when rains came.  However, none of the gods in their pantheon had ever stepped in and destroyed their enemies, so their fear of this one of “Israel’s many gods” was real. 

Their belief in an Israelite pantheon illustrates the true nature of the nation:  Israel did follow a pantheon as it left the LORD to follow the mythical gods of the Canaanites.  The testimony of the church today can be observed by others in a similar fashion when its spiritual integrity is compromised by worldly living. 

1 Samuel 4:9.  Be strong, and quit yourselves like men, O ye Philistines, that ye be not servants unto the Hebrews, as they have been to you: quit yourselves like men, and fight.

The presence of the Ark only served to embolden the Philistine army.  Rather than serve as a guarantee of their victory over the Philistines, the presence of the Ark will have had exactly the opposite of their expected response.  Not only did its presence not include the protective hand of the LORD, it strengthened the resolve of the Philistines.

1 Samuel 4:10-11.  And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen. 11And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.

The battle that ensued was rather one-sided.  The grammar reveals that the fighting was done by the Philistines while the Israelites expected to simply witness the destruction of their enemies.  When they were completely overrun by the Philistine army those who remained ran in retreat, leaving behind the Ark of the Covenant.  It is not surprising that those responsible for its security, the sons of Eli, would perish in the battle.  The consequences of the sin of the Elidan dynasty was being realized at the Ark was abandoned on the battlefield.

1 Samuel 4:12-13, 18.  And there ran a man of Benjamin out of the army, and came to Shiloh the same day with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head. 13And when he came, lo, Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching: for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city, and told it, all the city cried out. … 18And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck brake, and he died: for he was an old man, and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years.

The loss of the Ark of the Covenant came with no little shock to the city of Shiloh.  This was truly a seminal moment for Israel, as they had just witnessed what they could simply not believe – the Philistines possessed the Ark that was supposed to be defended by God, Himself.  However, by this time they were holding to the animistic religions of the Canaanites, giving power to physical objects.  They thought it was the Ark that had the power.  The Ark was simply a box that contained sacred objects.  The Israelites would learn that the LORD is not in the Ark, nor is He in their religion.

When Eli heard the news of the loss of the Ark to the Philistines he literally swooned, fell backward off of his chair, broke his neck, and died.  The idea behind the word that is rendered “chair” is that of a throne of one’s own making.  There is a symbolism behind his falling from the throne as this would be the event that would remove all the authority that was held by he and his family.

The narrative notes that he was old, and “heavy,” a term that is not as much a reference to his physical weight as it is to the great burden he was carrying.  Though he was supposed to be responsible for the nation, he lost this position to the child, Samuel who was now exercising the spiritual leadership over Israel.  He was supposed to be responsible for the security of the Ark, but he allowed his sons to take it without any of the prayer, precautions, or handling requirements to a place of their own choosing, something that had never been done before.  To this point, the movements of the Ark had been made in response to leadership from the LORD.  Finally, the Elidan dynasty was now extinct with the loss of his two sons.  He knew his demise was complete, and a fulfillment of the prophecy that was given to him earlier by both the LORD and the child, Samuel.  It is little wonder that he simply collapsed. 

1 Samuel 4:19-21.  And his daughter in law, Phinehas’ wife, was with child, near to be delivered: and when she heard the tidings that the ark of God was taken, and that her father in law and her husband were dead, she bowed herself and travailed; for her pains came upon her. 20And about the time of her death the women that stood by her said unto her, Fear not; for thou hast born a son. But she answered not, neither did she regard it. 21And she named the child Ichabod, saying, The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father in law and her husband.

The LORD had set down very specific instructions on the handling of the Ark of the Covenant, established with the purpose of maintaining in Israel an understanding of the holiness of God.  However, over the years interest in the Law had become little more than historical tales passed down through the generations.  Faith in God was rare, and knowledge of the Torah was rarer.  Israel had abandoned the worship of an Awesome God, for a traditional man-made religion that wandered so far from the Truth that even the priests in charge of the Temple did not regard the Ark with respect, ultimately attempting to use it on their own as a military weapon. 

Has the church today, like the Israelites, replaced faith with religion?  Is the LORD truly present in and pleased with our worship?  Or, has our Christianity become a religion of rules, rites, and practices that have taken upon themselves some form of power?  The Israelites thought that the power of God was in the Ark, and people today can come to believe that the power of God is in their church building or in their religious practices.  When these things take on such power, they become idols that turn us away from the truth of God’s Word and serve, not to enhance our worship experience, but rather to replace it, leaving behind a powerless experience that may give us a warm-fuzzy feeling, but lacks the power of the Holy Spirit to truly move us.

Compromising the holiness of God will have consequences, and the Philistines are about to learn of these.

GOD WILL NOT BE MOCKED

1 Samuel 5:1-2.  And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it from Ebenezer unto Ashdod. 2When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon.

To the Israelites, the Ark became a magical weapon of war, intended to destroy their enemies.  To the Philistines the Ark was a trophy.  Their defeat of the Israelites and their possession of the Ark represented for them a defeat of this Israelite God.  They brought the Ark to Ashdod, one of the major cities in Philistia, and placed it in a temple that was dedicated to their mythical god, Dagon.  Though the attributions given to ancient near-eastern Gods was not well-defined, changing over time and their supposed character varied widely between different people groups, Dagon at this time was the Philistine champion of war.  By bringing the Ark to their temple was to add this Israelite God to their pantheon.  The placement of the Ark at the feet of Dagon also served to insult the Israelite God, placing him under the authority of their own god who they believe defeated Israel’s god in battle. 

1 Samuel 5:3.  And when they of Ashdod arose early on the morrow, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the LORD. And they took Dagon, and set him in his place again.

The image to Dagon was a tall sculpture, traditionally held to have been carved from a large slab of black stone.  When the men of Ashdod entered the temple in the morning they were mortified to find their god, Dagon, prostrate on the floor in a position of submission to the Ark, quite the opposite of their intention of posting the Ark as a servant of Dagon.  The phrase “fallen upon his face,” is a statement of reverent submission.  Their response was simply to set the statue back up into its place.  There is actually little indication that the Philistines recognized the position of Dagon as one of submission, though this is clearly the state of the statue and is the point of the narrative.

1 Samuel 5:4.  And when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left to him.

In both of the instances of the Philistines entering their temple, they did so “early on the morrow” which is a reference to the Israelite hour in the morning when first prayers were to be held.[4]  Had they thought that the prostrate Dagon was a random occurrence on the first morning, it was quite evident that, by the second morning that this was no random act.  On this morning, not only was their image again prostrate on the floor in front of the Ark, its head and hands were “cut off,” a phrase that refers to the specific form of brutal military execution.[5]  There is also a similarity to the death of Eli that took place as a result of a broken neck following a fall.

1 Samuel 5:5.  Therefore neither the priests of Dagon, nor any that come into Dagon’s house, tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod unto this day.

Since the mythical gods were, indeed, products of their own imagination, they both did not exist, and therefore had no power.  Though they attributed to their gods many things they did not understand, there was never an occasion where a god actually did anything.  The Philistines were now witnessing something that is tangible and physical, denoting the literal humiliation of their god by the God of Israel.  They had witnessed something “spiritually” significant, making this section of the Temple a place of consecration.  Without any explanation as to their reasoning, denoting the lack of necessity for doing so, the writer simply moves us to the resulting tradition to avoid stepping on the threshold as one enters the throne-room.  The threshold represents the entrance to this place, and by treating the threshold as holy, they were recognizing this place is holy.[6]  Since the prohibition of treading on the threshold was instituted following the humiliation of Dagon, it is clear that the Philistines recognized that this God of Israel has power, and it was natural for them to consider the location where this duel took place to be a special holy place to be revered.

1 Samuel 6:6.  But the hand of the LORD was heavy upon them of Ashdod, and he destroyed them, and smote them with emerods, even Ashdod and the coasts thereof.

The rules that the LORD had set down concerning the reverent treatment of the Ark had been grievously broken.  Though used by the LORD as a judgment against the apostasy of Israel, the Philistines were still responsible for their actions:  the killing of many thousands of Israelites, and their desecration of the Ark of the Covenant.  They had already expressed their, though incomplete, knowledge of the power of the Israelite God to bring plagues upon the enemies of Israel,[7] and were not surprised when a plague broke out in and around Ashdod. 

There has been no little interest in determining the nature of the plague that was experienced by the Philistines.  The similarity of the sound of “emerods” to the English word “hemorrhoids” has led some to connect the latter with the former, but this is actually not an appropriate means for biblical interpretation.  The context will reveal an attachment of the plague with rats, and by this time there had been several breakouts of bubonic plague, a rat-borne disease, that was not uncommon to the maritime cultures.  For this reason, and the baubles (Old-English “poseys”) that would be later described, there is better evidence that they were suffering from the plague.

1 Samuel 5:7.  And when the men of Ashdod saw that it was so, they said, The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us: for his hand is sore upon us, and upon Dagon our god.

Again, remembering the plagues suffered by the Egyptians when they stood against the God of Israel, the Philistines recognized that they were suffering because of their desecration of Israel’s God.  They quickly realized that they needed to rid themselves of the Ark that had destroyed their statue to Dagon and was now sickening and killing their people.

1 Samuel 5:8.  They sent therefore and gathered all the lords of the Philistines unto them, and said, What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel? And they answered, Let the ark of the God of Israel be carried about unto Gath. And they carried the ark of the God of Israel about thither.

Still unwilling to release the Ark of the Covenant from their own control, the Philistine leadership decided to move the Ark to another of the five major cities of Philistia, Gath.  Unlike Ashdod, Gath was home to several Israelite enclaves, so it was logical that God would not bring the plagues upon the people of Gath.

The scripture denotes, they “carried the Ark” to Gath.  Ignorant of God’s rules concerning the Ark, their logic was badly flawed.  Disregarding the true holiness of the Ark, they moved it without the LORD’s command to do so, and they moved it in a means that was contrary to God’s instruction.  Furthermore, their thought that bringing Israel’s God closer to His “homeland” would change things was flawed.  The ancients held that gods were territorial, and Israel’s God would be placated by bringing Him closer to home.

Still unwilling to surrender control of the Ark, they sent it on to Ekron with similar disastrous results.  The death spread dramatically with the men dying without evidence of the plague.[8]

1 Samuel 6:1-2.  And the ark of the LORD was in the country of the Philistines seven months. 2And 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.

Finally, after seven months of plague,[9] the Philistines finally determined that the only way that they were to rid themselves of the sickness and death was to return the Ark to the Israelites.  The Philistines had a long history with the Israelites, and were somewhat familiar with their practices, but not intimately so.  They called for their pagan priests for advice on how to return the Ark.

1 Samuel 6:3-6.  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. 4Then 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. 5Wherefore 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.  6Wherefore 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?

Two reasons to return the Ark are given by their diviners: (1) so that they would be healed of the plagues that they are experiencing, and (2) that by so doing they would know for certain that their possession of the Ark is directly related to those plagues.  There is no indication in this text that their priests understood the plague to be a judgment against them, but they did understand that some form of guilt offering would be required.[10]  They also understood that their situation was not dissimilar to that experienced by the Pharaoh and Egypt prior to the Exodus of Israel. 

From that point, their strategy took on a pagan traditional direction that was entirely ignorant of God’s instructions for the Ark.  Rather than approach the Israelites, offer to return the Ark, and seek instructions on how to properly do so, they chose to simply take the Ark to them and accompany it with a “trespass offering” using their own religious practices.

The nature of the offering is instructive.  First, they fashioned five golden “emerods,” images of the sores that the plague produced, and five golden “rats.”  The number five was selected to represent each of the five Philistine city states, Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron.   The images of their rat god[11] represent the authority behind the plague, and served to represent the authority of the kings of their city states.

Unaware of the necessity of a blood sacrifice, they substituted for it their pagan practice of creating golden images, quite the opposite of God’s instructions against the creation of objects of worship.  Their creation of golden images of the tumors caused by the plague was consistent with a pagan practice that was common in their “houses of healing” where people would bring images of their illnesses or the ailing body parts and put them on display.  Then when others would see a similar malady and find healing, they would attribute it to the idol and the house of healing.  The use of golden images of their rat god demonstrates their understanding of the direct influence that rats had on the plague.  Since it was well-known that rats were often present with the plague, they understood that there was a significant connection between them, though ignorant of the nature of that connection.  In typical pagan religious practice, they would fashion golden rats and worship them with the hope that the rats will relent.

2 Samuel 6:7-9.  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: 8And 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. 9And 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.

Again, demonstrating their ignorance, the priests gave instruction to make a “new cart,” giving it a form of holiness in that it had never been used for anything else.  Though their intentions may have been logically reasonable, the carrying of the Ark on a cart was forbidden by the Law.[12]  The Ark was to be affixed with poles that were lifted and carried by Levites.

The priests then devised a plan to put God to the test.  They yoked two untrained milking cows and separated them from their calves.  Believing that the Israelite God would desire that the Ark be returned, they held that their God would cause the cows to leave their calves and pull the cart without any other guidance along the road to Bech Shemesh, an Israelite village a couple of miles away.  They held that if the Israelite God would do this, they would know that the plague was caused by the vengeance of their neighboring God.  However, if the cows failed to do so, they would believe that their sickness was a random event and had nothing to do with the Ark.

2 Samuel 6:10-13.  And the men did so; and took two milch kine, and tied them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home: 11And they laid the ark of the LORD upon the cart, and the coffer with the mice of gold and the images of their emerods. 12And 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. 13And 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.

Though the Philistines thought they were honoring the LORD with their practices, they were, in fact, treating the Ark of the LORD in a detestable fashion.  They had little understanding of what the LORD requires, and did nothing to increase that understanding.  Instead, they simply inserted their own religious practices into their behavior and by so doing brought no glory to God and no benefit to themselves. 

Now that the Ark is back into Israelite territory the Philistines who followed the Ark to Beth Shemesh turned back and returned to Philistine.  With the Ark safely “home,” we would expect that the Israelites would respond to this miracle by praising God, and treating the Ark in the manner that the LORD intends.  However their treatment of the Ark was not that much different from that of the Philistines. 

The first response of the Israelites is their rejoice upon seeing the Ark.  Beth Shemesh was a Levitical city.  Unbeknownst to the Philistines, this would be the appropriate place to return the Ark.  The Levites would know exactly how to treat the Ark upon its arrival.  However, they immediately began to desecrate the Ark.  Seeing the Ark, their very first task should have been to cover it.  Nobody other than Levites were permitted to see the Ark.[13]  However, there is no indication that they made any effort to treat the Ark with appointed reverence. 

1 Samuel 6:14.  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.

The prescriptions of burnt offerings are quite well defined in the Mosaic Law.  Though their act may sound religious, the Law prescribes that only male animals be used for the burnt sacrifice.[14]  If this Levitical village contained even a single Levite who was familiar with the Law of Moses, this would not have happened.

1 Samuel 6:15.  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.

Again, in an attempt to do the religious thing, they had taken the Ark of the LORD and set it up on a rock, alongside the golden images, for all to see.  In doing so they were treating it with an egregious disrespect that modeled the behavior of the Philistines.  First, they touched the Ark.  There is no reference to moving it with poles to avoid touching it.  Second, they put it on the rock for all to see.  We might note that the LORDs of the Philistines were still with them.  Also, the set it alongside the golden idols that they had accepted from the Philistines.  The day continued with the Israelites continuing festivities that they shared with the lords of the Philistines, festivities that included burnt offerings to the LORD through the presence of the Ark and to the golden idols.  After sharing the festivities with the Israelites, the lords of the Philistines returned to Ekron.[15]

1 Samuel 6:19-21.  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. 20And the men of Bethshemesh said, Who is able to stand before this holy LORD God? and to whom shall he go up from us? 21And 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.

The disrespect that the Israelites demonstrated toward the Ark of the Covenant led to the immediate deaths of those who handled and looked upon the Ark.  The older Hebrew manuscripts record the number 50,070 (as illustrated in the KJV), where due to historical redaction most modern manuscripts record that only 70 died, (for example, NIV).   However, the words “great slaughter,” tend to defend the earlier record, one that is doubted only because it is unlikely that there were 50 thousand people in the village of Beth Shemesh.

This passage records the experience of the Israelites and the Philistines as each interacted with the Ark of the Covenant of God.  The three chapters of 1 Samuel can be organized into three events:  the taking of the Ark into battle by the Israelites who abandoned it in battlefield, the suffering of the Philistines that resulted from their seven-month possession of the Ark, and the response of the Israelites upon the Ark’s return.  In each of the three events, the Ark of the Covenant was treated in a detestable manner, and in all three events thousands of people died.

In all three events those who were handling the Ark did so in a “religious” manner.  Both the Israelites and the Philistines adopted their own practices, assuming them to be an appropriate way to treat the Ark.

The only proper way to treat the presence of God is in sincere worship and obedience to Him.  The consequences of false worship are devastating.  The vast majority of the people of the world today will spend an eternity separated from the God who loves them simply because they have replaced the truth of the gospel with their own religious beliefs, rites, and traditions.  

Even people who have heard the gospel have designed for themselves an extreme set of rites and traditions with which to “worship” God.  Through it all, the vast population of this earth are separated from God for eternity, and the few who seek God are engaged in faith communities that fail to truly worship God as He deserves.  Most simply attend “services” and observe the activities that take place, often music, prayer, and teaching, and then leave the session unchanged.  Very little worship is taking place.

The history of 1 Samuel 4-6 can serve as a wake-up-call to all who profess faith in Christ, and re-examine the nature, context, and content of their “worship.”  Have we, like the ancients, replaced worship with our own model of “religious” behavior while denying the LORD the display of sincere love, awe, and wonder that He deserves?  The ancients received nothing from their “worship” of God, only to die in a manner that was consistent with their behavior.  Likewise, we receive nothing from false worship, and having received nothing will all die in the manner consistent with our own behavior.

Let us look past the rites and traditions of the organized church and look to the personal relationship that we have with the LORD, and work to worship Him as He is worthy to be worshipped: from our own hearts and minds, and not through the activities that someone else engages.  Worship is personal.  Worship is real.  Worship the LORD in all that you do.

 

[1] Galatians 6:7.

[2][2] Some may have viewed the movie, “Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where godless German forces attempted to obtain the Ark of the Covenant to assure their victories in battle.  Their ignorance of God’s intent towards the Ark and its use is portrayed in a manner similar to that demonstrated by the Israelites at Ebenezer. (1981, Paramount Pictures, Lucasfilm.  Directed by Steven Spielberg.)

[3] The Israelites would continue this belief even to the end of the nation, believing that Jerusalem could never be overturned because of the presence of the Temple.  Likewise, the Temple was no longer a place of worship, but rather a traditional talisman that was overrun and destroyed by the Babylonians who destroyed Jerusalem and took many of its people, including the remnant of faithful beliers in God, into a three-generation captivity.

[4] Bergen, p. 97.

[5] 2 Samuel 4:12, e.g.

[6] Exodus 3:5; Zephaniah 1:9.

[7] 1 Samuel 4:8.

[8] 1 Samuel 5:9-12.

[9] It is likely that the term “seven months” is more of a metaphor than a literal period, as the number seven is used to identify completeness. 

[10] Leviticus 5:14, ff.

[11] Apollo Sminthus was the Philistine’s god of mice and rats.

[12] Numbers 7:7-9.

[13] Numbers 4:5-6.

[14] Leviticus 1:3.

[15] 1 Samuel 6:16-18.