1 Samuel Chapter 6


1 After seven months the Philistines take counsel how to send back the ark. 10 They bring it on a new cart with an offering unto Beth-shemesh. 19 The people are smitten for looking into the ark. 21 They send to them of Kirjath-jearim to fetch it.

Verses 1,2 Now the ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months. 2 And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we should send it to its place.”

The priests and the diviners. The ark had been in the land of Philistia for seven months.

The inhabitants of the three cities, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron (see chapters 5:5–12), had suffered from a dreadful plague, and the land had been overrun with mice and the crops destroyed (verse 5).

Among ancient peoples the mouse was the symbol of pestilence, and so appears in Egyptian hieroglyphics.

In their extremity the Philistine lords turned to their wise men. These “diviners” studied natural phenomena and portents.

They inspected the entrails of sacrificial animals—the so-called “liver omens” of the Babylonians; they observed the flight of birds, the fall of talismans, the behavior of flowers, etc.

It was the responsibility of the astrologers, soothsayers, spirit mediums, and necromancers to separate everything into two classes, the lucky and the unlucky, the good and the evil, portents favorable and unfavorable.

The Lord specifically commanded His people not to practice the art of divination (Deut. 18:10–12).

Balaam, an apostate prophet of the Lord whom Balak the king of Moab had called to curse Israel, stated that there was no such thing as enchantment or divination against Israel (Num. 23:23).

But evidently Saul, influenced by the practices of surrounding peoples, and driven to desperation by the silence of divine counsel, turned to the witch of Endor for help (1 Sam. 28).

What shall we do? Among the nations of the Near East not even the king dared go on a campaign without first consulting his wise men.

Among heathen tribes today no one is more respected and feared than the medicine man. It is in perfect harmony with the customs of the time that the lords of the Philistines should counsel with the diviners as to the proper course to pursue.

Verse 3 So they said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty; but by all means return it to Him with a trespass offering. Then you will be healed, and it will be known to you why His hand is not removed from you.”

Do not send it empty. The answer of the priests and diviners was not merely that the ark be restored, but that it be returned in such a manner as to appease the offended God of Israel and to give proof that He had restrained the plague.

The first requisite was a trespass offering of five golden emerods (tumors) and five golden mice.

It was a common custom among heathen nations to attempt to appease the anger of their gods by votive gifts shaped to represent the evils from which they sought deliverance.

How different was this from the instructions given to Israel regarding trespass offerings.

If a man sinned “through ignorance, in the holy things of the Lord,” he was to bring to the priest a ram without blemish from the flock from the flock (Lev. 5:14–19).

This was in addition to making full monetary compensation for any injury done, which included not only the estimated value of the offense but also a fine of one fifth of the value of the article.

Verses 4,5 Then they said, “What is the trespass offering which we shall return to Him?” They answered, “Five golden tumors and five golden rats, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines. For the same plague was on all of you and on your lords. 5 Therefore you shall make images of your tumors and images of your rats that ravage the land, and you shall give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps He will lighten His hand from you, from your gods, and from your land.

Give glory. That is, acknowledge His power to remove these plagues, whatever their cause, and to seek healing from Him. Not all were agreed to the counsel of the priests.

Their heathen religion was one of servile, selfish fear; the Philistines were loyal to Dagon, yet afraid of the God of Israel, because of recent occurrences, and were in a quandary as to the way out of their difficulty.

They wanted to be rid of the ark, yet pride surged through their hearts because of its capture. It would be showing disrespect to Dagon to give glory to God.

Still less willing were they to give up their form of worship, as did Nebuchadnezzar centuries later, when convinced of the superior power of the Creator.

Before coming to this final conference they had tried various expedients, such as sending the ark from one town to another.

Verse 6 Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? When He did mighty things among them, did they not let the people go, that they might depart?

Harden your hearts. The soothsayers found it necessary to warn the people not to rebel against the Lord as the Egyptians had done, since continued resistance to the will of God had only brought increased suffering to themselves and others.

Though unwilling to listen at first the people were, after weeks of suffering, constrained to accept the counsel of the wise men.

Conviction thus often forces itself upon the most reluctant. As the Holy Spirit could speak through Balaam, so He could give the Philistines wise counsel even through their diviners.

God always speaks to men through ways and means understandable to them. Succeeding events proved that God dealt with the Philistines according to the light they had and not according to the light they had not (see 2 Cor. 8:12).

Verse 7 Now therefore, make a new cart, take two milk cows which have never been yoked, and hitch the cows to the cart; and take their calves home, away from them.

A new cart. Literally, the first part of v. 7 reads, “Now, take you, and make you one new cart, and two milch cattle.”

Both verbs deal with both objects. It does not mean that the Philistines were to manufacture a new cart; emphasis is on the fact that it was to be new—never yet used.

Similarly the cattle were to be untrained and unbroken to the yoke, a token of never having been put to secular use.

This was a mark of reverence. In His triumphal entry to Jerusalem, Christ sat upon a colt “whereon never man sat” (Mark 11:2).

Take their calves. By separating the calves from their mothers, the diviners hoped to determine, to the satisfaction of all concerned, whether or not the plague was brought by Jehovah.

If the God of the Israelites wanted His ark returned, He would have to make the cows do an unnatural thing—leave their calves voluntarily. God was willing to be put to the test by sincerely inquiring minds.

Verse 8 Then take the ark of the Lord and set it on the cart; and put the articles of gold which you are returning to Him as a trespass offering in a chest by its side. Then send it away, and let it go.

In a chest. The word translated “chest,” ’argaz, occurs only this once in the entire Old Testament ’Argaz is known to have been a Philistine word for the “box” of a cart.

The Philistines had neither uncovered the ark nor looked inside it (PP 589), thus showing greater respect than did the men of the priestly city of Beth-shemesh, who received it back.

How many times God must look with great concern on the lack of respect shown by nominal Christians toward sacred things.

How many times heathen people put Christians to shame by the attitude they manifest when in the presence of the supernatural!

It seems that the offerings of gold were carefully placed in some kind of purse or bag that could be securely fastened to either the staves by which the ark was carried or the shroud with which it was covered.

Verse 9 And watch: if it goes up the road to its own territory, to Beth Shemesh, then He has done us this great evil. But if not, then we shall know that it is not His hand that struck us—it happened to us by chance.”

Beth shemesh. Literally, “the house of the sun.” There were several Palestinian cities named Beth shemesh when Israel entered the land.

It is thought that one of these, belonging to Issachar (Joshua 19:22, 23), was located on the present site known as el–‘Abeidiyeh, a short distance south of the Sea of Galilee.

Another town bearing the same name belonged to the tribe of Naphtali, probably situated north west of the Sea of Galilee (see Joshua 19:38, 39; Judges 1:33).

1 Sam. 6:9 evidently refers to a third city bearing this same name, now Tell er–Rumeileh, in the inheritance of Judah (Joshua 15:10, 12), which was set aside as one of the Levitical cities of Judah (Joshua 21:13, 16; 1 Chron. 6:59).

It was in the district of the son of Dekar (1 Kings 14:11, 13; 2 Chron. 25:21–23). The fact that so many sites bore this name indicates that the Canaanites were devoted worshipers of the heavenly bodies, in this case the sun.

Similarly, Ur of the Chaldees and Haran were centers of moon worship.

Convinced of the supernatural power accompanying the ark, the Philistine diviners arranged for it to be sent to Beth-shemesh, the nearest priestly city of Israel.

They reasoned that if the cows, unused to the yoke, left their calves behind and drew the cart directly to this Levitical stronghold, then of a surety the ark, or rather, the God of the ark, was responsible for the plague that had come upon them.

Verse 12 Then the men did so; they took two milk cows and hitched them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. 11 And they set the ark of the Lord on the cart, and the chest with the gold rats and the images of their tumors. 12 Then the cows headed straight for the road to Beth Shemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and did not turn aside to the right hand or the left. And the lords of the Philistines went after them to the border of Beth Shemesh.

Headed straight. The statement reads, literally, “straight in the way upon the way to Beth-shemesh; along one highway”—the direct road from Ekron to Beth-shemesh.

Only supernatural power would keep the cattle on the main road. The Philistine lords did not drive them, but “went after them.”

The fact that the cattle had never been yoked (v. 7) is evidence that they had not been over the road before.

What more powerful appeal could be made to the worshipers of Dagon?

If, contrary to nature, dumb animals follow an unseen Guide, why should not man, abundantly blessed with the powers of intellect, be able to go contrary to natural pride and national tradition, surrendering to the guidance of Him who could also restrain the plague and the mice?

Why had not Balaam seen the angel of the Lord standing in the way as easily as did his ass? Under the hypnotic influence of the evil one, men today see only what Satan wishes them to see, little realizing that close at hand stands One ready and anxious to lose the bonds that bind them fast.

Verse 13 Now the people of Beth Shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley; and they lifted their eyes and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it.

Wheat harvest. Since wheat harvest comes in the spring of the year, between the time of Passover and the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, and since the ark had been in the possession of the Philistines for seven months, the battle during which the ark was captured occurred in the fall, about the time of the Feast of Tabernacles.

Many may thus have been at Shiloh for the feast and may have assisted in protecting Israel against the invaders. Upon the Philistine victory they would have fled to their own homes among the different tribes (see ch. 4:10).

The people of Beth-shemesh were in the fields reaping their harvest, probably with sickle and rake as in Palestine today.

There were no gardens in the town itself. The fields are separated, not by fences, but by small boundary stones or markers. One not familiar with the site could not tell where one field left off and another began.

Verse 14 Then the cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and stood there; a large stone was there. So they split the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord.

A great stone. In the field of Joshua, probably next to the highway. By the side of this stone the cows stopped. Beth-shemesh was a Levitical city, and her people had both the right and the duty to care for the ark.

As there was no tabernacle, the Levites placed the sacred ark, together with the Philistines’ trespass offering, on top of the great stone, and offered the kine as a burnt offering to the Lord.

Since Beth-shemesh is in the very heart of the Shephelah, or rolling hill country, where the highways run through the heart of the valleys, this stone probably projected from the side of the hill and could easily be approached from above, yet on the lower side be some feet above the road.

Verse 15,16 The Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the chest that was with it, in which were the articles of gold, and put them on the large stone. Then the men of Beth Shemesh offered burnt offerings and made sacrifices the same day to the Lord. 16 So when the five lords of the Philistines had seen it, they returned to Ekron the same day.

Returned to Ekron. What an anticlimax for the Philistines. They had witnessed the surrender of Dagon to the Lord in the temple at Ashdod.

They had witnessed the supernatural guidance of the cows as they sent the ark back to Judah.

They were yet to witness the restraining power of God in halting the epidemic and giving them healing. Though satisfied that they had seen strange things that day, they turned and went back to their gods and to their people.

What message was the Holy Spirit sending them?

Verses 17,18 These are the golden tumors which the Philistines returned as a trespass offering to the Lord: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron; 18 and the golden rats, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and country villages, even as far as the large stone of Abel on which they set the ark of the Lord, which stone remains to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh.

The great stone of Abel. Literally, “the great Abel upon which they caused the ark of the Lord to rest.” The words “stone of” are supplied. Most commentators are of the opinion that the word ’abel should have been ’eben, “stone.”

The word ’abel is from the verb ’abal, “to mourn,” but also means “stream,” “brook,” or “meadow.”

Aside from use in compound names of various cities, such as Abel-bethmaachah (2 Kings 15:29), Abel-maim (2 Chron. 16:4) etc., it appears but once elsewhere.

In Judges 11:33 it is translated “the plain of the vineyards,” where the Revised Standard Version translates it “Abel-keramim,” as another city name.

In the verse under consideration ’abel is not compounded with any other word, but is qualified by the adjective “great.”

Inasmuch as verses 14 and 15 refer to the great ’eben, “stone,” on which the ark was placed, and inasmuch as vs. 17 and 18 recount the memorials of this event, it seems evident that the stone in Joshua’s field is simply noted along with these other memorials.

Verse 19 Then He struck the men of Beth Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord. He struck fifty thousand and seventy men of the people, and the people lamented because the Lord had struck the people with a great slaughter.

Looked into. Both the irreverent touch of the hand and the irreverent prying of the eye were to be visited with serious results (see Num. 4:20).

Moses was denied entrance to the land of Canaan because of failure to render strict obedience to the commands of God.

Even though they were priests, Nadab and Abihu paid with their lives for their lack of reverence.

Fifty thousand and seventy. Literally, “seventy men, fifty thousand men.” In the Hebrew no conjunction “and” occurs here. Contrary to normal Hebrew syntax, the smaller number comes first.

The peculiar word sequence makes the text most difficult of translation. Some have suggested, “He smote seventy men; fifty out of a thousand,” or, “He slew seventy men out of fifty thousand men.”

Three reputable Hebrew manuscripts omit the words “fifty thousand.” In Judges 6:15 ’eleph, “thousand,” is translated “family.”

It is possible that it should be translated “family” here also. If so, the statement would read, “And he smote among the people 70 men of 50 families.”

Most commentators agree that only 70 men of Beth-shemesh were slain. Yet in a city as small as Beth-shemesh even this would be a terrible calamity.

Of course, the Philistines would hear of it, and would have one more evidence that God honored their refusal to look into the ark and their reverence for it.

Verses 20,21 And the men of Beth Shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God? And to whom shall it go up from us?” 21 So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kirjath Jearim, saying, “The Philistines have brought back the ark of the Lord; come down and take it up with you.”

Kirjath Jearim. Literally, “the city of forests.” This was one of the cities of Gibeon that sought the protection of Joshua after the destruction of Jericho (Joshua 9:17).

It was listed in the inheritance of Judah (Joshua 15:9). It is situated on the western slopes of the mountains near Jerusalem, about 9 mi. (14.4 km.) from Beth-shemesh.

The message to the city of Kirjath-jearim implies the feeling that the farther the ark was removed from the Philistines, the safer it would be.

Kirjath Jearim, higher in the mountains, could be more easily defended against attack than a city in the lower, rolling hill country.


1–21 PP 586-589; SR 188-191

1 PP 586

2 PP 588

2–4 PP 587

7–12 SR 189

7–14 PP 588

13, 14 PP 589

19 MH 436

19, 20 8T 283

19–21 PP 589

20, 21 SR 191

Updated on 21st Mar 2022

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