1 When the ark of the Lord had been in Philistine territory seven months, 2 the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we should send it back to its place.” 3 They answered, “If you return the ark of the god of Israel, do not send it back to him without a gift; by all means send a guilt offering to him. Then you will be healed, and you will know why his hand has not been lifted from you.” 4 The Philistines asked, “What guilt offering should we send to him?” They replied, “Five gold tumors and five gold rats, according to the number of the Philistine rulers, because the same plague has struck both you and your rulers. 5 Make models of the tumors and of the rats that are destroying the country, and give glory to Israel’s god. Perhaps he will lift his hand from you and your gods and your land. 6 Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When Israel’s god dealt harshly with them, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way? 7 “Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. 8 Take the ark of the Lord and put it on the cart, and in a chest beside it put the gold objects you are sending back to him as a guilt offering. Send it on its way, 9 but keep watching it. If it goes up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then the Lord has brought this great disaster on us. But if it does not, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us but that it happened to us by chance.” 10 So they did this. They took two such cows and hitched them to the cart and penned up their calves. 11 They placed the ark of the Lord on the cart and along with it the chest containing the gold rats and the models of the tumors. 12 Then the cows went straight up toward Beth Shemesh, keeping on the road and lowing all the way; they did not turn to the right or to the left. The rulers of the Philistines followed them as far as the border of Beth Shemesh.
(1 Samuel 6:1-12)
Today we read of the Philistines’ plan to return the ark to Israel. The plan consisted of building a new cart and hitching up to it two cows that have recently calved (given birth) and have never been yoked. Their calves were to be taken away and penned up.
The ark of the Lord was to be put on the cart with a chest beside it containing the gold objects (the tumors and rats) the Philistines were sending back to God as a guilt offering.
The Philistines knew they were guilty of stealing something that did not belong to them. They also knew they were guilty of not returning the ark sooner – after God had let them know many times, through their tumors and rat infestation, that they needed to return it.
The point of this plan was simple. These cows would pull the cart with the ark on it. There would be no human driving the cart or leading them. If they went to Beth Shemesh, the closest Israeli town to Ekron, then the Philistines would know that the Lord of Israel had brought the tumors and rats upon them.
These cows had never worn a yoke before – they were milking cows – and they didn’t know how to pull a cart while wearing one. Animals have to be trained to wear a yoke – a yoke can’t simply be placed on them with the expectation that the animal will be able to handle it. Farmers train their animals to wear yokes by hitching an experienced animal – one which has worn a yoke – with an inexperienced one. In this way the inexperienced animal learns how to be yoked to another and to do its job.
Also, these cows had recently given birth and would have been very attached to their babies. They would not be naturally inclined to go in the opposite direction from their children. Their maternal instincts would want to lead them back to them.
If all this seems rather convoluted, it is. There was really no reason to go through all these complications. As we’ll see tomorrow, the reason that the Philistines went to all this trouble is because they really didn’t want to give the ark back to Israel.
The Philistines’ plan would essentially “force” God to perform a miracle to demonstrate that it was really He who was the cause of all their recent problems. Interestingly, God performs the exact miracle this plan was meant to bring about as the cows went straight to Beth Shemesh [1 Samuel 6:12].
God commands us not to put Him to the test. Jesus told us this Himself when He said “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” [Luke 4:12]. Yet God accedes to the Philistine’s plan. Some may claim that the Philistines were able to manipulate God. But this isn’t really true because, as we’ll learn tomorrow, the Philistines were actually hoping that the cows would not take the ark to Israel.
God was not being controlled here. God is sovereign. He is not bridled by any man or angel. He chooses His own actions for Himself. And while He does have rules, He is willing to suspend them when those who violate them do so out of ignorance.
For example, God commanded that the ark only be transported by poles set in rings on the side of the ark [Exodus 25:14-15]. The ark was never to be transported on a cart. But the Philistines didn’t know this. So God did not punish them.
God is not unreasonable. He doesn’t hold people who are ignorant of His law accountable to that law. The Philistines didn’t know any better so God cut them some slack. As we’ll see in a few days, the Israelites mishandle the ark themselves upon its return and God does hold them accountable because they – being Jews who had been taught God’s law – should have known better.
Those who are outside of God’s family cannot be expected to know His rules. For that reason God will not hold them to the same standard He holds His own children to. This makes sense. Parents expect their own children to obey their rules and if they don’t, they’ll pay the consequences. Parents don’t hold their neighbors’ kids to the same standard because they aren’t part of their family and don’t know their rules.
Some may wonder then, why do people who don’t know God end up in hell for all eternity? How can those who claim not to know God be held accountable? The answer is simple. We are all created, by God, with a knowledge of Him. While we may not know all of His commands, we all do know that He exists. There is no one who doesn’t believe in God.
But, we need to remember that we are not condemned by God because of our unbelief. We are condemned because of our sin. No one ends up in hell because of unbelief. We end up there because of sin.
And all of us are sinners. And all of us know it.
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