Who Is Able to Stand (I Samuel 6:1-7)
Topic: I Samuel Passage: Genesis 6:1–7:2
Crying for a King
Our study passage this morning is I Samuel 6:1-7:2. Let’s look at that passage together.
But before we read, let me remind you about what we read last week. You may recall that last week we saw how God afflicted the Philistines after they captured the Ark of the Covenant in a battle with the Israelites. God first toppled the statue of their god, Dagon, and then he afflicted the people in three Philistine cities with tumors; some even died.
And that’s where we pick up the story this morning.
II. The Passage: "What Shall We Do with the Ark?" (6:1-7:2)
A. A Holy God among the Philistines (6:1-12)
Look with me at verses 1-9 of I Samuel 6:
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 and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us with what we shall send it to its place.” 3 They said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty, but by all means return him a guilt offering. Then you will be healed, and it will be known to you why his hand does not turn away from you.” 4 And they said, “What is the guilt offering that we shall return to him?” They answered, “Five golden tumors and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines, for the same plague was on all of you and on your lords. 5 So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel. Perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land. 6 Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had dealt severely with them, did they not send the people away, and they departed? 7 Now then, take and prepare a new cart and two milk cows on which there has never come a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them. 8 And take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart and put in a box at its side the figures of gold, which you are returning to him as a guilt offering. Then send it off and let it go its way 9 and watch. If it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth-shemesh, then it is he who has done us this great harm, but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by coincidence.”
As we saw at the end of chapter 5 last week, the hard-headed Philistines now know that they cannot keep the Ark as a war trophy. Their suffering is bringing them to their senses. They know they have to get rid of this thing.
But they also recognize that removing the Ark is not like removing the source of an infection. The Ark itself is not ultimately the issue. Yahweh, the God of Israel is ultimately the issue. That’s why the people, their leaders, and their priests all agree that the God of Israel must be appeased in light of their guilt.
But when they ask “the priests and diviners”, in verse 2, about how to appease the God of Israel, an Israelite reader, or even a Christian reader, might quickly conclude that this is another ‘dead end’ solution. What are these pagan priests going to know about properly honoring the God of Israel? They still seemed concerned about licking Dagon’s wounds.
But even though their advice is completely bizarre, it is built on a solid foundation consisting of three biblical principles: 1) in verse 3 they rightly call the Philistines to make a guilt offering to Yahweh, 2) on top of this, in verse 5, the priests and diviners acknowledge the need to “give glory to the God of Israel, and 3) they do these things in light of what they already know about the God of Israel because of what happened in Egypt.
Now that God has demonstrated His power among them through seven months of suffering, they priests and diviners of the Philistines tell the people they need to act in light of the stories that came out of Egypt, and not make the same mistakes; they need to pay whatever price is necessary lest Yahweh punish them to the same degree He did Egypt.
So the bizarre solution is to use their precious gold and make five golden replicas of their tumors, replicas that can be used as offerings to the God of Israel (how would you like to make a golden replica of a tumor?). We also learn here for the first time that mice have been infesting the Philistine fields, which is viewed as another one of Yahweh’s judgments. So golden replicas of mice should also be included in this offering.
And how should all of these golden replicas, and the golden Ark itself, how should all of it be returned to Israel? Verse 7: Now then, take and prepare a new cart and two milk cows on which there has never come a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them.
In one sense, the new cart and the cows that are new to pulling a cart are seen as ritually pure. But practically, the choice of these cows will also serve as a final confirmation that it is the God of Israel who has been afflicting the Philistines, and therefore, hopefully a quick confirmation that this God will relent and spare the Philistines.
How will these cows confirm all this? Well these cows have to huge obstacles to overcome if they are to take the Ark back to Israel. First, when it comes to pulling a cart under a yoke, they are untrained animals. Their tendency when yoked should be to stand still or wander aimlessly. Second, they are milk cows who have been separated from their calves, which means their natural, maternal instinct is to go back to their hungry calves. But look at how verse 10 through 12 describe the outcome of the Philistines’ strange plan:
The men did so, and took two milk cows and yoked them to the cart and shut up their calves at home. 11 And they put the ark of the Lord on the cart and the box with the golden mice and the images of their tumors. 12 And the cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went. They turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh.
So even though the cows were untrained, even though they are lowing with cries for their calves, they proceed straight as an arrow to the town of Beth Shemesh on the Israelite border. The Philistines now know for sure that their seven month ordeal was not simply a string of unfortunate coincidences.
B. A Holy God among the Israelites (6:13-7:2)
But look with me at how the story continues in verse 13:
13 Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it. 14 The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there. A great stone was there. And they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15 And the Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the box that was beside it, in which were the golden figures, and set them upon the great stone. And the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices on that day to the Lord. 16 And when the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron. 17 These are the golden tumors that the Philistines returned as a guilt offering to the Lord: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron, 18 and the golden mice, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and unwalled villages. The great stone beside which they set down the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh. 19 And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the Lord. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the Lord had struck the people with a great blow. 20 Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?” 21 So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the Lord. Come down and take it up to you.” And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the Lord. 2 From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.
Notice, beginning in verse 13, that three things happen when the Ark comes to Beth Shemesh.
First, we read that the people “rejoiced” when they saw the Ark of the Covenant. Even though many Israelites had wrong-headed ideas about the Ark (which is how it got captured in the first place), the people here rightly see the return of the Ark has a blessing from God.
The second thing that happens is describe in verses 14 and 15. We’re told in those verses that the people of Beth Shemesh used the wood from the cart to offer the cows as burnt offerings to God. Actually verse 15 seems to be a clarification that it was in fact some Levities who removed the Ark from the cart and oversaw the offerings that were made.
But after concluding the story of the Philistines’ offering in verses 16-18, the third event that happens in Beth Shemesh changes the whole tone of the story. We read in verse 19 that Yahweh stuck seventy men “because they looked upon the ark of the Lord”.
Some older translations have “they looked into the Ark”, but I think the ESV reading is right here.
But why? Why would God strike seventy men, just because they looked on the Ark? To answer that question, we have to go back the book of Numbers, chapter 4. Listen to what God tells Moses about properly handling the Ark of the Covenant:
When the camp is to set out, Aaron and his sons shall go in and take down the veil of the screen and cover the ark of the testimony with it. 6 Then they shall put on it a covering of goatskin and spread on top of that a cloth all of blue, and shall put in its poles…The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 18 “Let not the tribe of the clans of the Kohathites be destroyed from among the Levites, 19 but deal thus with them, that they may live and not die when they come near to the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in and appoint them each to his task and to his burden, 20 but they shall not go in to look on the holy things even for a moment, lest they die.” (Numbers 4:5, 6, 17-20)
Whether the Levites of Beth Shemesh mentioned in verse 15 didn’t cover the Ark in time or didn’t cover it at all, the people had not been taught well enough about God’s rules and regulations in regard to the holy objects of Israel.
And so, ironically, God’s judgment is removed from the pagan Philistines because they, based on what they knew, they gave glory to God. But now God’s own people are judged, because they do not act in light of what they should have known. And so, the people of Beth Shemesh begin to sound, in verse 20 exactly like the Philistines in chapter 5. “To whom shall he [shall God] go up away from us?”
In the end, the Ark ends up in Kiriath-Jearim, about 8 miles to the west of Jerusalem. From the silence of this passage, and what we know of God’s judgment in I Samuel 4, Psalm 78, and Jeremiah chapters 7 and 26, Shiloh (where Hannah’s prayer was answered, where Eli and his sons served in corruption, Shiloh, where Samuel served God and first heard His voice…Shiloh) has been condemned. The Ark will never go back there.
III. Perspective: The Heaviness of God’s Holiness
And so, as we think about how this passage should change us, just as was the original writer’s prayer for his original readers, I think we have to come back to how I Samuel 6:20 challenges our perspective: Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?”
“Who is able to stand before YAHWEH, this holy God…” Isn’t that really the main verse in both chapters 5 and 6. Isn’t this really the key verse that covers every chapter up to this point? “Who is able to stand?” Eli? No. His sons? No. Dagon? No. The mighty Philistines? No. The men of Beth Shemesh? No…No. No. No.
In the corruption and ignorance of our condition, the answer is “no one”. No one is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God. Like the Philistines to some extent, the people of Israel consistently had to wrestle with the concept of, the reality of God’s holiness.
Listen to what R.C. Sproul says about this subject and his own journey:
“The one concept, the central idea I kept meeting in Scripture, was the idea that God is holy. The word was foreign to me. I wasn’t sure what it meant. I made the question a matter of diligent and persistent search. Today I am still absorbed with the question of the holiness of God. I am convinced that it is one of the most important ideas that a Christian can ever grapple with. It is basic to our whole understanding of God and of Christianity.” (R.C. Sproul, from “The Holiness of God”)
Do you believe that? Do you think of God’s holiness in those terms?
What does it mean that God is holy?
Well the Hebrew word that is used in verse 20 and throughout the Old Testament is the word qadosh, which seems to come from the basic word for “cut”. The sense of the word as it used in reference to God is not “cut”, but “cut apart”, or “set apart”.
God’s holiness is God’s distinctiveness. He is not distinct or “set apart” because human beings have set him apart. His very nature, the fact that He alone is God, makes him distinct from everything else. So we might say that holiness is a distinctiveness derived from deity.
When other things in Scripture are defined as ‘holy’, like the Ark, they are described this way because of their relationship to God; because they have been set apart for God. They are not holy in terms of their essence, but only by association with the Holy One.
Now defining the term ‘holy’ like this does not mean that we can completely understand this idea as it relates to God. In fact, included in that definition is the idea that God is a whole other category. As Scripture declares in so many places, “O God, who is like you?” (Psalm 71:19)
God’s holiness therefore is not just one of his many attributes. It is the attribute under which every other attribute must be placed, the one attribute through which every other attribute must be viewed. It is the sum of his attributes that leads us to cry “holy is the Lord”.
In commenting on the cries of the seraphim in Isaiah chapter 6, R.C Sproul writes:
“Only once in sacred Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. Only once is a characteristic of God mentioned three times in succession. The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love; or mercy, mercy, mercy; or wrath, wrath, wrath; or justice, justice, justice. Is does that He is holy, holy, holy, that the whole earth is full of His glory.” (R.C. Sproul, from “The Holiness of God”)
And what we are given here in I Samuel 6 is a powerful reminder that God’s holiness always means, and must mean, judgment when he is not revered as decidedly distinct. Because of His holy justice, people suffer and even die in the Bible whenever they treat God as if he were typical or normal or just one more thing, one more obligation, one more source of advice, one more relationship.
For His glory and our good, God cannot tolerate this kind of thinking.
And this is not just an Old Testament kind of idea. When Peter confronted Ananias in Acts chapter 5 about lying about his offering, he said: “You have not lied to men but to God.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it.
The sobering reality of God’s holiness and our condition drove the writer of Hebrews to give this instruction:
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28)
“Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?”
Have you wrestled with this idea of God’s holiness? Like the Philistines and the people of Beth Shemesh, have you felt the heaviness of God’s holiness? The reality of God’s holiness should be an incredibly sobering reality for all of us.
IV. Practice: Living in the Tension
I think it’s fair to say that between last week and this week, God is giving us a great commentary on the first two commandments of the Ten Commandments. Do you remember the first two commandments? Here they are:
6 “‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 7 [NUMBER ONE] “‘You shall have no other gods before me. 8 [NUMBER TWO] “‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9 You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Some see only a repetition in these commandments, as if God were just saying in both of them “don’t worship false, pagan gods”. Both of these do send that message. But the second commandment also warns us about turning God himself into an idol of our making.
So among the Philistines, God was teaching us about the consequences of making anything else into a god. Here, among the Israelites, God is teaching us about the consequences of making God into anything else.
Pastor Dale Ralph Davis warns followers of Christ about treating God this way:
“We can forget that Yahweh is holy, in a word, different, and that he does not conform to our expectation of an easy going God. Our culture does not help us to smash our graven image of the casual God.
Our culture proclaims that God must be the essence of tolerance; he is chummy rather than holy, the “man upstairs” rather than my Father for Jesus’ sake. So long as our novelty license plates declare ‘God is my co-pilot” we can be sure that we have not yet seen the King, Yahweh of hosts. As Jonathan Edwards noted, it is the absence of “godly fear” that signifies a lack of the knowledge of God.” (Dale Ralph Davis, from “Looking on the Heart”)
All of us are guilty of shaping God according to our image. Sometimes God is shaped more by our upbringing, our traditions, or our personal sensitivities. Sometimes, we even take what God has revealed about himself and twist it around. All of us have that tendency to bring God down to our level, rather than trying to live in light of His greatness.
Think about this for a minute. The largest known star in the universe is the Red Hypergiant VY Canis Majoris. It is 1,739,839,338 mi. in diameter. In comparison, our sun in only 865,000 miles diameter, and the earth is only 7926 miles. So VY Canis Majoris is 1.7 billion miles in diameter.
To give you a sense of how big this is, imagine you are hop a flight on American Airlines and travel around the this star going at 559 mph. If you took that trip around our sun, it would take you 9-10 weeks. Around VY Canis Majoris, it would take you 1100 years. And tha is only one of several billion stars in our galaxy. And there are probablt 100 billion galaxies in the universe. And all of those were made by the God of I Samuel 6. All of them are in His hand.
How big is God? How small are we? Are we living in light of the greatness of his holiness?
But there is a tension created by I Samuel 7:1. That verse told us: And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the Lord.
Who can stand before the Lord, this holy God? Eleazar can. How? Because he was consecrated. And what is affirmed implicitly, though not explicitly, is that Eleazar and his father Abinadab were from the family of Aaron, and that he Eleazar was consecrated and served according to what God had revealed to Moses in His word.
This holy God has made a way for us to stand in His presence. He appointed priests for his people. But those priests were flawed. They were intrinsically unholy.
But when you read the whole book, the entire Bible, you learn that God has now give us “a high priest “who is, according to Hebrews 7:26, “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.”
And when we move on to Hebrews 10, we read that the most important thing about this priest is not that he stood, but that He sat down.
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified [those who are being made holy]. (Hebrews 10:11-14)
The unfathomable, mind-blowing wonder of salvation is that each of us, through faith, can know, serve, and love a holy God through our high priest, Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, we can even address this God as “abba” Father.
But we cannot let the undeniable fact of our access and potential intimacy with God cancel out the undeniable fact that God is greater and more glorious and more unsettling than we could ever imagine.
It’s like being offered a ticket on that flight around VY Canis Majoris. Before you got on that plane, you would make darn sure that every precaution had been taken so that the heat, and the gases, and those solar flares bigger than 100 earths were not going to consume and vaporize the entire plane. But who in their right mind would want to miss an incomparable opportunity to see such an awesome sight, to behold the brilliance and glory of this star?
Every day we are called to pray to, read about, meditate on, represent, speak for, serve, reflect, worship, and love the One who made every star, who is so much greater and more brilliant and more glorious and more awesome than the sum of all the stars combined, times infinity.
And yet because of the grace of God alone, through faith alone, we can call Him Father.
Can you live each day with that tension, without letting one part of it distort the whole image? That’s what were called to do. And it’s only possible as we cling to God’s word and let it inform our image of God; let it inform our every thought, word, and deed.
Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? We are as His sons and daughters, if we trust that Jesus alone, according to God’s word alone, by His grace alone, is our only hope. Let’s pray that God would help us to live in that tension this week.