It was a somber time in Israel’s history. The Ark of the Covenant had been taken captive and was being held by the enemy, the Philistines, and God’s high priest Eli was dead, as were his two sons, Hophni and Phineas. For all appearances, God was gone from Israel. But just what was God doing behind the scenes?
Last week, in “The Captivity of the Ark, Part 1,” we saw that God was busy teaching the Philistines some important lessons on His sovereignty. How else might the Philistines have ever learned that God is sovereign? That He is more powerful than their god, Dagon? How else might they have learned to respect the One true God?
In fact, the Philistines so learned to respect the God of Israel and His ark, that they actually sent it back to Israel:
“the ark of the LORD had been in Philistine territory seven months, 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.'” (1 Samuel 6:1-2).
Why would the Philistines have to ask priests and diviners how to return the Ark of the Covenant? Why didn’t they just carry it back and give it to them?
The answer to this lies in the fact that after seven months of illness and rats, the Philistines had learned something that perhaps Israel didn’t even realize: God is to be feared! And the fact that they even asked such a question of their own priests helps us to understand the depth of their new-found respect for God.
This fear of God ran even deeper than this: “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.'” (1 Samuel 6:3a). In other words, the Philistines recognized that they had done wrong in taking God’s Ark, and they wanted to return it with a guilt offering.
And in their newly-found respect of God, they went on to say, “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?” (1 Samuel 6:6)
It is true that the Philistines did not return the Ark of the Covenant in the way that it was prescribed to be transported (See Numbers 5:15), yet this can be understood. They had no knowledge of how the Ark was to be moved. They knew enough about respect for God, however, that they realized it couldn’t be moved like any ordinary object:
“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. 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.” (1 Samuel 6:7-8)
This may seem strange to take untrained cows with calves and shut their calves up. Naturally, the cows would want to return to their calves. But in so doing, the Philistines were doing one last test: “Send it on its way, 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 know that it was not his hand that struck us but that it happened to us by chance.” (1 Samuel 6:9).
Miraculously, the cows went straight to Israel (See 1 Samuel 6:10-12). Isn’t it interesting that even in the last hours of the Ark’s imprisonment, God was able to show the Philistines another sign of His sovereignty and power, to teach them yet another important lesson in the Fear of the Lord?
Friends, the next time you feel that God has abandoned you to your circumstances, consider that He may be using those same circumstances to work powerfully in the lives of others, bringing them to a knowledge of His sovereignty and power, and teaching them important lessons in the Fear of the Lord.
But did Israel receive the Ark of God with the same reverence as the Philistines showed in sending it back? Join us on Saturday for “The Captivity of the Ark,” Part 3: The Beth Shemesh Massacre.
In His love,
Lynona Gordon Chaffart, Speech-Language Pathologist, mother of two, Author — “Aboard God’s Train — A Journey With God Through the Valley of Cancer”, Author and Moderator for The Nugget, a tri-weekly internet newsletter, and Scriptural Nuggets, a website devoted to Christian devotionals and inspirational poems, with Answers2Prayer Ministries. Follow Lyn on Twitter @lynchaffart.
(To access the entire “The Captivity of the Ark” mini-series, please click here.)