Respecting God’s Holiness

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1 Samuel 6:1-7:1 (The ark’s return)

INTRODUCTION: We have been studying the life of Samuel from the book of Samuel, but for right now the character Samuel has disappeared from the narrative. Instead, chapters 4, 5 and 6 all focus on the ark. We looked at the ark’s capture in chapter 4 and the ark’s stay with the Philistines in chapter 5. Now this week we will look at the ark’s return to Israel in chapter 6.

What does it mean to fear the Lord? The book of Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10) But a lot of people get confused by that. They say, “But I thought God loves us. Isn’t he our Father? And aren’t I supposed to love God? How can I love God if I am afraid of him?”

Those are good questions, and our passage today helps answer these questions. In today’s passage we meet three groups of people who responded to the ark in three different ways. We have the Philistines who sent the ark away; the people of Beth Shemesh who received the ark gladly; and the seventy men who died after looking into the ark. These three groups of people illustrate three different attitudes towards God – 1) fear, 2) reverence, and 3) disrespect. And they also illustrate for us how each of these attitudes produces a different result. Those who are afraid of God’s holiness push him away. Those who have reverence for God’s holiness receive him gladly. Those who show disrespect for God’s holiness provoke his anger. So let’s take a look at each of these attitudes towards God and see what we can learn about our own attitude towards God this morning.

I. Those who are afraid of God’s holiness push him away. (1 Samuel 6:1-12)

The first attitude is that of fear. Those who are afraid of God’s holiness push him away. That’s what we see happening with the Philistines here in chapter six. They are afraid of God’s holiness, and they do not want him or the ark around any longer. Look at verses 1-2:

When 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)

If you remember from last week, the Philistines captured the ark, brought it back to their own territory, and put it in their temple. As a result God sent tumors among the Philistines, possibly a form of the bubonic plague carried by an infestation of rats. The Philistines moved the ark from one city to the next, but the plague followed the ark wherever it went and even got worse. After seven months of this, they finally had enough and called their priests and diviners and asked them, “What shall we do with the ark of the LORD? Tell us how we should send it back to its place.” We find their answer in verses 3-6:

They answered, “If you return the ark of the god of Israel, do not send it away empty, but 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.”

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. Make models of the tumors and of the rats that are destroying the country, and pay honor to Israel’s god. Perhaps he will lift his hand from you and your gods and your land. Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When he treated them harshly, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way?” (1 Samuel 6:3-6)

The priests and diviners encourage the Philistines not to send the ark away empty-handed but to include a guilt offering of five gold tumors and five gold rats. Now I am sure they meant well by this, but there is just so much they get wrong here. First of all, God didn’t want a statue for a guilt offering. He wanted a sacrifice. The Philistines attempted to pay honor to God through the gold images, but only a sacrifice would work as a guilt offering. According to the book of Leviticus, you were supposed to sacrifice a ram for this type of offering. (Leviticus 5:15) And secondly, these images they made would not be pleasing to God anyways. Tumors were a form of unclean skin disease (Leviticus 13), and rats were unclean animals (Leviticus 11:29). God would not want images of things that he had declared unclean. Besides, the second commandment forbade the making images for worship anyways.

But, of course, the Philistine priests and diviners didn’t know any of this. They just wanted to get rid of the ark, so they made their plan according to their own wisdom. They urged the Philistines not to harden their hearts like the Egyptians did, but to send the ark back to Israel.

Now, apparently there were some who were still not convinced that God was the cause of their suffering. Even though the plague had followed the ark around Philistine territory for seven months, some still thought this might all be a coincidence. So they devised an ingenious test to see if God really was behind all this. Look at verses 7-11. This is the priest and diviners still speaking here:

“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. 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 will know that it was not his hand that struck us and that it happened to us by chance.”

So they did this. They took two such cows and hitched them to the cart and penned up their calves. 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. (1 Samuel 6:7-11)

The plan here is simple. They put the ark and the gold objects on a cart, and they hitch the cart up to a pair of cows. These are cows that have never been yoked before, which means they should fight against each other rather than walk smoothly in the same direction. Not only that, but these two cows have just given birth. The Philistines take their calves away from them and put them in a pen, which means the cows should be trying to get back to their calves rather than walking the other way. Not only that, but there is no one to lead or drive the cows towards Beth Shemesh. They will just hitch up the cows, let them go and see what happens. In other words, they have stacked the deck against these cows ever heading back into Israel with the ark. So if they do, then the Philistines will know for certain that God’s hand was behind all this.

So what happened? What did the cows do? Verse 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 6:12)

God “passed” their test, and the Philistines finally got rid of the ark. The Philistines were afraid of God’s holiness, and they pushed him away. Instead of submitting to God and worshiping him, they sent the ark back to Israel. This story reminds me of the New Testament story of Jesus and the pigs. Remember Jesus cast the demons out of the man in the graveyard into the herd of pigs, and the whole herd stampeded over the cliff and into the water? The Bible tells us that when the people saw what had happened, they were afraid and they pleaded with Jesus to go away. (Mark 5:15-17) Those who are afraid of God’s holiness push him away.

Are you afraid of God? If you do not know God’s forgiveness through Christ, then you are still under God’s judgment for sin and, yes, you should be afraid. But if you simply stay afraid of God, then you will continue to push him away, and you will never be close to him. So what do you do? There is a different attitude that we must take towards God, and that is moving from fear to reverence.

II. Those who have reverence for God’s holiness receive him gladly. (1 Samuel 6:13-18)

Those who are afraid of God’s holiness push him away. But those who have reverence for God’s holiness receive him gladly. We see this illustrated for us by the people of Beth Shemesh. Look at verses 13-16:

Now the people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley, and when they looked up and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight. The cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock. The people chopped up the wood of the cart and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to the LORD. The Levites took down the ark of the LORD, together with the chest containing the gold objects, and placed them on the large rock. On that day the people of Beth Shemesh offered burnt offerings and made sacrifices to the LORD. The five rulers of the Philistines saw all this and then returned that same day to Ekron. (1 Samuel 6:13-16)

How did the people of Beth Shemesh show reverence for God’s holiness? First of all, they put God first in their lives. It was wheat harvest, which was a busy season. You had to work hard every day to get all the wheat harvested in time. And yet as soon as they saw the ark, they immediately stopped what they were doing and took care of the ark instead. And they were glad to do it. They showed reverence for God by putting God first in their lives.

Secondly, they made a sacrifice. They chopped up the wood of the cart that had carried the ark, and they sacrificed the cows. God gave Israel the sacrifices to teach them that you cannot approach God on your own. God is holy. We are sinners. They didn’t know it at the time, but the sacrifices really pointed forward to Jesus who would give himself as a sacrifice for our sins that we might approach God without fear. They showed reverence for God by approaching him through a sacrifice.

Thirdly, they followed God’s laws. The Israelites made sure that only the Levites handled the ark. Beth Shemesh was one of the cities that had been given to the Levites as an inheritance (Joshua 21:16), so there were plenty of Levites around. The people did not presume to take the ark down from the cart themselves, but they let the Levites handle it according to God’s law.

The people of Beth Shemesh showed reverence for God’s holiness. They put God first, they approached him through a sacrifice, and they obeyed his laws. And what was the result? They rejoiced, they offered burnt offerings, and they made sacrifices to the Lord. They had reverence for God’s holiness, and they received him gladly.

This is what the Bible means by the fear of the Lord. It is not simply being afraid of God. It is drawing near to God in reverence through the sacrifices that he has ordained. In the Old Testament that meant drawing near through the sacrifice of animals. But now that Christ has come, we draw near to God through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The book of Hebrews says, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus … let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.” (Hebrews 10:19-22) Those who are afraid of God’s holiness push him away. But those who have reverence for God’s holiness receive him gladly.

III. Those who show disrespect for God’s holiness provoke his anger. (1 Samuel 6:19-7:1)

There is, however, a third attitude that we find in the text this morning that is neither fear nor reverence. That is the attitude of disrespect. Those who show disrespect for God’s holiness provoke his anger. We find this illustrated for us in the seventy men of Beth Shemesh who looked into the ark. Look at verses 19-20:

But God struck down some of the men of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. The people mourned because of the heavy blow the LORD had dealt them, and the men of Beth Shemesh asked, “Who can stand in the presence of the LORD, this holy God? To whom will the ark go up from here?” (1 Samuel 6:19-20)

The people rejoiced when the ark first arrived and the Levites handled it properly, but now these seventy men decided to look into the ark. The people were not even supposed to look at the ark, never mind into it. Nobody saw the ark except for the priest. The ark was kept behind a curtain in the innermost room of the tabernacle. When it was time to move the ark, the priest first covered it, and then the Levites carried it to its new destination. So for these men to look into the ark was an act of complete disrespect for God’s holiness.

What happened? Well, if you have ever seen the Indiana Jones movies then you know that bad things happen when you look into the ark. (I even thought about calling this message “Raiders of the Found Ark.”) Seventy men looked into the ark, and seventy men died. They showed disrespect for God’s holiness, and they provoked God’s anger.

How do we show disrespect for God’s holiness today? I can think of several ways. One way is when we show a lack of respect for God’s Word. The Bible is God’s Word and therefore holy. When we disobey God’s Word in our lives, we show disrespect for God’s holiness.

Another way we can show disrespect for God’s holiness is during communion or the Lord’s Supper. The Bible says we should examine ourselves before taking communion. When we take communion without focusing on Christ and repenting of sin, we show disrespect for God’s holiness. The Bible tells us that some of the people in the early church actually got sick and died because they took communion in an unworthy manner. (1 Corinthians 11)

But the main way we show disrespect for God’s holiness today is simply by rejecting Jesus Christ as Savior. The book of Hebrews says,

Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:28-31)

God sent his Son as a perfect and holy sacrifice for our sins. What greater disrespect can we show for God’s holiness than rejecting his Son as Savior?

Seventy men from Beth Shemesh looked into the ark and died. The people’s rejoicing turned to mourning, and they asked, “Who can stand in the presence of the LORD, this holy God? To whom will the ark go up from here?” They suddenly found themselves in the same position as the Philistines. They were afraid of God’s holiness, and they wanted to push God away.

So what did they do? Look at the last verse of chapter 6 and the first verse of chapter 7:

Then they sent messengers to the people of Kiriath Jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the LORD. Come down and take it up to your place.” So the men of Kiriath Jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD. They took it to Abinadab’s house on the hill and consecrated Eleazar his son to guard the ark of the LORD. (1 Samuel 6:19-7:1)

The people of Kiriath Jearim came and took the ark. The ark would now stay at Kiriath Jearim until King David finally brought it to Jerusalem. The people of Kiriath Jearim showed reverence for God’s holiness, and God blessed their city as a result.

CONCLUSION: What is your attitude towards God this morning? If you are afraid of God, you will only push him away. That’s no good. If you have no fear of God, you will show him disrespect and provoke his anger. That’s no good either. So what’s the answer? God wants you to come to him with an attitude of reverence and respect. Recognize that he is God. Submit yourself to him as Lord. Acknowledge his holiness. Come confessing your sin, and trusting in Christ.

Those who are afraid of God’s holiness push him away. Those who show disrespect for God’s holiness provoke his anger. But those who have reverence for God’s holiness receive him gladly. “Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.” (Psalm 95:6-7)

© Ray Fowler

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