Summary: God’s sovereignty is shown in the way he brings the Ark back to Israel and in the way he brings victory over the Philistines
The Philistines have had the ark in their possession for 7 months. During that time they’ve suffered all sorts of disasters. People have broken out in lumps, some have died. At least one of their idols has been knocked down and destroyed. And eventually they decide it’s time to get rid of this problem. Send the ark back to Israel. But how best to do it? They can’t admit to the Israelites that they’ve made a mistake in capturing the ark. That would be too great an admission of weakness. So they ask their diviners and priests what they should do.
Now remember when the Israelites suffered their first defeat at the hands of the Philistines. They asked why it had happened, but they didn’t wait to get an answer. But here the Philistines not only ask the right question. They go to their religious leaders to find out the answer. And the answer they get appears to be the right one. In fact they say 2 things. First they need to make a peace offering to God appropriate to the disaster they’ve been experiencing. Gold tumors and mice seem the appropriate things. Presumably the mice are seen as the cause of the plague they’ve been experiencing. There may have been a plague of mice that accompanied the outbreak of tumors. In fact it could have been that this plague was something like bubonic plague that we now know is carried by rodents and that shows itself in tumours or boils.
The second thing they say is that the ark needs to be carried by 2 cows that have never borne a yoke. In other words animals that are suitable for carrying the ark of God because they’ve never carried anything else. Of course they have something else in mind in suggesting this idea. They want to check whether in fact it is God who’s behind this disaster. They figure that if it isn’t God who’s done this, then, being milk cows, they’ll simply turn around and go looking for their calves. But if God is behind it then he’ll lead them back to Israel. Well, the cows head straight up the road to Israel leaving their hungry calves behind. The ark is on its way home.
Now notice that the reason the ark is coming home has nothing to do with the Israelites. Throughout this part of the story the factor that’s at the fore is the superstitious attitudes of the Philistines. Yet God can use even those sorts of false beliefs to bring about his will. God can work through all sorts of media to bring his divine will to completion.
We sometimes wonder why people of other religions at times seem to understand the world better than people who have grown up in a Christian culture. Well, perhaps this gives us an idea of the answer to that question. God even uses people’s pagan understanding of the world to teach them truths about his creation.
Anyway, the ark gets to the border of Israel, to the town of Beth-shemesh and there we see a microcosm of what’s the general situation in Israel at the time. There are those living there who are believers in God, who know what the ark represents and what they should do with it. What’s the appropriate thing to do when God is in your midst? It’s to worship him. Here they have the ark and, ironically, the Philistines have even provided the wherewithal for a sacrifice. The cart and the animals having been used for such a sacred purpose are just the thing to be offered up to God in worship. The cart stops next to a large stone which is just what you need for an alter to the Lord. So that’s what they do. They happen to have some Levites living among them so they’re enlisted to carry out the sacrifice. They break up the cart and burn it. They slaughter the cows and offer them as a burnt offering to the Lord. And the Philistine lords having seen this, return home satisfied that they’re in the clear. They’ve done the right thing.
But then we find a sad thing. God has brought the ark back to Israel. It seems that the reason for the disaster they suffered at the hands of the Philistines has been forgiven. The people of Beth-shemesh have made the appropriate response of worship. Yet there are some in Israel who either don’t understand the significance of this day, or simply don’t have any respect for the Lord. The text isn’t quite clear what happens exactly. Some suggest that these 70 men looked inside the ark. Others simply refer to them as not rejoicing when the ark returned. Perhaps they were afraid they might suffer the same illnesses as the Philistines. Perhaps they simply didn’t care that the Lord was back in their midst. But whatever their sin, their lack of respect for the Lord, their lack of piety, was serious enough that 70 of them died.