Meditations in 1 Samuel 15. Faithless response
1 Sam 6:20,21 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?” 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.”
I believe the phrase “passing the buck” originated with card games where a counter, the buck, was placed in front of the dealer or person (say in poker) whose turn it was to play. When the turn of dealer moved on the buck was passed to the next person, eventually becoming synonymous with the meaning passing on responsibility. Well that is what we find when the Ark of the Covenant is returned to Israel by the Philistines. Now it had certainly seemed to be accompanied by bad news wherever it went among the Philistines but now it is back with God’s people and so we might hope that it would receive a warm reception having ‘come home’.
However the account is not a happy one! “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 Sam 6:19,20)
Clearly, if we backtrack, when the ark returned on a cart drawn by two cows the Israelites had responded well initially, “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.” (1 Sam 6:13-15) Initially their response had been good and appropriate; they used the wood of the cart to create a fire and they sacrificed the cows as an offering to the Lord. That speaks of reverence. Good! Well, good so far!
But we’ve just seen, unfortunately it did not stay like that. Having got over their initial reaction, they find themselves left with this Ark and curiosity arose within them. Just what is the Ark really? What is in it? So they looked inside it. They treated it merely as an item of curiosity, and by the fact that some seventy men were involved, it appears it became somewhat of a tourist attraction – but you don’t treat God as a tourist attraction, He is the Lord, and thus His judgment falls on them and the seventy die. At which point they panic and decide to pass the buck and send to the people of Kiriath Jearim and basically say, ‘The ark has come back, would you like to have it?’
Now what should have been their response when the ark returned. Well, reverence is the first thing that comes to mind. This Ark has been identified with the presence of God in the Tabernacle from the outset so it should be treated with awe. Second, its home was within the Tabernacle at Shiloh and so it should have been returned there straight away.
The trouble is that the spiritual state of Israel is somewhat in a state of flux. The priest and his two sons are dead and Samuel is only growing in his ministry. There is no clear religious structure, we might say. These people at the first place the ark comes to in Israel on its return are not clear in their thinking about the Ark. They have the privilege of being the first ones to encounter the Ark on its return but they neither treat it with respect nor send it back to Shiloh. Instead they pass the buck and it is sent to Kiriath Jearim where it stays for the next twenty years under the care of Eleazar, the son of Abinadab whose house it resides in.
As we pause at this point, we might ask ourselves what relevance this passage might have to us today, what we might learn from it. Assuredly the key issue is reverence for the Lord and for the things of the Lord. Accompanying that might be the absence of spiritual leadership which should have taught Israel and created a better environment for the return of the Ark. The instructions to Aaron and thus the priesthood had originally been as follows: “Then the LORD said to Aaron….. You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses.” (Lev 10:8-11) Part of the role of the priesthood was to teach the Israelites what it meant to be the people of God so that they would stand out from the rest of the world, and part of that teaching would include understanding the relationship they had with the Lord, the fact that He was holy and they were holy. That was what was absent in Israel at that time and it all goes back to the leadership which just wasn’t there. The question therefore we have to ask is, does today’s leadership in the church teach these same things, i.e. what it means to be the people of God so that we stand out from the rest of the world, including understanding the relationship we have with the Lord, the fact that He is holy and we are holy? Everything else follows.