Sermon preached on 1 Samuel 6 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/25/2015 in Novato, CA.
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1 Samuel 6
“Who is Able to Stand Before this Holy LORD God?”
We have a holy God. And we have an almighty God. There are of course a number of amazing attributes of God such as these two, but these two are especially seen in today’s passage. And it’s when those qualities come together and complement each other, that we especially recognize how awesome our God is. We see that again in our passage. In our passage we see these two attributes of God working together. He is a holy God and he is an almighty God. The coming together of these two attributes meant bad news for the Philistines. We see that it resulted in them wanting to send the Ark away. They couldn’t bear God’s presence among them any longer. At the same time, it was the presence of this holy and almighty God that the Israelites wanted to return back to them. And yet when they get it back they are almost immediately reminded of these two same qualities of God: that he is holy and almighty. Sadly, they have to learn this lesson again the hard way. And so as we are confronted with these truths again today, we see how the Philistines even as outsiders are starting to understand this, at least in part. But we also see Israel, who should have already known this, and shows that they did have a better sense of it than the Philistines, yet still had more to learn about it. God is a holy and almighty God.
Let’s begin then with the Philistines. Let’s delve into the story and analyze their actions. What we find is that even these pagan outsiders, show some sense of what is right and true. Unfortunately, they also show ways in which they do not know or follow the truth. So, remember where we left off from last week with the Philistines. They had conquered Israel and captured the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelite people. They took the Ark back to one of their five main cities and put it in their temple. It made a mockery of their idol to Dagan and then afflicted the people of the city with a great plague. We then saw them taking around the idol to their other main cities and seeing that the plague nonetheless follows with them. Their people were getting tumors and some were even dying.
And so by the time we get now to today’s chapter, we see that the Ark had been in the Philistine territory now for seven months, verse 1. By this point, it seems the general consensus was that they had enough and that they wanted to get rid of this Ark. And so what I want us to do is to observe what they seem to get right and what they seem to get wrong in all of this. Well, we see first off that the Philistines got it right when they made the connection with the tumors and God’s judgment upon them. Now, to clarify, it does look like this is a bit of an open question for them. And I think it is also right that it should be a question. Sometimes people see something bad happen in their life and are quick to point to some specific sin in their life as the cause. That may be the case, but not necessarily. But in this case there seems to be a pretty clear assumption that all their problems with the tumors was related to the fact that they had tried to capture and keep the Ark of God. Of course they are right. But we do see them wrestling with that issue. They consult their pagan priests and diviners who deal with this question. In verse 3, they basically say that if you send the Ark back, and send it with a guilt offering, then if you are healed, you’ll know what this has all been about. In other words, that by sending the Ark back and trying make things right with the God of Israel, if they find that they are healed, then that will be a confirmation that this whole plague has been brought about by the God of Israel in the first place, and not just a coincidence.
We see this same thing said in a different way in verse 9. These same priests and diviners advocate a test to further prove that this has all been the work of the God of Israel. They say to setup the Ark on a cart with new milking cows attached. Put this on the road, with one direction leading back home and other leading to Israel. Then take the calves of these cows back home, and let these mother cows lose. The test is to then watch what happens with the cows. The idea here is that these milking cows would have instinctively wanted to return back to their calves and to their homes. But if instead they go down the road to Israel, then the priests say this is proof that the LORD is the one who struck them. And so not only is that what happens, but notice in verse 12 that the calves do not turn to the right or to the left, but make an immediate straight line for Israel. This is supposed to be seen as supernatural. And so the point in all of this, is that this helped the Philistines to rule out coincidence. That’s the point of verse 9. That this test helped confirm what they already rightly suspected, that the plague was upon them as a hand of judgment by the God of Israel.
And so the pagans sensed that correctly; they got that right. There was something extraordinary happening here, and it was of the Lord. Now I wouldn’t recommend testing God like this as they did. But nonetheless these pagans who didn’t follow God had enough sense to recognize the judgment of the one true God. Despite what they didn’t know about God, this they got right. Well, a second thing we see that they get right is that their priests and diviners realize that they can’t just send the Ark back. They recognize in some way the holiness of God and how they had offended him. They fear this reality because they obviously recognize the mightiness of God. And so they are advised by their pagan religious leaders to send back a guilt offering. Notice they decide that they should send back with it five golden tumors. The number five is said in verse 4 to be the number of the Philistine lords. In verses 17-18 we see that these lords were each rulers of one of the five main cities of the Philistines. And so each golden tumor is representative, substitutionary for each lord, who himself was representative of all the people under his control. On a side note, you’ll see that there is mention here of five rats too. There is a translation question over whether they also sent an additional five gold rats, which is how our pew Bible translates things, or if the Hebrew is saying that the five golden tumors were actually in the shape of rats, which might have been considered symbolic of the tumors. It’s hard to say for sure. Some have suggested the rats might have been separate and sent as well because maybe the people experienced an increase of rats and speculated that the rats might have been used by God to help spread the plague — think of the Bubonic plague for example.
Well, it’s hard to say for sure. But the bottom line is that the number of objects being emphasized as five is clearly to be in the place for these five lords and their lands. And so this was clearly a right sense that they had to give a guilt offering, something that would substitute in their place. Of course, you’ll note that the Philistines themselves don’t say anything about an offering that would involve the shedding of blood. The cows will ultimately get sacrificed by the Israelites when they arrive, but the Philistines aren’t recorded as having that motivation. This is important when we read in Hebrews 9:22 that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. Again, some have said the Philistines knew the cows would be offered as a sacrifice, but even if that were the case, the law in Israel required a bull for a sin offering, not a cow. At any rate, the point is that we see here some sense in which the pagans had an idea of what was right, but not in the clarity of all Scripture.
Well, if the pagans had a sense of what is right, but also had some areas where they didn’t know what was right, you might expect that when the Ark returns to Israel that they would know what is right and wrong before God. And yet, sadly, that is not the case. When the Ark arrives here at Beth-Shemesh we again see some things that were clearly the right way to handle the arrival of the Ark. But we also see some wrong here by them too. And so look at some of the good we see here by these Israelites. When the Ark comes back it says they rejoice, verse 13. They then take the wood of the cart and the cows and they use them to immediately give an offering to the Lord. Again, this seems fitting. In verse 15, we see they even had the Levites handle the Ark. That was according to God’s provision as well. Verse 15 describes the great worship that they did right then and there. All of this is right and good. The sacrifices and the joy express their recognition of the holiness and mightiness of God.
But then you come to verse 19. Evidently some people at Beth Shemesh thought it would be a good idea to look inside the Ark. God was not pleased with this. This was not treating the Ark as holy. God strikes the people with a great slaughter because of this. If curiosity killed the cat, think of how thoughtless the people were to think they could approach the Ark of God in their curiosity like this. It was an act that showed their disregard for the holiness and might of God, and the people paid greatly for it. We see how they further got it wrong when after this great slaughter they think they need to send the Ark away. Well, when they do that, they look just like the pagan Philistines. They are saying the Ark is too dangerous for them to keep around. The right response would have been to recognize their sin — that’s why God had just struck them. They should have mourned over their sacrilege and repented and sought forgiveness. Instead they react too far and just want to get rid of it. That was an honest response, but shortsighted.
And so the Israelites at Beth Shemesh show some ways in which they too got things right and some ways that they got things wrong. In our third point for today I want us to apply what this passage says about God’s holiness to us. And it’s in light of the fact that this holy God is also almighty, that this is an important point to get right. And so thinking about the holiness of God, we see a practical lesson on this. Sometimes those outside the visible church can understand some things right about the holiness of God. On the other hand, sometimes those inside the visible church, can get some things wrong about the holiness of God.
The outsider pagan Philistines understood some sense of God’s holiness. Not only do they send away the Ark with a guilt offering, but notice they used new carts and cows that have never been yoked. These “new” things reflect an appreciation of the holiness of God. I think of Romans 1-2 that acknowledges why outsider pagans can sometimes get things right in terms of God. Romans 2:14 says that when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves. It says that this shows that the law is written on their hearts. And so Romans 1-2 help us to realize that we should not be surprised when even pagans with all their pagan religion still have some sense of the holiness of God and his demand upon them. The law is written on the hearts of even pagan believers, and no matter how much they try to ignore the truth, deep inside them they know God really does exists; that he is holy and mighty and deserving of worship. A practical lesson that can come to us here, is that this is a point of contact with those outside the church. This innate sense of God and what is right, though marred and clouded by sin, is a place that we can interact with outsiders in our evangelism to them.
On the other hand, some of these Israelites fail so miserably. Some of these people who were externally in the visible church of God fail so miserably. It should have been a no-brainer that they shouldn’t have touched that Ark or tried to look into it. Numbers 4, for example, talked about the process of how the Ark was to be moved and who was allowed to do it. Remember, that later on when David tries at first to have the Ark moved that someone named Uzzah momentarily touches the Ark in the process and God strikes him dead. In fact that Numbers 4 passage says that not only is the Ark itself to not be directly touched, but the veil of the tabernacle is to be used to cover the Ark before the movers move it, so that the movers won’t even look upon it. The point in all of this is that God is a holy God. But these Israelites at Beth Shemesh must have either forget that or disregarded it. They should have known better. But they did not. A practical lesson that can come to us is that just because someone is a part of the visible church, don’t assume they’ll always get things right. Sometimes people in the church do the wrong things. I know that’s pointing out the obvious, and yet how often do you hear people say things like they are leaving the church because someone wronged them in the church. Well, I wouldn’t be surprised. The history of the church is that it’s full of sinners, and sometimes it also has people in it that haven’t really come to know the Lord, despite their outward claims. So, yes, we hope that God will be bringing growth to us all in the visible church. We should strive for the church to live holy as God is holy. But where the visible church’s holiness is imperfect, and it’s strength to do the right thing failing, this is not the case with God. He is perfectly holy and he is more mighty than anyone else. And he is the one we are really to be following, not our fellow members in the church.
So, if sometimes pagans get things right, while sometimes those in the church get things wrong, how are we to know what to do and who to follow? Well, in all circumstances the answer comes back to the Word of the Lord. We need to evaluate circumstances by God’s Word. I made this point last week too and wanted to say it again as it’s so important. This is what we’ve done today even with this chapter. We see what the Philistines did right or wrong by comparing their actions with the Bible’s teachings. The same is the case with the Israelites. Just because they represented the visible church at that time did not make them infallible. They too needed their actions to be judged by the Word of God. Some of their actions were found lacking.
Well, in closing, let me finish by pointing to verse 20. Arguably the greatest realization and recognition in this whole chapter is here in verse 20. After God struck them for looking in the Ark, they ask, “Who is able to stand before this holy LORD God?” That’s a very honest question. Who indeed can stand before such a holy God? Well, on our own standing, the answer is none of us, save the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the only one to ever be able to stand on his own merit before this Holy and Almighty God. And yet it is in Jesus Christ, that we too are enabled to stand. If we try to come before this holy God in our own merit and standing, be afraid. But if we come before this holy God trusting in the merit of Jesus Christ, then have great courage and joy. You see, this is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel declares that us sinners can be forgiven of our sins and set as holy before God because of the righteousness of Christ. On the cross, Jesus was a substitutionary atonement for the elect. All who place their faith in Jesus, have him as their representative. His shed blood is then shed on your behalf, in your place, for the remission of sins. And so it’s in Christ that we are ultimately enabled to stand and come before this Holy and Almighty God. What grace and mercy we have in Jesus!
And so saints of God, I hope that you are renewed again today to appreciate the holiness of God, and the almightiness of God. If you are not a Christian, if you are an outsider to God’s church, this should spark in you great fear. I would urge you then to repent and be baptized into his name and into his church, that you would be saved. But if you are a Christian who has been saved and become a part of his people, then I encourage you today with how wonderful this is. We don’t need to fear the judgment of God. Yes, we should always respect and revere the complete holiness and almightiness of God. Yes, we stand in awe of this again today. But we don’t have to have terror about these things as if they would come upon us in judgment and wrath. No, we have been washed clean by the blood of the land. Christ has made us holy and is making us holy. And Christ will finish the work in time for that great day of the Lord. That on that final day of judgment, we will not be condemned to hell, but we will enter into the sweetest communion of God in Christ for all eternity. Oh how wonderful to be able to stand before such a Holy and Almighty God because of the gift of his grace.
And so we rejoice like these Israelites did at the coming of the presence of God to us. But let us never forget that just because God’s presence has come near to us as his people, that this doesn’t change the fact that he his holy. Let us treat our mighty God then in the reverence that is fitting and due to the all holy God. Amen.
Copyright © 2015 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.