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Father in heaven, help us. Help us to listen, to pay attention, to not be distracted, to not be overcome with hunger or curiosity about what’s happening on the other side of our phones, but to give You our attention. It’s not so important that anyone here hear from a mere man, but we want to hear from You, so give us hearts that are ready to receive Your Word. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
We come this morning to 1 Samuel chapter 6. We’re in a series of stories about the ark of the covenant, the holiest artifact in ancient Israel. A gold-plated box. It was not God, certainly that would have been idolatry, but it did represent the presence of God symbolically, and we saw in chapter 4 Israel defeated by their enemy, the Philistines, and they brought out the ark, thinking that it would mean certain victory. But it didn’t and the ark was captured.
In chapter 5, as the Philistines set up the ark as a symbol of their victory and yet it means great disaster for their God Dagon, and it causes tumors to break out on the people of their cities.
Then here in chapter 6 the Philistines are desperate to do whatever they can to get rid of this box, which is bringing curses upon their land. And here’s how it happens. Chapter 6:
“The ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months. And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us with what we shall send it to its place.” They said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it away empty, but by all means return him a guilt offering. Then you will be healed, and it will be known to you why his hand does not turn away from you.” And they said, “What is the guilt offering that we shall return to him?” They answered, “Five golden tumors and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines, for the same plague was on all of you and on your lords. So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel. Perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land. Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had dealt severely with them, did they not send the people away, and they departed? Now then, take and prepare a new cart and two milk cows on which there has never come a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them. And take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart and put in a box at its side the figures of gold, which you are returning to him as a guilt offering. Then send it off and let it go its way and watch. If it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth-shemesh, then it is he who has done us this great harm, but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by coincidence.” The men did so, and took two milk cows and yoked them to the cart and shut up their calves at home.
“And they put the ark of the Lord on the cart and the box with the golden mice and the images of their tumors. And the cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went. They turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh. Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it. The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there. A great stone was there. And they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. And the Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the box that was beside it, in which were the golden figures, and set them upon the great stone. And the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices on that day to the Lord. And when the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron.”
“These are the golden tumors that the Philistines returned as a guilt offering to the Lord: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron, and the golden mice, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and unwalled villages. The great stone beside which they set down the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.”
“And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the Lord. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the Lord had struck the people with a great blow. Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?” So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the Lord. Come down and take it up to you.” And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the Lord. From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.”
I came across an article this week entitled The West’s Cultural Revolution is Over. It’s not a very cheery article. I don’t agree with everything in it, and yet sadly the main point may very well be true. Here’s the gist: “The past 50 years or so have seen a cultural revolution in Western society comparable in scope to the Reformation. Most of us have known only that period of transition when morality and norms were up for debate, but perhaps it is now over.”
The central argument in this article is that most societies cannot long endure without some over-arching sense of morality, and so almost always there has been some kind of censorship, even if it is not formal kind, some sort of censorship of certain ideas or certain practices. There are certain taboos just as a culture that you know you aren’t supposed to do. There are certain words that aren’t supposed to be spoken.
And this journalist is arguing that for many, many generations, perhaps hundreds of years in the West, the basic structure that put in place those taboos and those speech codes and that enforced kind of morality was Christianity. And he argues that around 50 years ago with the sexual revolution, everything was thrown into upheaval.
And so for the last 50 years or so, it’s been an unusual period in the West in that no one quite knows which sort of speech codes, which sort of taboos, we are not supposed to do as two different ways of looking at the world tangle together.
His argument is that all of the pleas for moral relativism come from a position of weakness and once you ask for moral relativism but then your view seems to have triumphed, you no longer want moral relativism. He says once you storm the bastille, the next thing to do is to build your own bastille.
So his argument, as discouraging as it may be, is that once the sexual revolution hit in the 60s and everything was up for grabs for 50 years, we are now seeing a settling in once again of a very strictly enforced moral code, except this time it is not based on the Christian religion but is based on the secular religion of the revolutionaries.
Again, I don’t agree with everything in the article, it may not be all that bad everywhere as he says, but he certainly is on to something, at least when we think of elite corridors of power in the West. The West is in the process in many places of trading one religion for a very different kind of religion, even though it may not be called a religion, that’s what it is.
This is a very hard reality, and many of you feel it because if it seems to you that your faith, the Christian faith, the Christian way of looking at the world, the Christian way of behaving in the world, if that’s being replaced and put aside for another moral code, it’s bound to be frightening and discouraging.
But before we despair, let’s remember three things.
Number one: God is still on the throne. That’s most important.
Number two: The good old days weren’t always that good. We look back with nostalgia, and oh, if we could only go back to the good old days.
I’ve been reading through two volumes of the history of Princeton seminary, old Princeton, oh, it’s just catnip for a Presbyterian pastor. You can just feel like these were the good old days, when giants walked in the land and everything was so good. And then there was this one little line that Charles Hodge was sick with something and they treated him by putting several dozen leeches on his groin. I thought, nostalgia gone. [laughter] All right, the good old days weren’t always so good. You wouldn’t always want to trade this time for another time.
But here’s the third thing to remember, and this gets us to 1 Samuel chapter 6: Human nature is still the same.
It means no matter how crazy different our world seems, and some of you have lived through this transition and can remember in your own life how different it seems compared to 50, 60, 70, 80 years ago, we must remember human beings have not mutated into a new species. The human heart is still the same. The need for redemption is still the same. And the ways in which people look for meaning and seek religious purpose are largely unchanged. Now they look very different on the face of it, but when we get to the level of the human heart, we realize that people are very much still the same.
That means that even when we come to a somewhat bizarre story about mice and tumors and cows mooing along the way and an ark of the covenant, that this chapter has amazing relevance for us.
There are two groups of people in this story, the Philistines and the Israelites. If we look at the Philistines and their interaction with the ark, I want to argue that we see in their response to the ark the basic sort of religious impulse we see in America and in the West at large. And if we look at the Israelites and their interaction with the ark, we see a reflection of much of the Church in America and in the West.
So let’s start by looking at the Philistines in this passage. They are an example of religion, of religion in America. I don’t use religion as automatically a bad word. It appears several times in our English translation of the Bible and centuries ago people used religion to be a very good thing. Now we tend to think of religion as a bad thing. I’m just using it in a general sense.
Certainly the comparison is far from perfect, but there are similarities owing to the fact that the Philistine approach to religion has always been representative of a very common way of dealing with God.
Let me mention four similarities with the Philistine approach to religion and what we see in our own country today.
Number one: There is an awareness of some of the basic facts of revealed religion.
Think about the Philistines. They don’t get everything wrong. They have some awareness of God’s transcendence. If you read older theologians and philosophers who were making arguments, apologetics for Christianity, in say the 18th and 19th centuries, one of the arguments they always brought forward is they said look around the world. Every sort of religion and tribe around the world, everybody has some sort of sacrificial system. Everybody has some kind of built-in sense that there’s a god and that we’re wrong and that somehow this god must be propitiated, and they use that as an argument for the truthfulness of Christianity.
And you see something here, that they understand, “Okay, there’s a god and we don’t quite know about this God from Israel but He’s mad at us, we’ve gotta do something about it.” Their understanding is limited, I mean, they’re very confused. If they really knew Yahweh, they would know, well, the way to make Yahweh happy is not to send Him idols, that’s not going to work. But they have some understanding of Israelite religion. In fact, they’ve heard of what happened with Pharaoh, you see that down in verse 6, “The Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their heart,” don’t we know? There’s something of their narrative. They know something about the biblical storyline.
And it’s true in America. It’s not like we are living in an unreached country where people have never heard, or there aren’t churches. No, many people rub shoulders all the time with Christians, they see churches. Maybe you’re not a Christian, maybe you’re here just checking out church because you saw there’s lots of churches in Charlotte, or somebody from your work or from your gym who is a Christian invited you here. Many people in our land have heard of Jesus. They couldn’t name the 10 commandments probably, but they’ve heard about them, maybe Adam, Eve, David, Goliath. To be sure, biblical literacy is getting worse and worse, but there’s still some residual knowledge of Christianity in many parts of this country. There’s some awareness of revealed religion. That’s the first similarity.
Here’s the second: The Philistine approach to God was thoroughly pragmatic.
I don’t mean that in any technical, philosophical sense, I just mean pragmatism if it works, do it, and if it’s not working, do something else that works. Get results.
The problem with pragmatism is not a desire to be effective or strategic. When you’re wise, you say, “We know this is good, let’s find out how we can make this most effective.” Pragmatism reverses the order and says we know this effective, therefore it must be good, it must be right.
The Philistines were thoroughly pragmatic. Think about it. They approached God of Israel with one goal in mind: Get rid of these tumors, whatever it was that was happening. You hear about mice and maybe some form of bubonic plague sort of something from the vermin running around. Whatever it was, it’s miserable, they don’t want it, get God off our case.
So they wanted the ark when they felt like it would be a very nice trophy in their Philistine trophy case, and it would be a great symbol of the mighty power of Dagon, and maybe it would even have one more god on their side. After all, they had no problem adding gods, oh, we’ve conquered the God of Israel, this Yahweh, and so if we bring Yahweh into our camp and He can bow before Dagon, now we have an extra god in our pantheon. What could go wrong? They were interested in whatever works.
You can see them just grasping around as they talked to their leaders and their priests and their diviners. Well, what do we do? Let’s get a new cart. Let’s send Him some idols. What kind of idols? Let’s make idols in the shape of our tumors, ooh, that’ll be good. That’ll be real catchy for the mantelpiece. We’ll make some like mice, and some like our tumors.
So they’re just thinking like Philistines. This will work. We want to get rid of these tumors, and so we make idols in the shape of it and we send the tumors away, because right? Their God brought us these tumors, we’ll send our tumors away with their God when He goes up out of the Philistines. Let’s get two untrained milk cows separated from their calves.
What’s the thinking behind this strategy? Well, likely this is what they’re thinking: We have two female cows, never been yoked, so if we yoke them for the first time and they’re milking cows, we read that, so they’re wanting to be milked, and they got young calves who want to be fed, and if we send their calves away and we yoke them for the first time, we’ll know for sure if this works, if these cows work together and they’ve never been yoke before, and they resist the urge to be milked and they ignore the bleating cries of their young calves back in the distance and they set all that aside and they March in a straight line up to Beth-shemesh, then we’ll know that this plague has come from the Lord.
They are pragmatists. Let’s see what works, whatever it takes to make us happy, prosperous, and healthy again.
Surely you can see the similarities in our own culture. We, maybe in particular Americans, tend to be very practical, pragmatic people. And so often this is what passes even for true religion, even for Christianity in some places. You feel better, you’re a calmer person, you’ve had an experience of the divine, you know how to draw a crowd, you can sell a lot of books, you can be popular, you feel better about yourself, then there must be something to it. If it works, who can argue with what works? That’s all we’re interested. That is the religious impulse of the Philistines and that’s always been the religious impulse of many, many, if not most people in the world.
You know about me, if you know me at all, that I’m terrible at fixing things, any sort of mechanical things. I don’t know, I barely know how to put gas in my car, that’s about the limit. Maybe change the blinker fluid. That’s all. I don’t know how to do things with my car. [laughter] I don’t know how to fix go-carts, so we always got to get help for that. Got to take my car in when something’s wrong. I’m so impressed when many of you just know how to do this stuff, or you’re brought up with it, you’re really good at it, and when a mechanic at a shop talks to me and runs down all of the possible things that could be wrong with the car and I’m listening and I do a really good job and he’s throwing out names, oh, yeah, well, that’s probably it, that’s right, that’s right, [laughter], oh, that’s a good, and then he says, “Well, do you want me to, you know, throw this thing and I could order this part and we could do this…” and you know what I’m thinking all along? I don’t know what you’re talking about, do whatever works. I just want my car to drive and be safe. You have an understanding of what’s going on, I don’t really know, it doesn’t really matter to me, I’m going to give you my credit card when we’re done and I just want the car to work, so do whatever you have to do to make this thing work.
That’s how many people look at religion. I don’t need to get bogged down in the specifics, I don’t need to know too much about my Bible, I don’t need to get into the particulars of which denomination says what or not, I just want my marriage to be good, I want my kids to not mess up, I want to be happy again, I’d like to be healthy, I’d like to have a vacation. I just want something that works.
So many people are basic pragmatists when it comes to God. We want the goodies from Him, we want what works. Just like the Philistines.
Number three. Here’s a third similarity: The Philistine approach to God is like the American approach in that both can be very spiritual, bordering on the superstitious.
You notice the Philistine approach. Oh, they’re very spiritual, very spiritual. They believe in gods, curses, spirits. These are not atheists. These are not darwinian naturalists who don’t believe in the supernatural, who don’t believe in miracles, who don’t believe in the supernatural… They believe in all of that. They believe in an enchanted world of mystery and magic and spirituality and superstition. That’s why at the very beginning in verse 2 they call upon the priests, the religious experts. They call upon the diviners, those who can have some sort of message from god. They want fortune tellers, they want oracles. They’re very spiritual people.
And many people in this country, most people, in fact, are very spiritual. In fact, this is, too, I think something of a shift that’s happened in the last 50 years. Yes, you have people who rise up every now and again and the new atheists and they write books, but still all sorts of people, even sometimes the people who say they don’t believe in God, will say they’re very spiritual, and they’re willing to believe all sorts of strange things.
Now, it’s good to believe in miracles and the supernatural, but the result often is an interest in “anything goes” spirituality. And very intelligent people, who may dismiss Christianity on scientific grounds, say “I can’t become a Christian because of science,” and science is disproved, and “I just can reconcile Christianity in science, so I’m too smart for this Christian thing,” but then they will believe all sorts of conspiracy theories, or vaguely spiritual self-help gurus, or they’ll check their horoscope or they’ll check with mediums or they’ll believe any sort of superstition out there. There is a mish-mash of sincere belief in the supernatural and then a willingness to believe whatever seems helpful, any sort of broad-minded spirituality. If it’s angels, we’ll take angels; if it’s the Force, we’ll take the Force; if it’s Midi-chlorians… Whatever it is, we’ll take some sort of spirituality that works.
That was the culture of the Old Testament, it was the culture of the New Testament, it was the culture of the Philistines, and it’s our culture in many places today. Very spiritual, bordering on superstitious.
Here’s a final similarity with the Philistines and American religion is its pluralism.
Now there’s two different ways we can use that word. There’s a principled pluralism, people may just mean we live in a pluralistic society, that’s just a fact. We have many different ideas about the good, the true, the beautiful. We have many different ways of worshiping and approaching God, and so we have pluralism, and principled pluralism says okay, there’s some allowance in a free country for people to pursue things as they see fit, and we’re going to argue and try to persuade you of what is true from the Bible. So that’s a general sort of pluralism.
That’s not what I mean. What we see here is something more. We see a theological pluralism. The problem for the Philistines as it was for all Canaanite people, was not, their mistake was not in thinking that Yahweh wasn’t a god. They had no problem with that, they had heard the stories. They knew he did something pretty spectacular with the Egyptians and with Pharaoh. No problem saying Yahweh, or course Yahweh’s a god. The Philistines have a god and the Amorites have a god and all the Canaanite people have different gods. They have no problem recognizing that Yahweh is a god, they don’t even have a problem, most of the Canaanite people, with worshiping Yahweh as god. The problem was whether he would be worshiped alone.
Do you understand how absolutely counter-cultural the first commandment is? “I’m the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.” Okay. Lots of people had gods that they claimed had maybe done them special favors.
And “you shall worship the Lord your God.” Okay, that’s good. The Philistines worshipped Dagon and somebody else worships Asherah or Baal and we worship Yahweh. Cool.
“And you shall have no other gods before Me.” Nobody else was doing that in the ancient near East. It was always just addition, more gods is fine, you have your gods, we have ours. There was a theological pluralism. They were syncretists, combining their pagan religions with whatever religion of Israel.
You see how all this goes together? The superstition, the pragmatism, the pluralism, just throw it all together. If a little bit of Jesus helps my life go better, I have no problem adding a little Jesus.
And so they’re quite willing to recognize that the ark is a holy artifact. They understood enough about Israel religion to want to make a guilt offering. But you notice the offering they made was certainly not pleasing to the Lord. They sent the ark back on a cart, which was not what the Mosaic law called for, it called for polls to be through the side and you would carry it that way, not just end it on an ark.
They sent idols along; that’s certainly not how Yahweh wants to be worshiped. They send idols in the shape of unclean animals and they sent idols in the form of unclean parts of the human anatomy. So they got most everything wrong because they were thinking, well, “We just do this like we do Philistine religion, and we can add Yahweh into our Philistine religion and this is what we would do for Dagon, we’ll do for Yahweh. He’s one more god out there.”
The ark went back to Israel, but it was not because the Lord was favorable toward the Philistines’ pluralistic attempts to please Him.
We must realize today, even though a place like Charlotte has changed a lot, it’s still true that the South is different than some other parts of the country, and a place like Charlotte is different than Portland or Seattle. So it may not take a tremendous amount of guts to say nice things about Jesus. That’s probably in most of your spheres of influence not going to get you canceled to say something nice about Jesus. Or even to say that you’re part of a church.
It takes a little more bravery to say you believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins. And what takes even more guts is to say not just that Jesus is my God or my savior or He does good things for me, He’s actually the God. God of God. And the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the only God, and Jesus is the only way and there is no other name given among men whereby we must be saved.
So Jesus is not just Lord of my life, He’s king of the entire cosmos. He’s not just a way, He’s the only way. He’s not just the object of my worship, but one day every knee will bow, every tongue confess that He is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
That takes a little more courage.
So there are many similarities because the human spirit and human nature is the same, and these natural religious impulses, though they look very different and we don’t have golden mice and golden tumors, you can see the same sort of religious impulses, spirituality, a pluralism, a pragmatism, mixed together with a few elements of revealed… With all of that coming together with the Philistines, and we find it here in our own country.
Maybe you find it in your own heart. Maybe this is all mixed up for some of us, trying to make sense of it. Maybe this is the first time that we’ve ever said, “Whoa, I didn’t ever think of what I was doing with God to be anything like the Philistines.”
And then we have the Israelites. If the Philistines can be compared to a generic religious impulse in the West, then perhaps we can look at the Israelites as an example of many churches in the West.
Let me make just two points of comparison.
Number one: You see that these Israelites, like church people, they are genuinely interested in god. That’s true. That’s good. God is important to them. They care about their faith. They care about god. There’s even some emotion and passion at times. Notice they leave the wheat harvest. “Look, the ark has come back. Leave the wheat harvest. Go.” They rejoiced when the ark came back, so let’s not say the Israelites are getting everything wrong. There was a basic understanding of true worship.
What did they do when the ark returned? Well, they took the cart and they used the wood there to make a fire and then they took the cows, feel a little sorry for them, but they took the cows and then they knew we’re going to make an offering, and so they cut up the cows and they made a guilt offering. The Israelites probably thought, “We’ve sinned against God, now the ark has returned, we’re thankful, our God reigns, we have the ark back. Look, we won. The Philistines didn’t win, we won, we got it back. The Lord did it. Go, Yahweh.”
They were very devoted at one level to their God. And I daresay most of you are. I don’t know that for sure, but how do I know, how do I guess that? Well, you’re here in church. The number of the percentage of, you know, you look at the number and the percentage of people who believe in god, you know, 80% is the percentage of people who call themselves Christians goes over the percentage of people who call themselves evangelical Christians, and you final get down to the percentage of people who are in church on a Sunday, and it’s 10, 15%, even though for the last 50 years the Gallup poll has said that roughly 40% of Americans consistently have said they were in church last week. You can lie to Gallup; they weren’t.
So you’re here. If you are among the minority in this country that go to church most weeks, every week, even more so, then it’s probably right to say that you have more than an average interest in God. You may even have great passion and energy and ideas. You may really want to do the right thing and have some basic understanding of worship. Now I hope in our church that it’s more than that, but just to be in a church on Sunday, in particular a church that believes the Bible and teaches the Bible, you have this basic, at least rudimentary knowledge of what it means to be a Christian, and you’re into God.
Just like the Israelites. They were sincerely interested in God and in following Him.
But here’s a second comparison, and this is our last one. The Israelites, like so many Christians in our own country, think and thought very lightly of the holiness of God.
Now, it’s certainly true, Christians, all of us, need to hear of the love of God. God is love. There are weary sinners, some of you are weary sinners this morning and you struggle to believe that God could love you, He could forgive you, that you could live your life without a crushing weight of guilt for your past or present sins. That’s all very true. We always do well to meditate on the love of Christ, that we might be transformed, that we might know His pleasure as we come to God in the name of Christ. So, of course we need to hear about the love of God.
The love of God, however, does not make any biblical sense apart from the holiness of God, and we must realize that the default faith, not only of people outside the Church but for so many people inside the Church, the default faith is to think of God as warm, welcoming, affirming, full of unconditional love, rather well-intentioned, and almost completely harmless. We forget that the presence of the ark among the Philistines caused an outbreak of tumors and widespread panic, and here in Israel when the ark returns, it left the bad guys, it came back to the good guys, and how does this story end? You would have thought that perhaps this whole series of events with the ark would end on a great high note and the people rejoiced and they were so glad that God had proved victorious and the ark had returned, but do you see in chapter 7, verse 2, “And all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.”
And they had so much for which to lament. And so we end not on the high note with the ark returning, but with 70 men struck down, killed because they looked upon the ark. They had not really grasped whatever the other things they got right about religion, they had not really grasped the holiness of God.
I was listening to a podcast this week from a conservative political commentator. If I said this person’s name, you would know who this person is. I won’t, because that’s not the point. He’s a very smart person, straight shooter, says probably a lot of things that many people in here would agree with. And on this podcast, in the context of talking about various issues related to sexuality, and the point of this illustration is not about that but about what this person then says, as one of the persons being interviewed was trying to make a point that he said, “Well, I’m a Christian, and I think that there are still sexual sins out there and I’ve committed them and there’s all sorts of ways,” and then this person, who I like in many ways, says this: “For me, I don’t know. I was always raised to believe in a loving god who loves us and that we’re not mistakes and that he loves us as we are. Maybe I’m just a new-fangled Catholic, but I just don’t see a god that’s that judgmental.”
And that was the argument for why almost whatever you want to do with your sexuality is your own business and God’s not in the business of judging it. And I wish I could have said to this person, “Use your smarts to investigate what the Bible says about God and holiness, and if you want to read some people that the Catholic Church would like, read Augustin or Aquinas, and if you want to read something more up to date, read R. C. Sproul and The Holiness of God.”
Because we are never going to get our theology right, we’re never going to get our ethics right, we’re never going to get our worship right, if we have a god absent of his holiness. The Israelites underestimated the holiness of God. They treated God’s wrath, His commandments, His purity, His justice, lightly. God rested upon them at times inconsequentially. So they were surprised in chapter 4 that they couldn’t just manipulate God’s power. And then the Philistines in chapter 5 were surprised by what the presence of God did in their midst. And now in chapter 6 again the Israelites are surprised by the sovereign power and the holiness of God. They thought the ark was a kind of trophy, and their prize had come back, they were victorious, the Philistines weren’t. But they still thought it a light thing to handle the ark in any way they pleased.
They sacrificed to God in ways that Moses had not prescribed. They were supposed to use a bull, year old, male bull without blemish. They used female milk cows, when males were the acceptable burnt offering.
They touched the ark and no one was supposed to touch the ark. Later, famously, Uzzah died in 2 Samuel 6 because he touched the ark, and R. C. Sproul famously commented that his sin was thinking that his hand was less dirty than the ground upon which the ark was about to fall.
And they looked upon the ark. You see verse 19: “He struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh because they looked upon the ark of god.” The ark was supposed to be in the holy of holies. Once a year, only once a year, the high priest, and only the high priest, could enter. If at any other time he entered, he would die.
Now you may say, “Well, this is a bit extreme, they just looked on it. How were they supposed to know?” Well, they did know. Connect a few dots for you. This comes where? It comes to the town of Beth-shemesh. Now I don’t expect any of us to remember all of the land allotments that happened in the book of Joshua, but you can read Joshua 21 verse 16, “The city of Beth-shemesh was given to the sons of Aaron.” It was given to the priestly clan. These were people who had the responsibility to maintain and care for the ark. They knew better.
And you can read in Numbers chapter 4. Those descendants of Aaron responsible for transporting the ark were given the explicit instructions to use poles to carry it, not to touch it, and if they had to move it from one place to another as the tabernacle moved, they were to spread over a covering that no one would look upon the ark. So this is not just an accidental, “Oops, no one ever told me.”
Now God can still punish for those unintentional sins as well, but these were men who should have known better. They were of the tribe that handled the ark. They had received the instructions from Moses on what to do and yet in their carelessness and their casualness, they put the ark up on the rock and some 70 persons looked at it.
See the significance of the number 70? Which is so often a good number? In Numbers, the 70 men go up with Moses, the 70 plus 2, Eldad and Medad who get some of the Spirit as well, these 70 elders come up.
Well, now, we have the reverse. This representation of God’s people, of His leadership, these 70 men are struck down because they looked at the ark.
The whole Levitical priestly system was meant to teach the people of Israel two things: God is holy, and we are not. That’s why you have all the laws about the sacrifices and so many details about the washings and the priests and their clothes and the food you can eat and not eat, and the special utensils and the special days. All of it one big arrow pointing to the holiness of God and the Israelites, and the Levites in particular, should have understood it.
We have a different religion than Christianity when we lose our awareness of the holiness of God. Mark it very well, almost wherever there are grave theological compromises, somewhere that is downstream, whether it has to do with ethics or hell or the nature of the atonement or the uniqueness of Christ, somewhere all of that is downstream from thinking lightly about the holiness of God.
And if pastors get squishy about the holiness of God, they’ll avoid parts of the Bible. Or they’ll be less expositional or they’ll start playing fast and loose with the text. When we sidestep the holiness of God and ignore all the passages that are meant to instill the fear of the Lord in our hearts, then we lose out on what is meant to be the beginning of wisdom, and we trade all of the biblical revelation, of a God with power and transcendence and edges, for a god who is small, cozy, easygoing, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s just a lot like Americans in 2021. Who’d a thought.
And the irony is that if we do not feel the weight of glory now, we will one day feel the hand of the Lord’s judgment heavy upon us. The fundamental problem in our world is the same as the fundamental problem in the Church and it’s the same as the fundamental problem in ancient Israel: It is the de-godding of God. We have a god of our own invention, a god no longer possessing the weightiness, the heaviness, the glory, the holiness, just a god that we slap onto our lives to give us some meaning, to keep the kids out of trouble, to make us feel good, and, and here I’m ending, I promise, how can we understand the cross?
If you’re any kind of church at all, you’re going to mention the cross. But what is the cross fundamentally about? Now, it’s about a lot of things, but fundamentally is the cross mainly about showing you how much you’re worth? Is it merely about healing your brokenness in some therapeutic sense? Is the cross about mainly giving you purpose? Is the cross there mainly to help you feel good about yourself and cope with life’s disappointments and all of your self-recriminations?
Or is the cross first and foremost and fundamentally the place where all of our God-defying sin is put upon the back of the sinless substitute to redeem us, to save us, from hell, to make us right with God, to know not the frowning face of His judgment but the smiling face of His blessing, that you have sins and I have sins against a holy God and only at the cross can they be forgiven?
You have none of that, you feel none of that, you’ll sing none of that, if you don’t have a God of holiness, and only when you have a God of holiness will we be led to worship and will we worship in a way that is truly pleasing to God.
Let’s pray. Father, help us. These things are not just true of others, they are true of us. Give us a sense of Your glory. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.