The first words of the chapter tell us how long the captivity of the ark continued—it was in the country of the Philistines seven months. In the field of the Philistines (so it is in the original), from which some gather that, having tried it in all their cities, and found it a plague to the inhabitants of each, at length they sent it into the open fields, upon which mice sprang up out of the ground in great multitudes, and destroyed the corn which was now nearly ripe and marred the land. With that judgment they were plagued (1 Sam. 6:5), and yet it is not mentioned in the foregoing chapter; so God let them know that wherever they carried the ark, so long as they carried it captive, they should find it a curse to them. Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed in the field, Deut. 28:16. But, most take it to signify, as we render it, The country of the Philistines. Now, 1. Seven months Israel was punished with the absence of the ark, that special token of God’s presence. How bare did the tabernacle look without it! How was the holy city now a desolation, and the holy land a wilderness! A melancholy time no doubt it was to the good people among them, particularly to Samuel; but they had this to comfort themselves with, as we have in the like distress when we are deprived of the comfort of public ordinances, that, wherever the ark is, the Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord’s throne is in heaven, and by faith and prayer we may have access with boldness to him there. We may have God nigh unto us when the ark is at a distance. 2. Seven months the Philistines were punished with the presence of the ark; so long it was a plague to them, because they would not send it home sooner. Note, Sinners lengthen out their own miseries by obstinately refusing to part with their sins. Egypt’s plagues would have been fewer than ten if Pharaoh’s heart had not been hardened not to let the people go. But at length it is determined that the ark must be sent back; there is no remedy, they are undone if they detain it.
I. The priests and the diviners are consulted about it, 1 Sam. 6:2. They were supposed to be best acquainted both with the rules of wisdom and with the rites of worship and atonement. And the Israelites being their neighbours, and famed above all people for the institutions of their religion, they had no doubt the curiosity to acquaint themselves with their laws and usages; and therefore it was proper to ask them, What shall we do to the ark of Jehovah? All nations have had a regard to their priests, as the men whose lips keep knowledge. Had the Philistines diviners? We have divines, of whom we should enquire wherewith we shall come before the Lord and bow ourselves before the most high God.
II. They give their advice very fully, and seem to be very unanimous in it. It was a wonder they did not, as friends to their country, give it, ex officio—officially, before they were asked. 1. They urge it upon them that it was absolutely necessary to send the ark back, from the example of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, 1 Sam. 6:6. Some, it may be, were loth to yield, and were willing to try it out with the ark awhile longer, and to them they apply themselves: Wherefore do you harden your hearts, as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? It seems they were well acquainted with the Mosaic history, and could cite precedents out of it. This good use we should make of the remaining records of God’s judgments upon obstinate sinners, we should by them be warned not to harden our hearts as they did. It is much cheaper to learn by other people’s experience than by our own. The Egyptians were forced at last to let Israel go; therefore let the Philistines yield in time to let the ark go. 2. They advise that, when they sent it back, they should send a trespass-offering with it, 1 Sam. 6:3. Whatever the gods of other nations were, they knew the God of Israel was a jealous God, and how strict he was in his demands of sin-offerings and trespass-offerings from his own people; and therefore, since they found how highly he resented the affront of holding his ark captive, those with whom he had such a quarrel must in any wise return him a trespass-offering, and they could not expect to be healed upon any other terms. Injured justice demands satisfaction. So far natural light instructed men. But when they began to contrive what that satisfaction should be, they became wretchedly vain in their imaginations. But those who by wilful sin have imprisoned the truth in unrighteousness, as the Philistines did the ark (Rom. 1:18), may conclude that there is no making their peace with him whom they have thus injured but by a sin-offering; and we know but one that can take away sin. 3. They direct that this trespass-offering should be an acknowledgement of the punishment of their iniquity, by which they might take shame to themselves as conquered and yielding, and guilty before God, and might give glory to the God of Israel as their mighty conqueror and most just avenger, 1 Sam. 6:5. They must make images of the emerods, that is, of the swellings and sores with which they had been afflicted, so making the reproach of that shameful disease perpetual by their own act and deed (Ps. 78:66), also images of the mice that had marred the land, owning thereby the almighty power of the God of Israel, who could chastise and humble them, even in the day of their triumph, by such small and despicable animals. These images must be made of gold, the most precious metal, to intimate that they would gladly purchase their peace with the God of Israel at any rate, and would not think it bought too dearly with gold, with much fine gold. The golden emerods must be, in number, five, according to the number of the lords, who, it is likely, were all afflicted with them, and were content thus to own it; it was advised that the golden mice should be five too, but, because the whole country was infested with them, it should seem, upon second thoughts, they sent more of them, according to the number both of the fenced cities and of the country villages, 1 Sam. 6:18. Their priests reminded them that one plague was on them all; they could not blame one another, for they were all guilty, which they were plainly told by being all plagued. Their proposal to offer a trespass-offering for their offence was conformable enough to divine revelation at that time; but to send such things as these for trespass-offerings was very foreign, and showed them grossly ignorant of the methods of reconciliation appointed by the law of Moses; for there it appears all along that it is blood, and not gold, that makes atonement for the soul. 4. They encourage them to hope that hereby they would take an effectual course to get rid of the plague: You shall be healed, 1 Sam. 6:3. For, it seems, the disease obstinately resisted all the methods of cure their physicians had prescribed. “Let them therefore send back the ark, and then,” say they, “It shall be known to you why his hand is not removed from you, that is, by this it will appear whether it is for your detaining the ark that you are thus plagued; for, if it be, upon your delivering it up the plague will cease.” God has sometimes put his people upon making such a trial, whether their reformation would not be their relief. Prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, Mal. 3:10; Hag. 2:18, 19. Yet they speak doubtfully (1 Sam. 6:5): Peradventure he will lighten his hand from off you; as if now they began to think that the judgment might come from God’s hand, and yet not be removed immediately upon the restitution of the ark; however that was the likeliest way to obtain mercy. Take away the cause and the effect will cease. 5. Yet they put them in a way to make a further trial whether it was the hand of the God of Israel that had smitten them with these plagues or no. They must, in honour of the ark, put it on a new cart or carriage, to be drawn by two milch-cows, that had calves daily sucking them (1 Sam. 6:7), unused to draw, and inclined to home, both for the sake of the crib where they were fed and of the calves they nourished, and, besides, altogether unacquainted with the road that led towards the land of Israel. They must have no one to lead or drive them, but must take their own way, which, in all reason, one might expect, would be home again; and yet, unless the God of Israel, after all the other miracles he has wrought, will work one more, and by an invisible power lead these cows, contrary to their natural instinct and inclination, to the land of Israel, and particularly to Beth-shemesh, they will retract their former opinion, and will believe it was not the hand of God that smote them, but it was a chance that happened to them, 1 Sam. 6:8, 9. Thus did God suffer himself to be tempted and prescribed to, after he had been otherwise affronted, by these uncircumcised Philistines. Would they have been content that the honour of Dagon, their god, should be put upon such an issue as this? See how willing bad men are to shift off their convictions of the hand of God upon them, and to believe, when they are in trouble, that it is a chance that happens to them; and, if so, the rod has no voice which they are concerned to hear or heed.