Sermon for Sunday, November 12th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
Old Testament reading:
[Isa 6:1-7 ESV] 1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
New Testament reading:
[Rev 6:12-17 ESV] 12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
[Luk 4:31-37 ESV] 31 And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, 32 and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority. 33 And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, 34 “Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God.” 35 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm. 36 And they were all amazed and said to one another, “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” 37 And reports about him went out into every place in the surrounding region.
[1Sa 6:1-21 ESV] 1 The ark of the LORD was in the country of the Philistines seven months. 2 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.” 3 They said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it 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.” 4 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. 5 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. 6 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? 7 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. 8 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 9 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.” 10 The men did so, and took two milk cows and yoked them to the cart and shut up their calves at home. 11 And they put the ark of the LORD on the cart and the box with the golden mice and the images of their tumors. 12 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. 13 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. 14 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. 15 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. 16 And when the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron. 17 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, 18 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. 19 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. 20 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?” 21 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.”
The story of Israel, the Philistines, and the Ark continues. And in this account we find that the focus is on the holiness of God.
God, as the prophet Isaiah says is “holy, holy, holy.” Thrice holy. Or as R. C. Sproul says “God is WHOLLY HOLY.”
And so God cannot allow corruption and sin to be near him.
The sins of Israel have brought God to have them be defeated in war against the Philistines and the capture of the Ark of the Covenant.
And the sins of the Philistines have brought God’s wrath upon them with the destruction of the statue of Dagon in their temple and the spread of tumors among the people from city to city ever since the Ark of God arrived.
I. God’s Holiness Against Philistia (v. 1-11)
A. Seven months of troubles.
We find that “the ark of the Lord was I the country of the Philistines seven months.”
And it is hard to believe, with all the troubles that came upon them, that they wouldn’t get rid of the Ark sooner.
Matthew Henry: “Sinners lengthen out their own miseries by obstinately refusing to part with their sins.”
There is some stubbornness. But they are not as stubborn as the Egyptians.
Now there is an additional problem. Mice are ravaging the land. The Philistines are under a curse and they conclude that God’s hand is heavy upon them.
B. The Holiness of God is too much for the Philistines.
The holiness of God is too much for the Philistines. They want a way out.
C. Diviners to the rescue?
What did ancient peoples do when they were really in trouble? Call the diviners. When confronted with the miracle of Moses’s staff being turned into a serpent and back into a staff, Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers. (Exodus 7:11) When King Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel saw the fingers of a human hand writing on a wall, he called loudly to bring the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the astrologers. (Daniel 5:7)
But Israel, of course, was never to seek the help of such people.
[Deu 18:10-11 ESV] 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead,
But the Philistines ask the diviners “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord.”
What shall we do with this hot potato? We’ve passed it around, and it has burned each of us now, and we’re rather tired of the troubles we are having.
And everywhere that the Ark went, the tumors were sure to go.
So, please, diviners, tell us what to do!
1. A guilt offering.
Well, the diviners tell the Philistines not to send the Ark back empty, but to make a guilt offering. They are trying to appease God. They think, maybe we’ve done something wrong. And maybe if we give something to Him, he’ll be satisfied, placated.
2. Gold tumors and gold mice
So the diviners say to send 5 gold tumors and five gold mice (ESV, NASB, NET, KJV), or rats in some translations (NKJV, NLT, NIV).
It is hard to imagine that God would want these! Mice are among the dirtiest of animals, both in Jewish law (Lev 11:29) and in reality. And tumors are just, well, a product of the curse of the Fall.
The number 5 is according to the number of cities with their lords in Philistia. Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, Ashkelon, Gaza.
The diviners say “Perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land.” It’s worth a shot, right. This reminds me of he sailors on the boat with Jonah.
[Jon 1:6 ESV] 6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! PERHAPS the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”
The alternative is that they continue to be punished by God. And the diviners know about the Exodus account and how poorly things went for the Egyptians when they hardened their hearts against God.
These diviners have better theology than some in Israel. They know that God is dangerous. There is much that they don’t know though, and much that they don’t believe.
For example, this test for them is to see if God is really against them, or if these calamities that have beset them are just by chance. Well, it is pretty clear there is no chance involved here. It is not just a coincidence that they’re trouble fell upon them at the same time the Ark was captured. In fact, chance isn’t a Biblical idea at all. God works all things according to the purpose of His will. Nothing occurs by chance.
D. Sending the Ark away.
Then they send the Ark away with these five gold tumors and five gold mice.
This is my favorite part of this text. The cows! They put the ark on a cart for them to possibly bring back to Israel.
It is a test to see if the heavy hand of God upon them will lighten when they give up the Ark. And everything is set to make it clear that God is at work.
First, they chose milk cows on which there has never come a yoke. So they don’t know how to pull. And they don’t know how to work in tandem.
Then, the Philistines take the calves of those cows and bring them home. So they are “lowing” for mom. Which way is she going to go? Naturally the cows would go back to the calves.
But they go against all nature and head straight back to Israel. It is a miraculous return of the Ark of God directed by two milk cows. They turn neither to the right nor to the left.
Even if you are good with directions, you occasionally take a wrong turn. These cows don’t even have a map, but they turn at all the right places.
II.God’s Holiness Against Israel (v. 12-21)
A. Joy in Beth-shemesh.
There is great joy in Beth-shemesh upon seeing the Ark returning.
And there indeed should be.
This was a Levitical city (Joshua 21:16), full of priests. They knew the importance of the Ark.
And all Israel remembers this day when they see the great stone of Beth-shemesh, which is “here till this day.” Such stones are important in the old testament. They don’t move. And they function as reminders of events that have transpired; blessings of God.
And they offer the milk cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. But they should know better.
[Lev 1:1-3 ESV] 1 The LORD called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock. 3 “If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD.
Now, I’m no agriculturalist, but I know that milk cows are female.
And this law from Leviticus is the very first statement of that book. It should be easy to remember. But they don’t know the law, or at least they don’t follow the law.
B. Death in Beth-shemesh.
But not everything goes swimmingly in Beth-shemesh.
The Philistines had rejoiced when the Ark first came to them, but they couldn’t stand up to the holiness of God.
Now the people of Bethshemesh rejoice when the Ark is returned. But they can’t stand up to the holiness of God either.
1. The Holiness of God is too much for the Israelites.
Some of the Israelites look upon the Ark and are struck dead. (Verse 10)
This corresponds with God’s warning in Numbers 4 not to “look on the holy things [including the Ark of God] even for a moment, lest they die.” And when the Ark was moved it was to be covered with a veil.
The Ark of the Covenant, the place of the presence of God, was too much to be seen.
God had said to Moses “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see and live.” (Exodus 33:20) And this applied also the Ark of God.
Matthew Henry:” It is a great affront to God for vain men to pry into and meddle with the secret things which belong not to them.”
III. Who is able to stand before the Lord, this Holy God?
We know that the Philistines are not holy enough to stand next to God. They are dirty heathens.
But now we find that Israel is not holy enough to stand next to God.
This is what the people of Beth-shemesh realize too.
Even priests are not holy enough to stand next to God.
So they ask, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this Holy God?” [REPEAT: “WHO IS ABLE TO STAND BEFORE THE LORD, THIS HOLY GOD?”
A. God’s Holiness is like none other.
God’s holiness is like none other.
He is holy and you are not.
He is holy and we are not.
B. God’s Holiness is righteous.
And God’s holiness is righteous.
He will not tolerate sin but must, according to his nature, punish evil.
The Scripture tells us, “The wages of sin is death.”
C. Man needs a mediator.
So the question remains: “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this Holy God?”
This same question comes in:
[Psa 76:7 ESV] 7 But you, you are to be feared! Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused?
[Mal 3:2 ESV] 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.
Peter even realizes the same trouble:
[Luk 5:8 ESV] 8 But when Simon Peter saw it (the fish filling the boat so that it almost sank), he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
“Who is able to stand before the Lord, this Holy God?”
It is not any man, but only the God-man Jesus Christ.
He, and he alone, is able to stand before God blameless, without sin. And dying on the cross, Christ takes the punishment we deserve.
Then, when we look at Christ see God. In the world to come “there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him. And they shall see his face.” (Rev. 22:3-4a KJV)
Christ is the answer to the problem raised by the people of Beth-Shemesh. He is the answer to the problem raised again and again. Why is able to stand before the Lord, the Holy God?; the dangerous holy God. There is but one, Jesus Christ.
You know your sin. And like the Philistines you know the curse that is upon you. What are you to do? Do not wait. Don’t wait seven months or any length of time. Look to Jesus Christ and look to him now, for the forgiveness of sins.
1. Don’t conclude that God has abandoned you.
Any onlooker could say that God has abandoned Israel. But he hasn’t. When things go awry for you, don’t conclude that God has abandoned you.
2. The Love of God is powerful.
Though God is just, He is also loving.
Because we are unable to stand under his justice, by His love He sent Christ to stand for us, and to hold us up. Salvation is the work of God.
Note that the Israelites got the ark back without any effort of their own. There was no rescue operation. God brought it about. That is the parallel with our salvation, it was a rescue operation of God, because of his love for His people.
I read a book this week about a muslim convert to Christianity. And he explained that the of Islam is only ever described as wrathful. There is no love. The author was scandalized as a child when at his international school he peaked into the Christian’s class and saw on the chalkboard the words “God is Love.” He had never heard this in Islam and was quite shocked to hear Christians believed it.
3. Look to Christ who IS able to stand.
And let us ever say, “Hallelujah, what a savior.”