The story here informs us of the independence of God, in the sense that he does not need his people to help him. Israel had not been able to defeat the Philistines, and perhaps they imagined that Yahweh had also been defeated. As we saw earlier, Yahweh had defeated the pagan god Dagon in the very place where his power was assumed to be greatest.
Having said that God does not need us, I would stress that this does not mean God does not want to use us. The reality is that he does want to use his people.
A second lesson from the story is that God’s people should rejoice when he gives a measure of spiritual restoration. When the men of Beth-shemesh saw the ark returning they rejoiced. Here was a sign of the Lord returning to bless them. Beth-shemesh was one of the cities allotted to the Levites (Josh. 21:16), and the inhabitants should have known how to take care of the ark, so its return there is another reminder of God’s gracious working in providence. In his mercy he returned the ark to the tribe that he had designated to look after it.
A third lesson that we see here is that God deals with his people in a more severe manner than he does the world. Instead of looking after the ark they committed the sin of sacrilege. It is not clear what the precise figure who died were. Most manuscripts say it was seventy persons; others say that that the 50,000 refers to the men who died in the battle with the Philistines and so added with the seventy gives the total number who died in that period. In any case, here we have a reminder that the mere presence of the signs of God’s commitment to his people is not an indication that he will tolerate improper responses from them.
Of what sins were these Israelites guilty, bearing in mind that they were probably Levites or priests? The first sin was that they disobeyed clear biblical teaching that no-one was to look into the ark; perhaps their looking arose out of a concern to check whether or not the tablets and the other items were still in the ark, or perhaps it was mere curiosity. Whatever the reason, their action was wrong.
A second sin was despising the symbol of God’s presence; when they lifted the lid of the ark they were holding in their hands the symbol of his power. A similar situation would occur if a person was to grab the Queen’s sceptre and throw it about; the seriousness is not in the metal of what the symbol is made, but what it represents.
If these men were the religious leaders, then it is a reminder to church leaders today that what is required from them is faithfulness to God’s word. They have to treat the things of God as if they were handling God himself. When they read his word they are listening to God; how they handle the signs of God’s presence indicates what they think of God.
But the lesson is not limited to church leaders, for it applies to all the Lord’s people. Our God is a consuming fire and he demands holiness and obedience from us.