One of the sad realities we can find ourselves in is sometimes the non-believer can have a better grasp on some of the truths of Scripture even better than the believer can. Sufficient evidence to prove this can be readily seen in the cancel culture phenomenon we see around us, which if were happening in the church would be termed “church discipline.” A practice not too readily practiced by many churches. Now to be sure the way in which cancel culture can be carried out has a myriad of problems with it, that I won’t bother to get into, but at the core of it is a belief in the words of Paul, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump (Gal 5:9). Now because they do not believe the rest of what Paul says, cancel culture looks radically different from Biblical church discipline—it has not concept of patience, of forgiveness, of reconciliation—but the point remains, the culture sees the need for church discipline better than many churches. We will see a similar issue in our text today. The issue at hand is not church discipline but repentance. And the pagan Philistines will prove that they understand repentance and the costs associated with it better than the Israelites. And in doing so they will give us a picture of both the consequences of sin and of proper repentance that we can learn from as well.
Summary of the Text:
For seven months the various Philistine cities suffer under the plague (I say plague because the evidence in the text suggests this was the bubonic plague, although it may have been something else). They move the ark from place to place but where ever it goes death follows. After seven months, the Philistines have had enough and come to the conclusion that something needs to give. The lords of the Philistines consult with their priests who advise them to put the ark on a cart with the cows pointed toward Israel and to send with it a “trespass offering” of five golden tumors and five golden rats. The cows head straight for Israel toward a town called Beth Shemesh. The people there offer up a burnt offering of praise for the return of the ark but then make the fatal mistake of opening the ark to look inside. For their temerity the Lord strikes down over fifty thousand men, prompting the men of Beth Shemesh to move the ark to the town of Kirjath Jearim.
As we saw in chapter 5 of 1 Samuel, God will not be mocked. The Philistines thought their defeat of the Israelites and their capturing of the ark proved the supremacy of their god, Dagon. When in reality they defeated the Israelites not by their own might but because the Lord gave them victory as a means of punishing his people for their failure to repent. The Philistines suffer seven months of plague as they move the ark from city to city before they finally get the hint and realize that maybe the Lord was not as weak as they thought, and they should return the ark to his people. And when they do so their reveal that they know a very important truth: forgiveness is not free.
There is a certain amount of irony here in the text. The people of God by their attempts to manipulate God into helping them by bringing the ark into battle instead of repenting, prove they do not understand forgiveness nor repentance. The Philistines, in all their pagan superstition and in all the irrationality of sin, know that they have offended the God they neither worship nor see as powerful or supreme, and they know that their guilt deserves punishment. No even more they realized that their guilt was being punished, in this case by means of plague.
This was implicit in what was said last time but it is worth making explicit. There is no such thing as sin with no consequences. Now to be sure the consequences are not always as dramatic as being visited by the plague, but there are always consequences nonetheless. Idolatry is like taking a chunk of plutonium into your house and sitting on the kitchen table. Bring enough in it in and let the circumstances align and it may go nuclear and destroy everything around you (i.e. the plague visits the Palestinians) but even when it doesn’t that does not mean you got away with it, it means you get cancer instead and suffer a slow wasting death (Psalm 32:3-5). That is the nature of things. Idolatry and sin always begets plague. Most of the time it is of the spiritual variety, but occasionally it takes a biological form as well. All this should inform how we see sin. The lie of temptation is that it is good for us. The reality is that it is akin to dropping a chunk of plutonium in our soul. It is drinking from a bottle labeled “contaminated by the plague” (or by Covid-19 in our case). With the consequences being so dire then the only response is to throw sin out, anything less is leaving your chunk of plutonium on your kitchen table where it slowly irradiates you.
The Philistines, furthermore they realize that if they want their guilt lifted, this will require something of them. Their debt must be paid. Now they do so in what can only be described as a typically pagan fashion, giving to the Israelites golden images of tumors and rats. The offerings themselves may have been weird and rooted in pagan superstition and spirituality but one thing we know is that they were offerings, and more specifically, that they were guilt offerings (verse 17). They were certainly more than the Israelites offered when they realized they had sinned back in chapter 4. As strange and misguided as their attempts to placate their guilt were, they still recognize the principle far better than the Israelites and far better than us at times, repentance has a cost associated with it. And God recognizes their grasp of the truth as flawed as it is and has mercy on them, accepting their offering, and releases them from the effects of the plague.
Simply put, all this should then beg the question of us, what price can we pay to escape the guilt of our sin? How can we get out of the judgment of God we have incurred against ourselves? The Philistine’s golden images of tumors and rats was accepted by God as a means of lifting the plague from their cities, but even after the offering was accepted, they were still Philistines. They did not become Israelites. They did not become the people of God. They saw their god fall before the ark and yet continued to worship him! They made a guilt offering but they did not abandon their idolatry. They were still under wrath. They wrath of God cannot be lifted by an offering of silver or gold. The blood of bulls will not suffice. As was quoted a couple weeks ago: “Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone” The debt of our sin could only be paid by the blood of Christ. Our idolatry ravaged souls could only be healed by Christ. The Philistines lifted the curse of the plague by means of a guilt offering of golden tumors and mice. God lifts the curse of the fall brought on by our sin by means of a guilt offering as well. He sends his Son, who takes the “image” of a man and offers up himself as a guilt offering. Becoming sin that we may become the righteousness of God. By his death we die to sin and are thus freed from its bondage. And by his stripes are our wounds, the plague of sin healed. That we may walk with him faithfully. That we may repent from our sins joyfully. That we may love him totally.