Today’s reading begins with the stealing of the ark of the LORD by the Philistines and concludes with Samuel’s warning to Israel about the conduct of a king.
There are two almost comedic episodes in the reading for today. Both of them come about as a result of the stealing of the Ark of the LORD by the Philistines. In the first episode, shortly after the Philistines steal the Ark of the LORD, they place it in the house that belonged to their god, Dagon. In the morning after the first night that the Ark spent next to Dagon, the statue of Dagon had fallen down face first in front of the Ark. The people, probably assuming that this was a mere coincidence, reset the statue of Dagon in its place. In the morning after the second night that the Ark spent next to Dagon, the statue of Dagon had fallen face first in front of the Ark again, but this time the head and the hands of Dagon had been cut off and they were lying at the entrance of the house of the Philistine god, Dagon. Certainly this was God acting and indicating to the Philistines that He was God only and worthy of worship and that He jealousy guards his own worship.
The second comedic incident of the reading for today occurred again in conjunction with the Ark of the LORD and the Philistine’s possession of it. After the incident between the Ark and the god Dagon, the Philistines shipped the ark to several cities within their territory and at each resting place, the Ark of the LORD brought bad fortune to the people of the city where the Ark rested. Tiring of the fear, distress, and disease that the Ark of the LORD seemed to bring to the Philistines, the people were ready to return the Ark to Israel. When the people inquired of their priests about what they should do to return the Ark, the priests advised using a cart pulled by two milk cows that had not pulled a cart previously and filled the cart with offerings to the LORD. They had made the determination that if this specially filled cart made its way towards the land of Israel towards the city of Beth-Shemesh then all the ill fortune that had befallen them had come to them from the LORD. If on the other hand, if the cart wandered away from them in some other direction then all of the ill fortune was merely a coincidence. The Philistines prepared the cart and released it, and this is the point in the passage that makes me chuckle: “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…” 1 Samuel 6:11-12a (ESV). The cart didn’t meander through the desert but made its way expeditiously to the one place that would confirm that God had been against them all this time.
The final passage in today’s reading deals with the warnings of Samuel to the people of Israel and their desire for a king to rule over them. Samuel had been a faithful and righteous judge to the people of Israel, but his sons had not followed in his steps of faithfulness. Instead of waiting for the LORD to provide for them another faithful and righteous judge, the people came to Samuel and requested that he find for them a king. God knew that by the request of the people for a king that they were rejecting His rule over them as their king and that they wished to have a human king. God wanted the people to be fully aware of what having a king would mean to the people of Israel and so He spoke through Samuel and warned the people of how an earthly king would rule. He would press them into service, he would require taxes of them, he would take them often into war, and Samuel concludes his warning to the Israelites with this: “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, who you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” 1 Samuel 8:18 (ESV)
God, who had ruled over Israel from the time of their Exodus out of Egypt and provided salvation through the judges was being replaced by the people with an earthly king.