I Samuel 5:1-7:1 The LORD Returns The Ark.
The Philistines finally understood that they were being punished for having stolen the ark of the covenant from its rightful owner and place. To avoid further suffering they decided to have it returned to Israel (Ch. 5). It should not go unnoticed that the priests and diviners made a point of placing all the focus on what they suffered – five golden tumors and five golden rats. There were five of each “according to the number of the lords of the Philistines” (6:4). Pagans always focus on their suffering, rather than on the God who was inflicting the punishment. In their minds they were acknowledging the LORD’s power as the one who sent the tumors and rats, but they thought that they could both buy him off, and that he somehow delighted in the punishment, enough to want to display gold objects commemorating the means of their punishment.
The Philistines were given a better recollection of the LORD’s history with Israel than Israel possessed themselves (v. 6). They even possessed enough knowledge that they knew that there was probably a correct and an incorrect way to transport such a holy object as the ark of the covenant (vv. 7-12). The priests and diviners had enough common sense to select two milk cows, separated from their calves. If there were any beasts of burden that would be naturally inclined to go back to their calves in the barn it would be milk cows. Instead, they immediately took a straight line to Beth Shemesh, God the LORD giving witness to the rightness of this decision to return what was his. It is ironic that an incident that resulted because Israel failed to handle the ark properly, was being reversed by pagans who sought to return it appropriately as they thought best.
It should be noted that the number of lords was five (v. 16), therefore just as the number of towns cursed was two (Ashdod and Gath), and about to be a third (Ekron), even so the plagues were two, providing two twofold witnesses to their capital crime (Cf. Nu. 35:30; Dt. 17:6; 19:15). Since the Philistines were not struck dead in moving the ark, we can only assume that unlike Uzzah at II Samuel 6:6-7, they did not touch it. Therefore they must have used the poles to put it on a cart, much as the Israelites did later (II Sam. 6). Neither group were fully following what the law prescribed, but at least they kept their distance since apparently even David did not seek out priests to carry it as the law prescribed (Nu. 4:15, 19; 7:9; Dt. 10:8; Josh. 3:8 etc). This may be why we read that it was the Levites who “took down the ark of the LORD” (v. 15), although Beth Shemesh was also given to the Levites (Josh 21:16).
They also offered sacrifices, likely in thanksgiving for the return of the ark. However, even after learning what happened to the Philistines, and presumably seeking to handle the ark aright, they nevertheless suffer themselves because some of their number not only touched the ark, but they actually “looked into the ark” (v. 19), and so the LORD “struck fifty thousand and seventy men of the people,” for which there was great lamentation. The lamentation ought to have accompanied their sacrificial offerings, along with a thorough study of the word so that they might handle the holy things of the LORD in the manner he had prescribed. Instead they acted presumptuously. Perhaps they thought that the Philistines suffered just because they were Philistines, but the LORD is no respecter of persons. Instead, out of fear they request that the ark be removed from their midst.