1 Samuel 6:19, 20
And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD…
I. THE OFFENCE. The Philistines are not blamed for sending away the ark of God on a wooden car. They did not know, or, if they knew, they had no means of observing, the mode of carriage by Levites which had been prescribed in the Mosaic law. In placing the ark on a new car never before used, and drawn by young cows that had never before worn a yoke, the Philistines meant to show respect. But the men of Beth-shemesh, being Israelites, and having Levites among them, knew, or ought to have known, the laws regarding the sacred ark. So they were more severely judged. Their familiar handling of the ark was a presumptuous sin. Irreverence had grown during the years of misgovernment and license through which Israel had passed. It is evident that before the people would have dared to send for the ark to Shiloh, and take it into the field of battle, they must have lost much of the veneration with which their fathers had regarded the symbol of Jehovah's presence. And now the men of Beth-shemesh actually presumed to look into the ark, perhaps to ascertain whether the Philistines had put any gold into it, besides the golden offerings which they had placed in a separate coffer. So doing, they forgot, or wilfully broke, the law which allowed none of the people at large so much as to approach the ark, and required that the priests should cover it with a veil, before the Kohathites might carry it; and in carrying it those Levites might not lay their hands upon it, but were commanded to bear it on gilt staves passing through golden rings in the four corners of the sacred chest. Indeed the Kohathites, though thus honoured as the bearers of the ark, were forbidden not only to touch it, but even to go into the most holy place to see it covered under pain of death.
II. THE PENALTY. The Lord saw it needful to restore reverence for his law and for the ark of his testimony by striking a blow at presumption which would not be soon forgotten. Accordingly, seventy of the country people at Beth-shemesh were smitten with death. On the same ground, a few years later, was Uzzah the Levite stricken dead because he put his hand on the ark of God. What a warning against irreverence! For this cause men may die close to the ark of the covenant, perish beside the mercy seat. Nay, that which is the greatest blessing may be turned by presumption into the greatest disaster. The savour of life may be turned into a savour of death. It is especially a warning to those who "name the name of the Lord." The ignorant and profane are judged, but not so strictly as those who "profess and call themselves Christians;" just as the Philistines were afflicted with boils, but the Israelites were visited with death. God is much displeased with listless minds, irreverent postures, and heedless spirits in his Church. No doubt it may be pleaded that such faults come of want of thought, and not of any evil intent; but want of thought is itself a very grave offence in such a matter as the service of God. Even levity is inexcusable; for, at all events in adult persons, it comes of hardness of heart, ingratitude to Christ, neglect of reflection on sacred themes and objects, engrossment of thought and affection with the things which are seen, and an indifference to the presence and purpose of the Holy Spirit. Let us study reverence. "God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the holy ones, and to be had in reverence of all that are round about him." - F.
Parallel VersesKJV: And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the LORD had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.
WEB: He struck of the men of Beth Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of Yahweh, he struck of the people fifty thousand seventy men; and the people mourned, because Yahweh had struck the people with a great slaughter.