The Philistines made themselves enemies of Israel, and they engaged in many battles against God’s people. In one instance, they thought they had won a great victory over Israel, but the Philistines would learn the hard way that things do not happen by chance (1 Samuel 6).
Near the end of the time of the judges, the Philistines and the Israelites were fighting again. After a defeat at the hands of the Philistines, the leaders of Israel decided to sway the next battle by bringing the ark of the covenant into the camp (1 Samuel 4:3–6). The leaders treated it as some kind of good luck charm. Initially, the ark provided a psychological advantage for the Israelites, but the Philistines won the battle and took the ark (1 Samuel 4:10–11).
In celebration of their victory, the Philistines put the ark of the covenant in the house of their god Dagon, but the idol kept falling on its face before the ark (1 Samuel 5:3–5). They moved the ark from Dagon’s house to various cities, and in each city where the ark went, the people were afflicted with illness and tumors (1 Samuel 5:6–12). After seven months the leaders of the Philistines realized something had to be done, so they inquired of the priests and diviners (1 Samuel 6:2). They recommended to put inside the ark some trespass offerings and give glory to God (1 Samuel 6:3–8). The Philistines were beginning to learn that things do not happen by chance.
The Philistine priests and diviners explained that they should watch the ark as it was carried on a cart drawn by two cows to see which road it would take. If the ark traveled by way of its own territory through Beth Shemesh, then the Philistines would know that God was the one who had afflicted the Philistines. If, on the other hand, the ark took a different path, then they would know that God had not done this, and that all the misfortune had befallen them by chance (1 Samuel 6:9). The Philistines followed the word of their priests (1 Samuel 6:10–12) and watched as the ark traveled directly to Beth Shemesh (1 Samuel 6:13–14). The cows, who had been separated from their calves, “went straight up toward Beth Shemesh, keeping on the road and lowing all the way; they did not turn to the right or to the left” (1 Samuel 6:12). The rulers of the Philistines could now be certain that the destruction of the image of Dagon and the plague suffered by the Philistines were not happenstance. Those events had been orchestrated by the one true God. The Philistines learned that things do not happen by chance.
When the ark was returned, all the people of Israel cried out to God (1 Samuel 7:2). They returned to the Lord (1 Samuel 7:3–4) and acknowledged their sin before God (1 Samuel 7:6). The Philistines attacked again, but this time God won the victory for Israel (1 Samuel 7:10). The Philistines may have learned that things do not happen by chance and that the one true God is in control, but they forgot that lesson quickly.
Besides providing important historical data, these events can serve us as a cautionary tale. They warn us to learn well that things do not happen by chance. God is the sovereign Creator and has the authority and power over His creation. The Philistines failed to remember that and set themselves against the people whom God had chosen. The Philistines endured difficult consequences as a result. It would have been much better for them if they had remembered the lesson they learned when the ark took the path to Beth Shemesh—that things do not happen by chance.