In reading 1 Samuel 5-6, I am struck by the impact of the presence of the ark of the covenant among the Philistines. They have captured this sacred box from the Israelites, hoping to have similar success in battle that they have seen the Israelites experience. But they don't quite understand who they're dealing with, and the ark brings the Philistines trouble instead of glory. They aren't on any sort of path to repentance or seeking to know God. They're looking for a good luck charm and instead they've come face to face, in a sense, with the judgment of God.
When the ark was in homes of Israelites, those households were greatly blessed. Why weren’t the Philistines similarly blessed? Wouldn’t that have been a better witness than bringing them trouble? Which is, in essence, to ask, what was God thinking? So maybe this is a pointless line of questioning, since His ways are not our ways…but still it leaves me wondering.
I think maybe the point here is that God’s righteousness means that besides blessing, there is inevitably judgment. The Philistines are not on any sort of path towards repentance, and have just destroyed Israelite cities and captured the ark. The result is judgment. Interestingly, the Philistines remember the stories of the plaques in Egypt and are determined not to be hardhearted like Pharoah was. One plague is enough for them, so they send the ark back.
What happens next shows that God is consistently righteous in judgment. As the Israelites say in 1 Samuel 6:20, “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this Holy God?” Not them, certainly. After receiving the ark back from the Philistines, 70 Israelites die from trying to look into it! They should have known better. Even the priests weren't supposed to do that. Surely they had heard this part of Jewish law?
We are sometimes no better about these sorts of things. Thank goodness for grace and the salvation of Christ.