1 Samuel 6:20 (ESV) … Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?”
The men of Beth-Shemesh should have covered the Ark, because it wasn’t supposed to be seen by anyone except the high priest, and this mistake was costly. Some of the people became curious and looked into the Ark and were slain. If the pagan Philistines were judged for the way they treated the Ark, how much more responsible were the Jews who knew the law and were living in a levitical city!
Students have debated the accuracy of the number of people who were killed, because 50,000 seems too high for a town like Beth-Shemesh. Some make the number only 70 and say that the 50,000 is a scribal error, and perhaps it is. The Hebrews used letters for numbers and it would be easy for a copyist to make a mistake. Others include in the 50,000 the 4,000 plus “the great slaughter” (4:17) on the battlefield, but the text specifically says it was the irreverent people who looked into the Ark who were slain. (See 1 Sam. 6:19; Lev. 16:13; Num. 1:50–51; 4:5, 16–20.) It isn’t likely that 50,000 people lined up and passed by the Ark, for the people queued up would have scattered when the first viewers were killed. Perhaps they were slain later. Certainly the Levites would have protected the Ark from the curious, for they knew the penalties for breaking the law of God. That 70 men were judged isn’t difficult to believe, but 50,000 seems extravagant. However, since we don’t know the population of Beth-Shemesh and its environs, we can’t pass judgment on the text. One day an archeologist may solve the problem for us.
While God doesn’t live in our church buildings or in any of its furnishings (Acts 7:48–50), we do want to show respect for anything dedicated to the the glory of God. The awesome event described here certainly warns us against religious curiosity and lack of reverence for the Lord. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31, kjv). In today’s Western society, with its informality and lack of respect for the sacred, it’s easy even for believers to get so “chummy” with the Lord that they forget He is “high and lifted up.”