by Pastor Gareth Lowe of Every Nation Berlin

1 Samuel 6:12

Then the cows 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.

The book of 1 Samuel tells a fascinating story.

Israel had fallen into apostasy and had become superstitious as opposed to genuinely spiritual. They were at war with the Philistines and had lost the first battle. They decided that if they brought the Ark of the Covenant – which represented the Presence of God – to the battle they would win. But God refuses to be used as some sort of mascot or charm, and He allowed Israel not only to lose the battle, but for the Ark to be captured by the Philistines.

But once the Philistines had “captured God” they realised that actually He had captured them! They put the Ark in the temple of Dagon as a trophy only to come back the next day to see the idol of Dagon bowing down before the Ark. They propped him up again but the next day they found him prostrated before the Ark – but this time with his head and hands broken off! Then a plague of tumours broke out and death ravaged the city. In terror the city of Ashdod sent the Ark to Gath. But the same thing happened and in desperation they sent the Ark further to Ekron. But in panic the people of Ekron refused to receive it and the Philistines decided they needed to send it back to Israel before the whole nation was destroyed.

God or chance?

They came up with a simple but clever plan to test if the Lord was really in it or not. This is what they said:

1 Samuel 6:7-9

“Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. Take the ark of the Lord and put it on the cart, and in a chest beside it put the gold objects you are sending back to him as a guilt offering. Send it on its way, but keep watching it. If it goes up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then the Lord has brought this great disaster on us. But if it does not, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us and that it happened to us by chance.” 

The Philistines – like non-Christians today – may not have know much about God but they did know about the strength of a “mother’s instinct”. If you take a cow who has just had calves and pen them up, the mother cow will never leave them and go in the opposite direction, especially into foreign territory. If you make it two cows the chances are even stronger that it won’t happen. Now if you yoke the mother cows to an oxcart and they have never been yoked before the chances are now virtually impossible. So the proof to the pagans that God was really in it, was that against all odds, the cows would go against their natural instincts.  

As we read at the start this is exactly what happened. “Then the cows 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 Sam 6:12). And the Philistines were convinced that indeed, God had done this.

Carrying the Presence – but still lowing all the way

But I want to concentrate on how the cows went up. Some would say that if God was really in it, and His Presence was really upon you, then there would be no pain in it. That His glory would be so strong that the cows would in fact laugh merrily as they abandoned their calves and fulfilled the leading of the Lord. But this is a fallacy. Although the cows “went straight up” and “did not turn to the right or to the left” it was a heart-rending journey. It says that they were, “lowing all the way”.  These are poignant words, full of pathos, and often describe the glorious-yet-painful journey we are on.

Just because we are carrying the Presence of God and doing the will of God, doesn’t mean that all our natural instincts are obliterated. We still have natural desires that long for fulfilment.

  • If we are single, we may long to get married and have children.
  • We long for a beautiful home with wide open spaces, sunshine, blue skies, and green grass.
  • We deeply desire to be close to our natural family and old friends.
  • We wish for financial security and stability.
  • We want a place of comfort and safety, not risks and danger.
  • We yearn for peace where we are not constantly harassed by spiritual warfare.
  • We desire time to pursue leisure and pleasure.

The reality of the Calvary Road

The apostle Paul, who was certainly as spiritual as they come, felt the same way:

2 Corinthians 4:7-12

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

A Day will come when all sorrow and crying is washed away but that is not this day. Today we walk the Calvary Road in the footsteps of our Master. It is a road filled with victories and joy but also of sacrifice and pain. And there is no shame in that. In fact these very sacrifices will be the point at which our non-Christian friends will be convinced that God is indeed with us, and will be the very things Jesus rewards on that Great Day

We may have unfulfilled longings as we carry the Ark home, and we may be lowing all the way, but let us not be discouraged. There are days when it may not feel worth it to follow the Lamb wherever He goes – but be encouraged – in the end it will all be worth it and we’ll be so glad we kept going straight up, not turning to the right or to the left.