The Ark of God stayed in Philistine territory for seven months – an excruciatingly painful time for the Philistines. The people of their five main cities, along with their kings, were struck with a plague that produced an abundance of rats and tumors on their bodies.
Initially the Philistines likely believed their ability to capture the ark showed the superiority of the Philistine gods. Now, they are not so sure. The magicians of Philistia believed they had made a mistake. But how would they know?
The test would be in sending the Ark back to Israel. They would hitch two cows who had recently calved to a cart carrying the Ark. They would pen up the calves. The calves would certainly cry out for their mothers and the mothers would be inclined to the cry of their offspring.
If the cows ignored their offspring and headed straight for Israelite territory, they would know that all that had come upon the Philistines was the result of the judgment of Israel’s God.
The story is important for four reasons: First, the Philistines would further insult the God of Israel by putting His Ark on a cart (when it was supposed to be carried by Priests). Second, the people of Beth Shemesh would insult God by looking into the Ark. Third, the transportation of the Ark in this way would and its result would cause David trouble in the early days of his monarchy.
Finally, we serve a serious God. He means what He says. Ignoring Him is a capital offense.