This Old Testament incident has been troubling to many:
The episode found in the Old Testament concerning David and the ark of the covenant has long puzzled many believers. It has to do with the return of the ark, and how one Israelite, Uzzah, put his hand out to steady it, resulting in his immediate divine punishment.
The key section is found in verses 5-11 which read:
And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. And David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-uzzahto this day. And David was afraid of the Lord that day, and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” So David was not willing to take the ark of the Lord into the city of David. But David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. And the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.
Let me begin by saying that a good part of the reason so many folks today – including many Christians – find this episode to be so problematic is because the God of the Bible is often not believed in anymore. If we do believe in a divine being, so often it is a god of our own making. A God who is holy and transcendent and who has every right to call the shots and expect of us obedience and reverence is not one that many people today can happily go along with.
So if we think that God is more like a celestial butler who exists just to please us, to make us happy, and to serve at our every beck and call, then the God that we find in this chapter – and the rest of Scripture – will be very off-putting indeed, and certainly not one to our liking.
It is against the biblical backdrop of the God who is there – not the one we want to be there – that we must seek to understand this episode, and others like it. Only then will it make any sense. So let me offer some specific thoughts on this.
One of the first things to point out was that Israel was not left in the dark about such matters. Mosaic law had already spelled out in some detail just how the ark of the covenant was to be treated – and not treated. Two key passages inform us of what was to happen. In Exodus 25:1-22 we read about it. Verses 10-16 say this:
They shall make an ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and you shall make on it a molding of gold around it. You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. And you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you.
And in Numbers 4 we read about the duties of the Kohathites in regard to the holy things, including how the ark should be handled and transported. It needed to be covered and carried with poles, and looking upon this holy furniture or handling it wrongly would result in death.
All up, there were precise instructions about this: only certain people could handle it, it had to be covered up, it had to be carried on poles, it was not to be touched, and it was not even to be looked upon. Who was allowed to deal with the ark and how it was to be handled had been clearly delineated, so the people were without excuse.
A holy God must be treated with due fear and reverence, and obedience in the service of these holy objects was imperative. Disobedience would not be tolerated. The motive to bring the ark back home to Jerusalem after its period of being with the Philistines and others was of course good, but it had to be done God’s way, or not at all.
As we read in 1 Samuel 5-6, the Philistines had already learned – the hard way – about God’s zeal for his holiness. Recall just how bad things had become: God “terrified and afflicted them with tumors” (1 Sam. 5:6), and seventy men were killed as well for simply looking at the ark (1 Sam. 6:19). So again, the people of God should have known how seriously God took such matters.
Let me offer some commentary from a few others here. Dale Ralph Davis says some helpful things about this:
For me, passages like this are evidence of the supernatural origin and trustworthiness of the Bible. This Uzzah story goes so against the grain of human preferences. We would never have “invented” a God like this – not if we want to win converts and influence people. This God is not very marketable. Anyone who says the God of the Bible is merely a projection of our wish fulfillment has not read the Bible….
In 5:20 Yahweh ‘breaks out’ against David’s enemies; in 6:8 against David’s friend. Yahweh may break out against the Philistines — or against Israel. God’s lethal holiness levels both pagans and churchmen. . . . Of course, as readers we can continue to object if we like. But the application of the text is clear: you dare not trifle with a God who is both real and holy. Yahweh is not your neat, warm, fuzzy friend in the sky….
Yahweh’s people tend to forget what sort of God they face. We forget that there is heat in his holiness. No, we do not need to be terrified, but being scared wouldn’t hurt. I should not have to repeat that the God of 2 Samuel 6 is the same God you meet in the New Testament (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 11:30-31; Heb. 10:26-31).
Or as Walter Kaiser reminds us:
God had plainly revealed his will, but David had a better idea – one he had learned from the pagan Philistines. He would put it on a “new cart” (2 Sam 6:3). However, God had never said anything about using a new cart. This was a human invention contrary to the will and law of God.
Thus David did things in the wrong way, following his own ideas or those of others instead of God’s ways. Surely this passage warns that it is not enough to have a worthy purpose and a proper spirit when we enter into the service of God; God’s work must also be performed in God’s way. Pursuing the right end does not automatically imply using the right means.
Robert Chisholm can have a final comment on this passage. He writes: “This account demonstrates that seemingly good intentions, even when accompanied by sincere and robust expressions of worship, do not negate disobedience. . . . In the end, obedience is fundamental, and genuine worship takes place only when obedient people respect God’s holiness as they celebrate his presence among them.”
As I said, many contemporary believers – and most non-believers – have a hard time grasping all this. Their view of God is far too small and far too carnal. They do not know who the real and living God is, and as such, they cannot understand how something like this could happen.
One is reminded of the words of A. W. Tozer in his spiritual classic, The Knowledge of the Holy:
The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshiping men. This she has not done deliberately, but little by little and without her knowledge; and her very unawareness only makes her situation all the more tragic. The low view of God entertained almost universally among Christians is the cause of a hundred lesser evils everywhere among us….
The decline of the knowledge of the holy has brought on our troubles. A rediscovery of the majesty of God will go a long way toward curing them. It is impossible to keep our moral practices sound and our inward attitudes right while our idea of God is erroneous or inadequate. If we would bring back spiritual power to our lives, we must begin to think of God more nearly as He is.
Amen brother Tozer.