In this series, we're going to wrestle with very difficult story—the story of David. But I promise that as we allow this story to tell itself, and as we connect it with the larger story of the Bible and the good news of Jesus, we will find some powerful principles for everyone else here this morning.
On the surface the story goes like this: After seven years of a brutal civil war, King Saul was murdered in battle and, as God promised, David was finally crowned king of Israel. David decided to bring the ark of the Covenant—a powerful religious symbol for the entire nation—up to the capital city of Jerusalem. Twenty years ago the Philistines had captured the ark in battle, but it brought them so much stress and judgment that they put it on an ox cart, pointed it in the direction of Jerusalem, and let it go. For 20 years the ark has been stashed in a remote area at the house of a man named Abinadab. In verse 1 of 2 Samuel 6, we read that 30,000 armed soldiers showed up at Abinadab's front door and asked for the ark. As it has been a curse, Abinadab released the ark. But as the Israelites moved the ark on the ox cart, the oxen stumbled, Uzzah reached out to steady the ark, and he dropped dead on the spot. The party was over. Everyone went home. David was ticked off and scared: "How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?" he asked. The ark went to the home of a man named Obed-Edom, and God blessed this man and his entire family. Three months later David tried to get the ark again. This time the party went as planned, and there was even more joy in the movement of the ark; David danced with all his might.
Let's be perfectly honest: this is the kind of story that makes some people not believe in the Bible. God seems ticked off, vindictive, unfair, and mean. Or if people do believe the Bible, this kind of story seems to create fear and insecurity in our relationship with God. It's not the kind of relationship with God Paul talked about when he said, "For you did not receive the spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received a Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry out "Abba [or papa], Father" (Romans 8:16). How do we experience this level of intimacy, safety, and security with God? This story seems to tell me I better watch out; God might strike me too.
This story raises many questions: (1) What's the big deal with the ark, and why did David want it? (2) Why did God smite Uzzah? (3) Why did David dance before the Lord with all his might? Why did all this joy seep out of his heart and his body? (4) And what difference does any of this make in my life? These are tough questions.
Part of our problem reading this story, or any biblical story, is that we lack context. Context makes all the difference. For instance, let's say you saw a video of an old man dressed in rags, covered with dirt, wearing a ragged beard. He lives in a hole, apparently homeless, poor, and vulnerable. Then, suddenly, the video pans out and you watch in horror as a truck load of armed men swoop down shouting, pointing guns, and threatening the poor man. It seems so unfair, unkind, and even brutal—until you're told that the men in the truck are part of the U.S. Army and the man in the video is Saddam Hussein. Oh, you say, now I know why the soldiers acted that way. You understand the context, and the rest of the details make more sense. In the same way, we need to understand the context of David's story.
What was the ark and why did David want it?
The ark of the covenant was a chest or box, four feet in length and two feet in width and depth, overlaid with gold. The solid gold lid was called the mercy seat. Unlike the ark in Harrison Ford movies, the ark of the covenant did not have magical properties, and people got in big trouble when they tried to use it like a spell or a charm. The ark symbolized something for the ancient follower of Yahweh, just as the bread and cup we use during the Lord's Supper symbolize something for us. After delivering Israel from slavery and making a covenant with them, God instructed them to make the ark and said, "There I will meet you" (Exodus 25:22). The ark was a place of intimacy between God and his people. It was the place where the glory—literally the heaviness, the weightiness, the experiential reality—of God dwelt among them. They felt it. They lived in that glory and mercy. And all of this intimacy, living in the glory of God, living in a vital relationship with God, was purely God's initiative—God's gift of radical, free grace.
So why did David want the ark so badly? Yes, David may have wanted it for political reasons, but we also know that David hungered for intimacy with God. Listen to his prayer in Psalm 27:4: "One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple." That's the cry of David's heart—to know God, not just to have data about God, but to live intimately with God. To have the kind of relationship Paul talked about in which we cry out "Abba, Father." The ark represented that spiritual reality. It's one thing to know facts about God - God loves me, my sins are forgiven, God is for me. It's another thing to have that reality come alive in your heart, to feel the weight of it pressing on your life, to have God's love and presence and power governing your life more than anything else. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks or how well you perform or whether you fail or succeed, because God is more real than the opinions of others. David wanted the ark because it represented that intimacy with God, that security. He needed (and he would need it every day of his life) a joy and security deeper than his circumstances. He hungered for intimacy with God.
Why did Uzzah have to die?
Context will help us better understand Uzzah's death. In the Bible (see Exodus 25:12-14) God made it clear that there were certain rules for moving the ark. First, God said that it must be carried. That's why they fitted the ark with golden rings and poles. Second, it had to be carried by a group of people called the Korahites—sort of the spiritual green berets of another group called the Levites, a special priestly class of people. Third, God said that no one was to touch it. So the people in that parade David sent disregarded every single rule.
Is that why God smote Uzzah? Because he broke the rules? If that's the case, we'll probably say: (1) that's why I don't believe in God or religion—it's all just a bunch of rules; or (2) that's why I could never get close to God. He's just waiting for me to break the rules and then—wham!—God will zap me with something really terrible. Many of us live with a deep-seated dread that our relationship with God is based on keeping the rules—and we break the rules every day.
We have to understand that breaking rules is just a symptom. The rules are all about God and our relationship with God. The rules say that there is something unique about God: God is holy. That means that there is a chasm between God and us, a huge, un-crossable chasm. You can't bridge it. You can't just say, "I'm a good person. I do nice things. I go to church. I'm righteous and moral and I help God out. So now God owes me."
That's the Uzzah-approach to God. Uzzah wasn't evil, but he certainly wasn't innocent either. God didn't smite for just one petty rule violation. As Eugene Peterson said, "Uzzah's death was not sudden; it was years in the making. Touching the ark was the final straw, not the singular sin". Was God harsh and mean with Uzzah? Absolutely not. God is just, but for years God had chosen to forgo his justice and extend mercy to Uzzah. Uzzah knew all about the holiness of God. He was raised and trained as a Korahite. Uzzah knew that you can't just come crashing in to God's presence, nor can you work your way into God's presence by being a good, moral person. But he decided to ignore what he knew, and he loaded the ark onto the ox cart. Why? Because in his mind he knew better than God.
Then he thought he'd do God a favor by adjusting the ark as it started to fall. He believed he could manage and control God. God said, "Don't touch the ark because my holiness dwells in the ark. If you touch it, you will die." God never said it couldn't touch the earth. There's nothing wrong with soil. Soil does exactly what God created it to do. We don't. We don't live the way God intended us to live—with absolute love and integrity and trust. We've committed cosmic treason against God; the soil hasn't. The holiness of God? Uzzah's entire life belittled God's holiness. If we start to believe we can manage God through our religious behavior or our moral efforts, we'll assume that God owes us, that God is on our side, and that we take care of God, not vice versa. Uzzah rejected God's solution—the solution of radical grace. Was God being mean and vindictive with Uzzah? Certainly not. For years God had extended mercy to this man.
According to Pastor Tim Keller, an Uzzah-like approach to God (when we think we've earned God's presence and now God owes us) leads to three paths:
- We grow cold and proud. We believe we've earned God's presence, so we must be better than those around us.
- We attempt to manage God. We've helped God, so he must run the universe and our lives in the ways we think he should. When we suffer, we then get bitter and resentful.
- When we realize that we can't earn God's presence because we keep messing up and falling into habitual sin, we live with shame and guilt. Spiritual pride, confusion and bitterness, shame and guilt—we see these attitudes everywhere. We're more like Uzzah than we'd like to admit.
Uzzah's approach to the spiritual life in Christ is lethal. It's deadly. It kills the spirit. It kills our relationship with God. As someone has said, "Uzzah was dead before he touched the ark. He died spiritually the moment he thought he could keep God safely in a box." So God interrupted the parade and tried to wake up the entire nation.
Why did David dance with all his might?
David wakes up and he becomes alive to the reality of the chasm. "How can the ark of the Lord come to me?" he cries out in verse 9. He understands the chasm. He understands that God is holy and that we are so flawed and sinful. He understands the bad news of the Gospel—we are worse off than we would ever dare to admit. The New Testament puts it this way: "For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). That's us. That's bad news. So why did David wind up dancing with all his might? Why did David start the party again, strip down to his boxer shorts, and go wild with a crazy, knee-slapping, God-exalting, song-raising, shouting dance of praise to God?
Because David didn't just understand the chasm, the bad news; he understood God's mercy and radical grace. We see a small taste of this grace in the little episode with Obed-Edom. After Uzzah dropped dead and the party ended, the ark wound up at Obed-Edom's house. We know nothing about this man except that he's a Gittite, which means he's a foreigner, an outsider. After Obed-Edom housed the ark for three months, God not only blessed him but also his entire family. Why didn't God smite this guy too? What did Odem-Edom do that was so special? Nothing. He didn't try to manage God, control God, or get God in his debt because he's such a good, moral person. No, Obed-Edom placed his faith in the radical grace of God.
Then David gets it: that's the only way to come to God, by radical grace. David should have known this, but like us, he and his people kept forgetting. God told his people to place a mercy seat on the top of the ark, made of solid gold. Every year the mercy seat was sprinkled with the blood of sacrifice. This was because God wanted to show—visibly, unforgettably, and viscerally—that forgiveness always costs something dear. It costs a life. We know this instinctively. If someone hurts you or hurts someone you love, you can't just walk away and say, "Oh, no big deal. I forgive." Somehow there must be amends—an atonement; a debt must be paid. For the relationship to be restored, someone has to pay the price and bridge the chasm.
For instance, when out cat wandered into my neighbor's yard, his dog attacked our cat and nearly chewed him to death. Our cat was mangled and bloody. I wanted to put the poor guy to sleep, but my kind-hearted wife refused, so we took him to the vet. It wasn't cheap. Someone had to pay the bill. We paid most of it, but we also asked our neighbor to share part of the cost. Again, someone has to pay the price. We forgave our neighbor, we even forgave the dog, but we still had to pay the bill.
Here's the good news of the Gospel: God was prepared to pay the price for us. We committed cosmic treason against God, but when Christ died on the cross, he bore our sin; Christ paid our debt.
David understood, or at least had a foretaste, of that radical grace which produces radical intimacy. So David danced, and he danced with all his might. He danced with reckless abandon. He danced and didn't care what anyone else thought about his dancing. He danced because the glory and presence and grace of God was so heavy, so palpable in his life. He could feel it. He knew the weightiness of God, the glory of God, the grace of God that he didn't deserve. God had bridged the gap. David saw the justice and holiness of God. God woke him up. David also saw the incredible, radical grace of God that set his heart free.
That fullness has been offered to us already. Christ has paid our debt. We no longer have to carry the burden of our sin. Do you know that? Do you feel it in your heart? Do you know that in Christ, through Christ, with Christ, every sin has been nailed to the cross? You do not need to bear the condemnation of your sin anymore. You are free. You can approach God—the holy God, the same God that met David, the same God that struck Uzzah. You can approach that holy God and say, "Father, I'm hurting today. Father, I've fallen into sin. Help me. Save me. Cleanse me." And he will!
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.