When the Ark of God’s Presence falls on hard times, David wants to bring it to Jerusalem (1 Samuel 4–5). On the way, great festivity ensues that includes many band-accompanied songs. Everyone knows that something wonderful is happening, but suddenly, the cart transporting the sacred vessel is shaken by the oxen bearing it (2 Samuel 6:6). Uzzah, one of the servants attending the ark, responds by reaching out to steady it and is struck dead on the spot. “And the anger of the Lord burned against Uzzah and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died there by the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:7, NASB).
Struck dead on the spot when he is just trying to be helpful? Surely, his good intentions don’t warrant a death sentence. The harshness of the punishment seems intolerable. Why does God lash out at Uzzah like that? When good efforts are put forth, doesn’t God make up for any deficiencies? What does Uzzah do wrong to deserve such treatment? Perhaps he is being pretentious, and those with him need to regain a sense of respect for God’s greatness and power. We are not told exactly why God acts as He does, but the record is clear. God strikes Uzzah dead for reaching out to keep the ark from falling. It’s the kind of publicity that can give God a bad name. He appears so harsh and severe. It’s scary stuff. Worshiping the God of the Old Testament irreverently can be dangerous. Apparently, well-meaning worshippers can get killed.
It’s passages like this that shape the theology of so many Christians. The story is terrifying and threatening, and we are grateful that Jesus is not like the angry God of the Old Testament. We run into trouble with this mindset, however, when we come to stories like Ananias and Sapphira, who are similarly struck down in the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament appears to be the same as the God of the New. The problem is that we tend to overlook the grace of God in everything He does. When we focus on God’s judgment, we become blinded to His grace. The grace of God in these stories gets little to no attention.
Uzzah’s story may seem harsh—until we understand the power of God’s glory. God’s prior instructions make clear how the ark is to be transported (Exodus 25:10–15; Numbers 4:5, 7:7–9; Deuteronomy 10:8). The ark is imbued with the holiness of the divine presence, and God provides important guidelines to protect people from the power of its radiance. Old Testament scholar Roy Gane describes God’s presence consecrated in the ark as like a nuclear reactor (Leviticus and Numbers, 2004,p. 188). God wants the Levites to keep their distance from it. God had previously warned that anyone who touched the ark would die (Numbers 4:15; 19–20). This divine instruction is clear: the Levites must carry the ark covered. It is so holy that those entrusted with its transport cannot even directly look upon or touch it—or they will die. Thus, the radiance of God’s glory is to be seen only in the “hiding of His power” (Habakkuk 3:4).
In response to Uzzah’s death, David becomes afraid of God. Not knowing what to do, the king leaves the ark in the home of Obed-Edom (2 Samuel 6:9–10), which gives him time to contemplate. After much prayer, the memory of God’s instructions rush back to him. The ark had been handled incorrectly. David then receives news of God’s immense blessings brought to the home of Obed-Edom and desires once again to be closer to God. How many of us become afraid of God when reading the Old Testament? Like David, we may remember the prohibitions while forgetting the blessings. We see God’s consuming fire of judgment, but when we finally hear directly from God in human form, He expands our expectations. Sometimes, seeing God as angry and prohibitive is more a reflection of those perceiving Him. This version of the story is not a blessing at all but a frightful death sentence, and we too become angry and frightful. Jesus redefines and reframes the story by encouraging us to see the overlooked blessing. God is not the roaring Lion that many think He is. He is also the Lamb. The book of Revelation portrays Him as both—the powerful lion and the gentle lamb. The Lion is the Lamb, but the Lamb becomes the dominant aspect.
It is the cruciform glory of God’s presence that distinguishes His character. It tells us who God is and what His sovereign plans are. The beauty of His glory is shown in great power. God works with His own power and character, not our own belief systems or our good intentions. Nothing but the presence of God can define Him. The ark of God is the place of union between heaven and earth, which fills life with blessing as it is meant to be. God inhabits that space, and at times, it can seem like a very scary place. It’s scary because after all, idols like Dagon always fall flat before God’s presence. We cannot meddle with that work. We must remove our shoes, for this is holy ground. Do not touch the ark. Do not lay a hand upon it, but let God move. Uzzah died not because God aims to knock people off but because the ark is God’s space for creating life. God tells us we can’t go all the way into His presence until we are transformed. Until then, God wants us to keep an appropriate distance.
The story turns when David starts to see God’s grace: “The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and all his household” (2 Samuel 6:11, NIV). Grace is easily seen when we choose life over death. God gives a commandment for life and blessing, but our sin makes it otherwise. Had David continued fearing God, he would have missed out on these blessings. He could have put a spin on the law as many do today, twisting it into the opposite of what God intends. Sometimes, the way we obey and perceive God causes us to accept a hostile stance against others and an ungracious view of God. The law that provides many generous blessings could be interpreted as intolerable terms of existence. David could have played it safe, leaving the ark where it was, but had he done so, he would not have found the blessings God intended. The blessing of the ark had always been there. God remains holy; the prohibition provides protection and His presence brings blessings.
If you want to see God’s grace and experience His blessings, don’t focus on the fear; focus on His presence and obey Him. God’s holiness is what brings blessings. Our sense of His presence is often too narrow, minimizing our sense of His loftiness.
I do not believe in an angry, punishing God. I do not wish to wave off judgment and play loose with God. Neither do I presume my insurance policy of eternal life is an admission ticket. But I do see a gracious God, and I am awed by His presence. The grace of God should be our motivation. The ark is about not only the presence of God but also His love relationship with His people. The ark contains a copy of the Ten Commandments, which summarize love for God and love for others. We learn that covenantal love must be bound by respect for the other. Without respect, our love for God and others is merely weak sentimentalism, not really love at all. Sometimes, we show love in the wrong ways. When you love someone, it is not always about giving what you want; it’s about giving what the other wants to receive.
David desired to bring the symbol of God’s presence closer to home, but both David and the priests overlooked one thing (1 Chronicles 15:15; Numbers 4:5,6,15). They should have asked what God required, as they end up carrying it the wrong way. When the heart is filled with desire for God we do not want to overlook the rules that safeguard love. The next time King David moves the ark, he better follows God’s instruction (2 Samuel 6:12–13).
The story of Uzzah’s tragic death is followed by the story of Obed-Edom for a reason. Beauty and grace should emerge from the picture of God that we see—something worth being seen. God’s presence results in blessings. When His presence is taken seriously, it becomes a source of immense life and blessing. God’s grace overcomes fear. We must recover the blessing of who God is. The story ends with blessings for all because David is not content to stay away from the beauty of God’s holiness (2 Samuel 6:17–18). How about us?
Craig Ashton Jr.