God Did That?
2 Samuel 6.1-15 - David brings the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem
My guess is that many of you have never heard this story from the OT before today. I encountered it in seminary when our earliest assignment was to read the Bible and outline it. That seems like an obvious assignment for a school filled with budding preachers, but the truth is that I had not read the Bible from cover to cover until that time. Like most folks, I had done Bible studies and Sunday School lessons, but they were all hit or miss affairs. I suppose that I have read the favorites many times, but more obscure passages like this one I had simply missed.
This story began at Mt Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments carved onto two stone tablets. He immediately needed a way to carry these tablets. God gave Moses careful instructions on building the Ark of the Covenant. The ark was made of acacia wood and had long handles so the priests could carry it on the journey. This was a box designed to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments – God’s covenant with Israel.
The theology of the Ark said that wherever the Ark was present, God was present. If the Ark was being carried forward, then God was leading the people on the journey. If the Ark was at rest, then God was simply present among the people. For a people like the Hebrew Children on a journey from slavery to the Promised Land, it was a powerful symbol of God’s leading and presence among them.
[APPLIC:] Where is our Ark of the Covenant? What stands among us as a sign of God’s presence and leading?
As the years went by and the Children of Israel moved further into the Land of Promise, they often carried the Ark into battle. It remained a symbol of God’s presence and a reminder that these battles for the Land were God’s battles. Well, as events would unfold, the Children of Israel met at foe they could not defeat; these were the Philistines. The day came when the Israelites went out for battle with the Ark of the Covenant to remind them of God’s support and presence. But, instead of victory, they were defeated soundly. The Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant and took it back to their city as spoils of war. However, they found that holding the Ark of Israel’s God as a kind of hostage a complicated matter, so they dumped it at the house of Abinadab. And there it stayed without much notice for 20 years.
Time went by, and Israel asked for a King; this king was King Saul. He was an able King, but Saul was unable to recapture the Ark. David followed Saul to the throne. He was able to win much more land for the Israelites. He was able to defeat the Philistines and reclaim title to the Ark. About the same time, David captured Jerusalem and made it his capitol city. The journey to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem is the task of the story we have read this morning from the scriptures.
Until this point in Israel’s history, they have never had a capitol, never expected that the Ark of the Covenant should stand in any place in particular; David is only the nation’s second king. Even under David, there was still no Temple; worshiping God was done in small shrines scattered all over the land. King David brought many changes into Israel’s life.
[TEXT:] The scripture follows David’s defeat of the Philistines. It is time for a victory march into his chosen city. David calls out 30,000 warriors; it appears that he is going to battle again. But, this time, he leads them to Baale-Judah to bring from there the Ark of God. He placed the Ark on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab. Until now, it has been under the care of Abinadab and his sons, Uzzah and Ahio; by the time this story ends, it will be clearly under the care of King David.
Suddenly, an interruption: As the cart crosses the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumble and the ark teeters. Uzzah reaches out his hand to steady the ark. The anger of the Lord flares, and God strikes Uzzah DEAD. We are shocked. What has Uzzah done to deserve this? Uzzah may have wanted only to help, but his casual hand on the holy ark carries a terrible price. David is angry toward God. Our immediate response is outrage; Uzzah was just trying to help. Why the harsh punishment?
Think about what has happened: It appears that there is confusion about who is in charge of this moment. David’s anger suggests that he assumed that he was in charge of this move, and Uzzah’s death is a direct challenge to his assumption. David must understand that too casual an attitude with things that are holy carries a terrible price. So, David can be angry or he can be humbled. He leaves the Ark in the care of someone else, and goes home to reflect on the power of the God who is symbolized by this Ark.
[REFLECT:] Have you ever had an experience that sent you off to reflect on God’s role and work in your life? I hope so….
The death of Uzzah STANDS AS A CAUTION to everyone among us who sets out to lead in this world that politics and religion can be dangerous to handle. They can give power and improve the lives of all in the nation; they can also blow up in our faces if handled too casually. The death of Uzzah is told as a reminder of the danger of trying to manage God’s holiness. What should be reverence and awe before God gives way to the notion that we can put our hands on God. In that way lies death -- perhaps not as dramatic, as Uzzah’s but just as fatal. As I recall, Jesus addressed his topic in the gospels. In Matthew, he called those who thought they could control God’s holiness by their own efforts “Whitewashed tombs… full of dead men’s bones” (Matt 23.27) (1).
When the story resumes in v. 9, David brings a new attitude of respect to divine presence: holy fear and awe. When the Ark is moved just six steps, they sacrifice an ox and a calf. Then, the journey continues to Jerusalem. David danced with joy before the Lord all the way.
[CHANGE:] Someone pointed out that this passage is about *change*. The big change David works in this passage is a change in the worship of God. By moving the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, David is claiming:
1. That the King should be the SOLE guardian of the Ark and therefore the guardian of Israel’s understanding of God.
2. That worship should be centered in Jerusalem rather than scattered in many shrines and practices. You see, if Israel’s worship is scattered throughout the many shrines, then Israel’s loyalties are scattered as well. David must bring Israel’s worship to one place so he can ask for these twelve tribes to become one nation.
3. That the King should be endowed with the blessing of God in a manner that legitimizes his rule. You see, the Ark was the symbol of God’s covenant with tribal Israel. It stands as the great symbol of Israel’s encounter with God at Mt. Sinai. If David can incorporate this great symbol into his kingship, then he establishes himself as the legitimate king over twelve tribes that never before knew a king.
[APPLIC:] This is a story about change. King David is bringing enormous change to the little land of Israel. From our vantage point, it may look like the obvious change that was needed; it may look like a good and useful change. But, at the time it was fraught with uncertainty, and support was not assured.
David has moved Israel from the loose tribal confederacy that was soundly defeated twice by the Philistines, culminating in the loss of the Ark (1 Sam 4.2-7.1). Now, these tribes are becoming an organized nation with central leadership, a capital and a standing army which defeats the Philistines twice (2 Sam 5.17-25), They now find themselves in position to reclaim the Ark.
B. But, even here we find a lesson in change. Even in reclaiming the Ark, David cannot bring Israel back to the nation it was when the Philistines first captured it; he can only bring it forward to a new place of beginning. Thus, this story, despite all the glory and accomplishments represents a confrontation between the old and new.
C. Further caution: King David’s display is either (1) a genuine recognition and honoring of presence of God among us (as represented by the Ark) or (2) a manipulation of religious symbols for the sake of his own political power. Unfortunately, the line between these possibilities is extremely thin. More likely, David’s dancing is a blending of these possibilities that even he could not separate.
More personally, King David’s display stands as a *caution* to us as we go about our life together as Christians and as we witness to the presence of God among us.
+For a long time, we at Church Street have carefully insisted that partisan politics stop at the church-house door. This insistence has been good for us.
+In our life together, we expect to see strong-willed candidates, who are vying for the same office, kneeling at the Lord’s Table, preferably side by side.
+In our exploration of faith, we assume that the call and the teaching of God stand above the policies of any human institution.
+And yet, in our search for faith, we stand humbly aware that any of us are capable of confusing our own priorities for the priorities of God.
2. The reality is that political power and religious power must live together. On one hand, religious convictions are the surest confirmation and validation of political convictions. On the other hand, political power is necessary to make religious convictions visible and concrete. It seems that we are in bed together. To stand apart and pretend that there is no partnership is at best naïve, at worst blind.
[CONCL:] Still, David did lead Israel through this time of change. Looking back, we applaud the results of his leadership. Thus, this story stands as an inspiration to every one of us who carry the weight of leadership. We can lead those who follow us to a better place. It also stands as inspiration to everyone us that hears leaders around us calling for change. They may be God’s leaders for this season of change.
1. Based on “Reflections,” 2 Samuel Commentary, The New Interpreter’s Bible, pp. 1251f.