March 2020

March 2020

Perplexing Passages: Uzzah and the Ark

During the Lenten season, we reflect on our own sin, and on the just judgment of our holy God. We usually like to think about God’s unconditional love, which is how He predominantly wishes to be known—after all, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). But Lent is a helpful reminder that our loving God is also strict, and He intends to destroy our sin once and for all and bring us into a state of perfect holiness like His own. 

It is fitting, therefore, that we should take the opportunity to reflect on a perplexing example of God’s strictness toward one of His beloved children, Uzzah. Early in the ministry of the prophet Samuel, the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines as a judgment against the laxness of Eli and the wickedness of his sons. After God had afflicted the Philistines because of their possession of the ark, they sent it away on an oxcart, and it ended up in the house of Abinadab in Kiriath-jearim (1 Sam. 4:1–7:2). Twenty years later, when King David had decisively defeated the Philistines, he brought the ark to his new capital in Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6). The transfer was difficult, however. Rather than transport the ark as God had commanded, with Levitical priests carrying it by its poles (Ex. 25:14–15; Num. 7:9), David had the ark transported by oxcart, guarded by Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, in whose house the ark had been kept until then. During the trip, one of the oxen stumbled, and the ark was in danger of toppling. Uzzah tried to stop the mishap by reaching out and grabbing the ark. Any of us would likely have done the same. Here’s where the perplexity comes in: “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” (2 Sam. 6:7).

Why would God kill someone who was acting with such good intentions? Uzzah just wanted to honor God by protecting the Ark of the Covenant! Even David himself was perplexed by this, as you can read in the verses following. What was going on?

We need to understand a couple of things about sin in order to help ease the perplexity of this passage. First, sin is not always intentional. Second, sin can bring with it earthly consequences, even though the eternal consequences have been taken away from us by the death of Jesus.

We think of sin as being intentional. Our consciences don’t generally bother us so much over things we didn’t mean to do, which we might call “mistakes” rather than “sins.” But in God’s sight, even our mistakes are sins worthy of punishment. David himself calls these mistakes “hidden faults” (Ps. 19:12), asking God to cleanse him from them. They are distinguished from “presumptuous sins” (Ps. 19:13), which “have dominion” over those who intentionally indulge in them. Uzzah may not have been committing a “presumptuous sin” by reaching out to save the ark. He had good intentions. But by doing something, however well intentioned, that God had forbidden, he committed a “hidden fault,” an unintentional sin that resulted in punishment. Most of our “hidden faults” don’t result in dramatic, immediate consequences, but in this case God wanted to uphold the holiness of His name. This is also why we treat the elements of Holy Communion with such care. If we fail to treat them as holy, we may suffer consequences like those experienced by the Corinthians, who because of their mishandling of Jesus’ body and blood were visited by illness and even death (1 Cor. 11:30).

Furthermore, earthly punishments do not always imply eternal damnation. Uzzah suffered the earthly consequence of bodily death for his unintentional sin, but that doesn’t mean he’s now suffering the eternal consequence of the damnation of his soul. I expect to meet Uzzah in heaven. So also we often suffer earthly consequences for our sins, even though the eternal guilt of our sins has been atoned for by Jesus’ death on our behalf. Our sins (such as drug abuse, cruel and alienating behavior, or laziness, just to name a few) may lead to the very natural earthly consequences of illness, poverty, conflict, social isolation, and even death. But that doesn’t mean we will suffer the spiritual consequence of eternal damnation. Our hidden faults are forgiven through faith in Jesus, and even our presumptuous sins are forgiven if we repent of them and return to Jesus in faith.

As perplexed as David was by the death of the mostly innocent Uzzah, he did eventually come around. He had the ark carried the rest of the way to Jerusalem the way God had commanded, with Levites carrying the ark by its poles (2 Sam. 6:12–15), and the result was abundant blessing for all involved. Let us all treat the holy things of God as holy, seeking His cleansing from hidden faults and His help against presumptuous sins, not only this Lenten season but throughout our earthly pilgrimage.

God's Blessings,

Pastor Neuendo