Shock Then Awe
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
This morning we are continuing our study through the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel. We’ll be in 2 Samuel 6:1–15. As you’re turning there, I’ll mention that we won’t be hitting every passage in the book, but when we do preach a passage, we’ll try to cover the whole thing. At times, however, we’ll have to summarize what has taken place between what we don’t cover in a dedicated sermon.
The passage will look at this morning should shock us. One commentator writes,
For me, passages like this are evidence of the supernatural origin and trustworthiness of the Bible. This [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.1
But what that commentator would also tell us, and what I’ll say now, is that the goal is to move through our shock and arrive at worship and wonder and awe. That’s what David did.
On a fourth of July weekend about six years ago, my family and I were invited to a pool party on a Sunday evening. Many people—families and children—were invited. It was festive: food and music and conversations and children swimming.
It was so festive that no one, at least at first, noticed Lilly struggling in the water. Then I leaped in up to my thighs wearing dress shoes, grabbed her little arm, pulled her to the edge. And then we grabbed her father who was nearby. Lilly was perfectly fine, though a little scared. But it just happened so, so fast. In the chaos of the celebration, we became too casual around something dangerous—fun and wonderful, but dangerous.
That day—praise God!—nothing happened, that is, other than a wake-up call for all of us. But what if something worse had happened? The knowledge that a very preventable tragedy had taken place would have rippled through the fifty or so people at the party.
Now imagine not fifty people but several thousand, say something like a huge soccer stadium. Slowly at first, but then more quickly, a festive mood would turn to shock as fear cascades across the crowd.
I haven’t read it yet, but that’s the scene in 2 Samuel 6. When the people approach the presence of God wrongly, it’s terrifying. But that’s not the only scene in this passage. There is also wonder and awe and worship because to approach God rightly is to be blessed in the richest meaning of the word.
Let’s look at this story closer. We’ll do so in two halves. In the first half, we’ll see that to approach God wrongly is terrifying.
1. To approach God wrongly is terrifying, vv. 1–11
We often sing songs about being in God’s presence, about approaching him, about being near to God. But what does that mean? This passage is about approaching God and about being in his presence. Let me read the beginning of the passage in vv. 1–5.
1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. 3 And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart, 4 with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark. 5 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.
Some things to point out. The passage begins with the statement that David was again gathering the people of Israel. Last week, Jason talked about the collage of events that surrounded the birth of the nation of Israel under King David. After a battle near the end of chapter 5, which we did not cover, the Philistines who were enemies of God’s people, were pushed back to the western border, toward the Mediterranean Sea. This made way for David to bring the ark of God to the capital city, the city of David, the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem would not just be the political and national capital, but Israel’s religious capital too. This is a significant moment; it’s a beautiful moment in many ways. There’s this passage of Scripture elsewhere that says in the days of King Saul they did not seek the ark of their God (1 Chronicles 13:3). But David does seek it, and that’s a good impulse.
So they get the ark. And it’s a parade like a city might throw if their team won the Super Bowl. It’s like the Rose Bowl Parade or the Macy’s Day Parade. Matt Lauer is doing color commentary. There is noise and celebration and instruments and shouting, and it’s a sight.
But before we see what happens on this parade, we would be well served by looking briefly at the other story of the ark in Samuel, a story from 1 Samuel.
In 1 Samuel 4, the people of God are in a bad way. Their enemies are crowding around them (Philistines again, by the way), but worse than enemies without are the enemies within. God’s people are led by two unconverted priests named Hophni and Phinehas. We read this in 1 Samuel 4:2–4.
2 The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3 And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
Something to keep in mind: The ark of the covenant was a box about the size of our communion table. It was made of special wood, covered in gold, and had angels over the top, and inside were the 10 Commandants and a few others things (Exodus 25:10–25). In the Old Testament, the ark was the place where God’s presence among his people was most manifested. In short, the ark was the closest thing they had to an incarnation.
The ark was paraded into the Israelite camp. It sounds like things are going to look up for the Israelites. Yes, they were defeated but now—now!—the presence of God is among them! Now they have nothing to fear.
Except they do. It would take more time to show this, but when I preached this passage last summer it became very clear that the ark of God became for them nothing more than a lucky rabbit’s foot, a magical talisman.
And when the Israelites lose the battle in 1 Samuel 4 the second time, they also lose the ark. They lose God, or so they think. What actually happens is that God lets the ark—perhaps we could say, God lets himself—be captured and taken behind enemy lines. The Philistines put the ark in the house of their god who is Dagon, that is until Dagon falls to the ground before the ark with his arms and head broken off (5:1–5). The Philistines don’t know what to do. They send the ark to another city. A plague breaks out against the people of the city. Then they send it away—again, the same thing happens. Then it happens again (5:5–12).
Eventually, they devise a plan to return the ark to Israel (6:1ff). They send two momma cows, who had just given birth (and thus would not want to leave their calves), and they send the ark away. Amazingly—to the Philistines, at least—the ark returns to Israel. But it returns not just to any town in Israel, but a priestly town, one fit to house the ark. However, they decide to open the ark—a huge no, no—and when the pop the hood, many of them die because they tried to look at the ark. All this is a wild story that occurs over the course of 3 chapters in 1 Samuel, chapters 4–6.
Then, at the end of the story, we read this in 1 Samuel 7.
1 And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the Lord. 2 From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.
Notice whose house it goes to? The house of Abinadab. You might not have noticed this when we looked at our passage, but look at v. 3 again of our passage.
And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart.
In 1 Samuel, after that wild story, no one really did anything with the ark, though at one point King Saul thought it might help him in a battle (1 Samuel 14:18–20). When you do the math, between the ark story in 1 Samuel and our ark story in 2 Samuel, the total time the ark was at Abinadab’s house was something like fifty or sixty years.
You see why this matters? I’ll tell you. This man Uzzah was the son of Abinadab (or perhaps his grandson). Uzzah grew up with the ark of God. Growing up I had a basketball court in my backyard; Uzzah and Ahio had the presence of God in their backyard. Can you imagine?
Another important detail to notice in v. 3 is that the ark was put on a “new cart.” The ark is being transported on the back of a cow or ox. It’s not being carried on poles by a specific subset of Levitical priests, which is the way it was supposed to be done. For example, Exodus 25:14–15,
14 And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. 15 The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it.
Or Numbers 4:15,
15 And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die. These are the things of the tent of meeting that the sons of Kohath are to carry.
There are other passages that say similar things (Numbers 7:9; Deuteronomy 10:8; 31:9, 25; cf. Joshua 3:15). Let’s continue reading vv. 6–11 of our story to see what happens to Uzzah.
6 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. 7 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. 8 And David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. 9 And David was afraid of the Lord that day, and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” 10 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. 11 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.
I’m not sure what this man Obed-edom first thought when they wanted to give him the ark. “Here, Obed, you take the hot potato.” “What—what? What happened on the way to Jerusalem? You want that God to come here and stay with me?”
A few things for us to think about. First, what was Uzzah supposed to do? Just let the ark fall? Yes, yes he was. There is a phrase preachers have used about this passage. I’m not sure where it originates. But the saying goes, “Uzzah’s mistake was to think that his hand was less dirty than the dirt on which he stood.”
When the Bible speaks of God being holy, many things are implied but central to God’s holiness is his “other-ness.” God is other. We are creatures, he is Creator. This means that God is not simply a big, stronger version of you. We are like him, but we are different. He is holy, he is other. And we are sinners, which makes his presence a fearful thing. You see, many men wouldn’t want to show me their browsing history on their phone, but now imagine every thought you’ve ever thought display for the world to see as you stand before the judge and creator of the universe. What makes grace amazing, is that we don’t deserve it. Grace is amazing because God is holy.
If Uzzah grew up around the ark perhaps there was a casualness to his view of the ark, to his view of God. Perhaps he was just too familiar, in the bad kind of way. Whereas someone less familiar might have had more fear—the good kind of fear. As the ark started to fall, they might have moved away, rather than toward. After all, when the ark fell into the hands of the enemy—which seems worse to me than simply falling to the ground—God was able to take pretty good care of himself. God didn’t need Uzzah to help him out.
As I said a few minutes ago, we often sing songs about being in God’s presence, about approaching him, about being near to God. But what does that mean?
The presence of God is not a casual thing. Jesus is not your homeboy. He is a friend of sinners, but the Bible says that when he comes again, Jesus is so powerful he will destroy the evil one simply with the breath of his mouth (2 Thessalonians 2:8). The way you take a pizza out of the oven and blow on it, that’s all God has to do to defeat evil at the end of time.
Thinking about this passage again, in fairness we should point out that everyone here was guilty. They weren’t carrying it properly in the first place—there was systemic sin even for those not directly culpable. God had clearly said the ark was to be carried, as I mentioned, on poles and not touched. Yes, we are shocked that Uzzah died, but we should be surprised that more people didn’t die. Why didn’t David die? And why didn’t Adam and Eve die immediately when they sinned? Why haven’t you or I died when we sin? We ask questions like why do bad things happen to good people, which is a question certainly worth asking, but we should also ask, Why do any good things ever happen to sinful people—sinful people like us?
Why do you think they used a cart to carry the ark? Why did they do that? We can only guess. But we do know for sure they carried it the same way the Philistines carried it. The people of God modeled what they did, not after the word of God, but instead after the world. That should sting a bit. Sure, doing things the way the world does them might seem efficient; they might be faster or require less heavy lifting, but what God blesses is when his will is done in his ways.
I’d love to say more about this, but in the interest of time I want to get to the second point. But by way of transition, I’ll point out that all of this makes David angry. He’s afraid. He’s not sure what to do. With his hands thrown in the air he asks, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (v. 9).
Maybe you feel like David as you read this. I do. One way you know you are dealing with the real God—as opposed to a made up god—is that the real God should sometimes offend you. The real God doesn’t have to agree with every viewpoint of pop culture in 2017. He is other.
Yet Jason pointed this out to me. Notice David’s anger had a particular effect on him. David becomes introspective. He doesn’t walk away from God, but he moves toward him. Let’s look at the last point: To approach God rightly is blessing.
2. To approach God rightly is blessing, vv. 12–15
God’s desire for his people (the men in the parade and for David and for us), was not that they would stay angry forever, but they would move through their shock to joyful awe and worship and blessing. Because when God is approached rightly, there is great blessing to be had. Let me read vv. 12–15,
12 And it was told King David, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing. 13 And when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six steps, he sacrificed an ox and a fattened animal. 14 And David danced before the Lord with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the horn.
What was David doing during these three months? Likely many things, but we know he must have been reading his Bible. Or perhaps he was also attending his small group Bible study each week. Perhaps someone in his small group pointed out to him how the ark was to be carried. We don’t know, but we do know that one way or another David realizes that there is a right way to approach God (his question in v. 9, “How can I…” has an answer), and when he does, there is blessing. This time, they carry it on poles. We assume this trip to Jerusalem was more serious and sober, but it was not without rejoicing. It was the deep kind of joy, the lasting kind that comes from knowing God is being related to righty and his presence is with his people to bless.
I want to end by reading a story of sorts. It was quoted in a book I read recently. It’s about God’s presence. It goes like this:
Imagine a Moabite of old gazing down upon the tents and tabernacle of Israel from some lofty mountain height. Attracted by what he sees, he descends to the plain and makes his way toward the sacred enclosure surrounding the tabernacle. It is a high wall of dazzling linen, which reaches over his head. He walks around it until he comes to the gate, where he sees a man.
“May I go in there?” he asks, pointing through the gate to where the bustle of activity in the tabernacle’s outer court can be seen.
“Who are you?” demands the man suspiciously. Any Israelite would know he could go in there. “I am a man from Moab,” the stranger replies.
“Well,” says the man at the gate, “I’m very sorry, but you cannot go in there. It’s not for you. The Law of Moses has barred the Moabite from any part in the worship of Israel until his tenth generation.”
The Moabite looks sad. “What would I have to do to go in there?” he insists. “You would have to be born again,” replies the gatekeeper.
“You would have to be born an Israelite. You would need to be born of the tribe of Judah, perhaps, or of the tribe of Benjamin or Dan.”
Says the Moabite, “I wish I had been born an Israelite,of one of the tribes of Israel.” As he looks more closely, he sees one of the priests, having offered a sacrifice at the brazen altar and cleansed himself at the brazen laver, go on into the tabernacle’s interior.
“What’s in there?” asks the Moabite. “Inside the main building, I mean.”
“Oh,” says the gatekeeper, “That’s the tabernacle itself. Inside there is a room containing a lampstand, a table, and an altar of gold. The man you saw is a priest. He will trim the lamp, eat of the bread upon the table, and burn incense to the living God upon the golden altar.”
“Ah,” sighs the man of Moab, “I wish I were an Israelite so that I could do that. I would love to worship God in that holy place and help to trim the lamp, to offer Him some incense, and to eat at that table.”
“Oh, no,” says the man at the gate, “even I could not do that. To worship in the holy place one must not only be born an Israelite, one must be born of the tribe of Levi and of the family of Aaron.”
The man from Moab sighs again, “I wish,” he says, “I wish I had been born of Israel of the tribe of Levi of the family of Aaron.” Gazing wistfully at the closed tabernacle door, he says, “What else is in there?”
“There’s a veil,” replies his informant. “It is a beautiful veil, I’m told, which divides the tabernacle in two. Beyond the veil is what we call ‘the most holy place,’ ‘the Holy of Holies.’”
The Moabite is more interested than ever.
“What’s in the Holy of Holies?” he asks.
“There’s a sacred chest in there called the Ark of the Covenant,” answers the gatekeeper. “It contains holy memorials of our past. Its top is made of gold and we call that the Mercy Seat because God sits there between the golden cherubim. You see that pillar of cloud hovering over the tabernacle? That’s the Shekina glory cloud. It comes to rest on the Mercy Seat.”
Again a look of longing shadows the face of the man from Moab. “Oh,” he says, “if only I were a priest! I should love to go into the Holy of Holies and there gaze upon God and worship Him there in the beauty of holiness.”
“Oh no!” says the man at the gate. “You couldn’t do that even if you were a priest! To enter into the most holy place you would have to be the high priest of Israel. Only he can go in there, nobody else, only he.”
The Moabite’s heart yearns once more. “Oh,” he cries, “if only I had been born an Israelite, of the tribe of Levi of the family of Aaron. If only I had been born the high priest! I would go in there, into the Holy of Holies. I would go in there every day. I would go in three times a day. I would worship continually in the Holy of Holies.”
The gatekeeper looks at him again and once more shakes his head. “Oh no!” he says, “You couldn’t do that. Even the high priest of Israel can go in there only once a year, and then only after the most elaborate of preparations, and even then only for a very little while.”
Sadly the Moabite turns away. He has no hope in all the world of ever entering there.2
But if this Moabite were here today, I’d tell him what I’ll tell you. You do have hope. It feels harsh to us that Uzzah was killed. But mark this. When Jesus, the Son of God—the Son of God!—bore our sins, God the Father crushed him!
But the way that the rest of the Bible describes the death of Jesus gives us hope. Jesus went into the holy of holies as our great high priest and once and for all offered himself as a sacrifice (Hebrews 9–10). And then he came out of the temple, ripping the curtain in two, and offering his presence to anyone and everyone who is willing to admit that their hands are dirty, but also willing to approach God through Jesus. And that is something worth dancing about.