It is easy to dismiss the events of II Samuel 6 as Old Testament stories of a capricious God that have little meaning for today. We can take the approach that they tell of a different era and a different God so we can just ignore them. The ruthless God of vengeance and wrath seen here is not the God of mercy and love we serve in the New Testament age. Yes, these stories are in the Bible but we don’t really talk about them at parties. The difficulty with this thinking, of course, is that it ignores the inconvenient fact that II Samuel 6 and other chapters like it tell of one timeless God. The God who acts in this chapter is the same God who sent His Son to die for us and to whom we pray and ask for mercy and grace. Thus the believer is left with reconciling two seemingly contrasting pictures of God. Can we understand a God so loving He died for us and yet so holy He struck a man down for instinctively reaching out his hand and so just He made a woman barren for having a bad attitude? Is our view of God big enough for II Samuel 6?
To understand the events of this chapter it’s important to know the history behind them (as related in I Sam 6:1-7:2). The Ark of the Covenant – the symbol of the presence of God – resides in the private house of an Israelite named Abinadab. The reason for this is that years ago (somewhere between 20 and 50 depending on how I Sam 7:2 is interpreted compared with the time of Saul’s reign) the Philistines stole the ark after defeating Israel in battle. While the Philistines had the ark God made their lives miserable and so they sent it back to Israel on a cart (with no driver) and it came to the area where Abinadab lives (alternately called Kiriath-jearim and Baale-judah). The men of this area – after suffering the wrath of God for looking into it – selected Abinadab to keep the ark and consecrated his son to serve before it. The ark has been in their house since that time.
In the present day, David has solidified his rule over all Israel and conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital. As a result, he wants to bring the ark to his home city presumably so the presence of God and the king are in the same place. With the ark there, Jerusalem will be home to the true King of Israel and His anointed prince.
David and 30,000 of the chosen men of Israel (this number seems hard to fathom but it could be David’s way of marking the significance of the move) go down to Abinadab’s house to escort the ark to Jerusalem.
Once they reach the house, they place the ark on a new cart (it could be that they remember how the ark reached its current location decades ago – the Philistines sent it back on a new cart – and so the people and David decide to use the same method since it apparently was successful) and the two sons (or grandsons at this point) of Abinadab lead the cart. One son – Ahio – walks before the cart and the other son – Uzzah – walks behind.
As the cart makes it way to Jerusalem, David and the people celebrate before the Lord with musical instruments and singing (I Chron 13:8). The whole procession is a celebration. It’s a wonderful and triumphal day. David has defeated the Philistines twice since he became king, the city of Jerusalem is his, and the ark is about to resume its rightful place in a public place of worship. The days of defeat and godlessness under Saul are over. The kingdom and the king are in their rightful place under the God of Israel.
And then suddenly everything goes horribly wrong. The oxen pulling the cart stumble and the ark begins to tip. Uzzah instinctively reaches out to stabilize it and keep it from falling. As soon as his hand touches the ark, God strikes him down and kills him. It happens in an instant. One minute everyone is singing and happy, the next minute there’s a dead man in the road. And as soon as he falls, the celebration stops and what’s been a triumphal holiday becomes a horrifying nightmare. Uzzah lies dead beside the ark, the instruments go quiet, and the entire purpose of the victorious excursion is lost in the face of a grievous tragedy.
It’s a brutal scene and hard to understand. All Uzzah did was what most would do if put in the same situation – he reacted. The first impulse of someone watching over a sacred cargo is to protect that cargo. The ark began to tip and Uzzah reached out to make sure it didn’t just fall to ground like a common piece of furniture. It’s the footstool of the throne of God – you don’t just let it fall in the mud. And yet God doesn’t see it that way at all. In God’s eyes this entirely understandable behavior is worthy of death. He kills Uzzah. No questions asked, no mercy given. Uzzah does something very human and loses his life as a result. It’s a punishment that seems way beyond the crime. Even if Uzzah sinned by reaching out, shouldn’t his motives temper the wrath? Couldn’t God have rebuked him instead of killing him?
Some context will help. When God gave the Law to Moses, He instructed Moses on how the tabernacle was to be torn down and moved. Three things were critical about the ark (see Num 4:5-6, 15, 19-20). Number one, only the Kohathites (a clan of the Levites) were to move the Ark. Two, it was to be carried using long poles that fit into rings on the four corners of the ark. And three, it was to be covered before it was moved so that no one other than the priests would see it.
David and the people essentially violate all these instructions. They put the ark on a cart instead of carrying it with poles. The two sons of Abinadab are not identified as even Levites, much less Kohathites. And nothing is said about covering the ark before it’s transported. If they had tried, they couldn’t have violated God’s commands any more completely.
The other thing we know about the ark is that God repeatedly warns Moses that no one other than the High Priest is ever to approach it. And NO ONE is ever to touch the ark. The poles that fit into the rings are there precisely so that the men moving it do not directly come in contact with it. It is the presence of the Name of God – no human hand can touch it and live.
With the Law as background, the circumstances surrounding Uzzah’s death don’t seem quite so unreasonable (still brutal, but not so arbitrarily brutal). A sinful hand simply can’t touch the holiness of God. Uzzah may have thought he was helping, but his fallen state made his hand more defiled than the ground the ark may have fallen on. His death is harsh, but it’s consistent with God’s commands since the ark was first made.
David has two reactions to Uzzah’s death. The first is anger. The text doesn’t make the target of David’s anger fully clear, but the implication is that it’s God. David names the place Perez-uzzah which means “The Breakthrough of Uzzah” because God broke through and killed him. David could also be angry at the situation or at himself because even if he doesn’t entirely understand the situation, he knows they’ve obviously done something to invite God’s wrath. Regardless of which is correct, what was supposed to be a historic celebration is now a historic tragedy and he’s angry.
The second reaction is fear. David suddenly doesn’t want the ark anywhere near him (and he might have a hard time finding volunteers to man the cart). The God he was dancing and celebrating in front of is now very frightening. So as to protect himself and everyone around, he decides to put the ark in the nearby house of a man called Obed-edom the Gittite (who appears to be a Levite and perhaps even a Kohathite per I Chron 26:1-8). Nothing is mentioned about how excited Obed-edom is to get this assignment, but the ark stays in his house for the next three months and – instead of it being a death sentence – God blesses him and all his household as a result (the manner of blessing isn’t mentioned, but in the I Chronicles passage it says that God blesses him with sons and grandsons to the point that he has 62 descendants – what isn’t clear is how it becomes obvious God is blessing him in just three months).
After three months, David hears that God has blessed Obed-edom while the ark’s been in his house. This news presumably reminds him why he wanted the ark in Jerusalem in the first place and perhaps also reassures him that it isn’t just an instrument of God’s wrath.
He decides to try again. This time, however, he does it right. We don’t know how, but he knows why God broke out against them the first time. He calls the priests and Levites together (this scene isn’t in our text; see I Chron 15:4-14) – and specifically calls for the Kohathites – and tells them they are to carry the ark according to the Law because God punished them the first time for not transporting it correctly. As we see in verse 13 with its reference to the bearers of the ark of the Lord, there’s no cart this time – they carry it as instructed.
Just to make sure the trip is consecrated, David offers sacrifices after the Kohathites proceed six paces. It’s not clear if they do this after every six steps or if it’s just once (obviously in the first case it would make for a long trip), but David takes no chances with this exercise being outside of God’s favor. The sacrifices show that he knows they are a sinful people in the presence of a holy God.
As the ark proceeds David and the people sing and dance and shout and play instruments. David dances with all his might in celebration. It again is a triumphal march. The presence of God will be where David is and its existence shows that Israel is chosen by God and David is God’s anointed over God’s people. The scene is a complete departure from the tragedy of three months ago.
The text says that David wears only a linen ephod. This is a simple priestly garment far removed from kingly robes. David clearly wants to humble himself before God and doesn’t care how it looks or how undignified it makes him. Today is about God – not David. God is the true king of Israel and David is his servant. And David is thrilled to the bottom of his soul that it is so.
As the procession reaches Jerusalem, Michal – David’s first wife and the daughter of Saul – looks out the window and sees her husband dancing and leaping and wearing the ephod. He looks anything but kingly and his actions and appearance disgust her. The text says she despises him in her heart.
Some background on Michal may shed some light on her reaction. Michal is the first woman David married. She fell in love with David when David was one of her father’s – King Saul’s – mighty men. When her father heard that Michal loved David, he decided to use her to erase a man he had grown suspicious and jealous of. He told David he could have Michal as his wife if he brought 100 foreskins of the Philistines for a bride price. His hope was that David would die trying to accomplish the task. Unfortunately for Saul, David brought the foreskins (what a fun package that would’ve been to receive) and married Michal (I Sam 18:20-29). When Saul eventually banished David from court, he gave Michal to another man as his wife (I Sam 25:44). She stayed married to that man for as long as David lived as an outlaw during the remaining years of Saul’s reign. When David ascended to the throne, he arranged for Michal to be taken from her husband and brought back to him. This was a heartless exercise wherein her husband followed after her mourning and crying until he was told to go home (II Sam 3:14-16). Based on her husband’s reaction to their separation, it could be that Michal isn’t thrilled to be back with David as his wife. And she may also not be happy that the kingdom was taken from her family.
Once the ark comes into Jerusalem, it’s placed in a tent David has set up for it (the tabernacle isn’t in Jerusalem – it’s in Gibeon (I Chron 16:39) – why David doesn’t bring it to Jerusalem and how the tabernacle functions without the ark aren’t explained). David offers more burnt offerings and then blesses the people. He acts as their king and priest.
David ends the day by giving all the people some food (and remember, they perhaps number more than 30,000) and everyone goes home. It’s been an incredible day. Jerusalem is whole, the kingdom is whole, God is in His rightful place in the capital of Israel, and the people and their king are truly the Lord’s.
David returns home likely flush with excitement and triumph. Everything went as planned. It was a day-long celebration of the glory of God. He blessed the people and he now wants to bless his house. He’s the servant of God and has spent all day serving his king.
As he approaches the house, however, Michal (notice that the text refers to her only as the daughter of Saul, never as the wife of David) meets him and immediately scorns him for what he’s done. She very sarcastically praises him for humiliating himself in front of the servant girls. She accuses him of exposing himself like a vulgar fool.
David does not respond well. The contrast between what he’s experienced this day and how Michal treats him is stark. And his hopes for blessing his house are now dashed. He tells her in no uncertain terms that his dancing was for God, not anyone else. And his appearance was for God, not anyone else. Even more, if he wants to debase himself in front of anyone he’ll do it if it means he can worship God. He also reminds her that God took the kingdom from her father and gave it to him, which implies that he knows her words stem from bitterness over her family’s loss (and this could mean that we can read between the lines of her sarcasm and see her saying, “A REAL king – like my father – would never have acted like you did today.”).
The chapter ends with a sobering epilogue about Michal. She has no child to the day of her death. It could be that this is because David banishes her from his bed, but it’s just as likely it’s because God punishes her for her accusations against David. Michal suffers greatly for her bitterness and scorn.
What we need to ask ourselves in light of these stories is this: is our view of God big enough to allow the God of II Samuel 6 to be the same God who’s our loving Father in heaven? Can we wrap our minds around the death of Uzzah, the childlessness of Michal, and our daily walk in the grace of Jesus? Is our God big enough to be in the Old Testament and the New?
Some thoughts from this passage should help our view. First, we must understand that if the events of II Samuel 6 didn’t occur, our grace is not nearly as dear as we thought. If Uzzah would’ve lived after touching the ark, then redemption isn’t such a big deal. Since he died, however, we get to see in him what God had to do to usher us into His presence. God is perfectly holy. There is NO HOPE for us apart from His intervention. And Uzzah shows us just how hopeless we are. Uzzah reached out his hand – that’s it – he reached out his hand and died. Instantly, terribly, irreversibly. He came into contact with the holiness of God and died. That’s who we are apart from Christ’s work. It took the perfectly holy Son of God to breach the chasm between our fallen souls and the justice of God. Uzzah ultimately shows us the scope of our redemption.
He and Michal also show us the God we continue to serve. We are redeemed, but we serve the same God who struck down Uzzah and punished Michal. He is still holy and still on His throne. And His view of sin hasn’t changed. We have to understand this as we live and act in our daily lives. We aren’t under God’s wrath because of Jesus and we can come boldly before His throne as His children, but He’s still ON His throne and we must never take sin lightly or His holiness for granted.
Ultimately we have to respond like David. David both celebrated God and feared Him. David danced with all his might before a God whose holiness scared him into inaction for three months. David’s words to Michal make it clear that everything he did in bringing the ark to Jerusalem was for God. He exalted and danced and sang and shouted and debased himself before the God he loved and desperately wanted to glorify. But he also feared His wrath and holiness. We live under grace but we should have the same attitude. God is both; He’s our loving heavenly Father but He’s also enthroned above the cherubim. Jesus told us to pray “Our Father” but He also said our first petition should be “Hallowed be Your name.”
Now therefore, O kings, show discernment;
Take warning, O judges of the earth.
Worship the Lord with reverence,
And rejoice with trembling.