Scripture captures a fascinating chain of events in the history of King David and the people of Israel that results in a dramatic killing of a Priest named Uzzah who was helping to transport the Ark of the Covenant. This incident in the history of God's people is a highly instructive one as it relates to the principles of obedience to God's commands with respect to our service of worship to Himself. And it further demonstrates that our zeal without right knowledge is no excuse before Him.
The main of the incident is recorded for us in 2 Samuel 6:
3 And they set the ark of God upon a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab that was in Gibeah: and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, drave the new cart. 4 And they brought it out of the house of Abinadab which was at Gibeah, accompanying the ark of God: and Ahio went before the ark. 5 And David and all the house of Israel played before the Lord on all manner of instruments made of fir wood, even on harps, and on psalteries, and on timbrels, and on cornets, and on cymbals. 6 And when they came to Nachon's threshingfloor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. 7 And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God. 8 And David was displeased, because the Lord had made a breach upon Uzzah: and he called the name of the place Perezuzzah to this day.
Exodus 25:8-40 gives an extensive description of how the Ark was to be constructed, what it was to contain and how it should be transported. God took great care in this to be very specific so that there would be no lack of understanding of what was to be required.
Note the specific directions on how it should be transported in Exodus 25:14-15:14 And thou shalt put the staves into the rings by the sides of the ark, that the ark may be borne with them. 15 The staves shall be in the rings of the ark: they shall not be taken from it.
Recall that the Ark had been lost to Israel because of their superstition and disobedience. After the Philistines experienced curses upon themselves while they possessed the Ark, they eventually figured out that they must return the Ark to Israel to be rid of God's curses. 1 Sam 6:19 recounts for us:
19 And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter. 20 And the men of Bethshemesh said, Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God? and to whom shall he go up from us? 21 And they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kirjathjearim, saying, The Philistines have brought again the ark of the Lord; come ye down, and fetch it up to you.
The Philistines are begging them to get the Ark out of there! Now, we might expect that the pagan Philistines have no clue of how the Ark should be handled. But what of the people of God? What of his Priest Uzzah who is specially trained?
1 Sam 7:1-2 shows us that it sat in a man's house for 20 years!
1 And the men of Kirjathjearim came, and fetched up the ark of the Lord, and brought it into the house of Abinadab in the hill, and sanctified Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the Lord. 2 And it came to pass, while the ark abode in Kirjathjearim, that the time was long; for it was twenty years: and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.
1 Sam 14:18
18 And Saul said unto Ahiah, Bring hither the ark of God. For the ark of God was at that time with the children of Israel.
The Ark of God has been sitting at some guy's house or another for a total now of about 70 years between the Philistines and Abiniadab. That is generations of negligence toward God's Ark!
David has been in exile through Saul's reign and has become King of Israel and he wants to restore the proper worship of the people after a long period of neglect.
So, David has good intentions. But do good intentions please God in matters of Worship? Romans 10:2 gives us an important warning, “For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.”
Look at what David does:
First, he figures out where he went wrong:
1 Chronicles 15 tells us:
Then David said, None ought to carry the ark of God but the Levites: for them hath the chosen to carry the ark of God, and to minister unto him for ever. For because ye did it not at the first, the our God made a breach upon us, for that we sought him not after the due order. So the priests and the Levites sanctified themselves to bring up the ark of the God of Israel. And the children of the Levites bare the ark of God upon their shoulders with the staves thereon, as Moses commanded according to the word of the .
And we have the parallel account in 2 Samuel as well.
2 Sam 6:1-3
1 Again, David gathered together all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand.
2 And David arose, and went with all the people that were with him from Baale of Judah, to bring up from thence the ark of God, whose name is called by the name of the Lord of hosts that dwelleth between the cherubims.
3 And they set the ark of God upon a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab that was in Gibeah: and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, drave the new cart.
But God had not commanded that the ark be transported upon a cart! It was only to be transported by men carrying it by staves inserted into the rings on the side of it as commanded in Exodus 25:14-15.
In spite of all this ceremony and 30,000 men being present, the disobedience of David and more specifically the Priests who are trained to properly transport the Ark is dealt with by God in the most grave manner!
Uzzah had good intentions. He wanted to prevent the Ark from falling off the cart. But was Uzzah pleasing God?
Matthew Henry writes:
"There he sinned, and there he died, by the ark of God; even the mercy-seat would not save him. Why was God thus severe with him? 1. The touching of the ark was forbidden to the Levites expressly under pain of death - lest they die; 2. God saw the presumption and irreverence of Uzzah's heart. Familiarity, even with that which is most awful [awe-inspiring], is apt to breed contempt 3. David afterwards owned that Uzzah died for an error they were all guilty of, which was carrying the ark in a cart. Because it was not carried on the Levites' shoulders, the Lord made that breach upon us, 1 Chronicles 15:13. But Uzzah was singled out to be made an example, perhaps because he had been most forward in advising that way of conveyance; however he had fallen into another error, which was occasioned by that. Perhaps the ark was not covered, as it should have been, with the covering of badgers' skins (Numbers 4:6), and that was a further provocation. 4. God would hereby strike an awe upon the thousands of Israel, would convince them that the ark was never the less venerable for its having been so long in mean circumstances, and thus he would teach them to rejoice with trembling, and always to treat holy things with reverence and holy fear. 5. God would hereby teach us that a good intention will not justify a bad action; it will not suffice to say of that which is ill done that it was well meant. He will let us know that he can and will secure his ark, and needs not any man's sin to help him to do it. 6. If it was so great a crime for one to lay hold on the ark of the covenant that had no right to do so, what is it for those to lay claim to the privileges of the covenant that come not up to the terms of it? To the wicked God says,What hast thou to do to take my covenant in thy mouth? Psalm 50:16. Friend, how camest thou in hither?If the ark was so sacred, and not to be touched irreverently, what is the blood of the covenant? Hebrews 10:29. The memorial of this stroke would be a warning to posterity to take heed of all rashness and irreverence in dealing about holy things."
So, we note that in addition to failing to transport the ark in the right manner, they also failed to obey God's command to cover it properly. David's right recognition that the sin was not only of Uzzah but of all those present and doubly so for himself as the King reflects that David has been appropriately chastened by God's correction.
Let us never be guilty of carrying the Ark on an oxcart before the eyes of God in our worship!
My special thanks to my Pastor, the Rev. Mark Koller of Dallas RPCNA for his sermon on this topic, "The Sin of Uzzah," which I commend to you.