There are certain stories in the Bible I like to proclaim from the rooftops as some of the greatest stories in all of literature, religious or otherwise. I think instantly of the Prodigal Son story or the story of Esther. David and Goliath is another famous example. Many of them we learned as children and have become part of the cultural fabric of Western Civilization.
Then there are those “other” Bible stories. The ones that make me squirm, make me a little uncomfortable. They keep me from fitting God into the proverbial box my comfortable theology has created for Him. Most of these stories probably don’t make the Children’s Bible story books.
One such story is the story of Uzzah. There’s a part of me that wants to avoid this story, but what happened to Uzzah teaches us some things about the holiness of God that I ignore to my detriment.
It’s found in 2 Samuel 6. But I’ll retell it as best I can here prefaced with a little background. Back in the days before Israel had a king, in the days of Samuel the prophet, the Israelites had taken the ark of God into battle against the Philistines. The ark of God was the visible symbol of the presence of God among the people. It was kept in the holiest part of the tabernacle and there were very clear rules prescribed for its care and transport. It was considered most holy and was to be treated as such.
The Israelites, however, whose hearts had long before forsaken the Lord, wanted to use it as a good luck charm in their battle with the Philistines. But God is not mocked and cannot be manipulated in this way. The Israelites fell before the Philistines that day (see I Samuel 4-5 for the full story) and the ark of God was captured. The Philistines thought, in turn, that it might bring them good luck and in ancient cultural fashion, took the ark of God back and placed it in their own pagan temple. Not only did the ark of God wreak havoc on the pagan temple, but the Philistines themselves were struck with plague (probably Bubonic plague based on the information given – rats and “tumors” are mentioned). The Philistines sent the ark of God back to Israel on a cart led by two cows. It came to Beth Shemesh in Judah and ended up at Kritiath Jearim where it stayed for many years until the time of King David.
David wanted to bring the ark of God his newly captured city, Jerusalem which he rightly envisioned as the future center of worship for the nation of Israel. So David went down to Judah with 30,000 chosen men of Israel to bring up the ark. For the occasion David secured a new cart upon which to transport the ark. However, there was a problem. According to the instructions God had given to the priests back in Exodus, the ark was to be carried by the priests with poles inserted into the rings on the outside of the ark. Whether David had forgotten this stipulation or simply ignored it is not in the Biblical narrative.
Picking up the story in 2 Sam 6:3:
They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals. When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.
I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we feel a little sorry for Uzzah. As far as we can tell, it was with the best of intentions that he stretched out his hand to steady the ark, to keep it from falling off into the mud. But he was struck dead for touching it. (This is the uncomfortable part.) What are we to do with this story? What are we to learn?
I would like to focus on two main things. First, I think to the degree that we feel sorry for Uzzah is the degree to which we do not understand the holiness of God. God’s holiness is like nothing we’ve ever encountered. A.W. Tozer puts it this way:
We cannot grasp the true meaning of the divine holiness by thinking of someone or something very pure and then raising the concept to the highest degree we are capable of. God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible, and unattainable. The natural man is blind to it. He may fear God’s power and admire His wisdom, but His holiness he cannot even imagine.
Uzzah’s act was irreverent because as a sinful man (like all of us) his touching of the holy ark, which represented the very presence of the Lord, was like a matter-antimatter explosion. The two cannot co-exist. Sin must be dealt with before we can come into God’s presence.
Remember Isaiah? “Woe is me!” he cried. If you look back at Isaiah 6, one of the angels flew to him and touched his lips with a coal from the altar, representing atonement for Isaiah’s sin. Once the sin was atoned for, Isaiah could stand in God’s presence. But Uzzah “touches” God’s presence without his sin being dealt with. (Of course, keep in mind that God had given the Israelites the proper method of transporting the ark so that this would never have happened had they obeyed.)
Second, God’s holiness is a very serious thing. I want us to keep this story in mind as we continue with our consideration of the topic of holiness, and realize that as believers in Jesus Christ we are temples of God’s Holy Spirit. If the ark, the “residence” of God’s presence on earth, if you will, was to be treated with absolute holiness, what does that mean for us, also “residences” of God’s Holy Spirit as he dwells within us? When God says in I Peter 1:15, “Be holy, because I am holy” how does that play out in my daily life?
As an aside, notice also that sincerity is not enough in our worship of God. Many people say that how we worship isn’t that important as long as we are sincere. There was a lot of sincerity in the worship on that day in Israel. Notice they were singing with “all their might” before the Lord. But they weren’t carrying the ark the way God had prescribed. There is a right way and a wrong way to worship the Lord. We have to do things His way. As the Creator of us all he deserves no less.
If you read on in I Samuel 6 you will see that David eventually did bring the ark to Jerusalem, exactly the way God had instructed. And there is a happy ending to the story with David dancing before the Lord in pure worship. But, let’s not forget the lesson that Uzzah teaches us about God’s holiness.
It is important that we understand these foundational, theological truths about holiness in order for us to properly apply the idea of personal holiness. Failing to do so leads to either one of two possible errors. On the one hand we may neglect the importance of holiness entirely, or conversely we can develop a false, legalistic “holiness” that resembles little of the holiness of Jesus Christ.
The Holiness of God: Unattainable. Unapproachable. Totally incomprehensible. Yet so foundational to understanding our Creator.