Regarding Responsible Reformation
Al Maxey

Issue #23
March 14, 2003


Quotable Quote

"The errors of great men are venerable
because they are more fruitful than
the truths of little men."

--- Friedrich Nietzsche


Did God Overreact?
The Controversial Death Of Uzzah

One of the biblical accounts that many disciples find personally troubling is the death of Uzzah for reaching out and steadying the ark of the covenant. Some have accused God of "overreacting" by executing a man who seemingly had the best of intentions. What did this man do that caused God to inflict the death penalty upon him? Is there perhaps more to this story than we perceive at first glance? If so, what exactly is the message our God seeks to convey to His people in this very dramatic event?

One of the readers of these Reflections has asked me if I would comment upon the execution of Uzzah, as he has long been informed that this OT event is a true insight into the nature of our God; specifically that He is a God of vengeance and wrath against even the smallest infraction of a legal code. Thus, unless we today keep the "letter of the law" precisely and perfectly, we can expect the same outpouring of wrath that Uzzah experienced. In other words, the story of Uzzah has been used to instill "the fear of God" in those disciples who might be inclined to walk outside the party parameters. The transgression of Uzzah, therefore, has been linked to such "deadly deeds" as using multiple cups in the Lord's Supper, having Sunday School classes, eating in the building, and using pitch pipes. These are "minor," you say? Well, you can "tell that to Uzzah," these "guardians of the gate" will respond!!

In light of the use of this biblical account to "control the masses" and keep them true to the tedious tenets of traditionalism, it behooves us to examine this episode in greater depth to determine the spiritual significance of the death of Uzzah.

After being led safely out of their Egyptian captivity, the people of Israel entered into a covenant with their God at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). Shortly thereafter God instructed the people, through Moses, to construct an ark (Exodus 25:10f), "and there I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel" (vs. 22). This ark was to be kept behind the veil in the holy of holies of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:33-34).

This ark was also to be regarded as extremely sacred, and there were serious consequences for those who approached with hearts of irreverence. The ark was constructed in such a way that it could be carried by poles inserted through rings on the sides (Exodus 25:12-15). Thus, God was very specific as to how the ark was to be transported, should the need to do so arise. He was also specific as to the identity of those whose task it was to transport this sacred item. The ark was to be carried by Levites, and specifically the sons of Kohath (Numbers 4:15). Even these divinely chosen ones, however, must exercise great care lest they "touch the holy objects and die" (Numbers 4:15).

The ark was an integral part of the history of the people of Israel, and many marvelous accounts are associated with it. However, I shall leave these to the reader to examine separately. Let's move forward in history to a time just before the monarchy, during the days of Eli the high priest of Israel. The ark at this time was located in Shiloh, and it was here that Eli performed his sacred duties before the Lord. It was also during this time that a godly woman named Hannah entrusted her young son, Samuel, into Eli's care (1 Samuel 1-3). The sons of Eli, however, "were worthless men; they did not know the Lord" (1 Sam. 2:12). They even went so far as to seduce the women "who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting" (1 Sam. 2:22).

In time, the Philistines came against the people of Israel and defeated them in battle. With the help of the two evil sons of Eli, whose names were Hophni and Phinehas, a group of Israelites brought the ark from Shiloh to the camp of the Israeli warriors. When the Philistines heard the ark was in the enemy camp they attacked, and "there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died" (1 Sam. 4:10-11). When Eli heard of this tragedy, he fell off his seat backward, his neck broke, and he died (1 Sam. 4:18). The wife of Phinehas, who was pregnant at the time, went into labor when she heard the news and died shortly thereafter. After the birth of the child, and prior to her death, she named her son Ichabod, and lamented, "The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God was taken" (1 Sam. 4:22).

The Philistines carried the ark to Ashdod and placed it in the temple of their god Dagon, setting it right next to the idol itself. A series of calamities soon befell the Philistines (enumerated in 1 Samuel 5), and after about seven months of this they decided to get rid of the ark. Not sure of the best way to do this, they finally chose to place it on a new cart hitched to "two milch cows on which there has never been a yoke" (1 Sam. 6:7) and let the God of Israel lead the cows wherever He willed.

The cows went to the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite and stopped by a large stone. The people rejoiced to see the ark returned, and they took the wood of the cart and built a fire and offered the two cows there as a thank offering to God. However, some of the people decided to look into the ark, and as a result of this transgression God struck down 50,070 men of the land (1 Sam. 6:19). This so terrified the people that they cried out, "Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?" (1 Sam. 6:20). Thus, the men of Kiriath-jearim came and collected the ark and brought it to the home of Abinadab, which was located about 7-8 miles NW of Jerusalem. They charged his son, Eleazar, with the task of looking after the ark (1 Sam. 7:1). The ark would remain here for the next 20 years (vs. 2).

At the age of 30, David became king over Israel (2 Sam. 5:4). He soon began to win major victories over some of the surrounding peoples and nations. In time, he decided to bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, so a large group went with him to the house of Abinadab to take possession of the ark of the covenant and transport it the 7-8 miles to Jerusalem. David's hope in bringing the ark to his capital city was that "Yahweh's presence would assure the success of his government and the welfare of the people" (P. Kyle McCarter, The Ritual Dedication of the City of David in 2 Samuel 6). Thus, "David adds to political centralization in Jerusalem a distinctly religious focus by bringing to the city the most venerable and venerated object of his people's past: the Lord's ark -- repository of the covenant, locus of atonement, throne of the invisible Yahweh" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, volume 3, page 867).

This brings us to the focus of this study. The scene is now set for the seemingly "outrageous behavior of God" (as one critic phrased it) toward "poor, innocent, well-intentioned Uzzah." However, as one examines the above passage one can quickly perceive that David and his people have made some extremely grave errors in judgment as they seek to convey the ark to Jerusalem. These are errors which essentially display a complete lack of reverence for God. Our God is HOLY, and yet the actions of David and his men are an affront to that holiness. They have treated God with contempt. Indeed, it would later be stated that Uzzah was struck down "for his irreverence" (2 Sam. 6:7).

What specifically was so contemptuous in the actions and attitudes of David and his men? First, those who were carrying the ark (Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab) were not of the tribe of Levi, nor of the household of Kohath. Thus, these two men were not authorized by God to transport the ark of the covenant. God had been very specific as to who could, and who could not, transport the ark (Deut. 10:8; Num. 4:15, 19-20; 18:1-7). These two men were not "on the list" of approved carriers. Thus, David, as the leader of this expedition, had shown complete disregard for the Law of God with respect to this matter. This was a lesson he would learn the hard way when it cost him the death of one of his people -- Uzzah. Notice from the following passage that David did learn from this mistake, as several months later he sought again, but correctly this time, to transport the ark to Jerusalem:

David had obviously learned his lesson, and he made sure the right people carried the ark the next time he sought to bring it to Jerusalem, which was about three months following the death of Uzzah, during which time the ark resided at the house of Obed-edom the Gittite (2 Sam. 6:10-11).

Second, David and the people of Israel showed contempt and irreverence for their God by transporting the ark in a manner otherwise than prescribed. Poles were to be inserted in the rings on the side, and the ark was to be carried by Levites. To David's credit, he did it correctly the second time around, as seen in the above passage. However, at first they placed the ark on a new cart pulled by oxen. As you remember, this was the method of transport chosen by the Philistines some twenty years earlier. Many good commentaries point out that this was the common way the Philistines transported their idols -- on carts pulled by oxen. Thus, David was employing a pagan method of transporting false gods to transport the ark of the covenant. In so doing, he assaulted the holiness of the God of Israel. It is very possible the suggestion for this particular means of transport had come from the family of Abinadab, which included Uzzah, who likely remembered that the ark had originally been sent from the Philistines in this same fashion. Dr. Kleven correctly observed, "The ark was not to be moved in the manner of the Philistines, but as enjoined by Israelite law" (Hebrew Style In 2 Samuel 6, pages 8-9).

Thus, David was using the wrong people and the wrong means to transport the ark of the covenant. This was a mission doomed from the beginning.

Eugene Peterson notes, "Uzzah's death was not sudden; it was years in the making" (Crux, September, 1995, page 7). As brother Richard May, a fellow minister who serves in Oklahoma, so aptly observed, "Touching the ark was the final straw, not the singular sin." Years of disregard of God and His Word had led to a series of contemptuous, irreverent actions which ultimately resulted in the death of this man. Although David was initially angered by the action of God, it nevertheless served to awaken him to his misguided leadership. Actually, David should have regarded this as a merciful admonishment, for God could easily have struck down a great many more that day, as He had done in the past. The fact that only one died that day was a marvelous demonstration of grace!

David correctly understood later that the wrath of God was not just directed at Uzzah alone, but was poured out upon the whole assembly who had shown irreverence. David declared, "the Lord our God made an outburst on US, for we did not seek Him according to the ordinance" (1 Chron. 15:13). Earlier David was angered "because of the Lord's outburst against Uzzah" (1 Chron. 13:11), but later he came to a proper awareness of the true nature of the irreverence. They were all guilty, and especially David as their leader. Brother John Mark Hicks, in his commentary, wrote, "The point is that Uzzah is the victim of a carelessness on the part of his leaders, ultimately David himself."

There have been some rather fanciful theories as to the exact nature of how Uzzah died. Some feel the cart and the ark may have actually fallen over on top of him, crushing him to death. Others have speculated that perhaps one of the ark's military escort used his spear to kill Uzzah for touching the ark. Others say God sent fire down from heaven to consume him. One of the most interesting theories is that "the ark, a wooden chest overlaid inside and out with gold, functioned as a huge Leyden jar that produced enough static electricity while bumping along the rocky road to electrocute Uzzah when he touched it" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, volume 3, page 871). Ultimately, all we can say with certainty is what the Bible itself declares: "God struck him down there for his irreverence" (2 Sam. 6:7), "a phrase that is unique in the OT" (ibid).

With respect to the ultimate, eternal fate of Uzzah himself few have dared to speculate. Adam Clarke, however, made the following rather bold observation, "As to Uzzah, no man can doubt of his eternal safety. He committed a sin unto death, but doubtless the mercy of God was extended to his soul" (Clarke's Commentary, volume 2, page 322). We can only pray he is right.

When this entire series of events is perceived against the backdrop of God's HOLINESS, the interpretation of this tragic incident changes drastically. This is not a case where God "lost it" and lashed out irrationally at a seemingly innocent man. Nor should it be used as a tool of intimidation to "keep the masses in line" with the thinking of the party powers. Rather, it was a case where God showed tremendous restraint in the face of outrageous irreverence. Yes, He took action in order to bring the irreverence to a halt, but even then the action taken was gracious and merciful in its limitation. Many more could have died that day, but only one life was taken. In a way, one might almost say -- one died that many more might awaken to their peril and seek a right relationship with the Lord. In the death of Uzzah, God had sounded a trumpet of warning to a people who had lost sight of His holiness. It was a harsh and dramatic, yet restrained and gracious, call to a misguided people to return to Him with hearts of reverence. And it worked.

May we all learn from this account that we serve a HOLY God, and that He will not tolerate irreverence. Yet, even then, His matchless grace is easily evident in His dealings with those who have gone astray. "The conclusion, when all has been heard, is this -- show reverence for God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (Eccl. 12:13). The Contemporary English Version words it this way, "Everything you were taught can be put into a few words -- Respect and obey God! This is what life is all about."


Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Virginia:

I just don't get it. What in the world is wrong with us?! Disciples in the Church of Christ will argue over whether we can pray to Jesus (even to the point of "marking" others), while the world goes to hell in a handbag? I just don't understand .... and every day I understand it less.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Not only did Stephen pray to Jesus in Acts 7, the apostle John prayed to Jesus in Revelation 22:20, "Come, Lord Jesus" (NASB). I don't understand what the big deal is about people praying to Jesus. The apostle Thomas said that Jesus was his "Lord" and his "God" (John 20:28, NASB). I concur with Thomas' words, for, indeed, Jesus is the Lord and God of us all. Since He is, can we not pray to Him?!

From a Reader in Louisiana:

How odd, brother --- the first church assembly I attended after I received your latest Reflections, Praying to the Son of God, which was the Sunday morning worship service, was rather nicely closed out by a brother who unashamedly and directly prayed to, spoke to, addressed Jesus ... by name.

That was his closing prayer --- honor and praise and thanks and some petition TO JESUS. I hope it didn't bother the purists too much.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Thanks for your Praying to the Son of God. I have been a member of the traditional Church of Christ for 58 years and have been told all my life that I must pray to God --- not to Jesus. I have, of late, begun to question these instructions. I certainly understand the need and welcome the exalted, unequaled privilege of praying (talking) to God, but why is it unreasonable to "talk" to my Savior who is my advocate and through whom I must go to reach the Father? If Jesus is my mediator (go between), why can't I talk to Him? If He loved me enough to die for me, and since He said "I am with you always," why is it verboten to talk with Him? Since Jesus was God incarnate and now sits at God's right hand making intercession for me, why am I discouraged from conversing with Him? If we sing prayers to Jesus --- e.g., "My Jesus I Love Thee" --- why do we not also speak to Him in other prayers?

I am ashamed that in the past I have belittled some people who openly spoke to their "sweet Jesus." It may well be that those people enjoyed a closer kinship with Jesus than I. I will no longer deprive myself of the great privilege of talking with my sweet Jesus! My first talk with Him was to express my heartfelt gratitude for His love for me and for His accomplishing my redemption from sin. I will never forget the closeness to Jesus I felt at my first talk with Him! May we all have a "Little Talk With Jesus!"

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