by peter waller
At some stage during his rule as king, David decided to bring the Ark of God (which housed God’s manifest presence) into Jerusalem. The Ark had been housed for some 20 years in the house of Abinadab following its return by the Philistines. As David and a procession of people journeyed with the Ark, they danced with joy in expectation of more of God’s presence and goodness in their lives.
But the celebrations met an abrupt end when one of Abinadab’s sons, Uzzah, was struck dead by God. Uzzah had touched the Ark to prevent it from falling off the cart that was transporting it. All eyes must’ve turned to David – “Now what?” David was offended by God’s seeming harshness. And, suddenly, he was afraid of God. He feared that God might kill him too; “If God is so holy that he killed Uzzah for a mere knee-jerk reaction, he may well find some wrong in me and kill me too if I bring the Ark back home."
Is God safe?Because of this fear, David abandoned his plans and left the Ark at a nearby house, inhabited by a man named Obed-edom (a “guinea-pig” if ever there was one). I imagine that David was confused at this time as to whether God was safe (and it was good to draw close to him) or dangerous (and it was best to admire him from afar). It probably was especially difficult for him to absorb since he already had a close relationship with God. He had history with God – with God’s help he had killed beast and brute while still a boy; as king of Israel, God had given him detailed battle strategies. Yet his experience with the Ark of God left him perplexed.
Three months later, David heard that Obed-edom’s fortunes had improved considerably since the Ark had been in his house. Having had time to think, this news seemed to provide him with some clarity, for he returned to collect the Ark. (What did he say to Obed-edom? “Thanks Obed, I just wanted to see if God killed you, but seeing as he’s blessed you, I’ll take it from here.” Courageous leadership.)
As the Ark entered Jerusalem, David danced joyfully, with all his might. He was again delighted; seemingly even more so than when he first led a procession to bring the Ark back home. What can we take from this story that is relevant to the New Covenant? After all, God no longer dwells in a physical container or building. And there aren’t stories circulating of people being struck down for taking the holiness of God for granted.
The Fear of God in the New Covenant
This story can help us to revere, even fear, God appropriately. That was the impact of a story with a similar ending from the days of the early church. Luke records how “great fear came upon the whole church” after God killed a husband and wife for lying about what portion of the money gained from the sale of their property they gave to the church. (Acts 5:1-11)
I believe God was mercifully preventing David and the early church from falling into the trap that Saul and that couple did – the trap of taking him lightly; of fearing man more than him. It is a trap that has devastating consequences, particularly because it leads to a lifestyle of sin; a worthless, wasted life that can expect God’s judgement. A life that flows from seeing God as either indifferent to what we do or who can’t help but overlook our wrongdoing regardless of the state of our hearts. More enlightened biblical writers (of the Old and New Testaments) didn’t make a mistake like this…
“… So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.” Paul, Romans 11:20-22
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God… let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.“ A wise man, Hebrews 10:31 and 12:28
“Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.” Another wise man, Psalm 2:11
Worship that is acceptable to God is worship that is offered with reverence and awe. And that means we must keep in our minds who God is. We must not become lazy and approach him as if he is just anybody. We must never become overly familiar with God. It is true that he is our loving, gracious Father who has opened the way for us to approach him freely and boldly. But it is also true that he is the omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent King of the all created things. This can be perplexing at times: what exactly is the nature of God and how should we relate to him? I certainly don’t pretend to be in a position to write the textbook on the matter. What I suggest is that we take time to comtemplate these issues like David did. That we consider afresh who God is and what it means to revere and fear him in our thoughts, speech and attitudes, without losing the wonderful reality of his love and grace. Like so many things when it comes to God, it isn’t a case of “either… or…” but rather it’s “both… and…”
Increased passion and joy
I think David made progress following his initial confusion at the death of Uzzah and gained a more complete view of God – a view that didn’t diminish his passion and joy in worship, but actually bolstered it. As crazy as it sounds, perhaps we would benefit if God struck someone dead for dishonouring him. It would be better, though, if we learnt from these two narratives that have been recorded in the bible for that very purpose so that history need not repeat itself.