Uzzah and the Ark II: Theological Reflections and Churches of Christ

I remember quite a few sermons about Uzzah and the Ark over the years.  Usually—if I recall correctly—they were based on 2 Samuel 6 which is not as nearly helpful for understanding the theological point of the story as is 1 Chronicles 13 & 15.  The point of the sermon usually boiled down to something like one of these:

 

  • Uzzah was sincere, but nevertheless judged for his sin
  • Uzzah was only trying to help, but nevertheless God judged his violation of the law
  • Divine judgment is executed even against technical violations.
  • Don’t mess with God’s law—he jealously guards it so that the least of violators are condemned!

 

Usually—and a search of the literature could find many examples among Churches of Christ—the main thrust of such sermons was to remind God’s people how they must take care to worship God exactly as God has prescribed with no deviation whatsoever.  Any deviation—for whatever reason—was a death sentence.  Precision in obedience—a kind of ritualistic perfectionism—is the lesson many took from this text.  It was almost always applied to instrumental music in my hearing and in the literature of Churches of Christ—if you worship with the instrument it is parallel to the disobedience of Uzzah. You don’t want to end up like Uzzah, do you?

 

Of course, Churches of Christ did not invent this way of handling the Uzzah text.  One can find this kind of use in lots of places, but primarily in the Reformed tradition of Calvin, the Puritans and British Presbyterians.

 

The God envisioned in this reading of the text is the “God of technicalities.” God will punish technical disobedience even when people are sincere about what they are doing, even when they are seeking God with their whole hearts. Make one mistake and you get zapped—even when you are an innocent bystander who is just trying to help (like Uzzah).

 

When we picture Yahweh as the “God of technicalities” who takes every opportunity to zap his people for the sake of his holy law, we seriously misunderstand the nature of God’s holiness within the theology of the Chronicler. God is not searching for technical law-breakers, but he is searching for hearts that seek him. He punishes those who rebelliously violate his commands, but he forgives those who seek him (even those who seek him imperfectly as in 2 Chronicles 30—more on that later).

 

It is true that Uzzah openly violated the law (cf. Numbers 4:15)—he did something the law explicitly condemned. This is not an example of the “silence of Scripture,” because the Scripture was not silent. No one should touch the ark. Uzzah touched it. God punished him.

 

But there is more going on here than Uzzah.  The procession is actually David’s responsibility.  Indeed, he takes responsibility for what happened to Uzzah in 1 Chronicles 15:13.  Uzzah’s act was not an isolated one—the procession was irreverent, manipulative and arrogant.  The judgment against Uzzah was not just about Uzzah but rather it was about the whole procession itself.  Uzzah’s act was not the technical violation of a sincere heart but a rebellious act that symbolized the whole ungodly movement of the ark.

 

Uzzah’s problem was not a mere “technical” violation of the law. David himself violated the law as he superintended the movement of the ark on a cart. David was in technical violation himself, but he was not struck down that day. Uzzah’s act was part of a much larger context where the presence of the holy was profaned. This picture of God is not some vindictive judge who anxiously watches for any technical violation so he can zap offenders. Rather, God is pictured as the holy one whom Israel must honor if they are to serve him. This episode, in the context of Chronicles, points to the heart rather than to technicality as the culprit.

 

The fundamental theological hermeneutic of the Chronicler is “God seeks seekers.” The faithful and gracious God seeks hearts that seek him. The God of the Chronicler is a relational God who seeks authentic reciprocal relationship. Those who seek him will find him but those who forsake him he will forsake (1 Chronicles 28:9; 2 Chronicles 15:2).

 

Two of the most significant terms in Chronicles are “seek” and “heart”. They are thematic for the Chronicler. These terms are linked 11x (1 Chronicles 16:10; 22:19; 28:9; 2C 11:16; 12:14; 15:12, 15; 19:3; 22:9; 30:19; 31:21), that is, hearts that seek God. “Seek” appears 54x (the most in biblical literature) and “heart” 64x (only Jeremiah and Psalms use it more often). God seeks hearts and yearns for hearts that seek him. God accepts seekers even in their imperfections (2 Chronicles 30:18-20).

 

The flip side of God’s relational nature is that those who forsake him he will forsake (1 Chronicles 28:9; 2 Chronicles 15:2). The history of Israel is filled with example after example of this Godforsakenness. Ultimately, because Israel forsakes God, God exiles Israel. God punishes evil.

 

Consequently, God enters history to create, discipline, probe, test and redeem in order to find hearts that seek him as he seeks them. The story of Chronicles is the story of Yahweh who moves among his people to know their hearts and find those who seek him (2 Chronicles 16:9). In Chronicles, Yahweh creates the world and preserves a people throughout history (1 Chronicles 1-9). Yahweh establishes a covenant with David as he inaugurates a kingdom (1 Chronicles 17). Yahweh graciously dwells among his people in the temple (2 Chronicles 6-7). Yahweh disciplines, blesses and tests his people in order to know their hearts (1 Chronicles 29:17-19; 2 Chronicles 32:31). The story of God in Chronicles is the story of a dynamic engagement between God and his people as God seeks to establish a gracious relationship with those who seek him.

 

In the context of this larger theological movement in the Chronicler’s narrative (reading between the lines, one might say), Uzzah was struck because he arrogantly presumed to touch the presence of God as a participant in an unholy procession, but David was not struck because his heart was oriented toward God even though he mistakenly moved the ark in a way that violated the law of God and participated in the unholy procession. In the theology of Chronicles, it is the heart that matters. Both David and Uzzah violated the law, but only Uzzah was struck. This forces us to see that more was involved than technical law-breaking. In the larger context of Chronicler’s theology, David sought God with his heart, but Uzzah did not.

 

God seeks seekers and he receives seekers whose hearts are oriented toward him. I think that is the message of Chronicles. It is that message that should shape our reading of the Uzzah narrative.

 



23 Responses to “Uzzah and the Ark II: Theological Reflections and Churches of Christ”

  1. Profile photo of Philip Cunningham III  Philip Says:

    There is something ironic about how those who mis-interpret & mis-apply this passage (with a condemning spirit) are just as ignorant of how “irreverent, manipulative and arrogant” the ark processional was as David & the Kingdom were at the time — a people who could have been condemned, but were not.

  2.   shannon Says:

    (reading between the lines, one might say)

    Uzzah was struck because he arrogantly presumed to touch the presence of God as a participant in an unholy procession, but David was not struck because his heart was oriented toward God even though he mistakenly moved the ark in a way that violated the law of God and participated in the unholy procession.

    Definitely requires “reading between the lines” as your interpretation certainly does not seem to be contained “within the lines”.

  3.   preacherman Says:

    Great post brother.
    Keep it up.
    I hope you have a blessed week.

  4. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Shannon, it depends on what “reading between the lines” means. If it is the insertion of a meaning that is totally foreign to the narrative as a whole, then it is rooted in the imagination of the reader rather than in the flow of the narrative.

    But if “reading between the lines” means reading the periocpe as part of the larger narrative so that the plot of the narrative informs the meaning of the events in the specific story, I think this is the way narrative is supposed to be read. It is part of the hermeneutics of reading narrative that we understand that specific pericopes contribute to and their meanings are shaped by the larger narrative. Consequently, reading a pericope in the light of the whole narrative (discerning the purpose and plot of the narrative) is exactly how narratives should be read. That stands in contrast with reading each pericope as an isolated moral example that supports or illustrates some principle that is extraneous to the narrative itself.

    In other words, it seems to me, that we should read the Uzzah pericope as part of the narrative of the whole book of Chronicles rather than an isolated story that functions more as specific case law rather than contributing to thte whole of the book. It is this “case law” type reading (a legal reading of the text that extracts the story from its place in the narrative) which, I think, is problematic but unfortunately is the common way of reading the pericope. That is why exegesis of the narrative itself must proceed theological reflection and application…and it must be an exegesis of the whole book rather than simply the extracted and thus isolated pericope itself. An isolated pericope, removed from its narrative function and flow, can mean anything we want it to mean. I suggest we let the whole theology of Chronicles shape how we read the Uzzah pericope.

    Consequently, my reading–I woud contend–is “within the lines” in terms of the whole plot of Chronicles itself.

    Thanks for responding.

  5.   shannon Says:

    Ascribing arrogance to Uzzah just seems to be stretching well beyond the text.

  6. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    I can appreciate your point, but I don’t think it is a stretch myself.

    It fits the whole context of the unholy nature of the procession itself, and it fits the Chronicler’s emphasis on pride as the opposite of those who seek God with their hearts. Pride is the deadly sin in the Chronicler’s theology (e.g., King Amaziah in 2 Chr 25:19). The characteristic distinction in Chronicles is between the kings who walk in the ways of David versus the kings who follow their own pride.

    Consequently, recognizing this pride (seeking others) vs. humility (heart seeking God) theme throughout Chronicles provides a vantage point from which to see what is happening in the Uzzah story. Otherwise, we will read the Uzzah story as an isolated incident rather than a pericope that participates in the unfolding narrative plot.

    Hermeneutically, my point is that living in the narrator’s world enables us to see the meaning of stories where the narrator is himself subtle. It is actually what we seek to do in reading the Bible as a whole–to become so immersed in the world of God’s story that we act within it as kind of a second nature given to us by the Spirit. Fundamentally, I believe reading the Uzzah story with the lens of the Chronicler’s whole narrative enables us to see its meaning and function rather than applying it as if it were an isolated example of legal case law.

    Whether we actually attach an interior attitude to Uzzah or not, I think the major point is that this was not just about Uzzah. He was part of the drama and God’s action is tied not just to what Uzzah does but also to the procession which David initiated and conducted in an unholy manner. It was no mere technical violation of the law. There is a larger context in which to read the Lord’s act against Uzzah.

  7.   Gardner Hall Says:

    I think your overall point here is unassailable – that God looks at the heart and is patient with our foibles if we are striving to grow in him.

    That doesn’t mean that some issues that many consider to involve mere technicalities (Instrumental music, weekly observance of the Lord’s supper, independent local congregations, etc.) are unimportant. Lackadaisical attitudes towards such may reveal that spirit of presumption and irreverence that led to Uzzah’s downfall. However, instead of casting stones at those who disagree with us, we should pray for God’s clemency for them (2 Chron. 30:18-20) even as we trust in it for ourselves and try to humbly teach them (and learn from them) more perfectly the way of the Lord.

  8.   Q Says:

    We’re told that the ark was in the house of Aminadab, Uzzah’s father. I don’t think it’s reaching beyond the text to say that growing up basically teething on the ark may have led to an attitude of casualness that minimized its importance and symbolism in Israel — which in this context may have manifested as a certain arrogance.

    I believe Dr. Hicks has it spot on, but that’s just me.

  9. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Gardner, I certainly would not want to appear irreverent with any of God’s calls to holiness and prescriptions.

    But I would not equate “don’t touch the ark” and “priests carry the ark” with instrumental music, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper and even independent local congregations. The latter are rooted in inferences at several levels whereas the former are explicit prohibitions and explicitly exclusive prescriptions. It is hard to be a technicality when there is no explicit prohibition or prescription involved. So while those points are not unimportant, they do not rise–in my opinion–to the level of the sort of thing that even Uzzah did.

    We are one in praying for others with whom we disagree. More on 2 Chronicles 30:18-20 later.

    Q, your point is certainly a further consideration that contexualizes the procession. Thanks for sharing it.-

  10.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    The Ark represented the presence of Holy God but was part of a dishonoring procession. Ussah touched the Ark. Uzzah struck dead.

    Rather than applying this to the many assembly issue the CoC has traditionally done (which rules are all based on inferential hermeneutics), perhaps we should apply it to those deeds we do and don’t do with our body in our daily life since our body is the dwelling place of God’s Spirit (1 Cor 6.19).

    Rex

  11. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    You offer a good point, Rex. I think the text applies to both liturgy (even liturgical processions–don’t we have that when the “men” proceed to the table to distribute the elements of the Lord’s Supper?) and life. The holiness of God is a pervasive dimension of our lives as we seek to live holy before him. The lesson of Uzzah (and the whole unholy procession) is about a reverent respect for divine presence–both in the assembly and in our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit.

  12.   Brit Foshee Says:

    I’m having a hard time connecting the dots with your thoughts on “God seeks seekers”. First of all, I find that statement to fundamentally flawed when the scriptures say that there are no seekers. (Romans3) (Quoting the pslams) Although I believe none of us seek, let’s say for discussion’s sake that we do- how are we able to determine based on one action of Uzzah and the life of David that one is actively seeking and the other isn’t actively seeking. I believe the text is clear. Uzzah lacked a fear of God. Simply put, he thought that his fingers were cleaner than the muck the ark was about to fall into. The muck had never disobeyed God and was much cleaner than the God-mocking hand of Uzzah. His miscalculations were either a result of a high view of himself, or low view of God and his holiness.

  13. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    I think we determine it by the theology that is evidence in Chronicler’s narrative as a whole. The text does not say that Uzzah laced a fear of God, but taking the narrative as a whole seeking/fearing (whichever you choose) is at the core of Uzzah’s problem.

    I think “seek” is appropriate because this is a key term in the Chronicler’s theology (see 1 Chr. 16:10; 22:19; 28:9; 2 Chr. 11:16; 12:14; 15:12,15; 19:3; 22:9; 30:19; 31:21 where “seek” and “heart” are linked). “Seek” is used 54 times in Chronciles. I would recommend Christopher Begg, “Seeking Yahweh an the Purpose of Chronicles,” Louvain Studies 9 (Fall 1982) 128-41 and Schaefer’s dissertation entitled The Significance of Seeking God in the Purpose of the Chronicler (1972) at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

    I understand your point that there is a sense in which no one seeks God, but there is also a sense in which God seeks seekers and calls people to seek him. God does seek worshippers (God-fearers, seekers), according to John 4:24.

  14.   rich constant Says:

    brett:
    just a few thoughts on rom 3 which you are using.
    the “but now” in rom.3:21 seems to bring the Seeker in the new age up to speed through Gods words and as we contenue to read the “letter” paul seems to say something about the deposition of the typical charactor of the religious order steeped not only in pauls day but also seems to be a problem in the day of the 7th and 6th bc. profet’s if we look to rom 9:22-10:17
    butt then what is the intrinsic charactoriscs of a seeker but the fruit based in how wrong i am in the light of the lord….blessings

    •   rich constant Says:

      P>s> which is always a compaired to what

      🙂

      •   rich constant Says:

        sorry another P>S>
        just who found who in acts 10:1-4 Cornelius and peter then 20-25
        i for one have faith that god works the same way for seekers… sorta kinda… and the power of the good news preached through the loving the kindness of the discipals
        in the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.

  15.   R.J. Says:

    I wonder if the Chronicler had the first rebellion in mind when he said “He stretched forth his hand”. Like Eve when she stretched forth her hand unto the forbidden fruit.

    Could this be a Hebraism for daring to transgress God’s specific instructions? Or am I way off lol?

    •   R.J. Says:

      P.S. Not eve(specifically) but man as he arrogantly attempted to “stretch forth his hand and eat from the tree of life” as he was explicitly banned from such.

      I think this was a common cultural idiom for a daring attempt. Like Issac as he “stretched forth his hand” to slay his only son(against every inclination in his mind!).

      I believe this expression additionally reveals Uzzah’s motives in deliberately attempting the thwart Yahweh’s holiness in the face of all he was ever taught.

      Also there was a viable option already available for
      “steadying the ark”: Those handles(i.e. poles) that were commanded to never be detached from the vessel! So this reinforces the issue that Uzzah had no excuse for touching the Ark of God.

      •   R.J. Says:

        P.S. Actually the Hebrew word used both in Samuel and Chronicles is not steadying but fully grasping the ark(achaz). In other words, Uzzah stretched forth his hand willingly to not only touch it but also to seemingly relish every minute of it.

        Also the Hebrew proposition Ki could also be translated as When instead of Because the oxen stumbled.

        Although David was both grieved and disillusioned by what happened to him(He couldn’t properly judge the situation since he was ahead of Uzzah facing frontwards in the procession), I believe God blessed Obed-Edom precisely as a token of kindness-to uplift his soul and to show him that Yahweh’s judgement is fair and not cruel and unusual. Thus he had reason to celebrate his goodness and mercy!!!

      •   R.J. Says:

        “I think this was a common cultural idiom for a daring attempt. Like Issac as he “stretched forth his hand” to slay his only son(against every inclination in his mind!).”

        Oops again…Make that Abraham(not Isaac).

  16.   Prophet Montgomery Garnett Says:

    Scripture clearly states that God struck Uzzah because David failed to follow the proper procedure for the movement of the Ark of the covenant. King David was not only the High Priest at the time but he was also a Prophet and king. In battle instructions for movement of the Ark instructions is given to the prophet.

  17.   vincent Says:

    Uzzah although he was born in a levitical house or family he used his strength to hold the ark.bear in mind that the presence of God can’t fall to the ground,even though the cows stumble the presence can’t fall.God sometimes can use. Us,they were used to the ark because it stayed a long time in their home.sometimes when we carry the presence.with our heart we can fall,but when we dwell and allow the presence to be in us we can live.
    Allow year heart to be devoured by his presence

  18.   R.J. Says:

    In 2 Samuel 6:6 we have the Hebrew word “shal” which has an unknown derivation. Some translate it as irreverence, others, error(disobedience), still others rashness or laziness.

    Given the immediate context and John Mark’s explanation of this narrative, I’d opt for “irreverence” or “error”(flagrant disobedience and arrogance).

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