In the Bible there are several instances in which God Himself struck men dead, and, in practically every case, the offence seemed trivial, that is, compared with what we regard as gross sin. On the other hand, certain men in the Bible were guilty of great sin, but they were forgiven and raised to a position of great honour and usefulness. For instance, Abraham lied, willing to sacrifice the honour of his wife to save his own skin. Later, he repented and was greatly used by God, who honoured him with the title, ‘friend of God’. Moses, a murderer and a fugitive from justice, was restored by God and became the man through whom the Lord led His people from bondage to freedom. David was guilty of adultery and murder, yet God forgave him, called him a man after His own heart, and promised that the Messiah would descend from him. Peter denied the Lord Jesus Christ for fear of a servant girl, yet the risen Lord restored him, commissioned him to preach to the Jews at Pentecost, and to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius. He also wrote two books of the New Testament.
We come now to the sobering record of one of those instances where God struck a man dead for a seemingly trivial thing.
We read in verse 1 that ‘David consulted with the captains of thousands and hundreds, and with every leader’. His first concern after his coronation at Hebron was the ark of God, mentioned no less than forty-six times in 1 and 2 Chronicles. After the interlude of being introduced to some of David’s mighty men and his being crowned king at Hebron, this chapter picks up the history from chapter 11 verses 4-9. David wanted a strong capital city, but, above and beyond this, he wanted God to be the centre of it. The ark was the most sacred symbol in the ritual of the tabernacle, a symbol of the presence of God Himself.1
However, Israel came to believe in an inherent association that the ark had with the divine presence of God, a sort of talisman culture, so God cured them of this superstitious notion by allowing the ark to be captured by the Philistines at the disastrous first battle of Ebenezer, circa 1090 BC, 1 Sam. 4. 10-11. For over eighty years it had been at Kirjath-jearim, some nine miles west of Jerusalem, totally neglected.2
It is noteworthy that David did not seek to reign in an absolute manner, v. 1, and he referred to the common people as ‘brethren’, v. 2, thereby manifesting personal condescension and humility. He wanted all the people present for the occasion of the ark’s return to the Holy City that they might be blessed and edified as a result, taking care that the priests and Levites be called to attend the ark, v. 2.
The expression of David’s desire before the captains was pleasing to them, and the scene of these verses is one of true religious enthusiasm, coupled with a deep concern to carry out the will of the Lord. Yet, for some reason, amidst this great scene of human rejoicing, David did not conform to Jehovah’s ways.
Uzzah may have been appointed to arrange for the actual transfer of the ark from Kirjath-jearim to Jerusalem. At any rate, the ark was placed on a new cart drawn by a pair of oxen. It may be that Uzzah was quite proud of his task and was out to make a big impression on the capital city, but as the procession moved toward Jerusalem the oxen stumbled, causing the cart to wobble. Uzzah put forth his hand to steady the ark, and God struck him dead. Why? It was not merely because he touched the ark that he was struck dead, for did he not touch it in order to set it on the cart?
Uzzah’s sin was threefold:
God briefly describes the nature of Uzzah’s sin, ‘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’, 2 Sam. 6. 7. The Hebrew word for ‘error’ is, literally, ‘rashness’, and this aptly describes Uzzah’s attitude. He not only disregarded God’s precepts governing the transporting of the ark, but he had no regard for the consequences of his disobedience. Thus God struck Uzzah dead, not out of petty anger, but in order to teach His people that God’s work must be done in God’s way. Uzzah substituted his human wisdom in place of the Holy Spirit’s directions. As a result, his service was not accepted, and swift, severe judgement followed. Today, we must all too often cry, ‘Ichabod! The glory of the Lord has departed!’, simply because God’s work is not carried out according to His way and will. It may well be that God does not strike people dead today, but much of today’s fruitless work, carried on in the name of the Lord, may simply attest to the fact that the ways of the world, and not the ways of God, are being employed.
The result of this tragedy which caused such a profound sensation throughout Israel was that the progress of the ark was stopped, and David himself was ‘displeased’, v. 11, and ‘afraid’, v. 12. For three months the ark rested in the house of Obed-edom, a Levite, and God blessed him and all that he had. In the long run, the tragedy had a healthy effect on David. God grant that we may ever beware of flippancy.6
‘Arm me with jealous care,
As in Thy sight to live.
And oh, Thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give!
To serve the present age.
My calling to fulfill;
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will!’
See v. 6; Exod. 25. 22; 1 Sam. 4. 7.
The one possible exception to the words of verse 3 being the incident of 1 Samuel chapter 14 verse 18. It is probable that on that particular occasion the ark was simply asked for, not actually employed.
See Num. 4. 15; 1 Chr. 15. 13, 15.
See 1 Sam. 6. 7ff.
Num. 4; 1 Chr. 15. 2.
See Ps. 24. 3-4; Isa. 52. 11; Phil. 2. 13-14; Heb. 12. 28-29.