Responding to a Holy God

For the last couple of months, we have been looking at David as a man after God’s own heart, seeking to understand how we can be like him. This week finds us in a passage that is familiar to many people, but that is also extremely challenging—the story of Uzzah.

Uzzah and the Ark

After gaining control of the entire nation of Israel, David decided that he needed to bring the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. When God gave the Israelites commands to build the tabernacle, the major piece was the Ark of the Covenant. Basically, it was a small box of acacia wood that was overlaid with gold. It was richly ornamented, with two angels on the top, with their wings spread over the top. This was known as the atonement cover or mercy seat—which is where God was said to be enthroned. The Ark was the very throne of God, and it represented God’s presence. At the base of the ark, there were four little ringlets that were designed so that poles could be slipped through them. There were special, gold plated poles that were designed to fit through these ringlets, allowing the Israelites to carry the Ark.

David wanted the Ark in the capital city of Jerusalem (to show that God was the true Ruler of Israel) so he loaded it up on a cart and set out to transport it to Jerusalem. As they were going down the road, one of the oxen pulling the cart stumbled, and the Ark looked as though it was going to fall, so Uzzah (who was helping with the transportation) reached out his hand to steady the Ark and keep it from falling—when he touched it, he was immediately struck dead.

History of the Ark

The problem with this story is that it just seems unnatural to us—why would God strike down Uzzah for trying to protect the Ark of the Covenant? Wasn’t he just trying to help?

God had established rules for how to handle the Ark. It was kept in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle. This was a square room that only the high priest was allowed to enter. When they moved the tabernacle (the portable temple), the Kohathites (Uzzah’s people) were charged with carrying the Ark—they were to put poles through the ringlets of the Ark and carry it. The Ark was to be covered, for they were not permitted to even look at it (see Num. 4:1-20). God had decreed that the penalty for violating any of the commands regarding the Ark was death.

Lessons from Uzzah’s Death

But this still doesn’t answer the question, why did God kill Uzzah? It seems offensive to us that God would choose to kill Uzzah for something as trivial as touching the Ark. After all, Uzzah was trying to help—he was trying to protect the Ark. He was a Kohathite, he was supposed to transport theArk, so he felt a need to protect it. Why would God kill him?

To understand the answer we need to look at the nature of God. First, we must see that God is holy. We don’t really grasp just what’s going on here—God didn’t view this as a trivial act. When we say that God is holy, we mean that He is set apart from everything else—that He is undefiled, unblemished. He cannot allow sin to be in His presence, and so he must reject anything sinful. Think of a surgeon who goes to pick up his scalpel and sees that it is dirty—he won’t operate with it. If the same surgeon were to drop a clean scalpel on the floor, he still wouldn’t operate with it. The scalpel may look fine, but the surgeon knows that it too has been contaminated. In both cases, the doctor is trying to maintain a sterile environment, an environment that is uncontaminated. God must remain holy; he cannot put up with sin, no matter how trivial it may seem to us. God knows that even a single sin has the same net effect as many sins—both result in contamination.

Intricately tied to God’s holiness is the fact that God is just. In other words, God is never unfair—He must always punish sin. This is the point that we begin to question. It seems unfair to us that Uzzah was killed for what he did—after all, he was just trying to keep the Ark from falling into the dirt. There is a fundamental flaw in this logic. Uzzah assumed that his touching the Ark would be better than the Ark touching the ground—but listen to what R. C. Sproul says,

Uzzah assumed that his hand was less polluted than the earth. But it wasn’t the ground or the mud that would desecrate the ark; it was the touch of man. The earth is an obedient creature. It does what God tells it to do. It brings forth its yield in its season. It obeys the laws of nature that God has established. When the temperature falls to a certain point, the ground freezes. When water is added to the dust, it becomes mud, just as God designed it. The ground doesn’t commit cosmic treason. There is nothing polluted about the ground.[1]

Uzzah overlooked his own sinfulness. He assumed that he was “not that bad”, and as a result, he figured that God would be happy for his help.

Lately my daughter has been climbing on everything. I can envision that one day in the future I will be sitting at home enjoying the sound of my kids playing, and suddenly I’ll hear a huge crash coming from the dining room. I can imagine walking in and seeing the chandelier that was hanging over the table now lying broken on the table. And there will be Gracie standing behind the table with a frightened look on her face.

Obviously, I would ask what happened. She might explain, “Well I slipped and was going to fall and hurt myself, so I grabbed the chandelier to keep me from getting hurt….I’m ok though.” While I’d be glad she was ok, I’d also feel obligated to ask where she was the she needed to grab the chandelier to break her fall. I suspect she’d say something about playing on the table, slipping, and nearly falling. While I’d be glad that she was ok, I would probably remind her that I’d told her many times before not to play on the table—and that if she’d followed my instructions not only would she be unhurt…neither would my chandelier!

This is the situation we see with Uzzah. God said to carry the Ark on poles. Uzzah, whose job it was to transport the Ark, ignored the commands and instead allowed the Ark to be transported on a cart. When the Ark nearly fell off the cart, Uzzah needed to steady it; but if he had just followed God’s directions the first time around, it wouldn’t have even been an issue!

In seeing God’s justice and judgment, we are also implicitly reminded of another attribute of God; His mercy. In truth, God would be justified in striking us all down the instant we commit a sin, just like he did to Uzzah. The reason we find this story so jarring to our sense of justice is that we have come to expect, to demand, that God extend mercy to us. We must remember that God is under absolutely no obligation to do so.

Sproul tells a story to illustrate this. He was teaching a college class once with 250 students in it. He informed them that they would have a paper due on the last day of September, and late papers would automatically receive an F. The last day of September, 225 students turned in their papers. He had 25 students come to him, begging for an extension, admitting that they had no recourse, but asking nonetheless. He granted them an extension. The next paper was due at the end of October. That day, 200 students turned in papers. This time, 50 students came, begging for extensions. He granted them yet another extension.

When the time came for the third paper at the end of November, 150 students came to turn it in. No one begged for an extension. So, he began to question the class as to why they hadn’t turned their papers in. “Don’t worry,” they said, “We’ll get them to you in a couple of days.” R. C. took out his gradebook and began going down the list. “Johnson, do I have your paper? No? F! Jones, do I have your paper? No? F!” He went down the list until he got to a student who protested, “But that’s not fair!” Sproul told the kid that he was right—since he had turned his previous paper in late as well, fair would be to receive F’s for both of them.[2]

We must recognize that Uzzah’s fate is not unfair—in fact, it is what we all deserve. When we survive after committing sin, we are receiving mercy. Mercy can never be demanded, it must be granted. Ultimately, we see God’s mercy and grace in the fact that he forgives our sins. It isn’t that God is unjust, failing to punish sin, but that He poured out his just wrath on Jesus, who voluntarily took our place.

David’s Response

Immediately after Uzzah is slain, David responded like many of us would have, with anger that God would do such a thing. He had the conflicting emotions of anger at God and fear of God. As a result, he abandoned the transportation of the Ark, and instead decided to do a test. He left the Ark at the house of Obed-Edom for three months. During that time, Obed-Edom’s house was greatly blessed, and David heard about it. God had apparently been working on him, and he decided that it was time to bring the Ark to Jerusalem; but this time his approach was completely different.

He started by talking to the leaders of his people and telling them to consecrate themselves in preparation for moving the Ark. He made sure he had the proper procedure for moving it (the right people, using the right equipment). As they went, David offered sacrifices to the Lord, rejoicing on the journey. What a change of heart!

I think we see four major traits of a man after God’s own heart in David’s response to Uzzah’s death. First, David recognized his own sin. David took the time to repent and seek God’s blessing before he undertook this move. He offered sacrifices, knowing full well that God did not have to spare him—that God would be perfectly justified in killing him or the people with him.

Related to that is the fact that David approached God humbly and was obedient to His commands. He made sure the people were ready, he made sure that he was ready, he made sure that everything was prepared to do things right, and he had prepared a special place for the Ark to reside in Jerusalem. David was not haphazard in his approach to God. He did not presume upon God’s mercy. He didn’t just do what he thought was best and assume that God would be pleased with whatever he could manage—he took the time to prepare to meet with God, knowing that honoring God was really the point of moving the Ark to begin with.

How often do we forget this fact? How often do we enter into God’s presence with the focus being totally on us? Many times we make no preparation to be with God. Instead of staying out late on Saturday night, so that we will be groggy and fighting sleep during Sunday worship, maybe we should prepare by ensuring we get to bed at a reasonable hour. Maybe we should spend time in prayer before we leave for church, asking God to open our hearts to what He has to say. We should have the same kind of preparation when we read our Bibles. Instead of simply reading so that we can say we’ve done our devotions, maybe we should ask God for clarity and understanding as we read. Maybe we should pray that He would show us if there is sin in our lives that needs to be dealt with. I think it’s a fair question to ask, when we come to worship God, do we seek to honor Him or are we just expecting that He’ll be pleased with whatever we do?

David recognized that the movement of the Ark (and the Ark itself) wasn’t about him. He recognized that it was all about God—and God deserved his best.

Finally, we see that David rejoiced in God’s character. Why was David dancing and carrying on and singing in front of the Ark? I think that maybe David was rejoicing because he had become acutely aware of God’s mercy. David was rejoicing because he realized that every blessing he had came from God, and that every one of those blessings was an act of mercy. He did not deserve blessing, but God had blessed him anyway. I suspect that as David reflected on the fact that God had united Israel and made him the king over it, he recognized just how much mercy he had been shown. His response was one of pure joy.

Michal’s Response

Even though we saw David respond properly to God’s nature, with humility, obedience, and rejoicing, the story isn’t over. When he returned home from rejoicing with the people over what God had done for them, his wife was waiting for him with a scowl on her face. You can almost hear the disdain in her voice as she says,

“How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (v. 20b)

She was basically telling him, “Listen, the way you behaved today may have been appropriate for the common people, but not for the king of all Israel. Here you are allowing yourself to be seen vulnerable in front of your subjects—that is not how kings act!”

Remember that Michal was Saul’s daughter—she had spent time with the king of Israel before. David responded harshly, but to the point. He reminded her that God chose him to lead Israel over her father. He basically said, “I know that your Dad would never have been seen celebrating before the Lord like that—and that’s precisely why I’m doing it!” David knew that the only opinion that mattered was God’s.

When a person truly worships, they don’t worry about the people around them. Some people (like David) will dance and sing. Others will be quiet and reflective. The point is that David was responding to the Lord rather than trying to impress people. True worship responds to the character of God—and God alone.


This is one of those passages of the Bible that we’d probably rather just avoid, but in truth, it is a passage that teaches us a great deal about God; which is really essential if we want to be people after God’s own heart.

We need to be reminded that God is holy, just, and merciful. Too often we find ourselves forgetting that what we really deserve from God is condemnation. We begin to presume that God will never punish us for our sin. When we know what God wants us to do but choose to rebel, we are daring him to act. Uzzah learned that God is just, and that we should not presume upon His mercy.

Chuck Swindoll gives a great summation of what we can learn about being people after God’s own heart.

“We see Uzzah…taken from the earth because he touched an ultra-holy article of furniture that was not to be touched, especially by a non-Levite. Who cares about Levites? God does. Who cares about little ringlets and little golden poles that go through ringlets? God does. If He didn’t care, He wouldn’t have said anything about it. And because He cares, we must also care.

“That’s the whole point here. When we begin to care about the things God cares about, we become people after His heart, and only then do we begin to have real freedom and real happiness.”[3]

“The very best proof of your love for your Lord is obedience…nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. You want to be like David? You want to become a man or a woman “after God’s heart”? It’s not rocket science. Pay attention to the things God considers important. Sweat the small stuff. In one word: obey.”[4]

Let me challenge you right now to ask yourself: Where do I need to obey?

  • Is there a sin that you’ve kept hidden from everyone? God knows about it and wants you to change.
  • Is the focus of your life on yourself, your family, or your job instead of on God? God wants you to reexamine your priorities and put him first.
  • Are you living your life one way on Sunday and another the rest of the week? God wants consistency; he wants you to live to please Him.
  • Are you simply going through the motions of your faith? Are you neglecting to prepare to meet with God? God wants you to get real about faith and truly seek to know Him.

It’s pretty simple. If we want to be people after God’s heart we have to know what God wants—and then we need to do it.

[1] R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1985), 141.

[2] Ibid., 161-163.

[3] Charles R. Swindoll, A Man of Passion and Destiny: David. (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1997), 149-150.

[4] Ibid., 155-156.

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