I’m not sure the picture above is entirely historically accurate, but it certainly gives the right sense of things. We begin with —
(Exo 25:10-16 ESV) 10 “They shall make an ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. 11 You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and you shall make on it a molding of gold around it. 12 You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. 13 You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 14 And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. 15 The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. 16 And you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you.”
(Num 4:15-20 ESV) 15 And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die. These are the things of the tent of meeting that the sons of Kohath are to carry. 16 “And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest shall have charge of the oil for the light, the fragrant incense, the regular grain offering, and the anointing oil, with the oversight of the whole tabernacle and all that is in it, of the sanctuary and its vessels.” 17 The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 18 “Let not the tribe of the clans of the Kohathites be destroyed from among the Levites, 19 but deal thus with them, that they may live and not die when they come near to the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in and appoint them each to his task and to his burden, 20 but they shall not go in to look on the holy things even for a moment, lest they die.”
We are a Church of Christ. We cannot skip this passage. Indeed, it’s important that we get this passage right. But we have to again go back in time a bit.
(1Sa 4:3-11 ESV) 3 And when the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. 5 As soon as the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the LORD had come to the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.” 10 So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. 11 And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
Back at the time of Eli, the Philistines captured the ark. The Israelites had gotten into the habit of bringing the ark into battle — like an idol — thinking that could control God’s will by controlling his ark. But it didn’t work.
Later, the Philistines were so beset by tumors that they sent the ark back —
(1Sa 5:6-7 ESV) 6 The hand of the LORD was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory. 7 And when the men of Ashdod saw how things were, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for his hand is hard against us and against Dagon our god.”
The Philistines, fearful of the ark and in desperation sent the ark back with a guilt offering —
(1Sa 6:10-12 ESV) 10 The men did so, and took two milk cows and yoked them to the cart and shut up their calves at home. 11 And they put the ark of the LORD on the cart and the box with the golden mice and the images of their tumors. 12 And the cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went. They turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh.
And so God saw to it that the ark was returned to his people. However, the Israelites (again) did not treat the ark with the reverence required by the Law —
(1Sa 6:19-21 ESV) 19 And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the LORD. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great blow. 20 Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?” 21 So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the LORD. Come down and take it up to you.”
God struck 70 men for looking at the ark. The ark was supposed to be kept in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle, and only the High Priest was allowed in and then only on the Day of Atonement. But the Israelites were treating the ark as an idol and without regard to the Law of Moses. This is how the ark was lost, and this behavior continued even after the ark was returned.
(2Sa 6:2-7 NET) 2 David and all the men who were with him traveled to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts, who sits enthroned between the cherubim that are on it. 3 They loaded the ark of God on a new cart and carried it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart. 4 They brought it with the ark of God up from the house of Abinadab on the hill. Ahio was walking in front of the ark, 5 while David and all Israel were energetically celebrating before the LORD, singing and playing various stringed instruments, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals. 6 When they arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and grabbed hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 7 The LORD was so furious with Uzzah, he killed him on the spot for his negligence. He died right there beside the ark of God.
Now, the problem is that David had not looked into the Law for guidance on how to carry the ark. He’d completely ignored the Law —
(1Ch 15:11-15 ESV) 11 Then David summoned the priests Zadok and Abiathar, and the Levites Uriel, Asaiah, Joel, Shemaiah, Eliel, and Amminadab, 12 and said to them, “You are the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites. Consecrate yourselves, you and your brothers, so that you may bring up the ark of the LORD, the God of Israel, to the place that I have prepared for it. 13 Because you did not carry it the first time, the LORD our God broke out against us, because we did not seek him according to the rule.” 14 So the priests and the Levites consecrated themselves to bring up the ark of the LORD, the God of Israel. 15 And the Levites carried the ark of God on their shoulders with the poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the LORD.
This passage parallels the earlier story in which 70 men died from looking at the ark in violation of the Law. The Israelites treated the ark like an idol and the source of magic, and so they saw it as a way to manipulate God into doing good for them. But they didn’t bother to read the Law of Moses and actually honor God’s commands. Rather, they’d decided to ignore God’s laws and yet presumed to be able to manipulate God into blessing them by controlling the things of God.
The result was 71 tragic deaths — which ended when David humbled himself to read and obey God’s law. As king of all Israel, he was charged with leading the people in obedience to God’s will. God is over the king, and that means the king has to trouble himself to learn God’s will or else suffer consequences.
Of course, Uzzah is the one who died, but David understood God was angry “because we did not seek him according to the rule.” God killed Uzzah because David and the priests didn’t bother to read the Law of Moses.
Is this a lesson about the importance of obedience? Yes, but it’s more. It’s a lesson about submission. We are not God. We don’t get to tell God what to do. We think that if we get baptized, go to church, and give a little money we’ll manipulate God into giving us happiness and prosperity, sparing our relatives from tragic death and us from misfortune. God is an insurance policy — and a pretty cheap one at that.
Therefore, when we face horrible circumstances — the death of a child, a painful illness, loss of a job — our faith suffers. We thought we’d cut a deal with God! But that kind of thinking is the very opposite of scriptural thought. We submit to God. He blesses us in our submission. We aren’t blessed by learning how to demand blessings!
(Psa 119:92 ESV) If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.
(Rom 7:22 ESV) For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being,
The Regulative Principle
Now, inevitably, we have to consider the old Calvinist Regulative Principle. The argument, going back to Zwingli and Calvin, is that acts worship that are not authorized in scripture are sinful. Thus, Uzzah did an unauthorized act — touching the ark — quite innocently and suffered death. Therefore, those who worship God with an instrument will be damned, even if they do so as innocently as Uzzah.
The argument does not hold water, for at least these reasons —
* Uzzah broke a command of God, plainly written. He wasn’t acting in reliance on a silence; he was violating a plain prohibition.
* Uzzah’s action violated the holiness of the ark. It was not to be looked upon, much less touched. It was no mere idol. He was not acting in a morally neutral way. He showed disrespect.
* Uzzah was a son of Abinidab, who’d had charge of the ark for 20 years (1 Sam 7:1-2; 2 Sam 6:3). Uzzah grew up with the ark and yet evidently never inquired as to the proper transport of the ark. And how could he have learned so little from God’s striking of the 70 men who looked at the ark? (What did he think the poles were for?)
* God’s actual target, however, was David and the priests. David blames himself and the priests for Uzzah’s death, having finally bothered to read the Law and learning that he and the priests had failed in their duties.
It’s just a little silly — more than silly really — to argue that God’s punishment for breaking a command somehow proves that God’s punishes for acting where there is no command. Indeed, it’s arrogant to suppose that we have warrant to create laws where God has created none. The fact that we must obey God’s laws does not mean we must turn God’s silences into laws. God was not silent about touching the ark.