David’s Fear

1 Chronicles 13-15

Things were looking up for Israel. United unanimously under one king, David, the failures of King Saul were in the past or so it seemed. With common consent David brought the people together in preparation to move Israel’s most sacred symbol, the ark of the covenant, to its new home in David’s capital city Jerusalem.

It was quite a scene. While how many participated is unknown to us, it must have been a large group and they were in the mood to celebrate. And why shouldn’t they be? God was with them in the symbol of the ark, the future looked bright and their new king was leading the way. They celebrated with music and dance in a grand procession, “with all their might.”[i]

Then Uzzah lay dead. It was a parade stopper, to be sure. In a very natural reaction, Uzzah reached out to steady the ark as it bounced along the path on the cart; when he touched it “he died before the Lord.” We might simply pass this off as another one of those OT stories that we really cannot understand. Yet, there is something profoundly important to be understood.

David’s reaction in the moment is telling,

“Then David became angry because of the LORD’S outburst against Uzzah; and he called that place Perez-uzzah to this day. David was afraid of God that day, saying, ‘How can I bring the ark of God home to me?’” (emphasis mine)

No doubt he was afraid! Who wouldn’t be? But it seems incomprehensible, given the circumstances, that David’s sole thought in the moment was about how he could get what he wanted and bring the ark brought to his capital city. There is a dead man lying at his feet and he’s thinking about what his agenda and his plans. Despite the unity, the newly God-ordained king and the intense celebration, something is clearly wrong here.[ii]

The author of 1 and 2 Chronicles is retelling the story that we find in 2 Samuel 6. As he looks back over Israel’s history from his own time (post-exile), he has a unique God-perspective on events. In retelling the story, the Chronicler seeks to give guidance and instruction to his generation, “How is that we can be faithful to YHWH, when our fathers often were not? What lessons can we learn?” Insight he gives! and the lessons apply just as truly to us as they did to those for whom he wrote in his own time.

We must consider the full context, if we are to understand. If we look back a few chapters, we find in 1 Chron. 10 an account of King Saul’s death. The final verses summarize,

“Saul died because he was unfaithful to the LORD; he did not keep the word of the LORD and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not inquire of the LORD. So the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.” 1 Chron. 10:13-14. NIV

There are several specific instances in Saul’s life where he disobeyed God’s word to him. Here, it is interesting that the Chronicler finds it significant that Saul “did not inquire (“seek”) of the Lord” and that this failure was a key contributing factor in his death. Of course, disobedience and “not seeking” are both serious matters, but “not inquiring or seeking” may be the more important.

To translate the Hebrew word (darash) into English with “inquire” might leave too weak an impression. “Seek” is better, but still a bit tepid.[iii] If we say “seek with care” we move closer to the author’s meaning here. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament notes, “The Chronicler evaluates the history of Israel in terms of their “seeking” God (1Chr 22:19; 1Chr 28:9; 2Chr 31:21; etc.) or idols (2Chr 25:15).” This being true, to seek or not seek must be understood as central to God’s people’s relationship with God. Therefore, to “seek” is about faithfulness to God, an issue of heart and life. It is not simply to ask for direction or to get an answer to a question, rather it is about the heart attitude or posture of the people toward God.

Therefore, for Saul the failure to “seek” God was to be presumptuous in his pride; it was the root heart issue of his life. His attitude toward God was one of independence; he was “self-seeking,” not God seeking; he was “self-serving,” not God serving. Now we see the true seriousness of the matter! In Biblical terms, he lacked the “fear of the Lord.”

In 1 Sam. 13, Saul had been instructed to wait for Samuel’s arrival so that Samuel could offer a sacrifice to YHWH. But Saul in his pride and fear goes ahead and offers the sacrifice himself. When Samuel comes on the scene, he sees what has happened and confronts Saul,

“But Samuel said, ‘What have you done?’ Saul replied, ‘I saw the people leaving me and scattering; you had not come at the appointed time, and the Philistines had gathered at Michmas. I thought the Philistines would march down against me at Gilgal before I had entreated the LORD, so I forced myself to present the burnt offering.’ Samuel answered Saul, ‘You acted foolishly in not keeping the commandments that the LORD your God laid upon you! Otherwise the LORD would have established your dynasty over Israel forever. But now your dynasty will not endure. The LORD will seek out a man after His own heart, and the LORD will appoint him ruler over His people, because you did not abide by what the LORD had commanded you.’” 1 Sam. 13:11-14. TNK

There you have it. The sin that cost Saul his kingdom was presumption, rooted in an independent and proud heart. In his mind, because he was king he could decide what was necessary and proper and given the circumstance he “forced himself” to overstep the clear instruction of God.

The Chronicler’s summary of Saul’s failure in 1 Chron. 10:13-14 prepares us for the narrative of David and the ark in 1 Chron. 13. In fact, it is Saul’s failure, rooted in presumption and pride, that is the key to understanding David’s failure with the ark. To this we return.

David is the king. He really is a man after God’s heart, the kind of king for which God hoped. Yet, in the ark narrative, David is in danger and dangerous. Because this is his first public action as king it sets the tone for the future of the kingship and his rule over Israel. Why does this matter? Because leaders model and people follow them; leaders create the culture. David is to model what it means to worship, to be careful and sensitive to God, to live in the fear of the Lord. In this David fails.

Strikingly, David is repeating the failure of Saul – he is acting presumptuously in the way he handles the ark. In this critical moment, God’s purpose for David and for Israel is in danger; and God is the one who is afraid.

Who cares about a box?

The ark is an interesting and significant object in Israel’s life as God’s people. Forget everything you learned from Indiana Jones. The ark was not a weapon and lightning bolts and angelic forces did not issue forth from it. Notice the description of it,

“David and all Israel went up to Baalah, Kiriath-jearim of Judah, to bring up from there the Ark of God, the LORD, Enthroned on the Cherubim, to which the Name was attached.” 1 Chron. 13:6.

This might seem a bit enigmatic on the face of it, but the ark was the place where God lived among His people. It represented the very presence of God; it was a symbol of the most sacred and intimate kind. It represented God and His relationship with His people. It fulfilled His desire to be with them and near them concretely and tangibly. Because of what it symbolized and represented – His presence, nearness, intimacy and relationship – it was to be handled with extreme reverence and care.

We have these kinds of symbols in our lives. Perhaps our wedding rings or a piece of jewelry passed down through the generations. Maybe a family heirloom. Imagine visiting a friend at her house for the first time. While she goes into another room to get you a drink, you notice an interesting bowl-like vase sitting on a shelf. You pick it up, twirl it around in your hands. You’re feeling a little silly and because it is bowl-shaped, you put it on your head like a hat. Having satisfied your curiosity, you place it back on the shelf.

Your friend returns to the room and notices your interest in the vase. “So, you have seen our family heirloom. It has been passed from generation to generation for we think at least 15 generations. It is nearly sacred to us. It is about our identity as a family. We never handle it because it is so meaningful and it is extremely fragile. Only the oldest members of our family have ever even touched it.” You can only hope your chagrin doesn’t show on your foolish face.

So was it with the ark. The instructions for its care and handling were detailed and clear.[iv] David did none of them. But did he know? It seems that he did, and if not he could have inquired. The Levites involved most certainly did know and they were present when the ark was wrongly handled and moved on the cart (1 Chron. 13:2).[v]

David is ultimately responsible for all that takes place in this moment; including Uzzah’s death. It’s David’s show. Why did he choose to act in this way? There might be a number of reasons, but finally it all comes down to this: presumption. David and the people thought they knew better, or it wasn’t really all that important or maybe they just didn’t care. David was repeating the sin of Saul.

In their carelessness and presumption they revealed their hearts. They were indifferent in their handling of Israel’s most sacred symbol and in effect they were careless toward God and in their relationship with Him.

They put God in a terrible predicament; what should He do? Should He act or not? Their presumption and pride created the situation where Uzzah touched the ark and now God is faced with a terrible choice.

We can be sure of a few things. God’s action was not a punishment simply for “doing it the wrong way.” It was not a judgment on Uzzah, he simply did what any responsible person would have done. It was an action that was distressful and distasteful to God and would have been unnecessary had they been careful and obedient in the first place.

So why did God take Uzzah’s life? God’s inaction would have signaled that their hearts, revealed in how they treated the ark, did not matter to Him. It would have meant that His relationship with David and with the people was not important to Him. It would have unloving to not act; the moment was too important. The new beginning marked by a new king meant that God’s purpose with Israel could now continue after the debacle of Saul. To “let go” the same sin as Saul would have threatened the value God placed on the relationship; it would have threatened His people and His future relationship with them. It was necessary to act to get them to look at their hearts.[vi]

David has followed in the footsteps of Saul; it was a critical moment. To have let them act in presumption would have set them on a dangerous course of unfaithfulness and threatened a repeat of the past tragedy of Saul. The most loving choice was to act immediately and spare the pain of future consequences; therefore, Uzzah died.

As the Chronicler continues the narration in 1 Chron. 14, he introduces what on the surface seem random events about David’s military campaigns against the Philistines. In 14:8-17, two distinct battles are recounted; in each case David “inquires of the Lord” as to if and how he should handle these conflicts. God gives David a different strategy in each case and gives David victories in both cases. In the process of seeking the Lord in each situation, David was learning how to fully cooperate with God.

Why does the Chronicler want us to know this? It seems that David has learned an important lesson, perhaps the most important lesson of his early kingship. Notice, how this is a reversal of the David who acted falsely in the ark incident. Here David “inquires” of God and in doing so expresses his dependence on the Lord and his careful trust in Him, even with the details. David has become reverent and not presumptuous, God focused and not self-serving. He has learned the fear of the Lord.

In 1 Chron. 15 we see David, the God-fearing king, succeed in bringing the ark to Jerusalem. If you read carefully, you see that David takes great pains to acknowledge God in the whole of it.

“Then David called for Zadok and Abiathar the priests, and for the Levites, for Uriel, Asaiah, Joel, Shemaiah, Eliel and Amminadab, and said to them, ‘You are the heads of the fathers’ households of the Levites; consecrate yourselves both you and your relatives, that you may bring up the ark of the LORD God of Israel to the place that I have prepared for it. ‘Because you did not carry it at the first, the LORD our God made an outburst on us, for we did not seek Him according to the ordinance.’ So, the priests and the Levites consecrated themselves to bring up the ark of the LORD God of Israel. The sons of the Levites carried the ark of God on their shoulders with the poles thereon, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the LORD.” 1 Chron. 15:11-15.

Perhaps the key verse is 1 Chron. 15:13:

“Because you were not there the first time, the LORD our God burst out against us, for we did not show due regard for Him.” TNK (emphasis mine)

There it is! David has learned the lesson of the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is when we give to God the “regard” that is due to Him. It is a heart attitude that finds expression in a way of life; it is absolutely necessary for those who would follow Him.[vii]

Why is the fear of the Lord so essential?

The fear of the Lord is the proper kind of fear; it is reverential love.[viii] When we adopt this heart posture we signal to God that our hearts are wholly His and that we can be trusted by Him. We take with the utmost seriousness what is important to Him, what He values, His perspective, His agenda, His will in all matters. We will seek to live in totally dependent way with Him. This was Jesus’ way with His Father and so it must be for us as His followers.[ix]

[i] 1 Chron. 13:8.

[ii] Perhaps this is what makes this story so relevant and so scary at the same time. How could they have missed it?

[iii] Speaking of the Hebrew word darash, John Goldingay notes, “The English translation ‘seek God’ is misleading.” (John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel, 624.)

[iv] For the details see Numbers 4:15. Deut. 10:8. Exodus 25:14.

[v] It seems that the Chronicler wants us to know this. One might ask why the Levites did not make a fuss here. Perhaps they are like David, they know the “word of the Lord,” but don’t think it so important.

[vi] God’s anger is misunderstood. The closest parallel is parental anger when it seeks to protect the child and is directed and deliberate in that course. When we love another, it would unloving if we were not angry when something, including their own choices, threatens them. There is more here. In our relativistic culture, we tend to think that we can be quite independent in our choices and do what we please and that it really doesn’t matter. Yet, this is a lie. Choices do matter and they directly impact relationships.

[vii] It should be no surprise that the early church’s success is found in exactly this: the walked in the fear of the Lord and because they did, they could fully cooperate with the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:31). In other words, the condition of their full cooperation with the Spirit was that they knew and experienced in their hearts a reverential love for Jesus that permeated and determined all else about them. THIS is the missing element of much of the American church whose dependence is not on God, but on programs, budgets and the latest church strategies.

[viii] I like to say that the fear of the Lord is “awe + love.” If God wanted to overwhelm us with His power and awesomeness we would find ourselves groveling in abject terror and awe. Such a revelation of “holy terror” is a truth about Who God is.  Yet, He wants so much more than to terrify us! It is when we see this awesome Person revealed on a Roman cross that our hearts are capture and overwhelmed with His love. Our response to this love is that we long to please Him and follow Him in all things!

[ix] John 5:19, 5:30, 6:38.

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