This is a story about King David. Obviously, we can't cover everything about David in one story, but this story tells us much about David and it illustrates how David's life can be an example for our lives. I am relying heavily on Robert Alter's new translation, The David Story.
First, some history. Before David was king, Israel battled the Philistines, who were both their neighbors and their overlords. The Philistines were better armed and better commanded. They won the field.
In those days, people accepted the idea that gods were localized and their presence was attached to physical representations. Israel's people knew that their God did not live in statues but even so they felt that God's presence hovered around the Ark that held the commandments which Moses had brought down from Mount Sinai. So Israel brought the Ark of God to their military camp.
The battle was renewed between Israel and the Philistines. The Philistines were better armed and better commanded. They won the field and captured the Ark as well. In this way the honor of Yahweh went out from the land of Israel.
Having the Ark in the camp didn't bring victory to the Israelites and capturing the Ark didn't help the Philistines, either. Shortly after this episode, a disease came to the Philistine cities which sounds very much like what we know as bubonic plague. The Philistines guessed that their capture of the Ark of God had something to do with this trouble, so they put the Ark on a cart drawn by 2 milk cows and let the cows go off whither they would. The cows wandered to a place known as Kiriath or Baalah.
Years later, the Philistines had been defeated, civil war had ended, King Saul had died, and David had become king. David had consolidated his power over all of Israel and he had established a capital at Jerusalem. Now he proposed to bring the Ark from Baalah to his capital. In this way the honor of Yahweh would be brought back to Israel. This would accomplish several things.
David placed God's honor first among his mixed reasons for moving the Ark, but there is no denying that his motives were mixed. The Bible is a book of realism and nowhere is this more true than in David's story. We should remember that our motives, too, are always mixed. David's example in this story is the example of a real man who made his plans with mixed motives – but with honoring God first among them.
With all these benefits, it is not surprising that David would move the Ark as soon as he had stabilized the kingdom sufficiently to permit that job to be done in safety.
1 And David gathered again all the picked men of Israel, 30,000. 2 And David arose and went, and all the troops who were with him, to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the Ark of God, over which the name of the Lord of Hosts enthroned on the cherubim is called. 3 And they mounted the Ark of God on a new cart and carried it off from the house of Abinidab, which is on the Hill, and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinidab, were driving the cart, 4 and Ahio was walking before the Ark. 5 And David and the whole house of Israel were playing before the Lord with all their might in song on lyres and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. 6 And they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, and Uzzah reached out to the Ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen had slipped. 7 And the Lord's wrath flared up against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for reaching out his hand to the Ark, and he died there by the Ark of God.
David called out his elite troops to make the honor guard and organized a marching band. Apparently this procession was to be quite a parade. They went to the house where the Ark had resided, they lifted the Ark up onto a new cart, and they carried it off toward Jerusalem. But they only just started to come back with the Ark when the cart slipped and Uzzah fell down dead.
The facts around Uzzah's death are hard for us to reconstruct. Conventional wisdom at the time supposed that God's presence in the Ark was a terribly dangerous power. Robert Alter compares it to high-voltage electricity, but whereas electricity is blind and impersonal touching the Ark was understood as an offense against God's honor. The result of this offense was not just uncontrolled power but a very personal anger directed at the offender. The narrator simply accepts that point of view because it suits his purpose in telling this story.
How Uzzah died is less important for us than how David responds to his death. Here is how the Book of Samuel describes his response:
8 And David was incensed because the Lord had burst out against Uzzah. And that place has been called Perez-uzzah to this day. 9 And David was afraid of the Lord on that day and he said, "How can the Ark of the Lord come to me?" 10 And he did not want to remove the Ark of the Lord to himself in the City of David, and David had it turned aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite.
First, David is angry at God's anger. David had made good plans that served worthy goals. God was known to have supported the king in the past. Now God has ruined David's parade. Why would God do that? Some translators say David was "vexed", which gets to his confusion and frustration but may not express the strength of his emotion. Alter points out that the verb here is the same verb used in describing the anger that struck down Uzzah; Alter says that David was "incensed". Being mad at God may not be a virtue, in and of itself, but being committed enough to become emotionally involved with God is a virtue, and one that David had. We should aspire to such a level of commitment that we could become angry with God.
Then, David is afraid of the Lord. Fear of God is a quality not widely popular today, but it was fear that David felt. Was God fighting against having the Ark moved? If God is this dangerous to be around, should the Ark be allowed in the middle of the city? If God was striking people dead, did David want the Ark to be associated with himself? The story says, "David did not want to remove the Ark to himself".
David's motives for moving the Ark were a mix of religious and political concerns, but all of his motives are challenged by Uzzah's sudden death. David is afraid that God may no longer be on the same side with him. This is something truly to be feared, that God and I are not on the same side. So David is afraid.
Finally, David reconsiders his plan. He stops the parade. They turn aside and leave the Ark at a nearby house. Here is a sign of David's greatness, that he stops and reconsiders. When all of Israel was waiting for David to bring the Ark into the capital city, he stops. David is no longer sure that his plan is a good plan or that it is approved by God. And so he turns the Ark aside, suspends his plans, and gives time for reconsideration.
Dealing with God can be puzzling and difficult. David's own motives were mixed, as ours always are, and God's response was ambiguous. It wasn't clear that David's plans were wrong, but neither was it clear that God was supporting him. So David stopped the parade, and reconsidered. He did not push ahead with his plans in spite of doubts, nor did he abandon the plans at the first sign of trouble. Instead, he stopped the parade and reconsidered.
One mark of greatness is the humility of not acting more sure of yourself than you really are. Dealing with God can be perplexing and difficult; it is our privilege – and our duty – to consider and to reconsider whether we are on God's side.
Not every reevaluation has to result in a change of plans. Perhaps when you reconsider you will find that God wants you to change your plans. Perhaps, like David, you will decide that your plans are good plans after all.
11 And the Ark of the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his house. 12 And it was told to King David saying, "The Lord has blessed the house of Obed-edom and all that he has on account of the Ark of God." And David went and brought up the Ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the City of David with rejoicing.
After reconsideration, it was that God was, in fact, not fighting opposite to David. So David went back and the parade began again where it had left off. The whole episode might almost not have happened. But it did happen, and because it happened we have an example of how David dealt with God when he could not be certain of God's purposes.
David went up to his capital "with rejoicing". No, not just rejoicing, but with overflowing enthusiasm. David wanted to honor God with such a great outpouring of enthusiasm that the celebration might be proportional to the flood of support that God had given to David and to Israel. Picture the king of Israel as he approaches Jerusalem with the Ark.
13 And it happened when the bearers of the Ark of the Lord had taken six steps that he sacrificed a fatted bull. 14 And David was whirling with all his might before the Lord, girt in a linen ephod. 15 And David and the whole house of Israel were bringing up the Ark of the Lord in shouts and with the sound of the ram's horn. 16 And as the Ark of the Lord came into the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out through the window and saw King David leaping and whirling before the Lord, and she scorned him in her heart. 17 And they brought the Ark of the Lord and set it up in its place within the tent that David had pitched for it, and David offered up burnt offerings before the Lord and communion sacrifices. 18 And David finished offering up the burnt offering and the communion sacrifices, and he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of Hosts. 19 And he shared out to all the people, to all the multitude of Israel, every man and woman, one loaf of bread and one date cake and one raisin cake, and every one of the people went to his home.
David brought honor to God by bringing the Ark to the center of public life. He also honored God with the celebration that Israel held because of the Ark's return. At the same time, the king brought honor to himself: It was King David who brought about the Ark's return, and he made no secret of his responsibility. Besides, God has accepted David's plans (a matter which was, after all, somewhat in doubt). Finally, David gave honor to the people of Israel – God's people – by including them in the parade and by sharing the feast with them.
So all of David's goals have been achieved. Yet there is a dark shadow in the story. In this case, the ambiguity is provided by Michal. Michal is David's wife and once she loved him [1 Samuel 18]. Here, she is identified only as Saul's daughter. Because she is the daughter of King Saul, she serves to legitimatize David's ascent to the throne. Because she is Saul's daughter, she expects something different from a king than dancing in the public street.
20 And David turned back to bless his house. And Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and she said, "How honored today is the king of Israel who has exposed himself today to the eyes of his servants' slavegirls as some scurrilous fellow would expose himself!" 21 And David said to Michal, "Before the Lord, Who chose me instead of your father and instead of all his house, to appoint me prince over the Lord's people, over Israel, I will play before the Lord! 22 And I will be dishonored still more than this and will be debased in my own eyes! But with the slavegirls about whom you spoke, with them let me be honored!" 23 And Michal daughter of Saul had no child till her dying day.
Honor was returned to Israel and to Israel's king. But in returning honor to Israel, King David subjected himself to criticism. A leader ought to act decently and with dignity, but this man has been dancing with abandon, like riffraff. Is this the way for David to show that he understands the responsibilities of leadership? Is such a man the kind of person you would vote for as king? And what was he saying about God, if God put such indecent riffraff on the throne? Can you give honor to God by identifying yourself with what is coarse and vulgar? These are fair and reasonable objections.
Is it an honor to God to sing Psalm 24 as if it were an American jazz song, or is it an insult?
David thought to honor God with his enthusiasm, but to Michal, at least, he instead dishonored himself and insulted God by his excesses. David tried to defend himself to Michal, but to me that defense rings hollow. The better lesson, I think, is that we should not expect simple and unambiguous triumphs.
In real life, every light is shadowed and every honor is suspect. Life is complex and perplexing. Our motives are mixed and our victories are ambiguous. So in the Bible, that most realistic of religious books, victory is shadowed by accusation and defeat colored by victory. As Robert Alter points out, "The logic of the larger story's moral and historical realism requires that no triumph should be simple and unambiguous, that strife and accusation pursue even the fulfillment of national destiny."
David brought "glory and honor" back to Israel – and because that was my topic I have talked mainly about perplexity and ambiguity. That is no mistake; that is one message of David's story.
Our lives tend to be confusing and we always have mixed motives, but we can include honoring God among our motives as David did. There is always the chance that we will be mistaken in our plans and find ourselves on the wrong side instead of on God's side. But we do have the right to step back and reevaluate our plans, and to change them where necessary. And there are no unambiguous victories for us; our results are just as mixed as our motives are.
Yet there are victories, there are parades and shouts and songs of joy and we know that God is guiding us toward a final and unambiguous victory when God will "bring all creation together", all the conflicting bits and pieces of our lives, "everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head" [Ephesians 1:10].
A paraphrase to use with the tune "When the Saints Go Marching In"
by Pat McGeachy III
Lift up your heads, you mighty gates!
Be lifted up, O ancient doors!
For the King of Glory is coming!
God will rule forever more!
The earth is God's, and all its lands,
And all the folk of every race!
For God has founded the hills and the oceans,
And put the rivers in their place!
Who shall ascend God's holy hill?
Who shall stand in the place that's his?
Those whose hands and heart are righteous,
And who tell it like it is!
Who is the King of which we sing?
It is the strong and mightly Lord!
Who is this King of whom we are singing?
Jesus Christ, the living Word!
Lift up your heads, you mighty gates!
Be lifted up, O ancient doors!
For the King of Glory is coming!
God will rule forever more!