David lived in turbulent times. The Philistine armies were constantly pressing in the tribes of Israel. And at this time, we couldn’t really speak of the nation of Israel, because it was still tribal, twelve tribes, who had to work together in order to survive. And part of their desire to cluster together for the sake of survival, was the desire for a King. And so King Saul would lead the armies of Israel against the Philistines. But we are a thousand years before Christ.
I grew up on a Roman Road in Staffordshire, very near to an ancient hill fort that dates from roughly the time that David became King in Israel. And this hill fort attracts various battle re-enactments from time to time. And just recently it was the site of a re-enacted battle between medieval knights, and goblins! I’m not sure when that particular battle took place historically, but my children were transfixed by this battle scene. Not, an epic battle of biblical proportions though. Swamped by this enormous landscape, the highest point for miles around, surrounded by forest and ancient earthworks – this great battle looked resembled more a play ground scrap than any kind of battle I would ever have imagined between medieval knights and goblins. There were plenty of people there – but it was not like a big screen Hollywood blockbuster. Especially when all the armies were suddenly stunned by the arrival of a single warrior. Considerably smaller than any of the other protagonists – this miniature soldier was armed not with a battle-axe, a spear, or a double-edged sword. He was armed with a plastic light sabre than once lit the sanctuary of this church. It was, of course, my five year old son, Stefan – who had entered into the thick of battle. His foes fell before him … in hysterics.
Actually, I wasn’t going to blame him. What on earth were a bunch of grown men and women doing there? They were playing children’s games in a public place? All Stefan and his light sabre did was to bring a dose of reality to the battle. It was a ridiculous scene, and my other children were more than mildly amused. But this ridiculous scene of a handful of grown men fighting each other is much nearer the battles of Scripture than the great epic scenes of Hollywood. Here are these pockets of soldiers scattered here and there around a vast countryside, swamped by their surroundings – but nevertheless, deciding the fate of that land!
And amongst these pockets of resistance, these many miniature battles – there is the King of Israel – Saul – and his son, Jonathan. Both of them were killed in one of these minor skirmishes. And David, who until this stage had been an outlaw, is grief-stricken. However, his own subsequent military successes leads him to be proclaimed King by the tribes living in the South, and having battled against another son of Saul – Ish-bosheth - he becomes king of all twelve of the tribes of Israel. But he is still a leader of tribes – not the king of nation. David’s next task was to unify these twelve tribes – and how as he going to do that?
His plan was simple. He would have to establish a capital city. He could not have it too far South, nor too far North – because he could not govern all twelve tribes unless the capital were located centrally. But the only place that was suitable as a capital was not in the hands of the twelve tribes. The ideal place was a pagan city, in the hands of the Jebusites. That city, was called Jerusalem. And David besieged it, and conquered it, and made it his capital.
But for these twelve tribes, these descendants of Abraham, the idea of a pagan city serving as their capital might well be repulsive. David had to do something that would ensure the support of all the tribes, he needed all Israel to endorse this city as the beating heart of their young nation. How would he do that? How would he get everyone to recognise this pagan city as their capital. David had a cunning plan!
The ark of the covenant had been forgotten for a generation. The ark was the key symbol for these twelve tribes – remembering that this was still not, strictly speaking, a single nation. The ark symbolised the one thing that did unify these tribes. It symbolised the presence of God – the stone tablets of the covenant with this God were contained in the ark. And so David had the ark brought to his new capital. It was a brilliant political move. And that seems to have been all he saw it as – so it was stuck on a flat-bed cart and brought down to Jerusalem on a b-road. Not really the most dignified way of transporting the ark that had been carried by the twelve tribes throughout the wilderness and into the promised land as they conquered it! The presence of God, stuck on the back of a cart pulled by a donkey – is that how the presence of God is to be transported?
Anyone that viewed this might think back through Israel’s history, see the ark on the back of this truck and think “Oh, how the mighty have fallen.” The God who parted the sea for the escape of Egypt, should now be carted around in the back of a white transit van. How the mighty have fallen – a phrase which originates from the mouth of David himself as he had lamented the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.
In the book of Numbers, special rules had been given about transporting this ark, which was to be carried on the shoulders of priests. And yet, David just wanted to get the thing into Jerusalem. And on the way there, the cart rolls over a pot hole, the ark begins to fall off the cart, and – as an instinctive reaction, a man called Uzzah puts out his hand to steady it! And this gets on God’s nerves, so we are told, and so Uzzah dies! It hardly seems very fair! I’ve read many attempts to tidy this story up, but not one of them is convincing. The fact is, this poor guy puts out his hand, otherwise this holy ark would have fallen on the ground and God’s stuff would have fallen out everywhere! Then what would have happened to Uzzah?
Regardless of how we might cringe at this interpretation, the fact remains that whoever wrote today’s passage clearly interpreted this incident as divine judgement. And whoever wrote it knew that it was morally confusing, because it records David’s protest to God at this happening! Of course, if David had shown a bit more respect for the ark, and transported it in the proper way, this would never have happened – so perhaps we are led to think that God is basically showing how he will not be manipulated.
David makes this bold, political move. And God seems to be saying, slow down. Don’t take my presence this lightly. Don’t presume that because you have this box, you will always blessed and always survive! The same logic perhaps that we read in the subsequent history of the nation. Centuries later, pagan armies are surrounding Jerusalem, and the false prophets are saying – ah, you’ll never defeat us because we have the temple. The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord. The presumption that God will bless us, because we’ve got this ark, this box in our temple, his holy presence. It means we will survive all. Perhaps those false prophets should have paid closer heed to this story. For Uzzah, the ark of God did not guarantee that he would survive.
Obviously, the ark did eventually come to Jerusalem. And it came this time, not in the back of a transit van. But it came at the centre of a ceremony. It may seem a little pagan or charismatic to us, but the fact is that the ark entered Jerusalem amidst an experience of God’s Holy Spirit. There is something more authentic about this than about it being quietly smuggled in for pragmatic purposes. The ark, when it came to Jerusalem, came amidst a widespread experience of the Spirit that it symbolised. The basic point seems to be that God will not be manipulated, that he is not enslaved to the political power games of a nation’s leaders. And so the story continues with David wanting to build a temple in which this ark can be housed. And God says NO! Once again – this is not some tribal deity that says nothing while you manipulate the symbolism. This is Adonai, the God of Israel, whose presence is not taken lightly.
But whatever the point of the story, it leaves the bitter taste of God failing to control his anger. Yesterday four year old Alice was overruled in her choice of DVD. And in her anger, she opened attacked the DVD player and almost broke it! Now, when Alice does that – she ends up in serious trouble. But what is the difference between this, and God’s anger boiling over into the death of Uzzah? And when God does this, we are tempted to rush to his defence. If a child does this, they are in serious trouble! One explanation for instance, is that Uzzah must have done something wrong at some other point in his life for which God is now punishing him. But you can’t help questioning the emotional intelligence of those who rush to justify God this way.
There is a tension in the narrative itself, because if this was entirely justified, why would David himself be angry with God? Whoever recorded this narrative seems to know that there is a confusion to this text that is left unanswered. And far from pushing us to rush for answers, the text invites us to inhabit the confusion. To share David’s frustration. The text is strong enough for us to ask that question, and the God of whom it speaks is big enough to answer that question.
And whilst the angry God conclusion might not be the one that we jump to, it is worth remembering once again the context. It’s only a slight simplication to say that in opposition to Greek thought, where you would deduce God’s action in the world by prior ideas about God – a top down approach, Hebrew thought was much more bottom up – Hebrews rather looked for God’s action in the world and worked out who God was by that action. They understood God simply by the way that he revealed himself to them. And when this kind of event happens, where does that leave them in relation to God?
This way of thinking – that we try to relate to God by the way he acts in the world – is hard. It is not secure. It leaves us without the security of timeless principles of right and wrong that determine everything. It leaves us no solid ground, no place to stand, other than in God himself. And I think this is where the text leaves us! With a sense that when God is the most important thing in our lives – we don’t have the comfort and security of having everything stitched up. And this text invites us to join David on that journey.
David broke all the rules, he broke the rules of war, he broke the agreements he made, he simply worked pragmatically. But what David discovered here, was that in the absence of timeless principles and laws and values – it did not mean that he could act how he liked and God wouldn’t mind! When he looked for how God was acting in the world, it was not a licence to do as he liked, because God wouldn’t be manipulated.
Instead – he continued in his relation with God. God’s Spirit rested on David, and despite David’s failures and mistakes and anger he remained in a living, vibrant relationship with God. This is why he wrote so many of our psalms. It provides a pattern for our worship. At times we’ll be horrified by the things that God seems to allow, at times we’ll be angry, at times we’ll be grateful, at times we’ll be ashamed of our response to God’s actions, at times we’ll be speechless. But David offers a pattern of worship that calls us out from the security of having everything all stitched up, into a scary, wild place where encounter a God who does not conform to our expectations, our plans, our ambitions, our limitations. For better or worse, David was courageous enough to engage with this wild, holy, other God – and his story and his psalms invite us to join him.