The Ark of the Covenant was created according to God’s specifications to house three items: the two stone tablets on which were written the Decalogue; a container of God’s miraculous manna from the wilderness wanderings; and Aaron’s rod that budded as evidence of his divine appointment as High Priest. The Ark was the center of God’s Presence in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple), and therefore it was to reside in the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest could enter. However, during the period of the Judges, the Ark was lost to the Philistines, and when they returned it to Israel, it came to rest in Kiriath-jearim, not far from Jerusalem. It was still there when David was made King of Israel, and one of his earliest acts (I Chron. 13:5-14) was to move the Ark to Jerusalem in anticipation of the building of the Temple. The attempt proved to be abortive, and David’s experience in that failure marked a significant turning point in his understanding of God and his relationship to Him. During the period of David’s life before he was made King, he was on the run from the first king of Israel, Saul. When Saul was rejected by God because of his disobedience, David was anointed King secretly while he was still a boy. He experienced a brief ascendency when he came forward to slay the giant Goliath, and then was made a commander of Saul’s army. But when he incurred Saul’s jealousy and wrath, he was forced to flee and became the leader of a rag-tag group of malcontents and lived as an outlaw in caves and wilderness areas. During that period, he wrote such Psalms as the 18th, which focuses on God’s powerful deliverance of David from his enemies (including Saul, according to the heading). This reflects the understandable focus of David on God’s power and might, an emphasis that was still there when he proposed to move the Ark to Jerusalem. Consequently, he made some major errors that forced him to adjust his focus to recognize the importance of God’s holiness.
The Ark was designed with metal loops at each lower corner, so that poles could be inserted through them to enable the Ark to be carried without its being touched, a procedure which God had specified to underline the holiness of this special artifact that represented the very Presence of God. In disregard to this command about how to transport the Ark, it was put on an ox-cart, and when the oxen stumbled at one point in its journey, Uzzah, one of the men driving the cart, quite naturally put out his hand to steady the Ark and keep it from falling. Although Uzzah seems not to have had any active intent to show disrespect toward the Ark, he was struck dead by the Lord for committing sacrilege. Indeed, God’s judgment was on the whole situation wherein David and the leaders of Israel had either forgotten God’s command as to how the Ark was to be carried, or thought it unimportant. David acknowledges his great error when he makes a second, successful effort to bring the Ark to Jerusalem (I Chron. 15:1-16:1). After specifying that only the Levites could transport the Ark in the way prescribed by God, David observed: “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” (15:13). So “the Levites carried the ark of God on their shoulders with the poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Lord” (v. 15).
But David’s immediate response to the slaying of Uzzah is not submissive (“David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah” [I Chron. 13:11]), and he obviously had to work through that anger to realize the enormity of his offence against God’s holiness. A part of his coming to that understanding was a feeling about God that he had probably not experienced before: “And David was afraid of God that day” (13:12). All of David’s experience of God before this point, from his being given the power to defeat Goliath to divine deliverance from his enemies in the wilderness, seems to have evoked love for the Lord and gratitude toward Him, but not fear. Why was it important for David both to love and thank God and to have fear evoked by radical exposure to His holiness? The answer is akin to the reason that we must understand and accept not only God’s generous grace and mercy toward us, but also embrace the fact of His wrath toward sin, His judgment. To see only God’s mercy and goodness is to ignore what it cost Him to overcome His righteous wrath and judgment toward sin and sinners and to be oblivious to His inherent holiness that makes it impossible to allow sin in His presence. Impossible, that is, unless God Himself does something to make it possible. And the ultimate Good News is that God sacrificed a part of Himself to pay the price demanded by His wrath.
Only a shadow of this truth was available to David under the Old Covenant, and his crucial experience with the Ark drove him to the immediate acceptance of the fact that God’s holy Presence in the Ark could be accommodated only by the yearly sacrifice of atonement within the Holy of Holies that was the Ark’s ordered dwelling place. When it finally came to rest in the Tabernacle tent David provided for it in Jerusalem, David had finally come to realize that God’s holiness properly evoked fear and trembling, as well as gratitude that God had provided a way for His holiness to dwell with His people without destroying them. Herein was the seed of the complete Good News that a full, final, and eternally sufficient sacrifice had been made through the death of God’s own Son so that God in the integrity of His holiness could dwell among His people through the Holy Spirit without destroying them.
What relevance does David’s experience with the Ark have for us? Perhaps it is that like him, we must come to recognize, fully accept, and deal with the wrathful side of God. It is common for modern-day Christians, in their zeal to present God in the most attractive terms, to ignore or minimize the fact that He has a terrifying side that insists on keeping the reality of sin and judgment vividly in our consciousness. If we succumb to the temptation to minimize the presence of evil and sin in this fallen world, we cheapen what it cost God to bridge the gap between His holiness and our captivity to sin. Without the application of what Christ did, God has no choice but to exercise His wrathful judgment on sin. God’s love and mercy can overcome the effects of sin only when we fully acknowledge it to be what it is and confess that because of His inviolable holiness it separates us from God.
Thanks be to God that under the New Covenant of the blood of Christ, God’s holiness is no longer embodied in an untouchable box of death, but now makes its redemptive dwelling within us. What a terrifyingly wonderful manifestation of God’s grace!
image: By Domenico Gargiulo - http://entertainment.webshots.com/photo/2276876770037029906rWGmjt, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2291904