2 Samuel 6:1-11 – Unacceptable Worship

Transferring the ark of the Lord to Jerusalem by Domenico Gorgiolo (1609-1675)

David again brought together all the able young men of Israel—thirty thousand. He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark. They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.

When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore, God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.

Then David was angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.

David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household. (NIV)

The narrator who originally compiled, told, and wrote this story wanted to communicate something significant about God and how to relate to the Lord.  God put the big kibosh on David’s hoedown. At that time in the history of Israel, the ark was the foremost symbol God was present with the people. Within the ark contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments (the symbol of God’s Word); the staff of the first priest, Aaron, (the symbol of God’s choice); and, a pot of manna (the symbol of God’s provision). 

The ark was a holy object, pointing to a holy God.

The ark of the Lord was built during the time of Moses, when the ritual laws were established concerning offerings and how to approach God in worship. There were detailed prescriptions for how to construct all the sacred articles for worship. (Exodus 35:30-40:33) 

The ark was at the center of worship, representing the presence of God among the people. For nearly five-hundred years before David, the ark had become a familiar object in the life of Israel, always there, continually being the symbol of God to the people.

We have all likely had the experience of something becoming so familiar to us that we begin to lose sight of how important and valuable it really is. Not until we lose it, or something traumatic happens, do we wake up and take stock of its true significance. 

The Israelites had become lethargic and apathetic toward the worship of God, and it led to some disheartening and tragic circumstances. The people of God throughout the ages have always needed to be vigilant against the opiate of familiarity, dulling the senses to the importance of worship.

Moving the ark of the Lord to Jerusalem was one of the first acts David did as the king of Israel and Judah.  God was with David and brought him success against his enemies. David enjoyed a close relationship with God.  Yet even though David’s heart was in the right place, he made a huge miscalculation which ended up offending God. 

David had the best of intentions in bringing the ark to Jerusalem and giving it a prominent place in the center of Jewish life. This was an exceptionally good plan. The problem, however, came in the manner the ark was carried from one place to another. 

King David bringing the ark to Jerusalem by Unknown Italian artist, c.1500

God’s law laid out in careful detail how the ark was to be transported. Uzzah and Ahio were Levites charged with the ark’s care. Only the Levites could handle the ark and the holy objects of worship that went along with it. Since it was the job of the Levites for hundreds of years, they knew better than to carry the ark of the Lord on a cart. God clearly told Moses that the ark was to have two long poles of acacia wood overlaid with gold inserted into four gold rings of the ark.

The ark was to always be carried on the shoulders of the Levites with the two poles.

We are not told why Uzzah and Ahio were pulling the ark on a cart with oxen instead of carrying it in the prescribed way. Perhaps it was because the ark was incredibly heavy and no easy task to carry.  Maybe they decided it would be easier and more expedient to have the much stronger oxen pull the ark on a nice new cart; it would save a lot of energy transporting it over a long distance. 

As pragmatic people, Uzzah and Ahio’s approach makes a lot of sense. However, God was not okay with this arrangement.  When the oxen stumbled and the ark was in danger of falling off the cart, Uzzah reflexively reached out to steady it.  That was the last act Uzzah ever did on this earth. God immediately put him down for his “irreverent act.”

So, here is the not so good idea: Evaluating the worship of God by common sense pragmatism, what we think will work best, and how we feel it ought to be done.  Everything about worship is to pay attention to the holiness of God through our obedience.  Whenever we avoid the prescriptions of Holy Scripture, however best the intentions might be, is not a good thing and people will get hurt.  One can never justify an action that goes against God’s Word because people are praising God. 

Just because the heart is in the right place does not mean what is being done is okay.

David’s first response was anger, then fear.  He gave his best effort, and it resulted in God’s disfavor. Perhaps David realized that maybe he took for granted that the ark could be moved any old way he wanted to move it. 

Trouble with God happens whenever we value efficiency and expediency over obedience and submission.

The great error of Uzzah which resulted in his death was trying to manage God. We do not take care of God; God takes care of us. God does not bow to us and allow himself to be managed by creatures. The Lord wants pure unadulterated obedient worship from people in the way God wants it to be done, period. It is not up for negotiation.

So, David took some time to re-evaluate the whole approach to worship he was doing and left the ark with a Philistine. Then, he went back and did it right….

Holy God, we confess that we have too often forgotten we are yours. Sometimes we carry on our lives as if there was no God and we fall short of being a credible witness to you. For these things we ask your forgiveness and for your strength. Give us clear minds and open hearts so we may bear witness to you in our world. Remind us to be who you would have us to be regardless of what we are doing or who we are with. Hold us close and build our relationship with you and with those you have given us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 63:1-8 – Divine/Human Connection

O God, you are my God; 
    I earnestly search for you. 
My soul thirsts for you; 
    my whole body longs for you 
in this parched and weary land 
    where there is no water. 
I have seen you in your sanctuary 
    and gazed upon your power and glory. 
Your unfailing love is better than life itself; 
    how I praise you! 
I will praise you as long as I live, 
    lifting up my hands to you in prayer. 
You satisfy me more than the richest feast. 
    I will praise you with songs of joy. 

I lie awake thinking of you, 
    meditating on you through the night. 
Because you are my helper, 
    I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings. 
I cling to you; 
    your strong right hand holds me securely. (NLT) 

Regular readers of this blog know I believe the book of Psalms to be a vast resource for devotion, worship, and prayer. In dark or distressing times when we don’t know what to pray, how to lament, or what to say to God; in the joyful and peaceful times when we want to proclaim praise, give thanks, or express our blessings and longings; and, in every season of our lives, the psalms offer us robust theology, human emotion and need in all its vulnerable reality, and a connected path between the two. 

Today’s psalm was originally uttered to God when David was roaming in the wilderness avoiding King Saul’s malevolent and murderous intent. David expressed his yearning desire and hope to connect with God and gain solace and guidance, step by step, by the Lord who sees and satisfies. David praised God within a life-and-death circumstance, longing to be satiated with spiritual food and drink. 

Whatever situation we find ourselves in, and wherever our path takes us, the psalms help form and shape a profound spirituality of deep connection with the God we long to know and experience. 

The psalms are so much more than ancient poems, prayers, and songs; they are words alive with the potential to bridge us to God. I often write my own translations and personally contemporize the psalms which helps me to approach God during my own wilderness experiences. So, here is my take on this psalm: 

O God, you are my God; I am putting all my effort into seeking you. 

            my soul is thirsty for you. 

my body is weak looking for you, 

            like in a desert where there is no water. 

I am no stranger to you because I have seen you work before, 

            and I have gotten a glorious glimpse of your power in the past. 

I have experienced that your steadfast love is better than life itself, 

            and I now bank on those times and praise you despite my trouble. 

I choose to keep on remembering you and blessing your holy name. 

            In the mighty name of Jesus, I will lift my hands in praise, even if it looks weird to others. 

I know that my soul will be satisfied in you, just like when I get a medium rare T-bone steak and corn on the cob. 

            And I will use my mouth to praise you with joy, no matter the circumstances, 

when I remember you on my bed and cannot sleep, 

            and meditate on your wonderful grace as I lie there with my eyes wide open. 

for you have always been my help, 

            and sitting on your lap I will be supremely confident and sing for joy. 

Oh, my soul clings to you through this trial, 

            and your mighty hand upholds me.  Amen. 

O God, You Are My God by Fernando Ortega

Psalm 28 – To Be, or Not to Be

David pelted with stones
David being pelted with stones, by unknown Slovakian artist, 1937

I cry out to you, Lord.
You are my rock; don’t refuse to hear me.
If you won’t talk to me,
I’ll be just like those going down to the pit.
Listen to my request for mercy when I cry out to you,
when I lift up my hands to your holy inner sanctuary.
Don’t drag me off with the wicked and those who do evil;
the type who talk nice to their friends
while evil thoughts are in their hearts!
Pay them back for what they’ve done!
Pay them back for their evil deeds!
Pay them back for their handiwork!
Give back to them exactly what they deserve!
Because they have no regard for what the Lord has done,
no regard for his handiwork,
God will tear them down and never rebuild!

Bless the Lord
because he has listened to my request for mercy!
The Lord is my strength and my shield.
My heart trusts him.
I was helped, my heart rejoiced,
and I thank him with my song.
The Lord is his people’s strength;
he is a fortress of protection for his anointed one.
Save your people, God!
Bless your possession!
Shepherd them and carry them for all time! (CEB)

The biblical character David, in frustration and agony, cried out for help, for God to hear his prayers. And, when his prayer was heard, David gave exuberant praise to the Lord for listening to him. We are not told specifically of how that prayer was answered and what happened between the request and the response. It seems the juicy details are left out on purpose, so that maybe we would not get lost in the retribution but stick with the fact that there was a desperate need and the Lord stepped in and did something about it.

As I pondered this psalm and its lack of life-detail, I wondered about David’s situation: Could it be that David gave God praise just for being heard by him?  Was David cured in some way, or was he healed from the need to be healed?  Was there even any actual deliverance that occurred?  Did David come to praise God despite a lack of deliverance?  Was David’s joy in his relationship with God conditional, or unconditional?

Hamlet
Hamlet, played by actor Matt Amendt in the Pittsburgh Public Theater, 2018

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c.1601 C.E.) put the question this way: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Hamlet’s soliloquy went on to say:

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance, to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin (knitting needle)?”

Hamlet, much like David of old, was miserable and burdened with a profound lack of power to change his circumstances. So, he reflects on life and death in a morbid and melancholy way. It is not that Hamlet was contemplating suicide as much as he meditated on what life truly is and finding some meaning within it. Unlike David, Hamlet cannot find the courage to deal with his frustration and feels stymied with fear of the unknown.

If we are blatantly honest with ourselves, we must admit that far too often we have a particular outcome in mind for God to do.  Our hopes and expectations are tethered to God doing something extremely specific so that, if it does not come to pass (or does not come quickly!) we become discouraged and disillusioned. Like Hamlet, we become lost in the shadows of our thinking and ponder some sort of escape.

So, here is another set of questions I am asking myself: If my adverse circumstances do not change, can I praise God anyway?  Can I, like David, take joy in simply being heard?  Can I find gratitude in all situations?  Do I only express thanks and praise to God when things are going my way?  Am I open to whatever God wants to do in my life, even if it is not what I would choose?  Do I feel that I am above having to put up with the wickedness of this world?  Am I expecting heaven on earth, or am I willing to suffer as Jesus did?

I honestly believe the answers to those questions will determine the trajectory of our Christian experience. For the identity and meaning of all persons is found in the divine.

I praise you, O God, in the good and the bad, the easy and the difficult, the failures and the victories.  You are Lord over all things.  You are my strength and shield in every circumstance.  When I am weak, I am strong. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  Amen.

Psalm 17:1-7, 15 – Hear My Prayer!

Lament

Lord, hear my prayer for justice.
I am calling loudly to you.
I am being honest in what I say,
so please listen to my prayer.
You will make the right decision,
because you can see the truth.
You were with me all night
and looked deep into my heart.
You questioned me and found that
I did not say or do anything wrong.
Unlike most people, I have obeyed your commands,
so I have never been like those who are cruel and evil.
I have followed your way.
My feet never left your path.
Every time I call to you, God, you answer me.
So listen to me now, and hear what I say.
Show your amazing kindness
and rescue those who depend on you.
Use your great power
and protect them from their enemies.

I have done only what is right, so I will see your face….
And seeing you, I will be fully satisfied. (ERV)

This is one of David’s personal psalms of lament.  It is a prayer forged during a time of severe adversity with enemies who sought to snuff-out his life.  The psalm is a plea uttered with the hope that God would indeed vindicate him and subdue those who wanted to harm him.  It is a lament that wickedness exists and often gets its way; and, it is grief over the constant threats that swirled around David.

It was David’s prayer that with all the heartless and arrogant violence continually in his life that God would keep him as the apple of his eye and hide him in the shadow of his wings. Indeed, perhaps no better prayer could be said in those times when there are people who make untrue accusations and only wish harm to be done to you, that God would be gracious, merciful, and kind through rescuing us from both bodily harm and spiritual abuse.  It is in the times when angry simpletons spew their worst that we need to confidently know that God watches over his people with affection and cares for them as a mother hen protects her chicks.

You and I are precious to God.  We can and ought to run to him when there is trouble and feel no shame in loudly crying for fairness and justice.  The Lord is a benevolent God showing firm commitment to those who seek truth, loving actions, and merciful words.  When going through a difficult time in which another or others accuse you of wrongdoing and you know you are innocent, the proper prescription is to pray this very psalm repeatedly at night before bed.  For we all know that sleep can be elusive and hard to come by in such circumstances.  Perhaps, along with David, you will be able to say: I have done what is right. I will see your face. I will be fully satisfied.

Arise, Lord God Almighty!  Deliver my soul from the wicked and subdue them!  I seek refuge in you, O Savior; show me your steadfast love as I cry out to you for justice.  Incline your ear to hear me, and answer when I call through the name of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.