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The Uzzah Effect: Lessons of Trust and Providence for Church Leaders
by Skip Bell, DMin

A serious trip through the Old Testament takes you through some rough neighborhoods. Battles ending with the death of thousands, mass killing of women and children, adultery hidden by murder, and impudent village children killed by a bear are a few such chronicles. A case in point is this text in 2 Samuel 6, a narrative inserted within David's transfer of the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. "And when they came to Nachon's threshing floor, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him there for his error; and he died there by the ark of God." 2 Samuel 6:6-7

Why the outburst against Uzzah? Like King David we may be offended by God's act. "And David became angry because of the Lord's outbreak against Uzzah…." 2 Samuel 6:8 Why is the narrative preserved in scripture? Is there a lesson for us in the death of Uzzah? There is; but it is often dismissed too hastily, or not deeply considered.

Since the Exodus the ark had provided assurance of the presence of God with Israel. It remained a symbol of His providence when Samuel was recognized as a prophet of God. In that time, wanting to assert power and sovereignty, Israel initiated battle with the Philistines a short distance from Shiloh. Having not sought the guidance of God the army suffered defeat. In that desperate moment the elders of Israel seized on a bright idea; removing the ark from the sanctuary in Shiloh they hastily transported it to the place of battle believing it would bring them victory. Rather than humbly and prayerfully waiting for God's direction, they took matters into their own hands. They trusted in their own plans, their own strategy, rather than God's providence. Israel suffered defeat, and the ark was taken from them by the Philistines.

The events surrounding the eventual movement of the ark back to Israel take place against this backdrop of presumption; humanity ignoring the providence of God in favor of their own control. The ark brought plague to the Philistines and destruction to the symbols of their gods. So they released the ark. A team of cattle was hitched to pull the cart bearing the ark, and though unfamiliar with their burden and separated from newly born calves they made their way directly to Bethshemesh, a Levitical city of Israel.

Later the ark was repositioned, this time to the house of Abinadab where Eleazar, apparently a descendent of Aaron, cared for it. It remained there through the years of Samuel's judgeship, Saul's reign, plus the early years of David's reign; a time span of about 60 years. Then we pick up the story of the ark's transition in 2 Samuel 6.

Uzzah's death occurs within the story of David's determination to bring the ark to Jerusalem.  David saw Jerusalem as the new capital of Israel and the focal point for the restoration of Israel to its appointed place in history. He possessed some conviction that it would revive the faith of the nation. It was also a politically astute thing to do. David prepared a ritual dedication, grand procession, and magnificent ceremony to sanctify the city hoping the presence of the ark would assure the success of the government and the welfare of the people. Aglow with a vision of his own kingly success mixed with a longing for restoration of God's glory, he led the procession himself with the pomp and ceremony fitting a king.

Kings and religious leaders often act on their own. In a similar way, all of us face the lightly regarded temptation to take matters into our own hands and act independently. Sometimes we cannot discern our own motives for doing so. The ark, either by David's instruction or that of the religious leaders, had been placed on a cart. Certainly the priests of God knew better; it was supposed to be carried on poles borne on the shoulders of the sons of Kohath. The ark, thus transported, began what was suppose to be its last nine mile journey. Things are going well enough; David is notably leading the procession in his kingly garb, a military escort goes before and after, musicians and priests add to the ceremony, and it seems the entire nation is celebrating. Then it happened. The ark approached a hidden rut on an old threshing ground. Covered with chaff, the rut was hidden from the oxen. They stumbled. Uzzah, whose name ironically means strength, and who was apparently a son of Abinadab on whose property the ark had been for many years, did the responsible thing. He had been around the ark as a child; grown up with it. He felt responsible, and had in fact been assigned to walk beside it as a security measure.  Now sensing the ark might fall, he reached out to steady the ark. Just in case. For his action of apparent stewardship, he is struck dead by God.

What are we to make of this? Poor Uzzah. Isn’t this a prudent, thoughtful, responsible action? True, Israel had disobeyed God’s instruction regarding how to transport the ark. But all Israel did not perish for that disobedience to God's instruction. Why Uzzah? Would it be a good thing if the cart tipped and the ark fell to the ground? God's instruction “they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die” (Nu 4:15) is helpful. Perhaps we can dismiss this event as a simple reminder to not touch holy things. The story is so troubling that we are tempted to assume that first apparent lesson, and speed our way out of 2 Samuel 6. God wants us to treat holy things with reverence and holy fear - now let's move on. Right?

We can slide past chapter 6 in preference for chapter 7. The ark, after resting for some months after the Uzzah incident, makes its way happily to Jerusalem. It is borne with greater regard for God's instruction, it is not touched, and no one dies.

But pause for a moment. Pause to seek what God is saying to us in the experience of Uzzah. The fascinating narrative that accompanies the taking up of the ark again provides a deeper insight into the meaning of the narrative. David abandons his kingly robes in exchange for a linen ephod, a common priestly garment, and dances before God as one rejoicing among the congregation. He is not acting like their king. He has humbled himself. His behavior outrages Michal, one of his wives and the daughter of Saul, but David defends himself; "And I will be even more undignified than this, and will be humble in my own sight." ( 2 Samuel 6:22) Humble in my own sight. The first utterance of David in his prayer of thanksgiving in chapter 7 provides another clue. David says; "Who am I, O Lord God?" (2 Samuel 7:18).

I am intrigued by the decision of Ellen White to focus on the contrast of the final procession to the first in her commentary on the narrative of the death of Uzzah. Describing David's decision to wear a linen ephod she comments: "But in this holy service he would take his place as, before God, on an equality with his subjects. Upon that day Jehovah was to be adored. He was to be the sole object of reverence." (Patriarchs and Prophets p.707) Commenting on Michal, the daughter of Saul who rebuked David for laying aside his kingly garments and position, she comments on the contrasting pride and arrogance of Michal. (Patriarchs and Prophets p.711)

Uzzah demonstrated in his spontaneous gesture self reliance; he needed to keep the ark safe on its course. It was up to him. He did not trust the care of the ark to God. Sometimes  a spontaneous gestures discloses a great deal. Some years ago I took up the process of teaching our daughter to drive. Allow me to dramatize one experience to illustrate the point. She quickly progressed from country roads and study for her driver's permit to the day she would back our shiny un-dented and un-scratched minivan out of our driveway onto the residential roads of our neighborhood. I was in the passenger seat. Things were going smoothly, and my conversation about school and friends was intended to demonstrate my trust and ease with her in the driver's seat. Then it happened. I am going to provide some exaggeration of the details to emphasize my point. Noticing a car quickly approaching the intersection from our right, sensing both cars, driven by teen drivers, would simultaneously arrive at the intersection, and noting no awareness on my daughters part, I did what any responsible father would do. "Brakes!"; I loudly demanded. Screeching to a halt she looked at me with disappointment and asked this question; "You didn't trust me, did you?"

Well, no. I had to act. Just in case. You see, I had to intervene just in case she could not handle it.

Uzzah confessed his faith with a spontaneous gesture. More than that, he symbolized the dependence of a king (David) on his own designs. Every time in our spontaneous gestures we presume the role of God, failing to trust God, I see Uzzah. When in leadership we exercise kingly control, asserting authority to keep the church on course I see Uzzah. When in stewardship of the worship service we criticize people who sing or preach differently than we do I see Uzzah.  When we argue theology with judgmental tones toward those who differ I see Uzzah. When we harshly condemn the couple visiting the church who live together before marriage I see Uzzah. When we reject our children for dress or music different than our own I see Uzzah. When we use positional authority to keep the church on the course we presume to be right I see Uzzah. In all these scenarios and countless others when we could choose to patiently and humbly seek God's providence together as a church but rather choose to take matters into our own hands - I see Uzzah. We make ourselves king. We critique, point out the error, even search for it. Like Uzzah, we consider it good stewardship. But in so doing we fail to rely on God and allow His providence to do it's work.

We humans easily presume the place of God; the Uzzah effect I call it. Just in case. Does God depend on us or we on God? Why do we fear humility that leads us to prayer, reflection, biblical study together, and patient conversation with one another and the next generation? Why do we choose instead to fill the air with judgment on others, leaders, teachers, and the church family? Why can we not wait on God?

Dear Seventh-day Adventist Christian leader, life contains more trust and joy than we first knew. May God deliver us from thinking the world depends on us - the Uzzah effect. God may steady the ark at a certain moment, or He may choose to let trials do their work in His church. Trust, obey, pray, pray some more, talk peaceably with one another, reason together, let God work in His church. Considering poor Uzzah, isn’t that safer? Just in case?
Skip Bell serves as Professor of Leadership at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary and makes his home in Berrien Springs, Michigan with his wife, Joanie.