Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 15, 2018
2 Samuel 6:1-5; 12b-19 Commentary
2 Samuel 6 contains enough action and vivid images to fill a whole Netflix series. It, after all, features a mysterious box, stumbling oxen and impetuous priest. Our text also gives us a dancing king, livid queen and one great big party.
David has spent many years running from Saul. However, as 2 Samuel 6 unfolds, his predecessor is finally dead. So now that Jesse’s son is, at least temporarily, Israel’s undisputed king, he remembers “the ark of God” (2). It was a fancy, rectangular wooden box, about four feet by two feet, and covered in gold. Over this golden slab stood two cherubim that symbolized God’s living presence and majestic holiness.
God first gave the Israelites this ark as they traveled from Egypt toward the land of promise. They normally kept it in the Holy of Holies’ center of the tabernacle. There it played an immensely important role in Israel’s religious life.
This ark didn’t, after all, just symbolize God’s holy presence among God’s people as they traveled. It also contained three things that spoke “volumes” about what God had graciously done for Israel. After all, inside the ark were some manna, Aaron’s rod and the stone tablets of Moses’ law.
Thirty years earlier, however, the Israelites had hauled the ark out of the tabernacle where it belonged and onto the battlefield (where it didn’t belong!). They’d hoped that it would prove to be a kind of “good luck charm.” The embattled Philistines, however, captured the ark. Yet once they installed that ark in one of their temples, it wreaked such havoc that they hustled it back to Israel, leaving it with a priest named Abinadab.
There, however, Israel seems to have forgotten all about the ark of God. Maybe it even gathered dust in Abinadab’s basement or attic. Who, after all, wanted to keep such a potent religious object around?
2 Samuel 6’s David, however, organizes a huge parade to haul the lost ark out of storage and to Jerusalem. Scholars suggest that he hopes that it will unite the whole country under his still relatively new leadership. By bringing the ark there, David seems to be trying to make Jerusalem not just Israel’s political center, but also its religious center. The ark’s presence in Jerusalem would, then, unite Israel by serving as the place for all Israelites to come and worship.
Initially the procession goes just smoothly. David leads a huge, extravagant and noisy parade. He genuinely seems to be worshipping the Lord by dancing with all his might and singing at the top of his lungs. It suggests that David really wants to bring the God of Abraham and Moses back into the center of Israel’s national life.
All of this commotion, as one scholar notes, also captures peoples’ imaginations. The Israelites, after all, join David in celebrating, playing virtually every instrument in their band room. One pastor says they use everything but a portable organ to celebrate the ark’s return.
When God originally gave the Israelites the ark, God insisted that their priests always carry it. Even they, however, weren’t supposed to actually touch this sacred box. God told the priests to carry the ark by holding onto poles that ran through its golden rings.
Perhaps, however, David is too busy dancing to follow those rules. He lets Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinidab, imitate the Philistines by simply loading the sacred ark onto an ox cart and leading it toward Jerusalem. Since they’ve grown up in the home where Israel had stored the ark, they are, perhaps, too familiar with it.
Though we’d never know it from the limits the Lectionary imposes on 2 Samuel 6, when the oxen stumble, perhaps in a pothole, Uzzah, who probably accompanied the ark precisely in case something like this happened, instinctively reaches out to steady it. And, of course, God strikes him dead on the spot. So an angry David puts the ark back into mothballs.
When, however, it becomes clear that God showers blessings on the ark’s new holders, David decides to resume the parade to Jerusalem. Israel’s king, however, has apparently learned a hard lesson. Verse 13 implies that priests, not an ox cart, now carry God’s ark. What’s more, every time they carry the ark just a few feet, David sacrifices to the Lord. Clearly he has a renewed sense of God’s holiness as symbolized in this box.
Yet though he’s perhaps newly aware of God’s holiness and the need for reverence, David is still no uptight worshiper of the Lord. After all, Israel’s king doesn’t just shuffle toward Jerusalem with his hands in his pockets. We sense that, instead, David leads the renewed parade. Dressed probably fairly scantily in priestly clothing, David shouts and dances with “abandon,” according to one paraphrase.
David, however, doesn’t just keep this joy to himself. The warrior becomes a bread-giver. David shares with his fellow Israelites a luscious meal of bread, meat and raisins that’s fit for a divine king’s arrival in Jerusalem.
Yet though we’d (again!) never know it from the limits the Lectionary again imposes on this Sunday’s reading, not everyone, appreciates David’s generous enthusiasm. In fact, David’s exuberance offends his perhaps edgy wife. Michal, whom our text keeps reminding us is Saul’s daughter, stubbornly refuses to participate in the celebration.
Michal expresses her ridicule, however, when David returns to their home. Her words to David ooze both sarcasm and anger. Saul’s daughter accuses him of barnyard behavior, of shamelessly exposing himself in front of lowly peasant women.
Interestingly, David’s doesn’t deny that his actions were undignified and even humiliating. He doesn’t even try to defend himself. Israel’s king, however, does insist he has danced for the Lord who made him king, not for anyone else, including his wife.
The end of 2 Samuel 6 effectively signals the end of Saul’s family and its hopes. While Michal thinks she’s a strong person, she turns out to be, in her historical context, a largely hopeless one. Michal, after all, remains childless until she dies.
However, from this point forward things also go downhill for David. In 2 Samuel 7, after all, God declines his offer to make a home for the ark of the Lord in a temple. Later, of course, David will conquer many enemies. When, however, he “conquers” Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, he plants the seeds of his family, and, as a result, Israel’s destruction.
So isn’t it ironic that one of the highpoints of David’s life is 2 Samuel 6’s act of jubilant worship? Though our text never uses the word “worship,” that’s certainly seems to be what David offers to God in it. After all, worship always has two elements: the word of God, and people’s response.
And as one biblical scholar notes, the ark is a kind of sermon, a type of word of God in our text. It, after all, vividly reminds Israel of what God graciously did during her flight from Egypt. The ark reminds her that God gave her food, the law and human leaders. 2 Samuel 6’s David responds to this “word” by leading the Israelites in both dancing before and singing at the tops of their lungs to the Lord. He also feeds the Israelites a royal banquet of celebration.
Some Christian worship orders follow a similar pattern of revelation and response. We sometimes call it the dialogue of worship. God speaks. God’s people respond. For example, in some worship orders God calls God’s adopted sons and daughters to worship who then respond with a hymn. God may call us to confess our sins and we confess them. God speaks God’s word and we bring our offerings.
But what if, as Jack Roeda asks in a message on this passage, you don’t feel like responding to God’s word by singing and dancing the way David did? What if God speaks to us and we only feel heaviness in our souls? How can we make our leaden hearts sing and dance?
You and I can’t, as Roeda insists, muster David’s joy on our own. We need the Holy Spirit, whose presence Jesus promises to any group of people who gather in his name. God’s adopted sons and daughters need that Spirit to lift our heavy hearts and sagging hands. Those, then, who would dance before the Lord open ourselves to the Spirit’s work and leading.
However, those who want to appropriately respond to God’s word also deliberately and repeatedly consider what God has done. We reflect on the grandeur of what God has made. You and I let the Spirit melt our hearts as we remember what God has done and is doing.
Then, as Roeda continues, we may not be quite ready to dance like David did. Some of us, after all, would upset more than just our spouses if we did. We might just, however, be ready to do something like sing at the top of our lungs our praises to God in our showers.
Some Christian worship services include what we’ve come to call “liturgical dance.” They are at least in part responses to the psalms’ invitations to “praise [God’s] name with dancing” (Psalm 149:3) and “praise [the Lord] with tambourine and dance” (Psalm 150:4).
Yet responses to such dancing before the Lord are no more united now than they were in David’s day. As Todd Farley notes in March, 2005 Reformed Worship’s article, “Praise Him with Dance,” “God’s people throughout history – not just today … have found themselves between the proverbial rock and hard place on this issue. The Israelites danced and struggled with controversy regarding this issue. Likewise, the early church wrestled with dance. The church fathers came out both for and against dance. Church councils and synods have issued statements condemning or praising the use of movement arts such as dance and mime.”
Not so unlike the way dance divided David and Michal’s own house.
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