Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 11, 2021
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 Commentary
There is no question what this text is about—the ark of the covenant. It is mentioned over and over, nine times in all. So is David; his name comes up even more. David brings the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem. That’s what this text is about. But, so what? Why was that so important back then? And what does this old story have to do with us today? To discover that, we’ll have to explore the parts of the story that the RCL leaves out of our reading. More on that in a moment. For now, let’s follow the ark as David brings it into his capital city.
All is well in Israel. They have a new King, God’s own choice to lead God’s chosen people. King David has conquered Jerusalem and established it as the strategically placed capital city of all Israel, renaming it “the City of David.” With help from his first international ally, David has built a splendid cedar palace. His family has grown as he added wives and they had children. And he has just won two overwhelming victories over Israel’s perennial enemies, the Philistines.
All that remains is to get the ark of God into the new capital city, so that it is not only the political but also the religious center of Israel. That ark was the centerpiece of Israel’s religion, the most visible symbol of the presence of God among his people, the place where “the Lord Almighty… is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark (verse 2).
King David has recently become the symbol of God’s presence with Israel (cf. II Samuel 5:10). But he knew the ancient tradition about the ark, so he realized that he needed to bring the ark into his city. Then that city and his kingship would visibly become the city and kingship of God. As one scholar put it, “When David brings the ark to Jerusalem, he literally brings God into the center of his kingship.”
Where was the ark? Well, that golden box has had a rough time of it recently. When Israel decided to use it as a centerpiece of its battle strategy in its war with the Philistines, marching into battle with the ark leading the way, the strategy backfired. The Philistines captured the ark and took it home, celebrating their victory over not only Israel, but also Israel’s not-so-powerful God. Or so they thought, until things began to go terribly wrong. Their main god was toppled from his throne and a terrible disease broke out among them. Quickly tracing this misfortune to the power of Yahweh, they sent the ark packing on a cart. It ended up in the home of Abinadab, where it lay gathering dust for quite some time.
David saw his recent victories over the Philistines as the perfect opportunity to bring the ark home, his home, Israel’s home, so he goes to the home of Abinadab. Imitating the Philistines and ignoring God’s specific instructions back in the olden days (Ex. 25:12-14 and Num. 4:5-6, 15), David puts the ark on cart and begins the hilly journey to Jerusalem, with help from Abinadab’s sons.
According to parameters of the reading given to us by the RCL today, what ensued was what one scholar called a “rolling party of joy surrounding the slowly moving ark.” “David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with song, and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.”
The next thing we hear in our reading is that David led the procession from the house of Obed-Edom to Jerusalem with great rejoicing. There is no hint in our reading of how the ark got to that house, nor of what terrible thing had happened before it got to that house. All we’re told is that David continued to celebrate the progress of the ark into Jerusalem with sacrifices and dancing so unrestrained that it offended his wife, Michal. More on that later.
Our story ends with the ark being placed in a specially designed tent and David offering numerous sacrifices before the Lord. With God firmly ensconced in the City of David, that is, with the presence of God visibly in midst of his people, David blesses them in the name of the Lord Almighty. He gives them food for a ritual feast of celebration and they all go home happy and blessed. As we used say in my childhood church, “Thus endeth the reading of God’s Holy Word.” God is home. David is King. Jerusalem has become the City of God. All is well.
Except, of course, that things are not at all well, not with Uzzah and not with Michal. I suspect the RCL skips their stories because they ruin the celebration of the main story. But I find that it is often in the dark parts of the story, in the prickly parts that make us scratch our heads in confusion that we are most vitally engaged by God. So, let’s probe these unpleasant parts of this pleasant story.
Uzzah and his brother Ahio were assisting in the process of moving the ark. They were familiar with it, as it had been in their home for some time. Thus, when the oxen pulling the cart stumbled and the cart wobbled and the ark looked like it might tumble to the ground, Uzzah naturally reached out his hand to steady it.
But, to everyone amazement and shock, God immediately struck Uzzah dead for touching the ark. Uzzah’s helpful act was seen by God as irreverent and God’s anger flared out at Uzzah. The poor well intentioned man died there beside the ark.
What the heck!? That’s what David said, or something like it. He was stunned, as all subsequent readers of this story are. And he was angry, angry at God, so angry that he cursed that place, giving a name that commemorated the outrageous thing God had done. What’s more, he was afraid, afraid of a God who would do such a thing. So, he stopped the procession to Jerusalem because he didn’t want such a dangerous object anywhere near him. “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?”
That’s how the ark came to reside at the home of Obed-Edom. It stayed there for 3 months. It might have stayed there in perpetuity if Obed-Edom hadn’t been so blessed by the presence of the ark of the Lord, which meant, of course, the presence of the Lord himself. When David heard about that blessing, he reconsidered his anger and his fear and brought the ark to Jerusalem, where he and his people were blessed by God for many years.
So, all’s well that ends well? Well, not really. We still have to consider this terrible event. What are we to make of it? It seems so out of character for the God who delivers his beloved people, the God who identified himself as Yahweh, the covenant partner of Israel, “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellions and sin (Exodus 34:6, 7).” How could such a God just obliterate a faithful Israelite for a well-intentioned action?
The only possible answer anyone has ever given (apart from leaving it out of the story as the RCL and many preachers do) lies in the next word in the above quote from Exodus 34:7—“Yet. Yet, he does not leave the guilty unpunished….” There is a “yet” to God, a something more, another dimension of his incomprehensible person.
That “yet” is, of course, his holiness, his wholly otherness, that prohibits mere humans from treating God as one of us, as “one of the boys,” as a buddy we can slap on the back and have a beer with. Someone has referred to the biblical tradition of the “absolute, untouchable, dangerous holiness of God.” We’ve seen it on Mt. Sinai. We’ve heard in the warning about the danger of seeing God’s face. We don’t like it, because it is off putting. But it is a reality.
That’s why the God who wanted to dwell among his people in order to bless them gave them very specific instructions about how to handle the visible symbol of his presence. It had to do with rings built into the ark through which long poles were inserted. Specially chosen priests hoisted the ark by those poles so that no one would touch the holy symbol of the Holy One. When Uzzah did touch, he violated the firm rules for how God’s people were to deal with the holy. And the result was exactly what everyone should have expected. Which makes us angry and afraid. I will return to that later.
Now we have to see how the story really ended—with two very angry people, David and one of his wives, Michal daughter of the late King Saul. When David had danced with all his might at the front of the procession bringing the ark into Jerusalem, his wife Michal was standing at a window observing the spectacle. And that’s exactly what she saw, a spectacle, the embarrassing spectacle of her husband, the King of Israel, leaping and twirling and shaking his booty right in front of everyone, including the slave girls of Israel.
How humiliating, how un-kinglike, how vulgar! Indeed, that’s the word she used—vulgar—as though there was something indecent, almost obscene about David’s dance. Maybe there was. Verse 14 says that David was wearing only a linen ephod when he danced. An ephod was the undergarment worn by the priests, a tightfitting, sleeveless, hip length garment that went under the more ornate robe. David has apparently cast aside his royal robe and danced in this undergarment. Some have speculated that as he danced, his genitals came into view, while others think it was simply a matter of his not being dressed in a manner fit for a King.
Whatever the case, she was outraged, and she let David know in no uncertain terms.
David’s celebrative mood was instantly transformed into royal rage. He informed her that he wasn’t a bit concerned about being dignified and kingly; he was simply being a joyful servant of his King. I’m not worried about what you or those slave girls think. I was dancing “before the Lord.” To David, this outlandish dance was nothing less than a demonstration of his thoroughly faithful commitment to Yahweh, a commitment so deep that he was willing to relinquish his respectability in the service of his God. He was truly a servant of the most high and holy God.
And that was the end of that, literally. Indeed, Michal never had a child, perhaps because they never had sex again at the insistence of either angry partner or perhaps because God closed her womb. With that childlessness, the line of Saul came to an end. Indeed, that lineage might have contributed to the intensity of the emotions between her and David. “My Daddy would never do something like that!” “Oh yeah, well God passed over your daddy and chose me. So, you can take your Daddy and… forget having any more children to further his line.”
Many a freewheeling preacher, wanting to encourage more full-bodied worship in an uptight church, has used this text to advocate for liturgical dance. That is not an abuse of the text, but it may miss the main point. The main point is seen when we compare these two prickly stories—the sudden death of a well meaning Uzzah and the long celibacy of a well meaning Michal. They both point to the issue of how God’s people are to approach and live in the presence of God.
When we come into the presence of the living God, we can’t be too careful and we can’t be too joyful. Uzzah was not careful enough, Michal was way too careful. Uzzah was unthinkingly presumptuous, while Michal was priggishly Pharisaical. On the one hand, we can’t approach God too casually, but on the other we can’t be so strict that we don’t experience the joy of the Lord. Don’t touch, but dance your head off! Respect the holiness of God, but rejoice in the grace and mercy of God.
All that is a bit hard to keep straight, which is why we can be glad that we have a sure-fire way to approach and live in the presence of God. The letter to the Hebrews takes all of these Old Testament rules and rituals and institutions and stories and says, “In Jesus Christ all of this has been fulfilled. Jesus is ‘better’ than any of those holy things.”
So, for example, Hebrews 4:14-16 describes Jesus as a High Priest who has gone through the heavens and through our temptations. Thus, he is a sympathetic high priest who can usher us into God’s presence. “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace in our time of need.” Hebrews 10:19-22 continues that theme of entering into the Holy Place (where the ark was kept) with confidence. “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body… let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith….”
Thus, in the end, this story with its joy and its anger, its good news and bad, invites us to approach the Holy God through his Son who has satisfied all the requirements of the Law and suffered all the penalties of the law. Remember that God is God and rejoice that God has become one of us, so that we can come to him with confident joy.
The story of Uzzah and its frightening parallels scattered through Scripture reminded me of the well-known bit of dialogue between Susan and Mr. Beaver in C.S. Lewis’ delightful tale, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mr. Beaver is introducing Susan to Narnia where Aslan rules. Speaking of Aslan, the magnificent lion who is the Christ figure in the story, Mr. Beaver says, “Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the Great Lion.” “Ooh,” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he safe—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion….” “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver… “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Further, reading this story brought to mind the ancient Jewish custom of not speaking the Name of Yahweh, in part because of the Third Commandment and in part because of stories like this one. That reminded me of the great villain in the Harry Potter series, Voldemort, “He Who Must Not Be Named.” He is pure evil, while God is pure good. But God must not be trifled with. His love is too fierce.
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