II Samuel 6:1-19
The ark of the covenant is a box. Most of the time that we encounter it in the Scriptures, it is a very fancy box, but it is a box none-the-less. Once or twice, in the Scriptures, it is not much more than a box made of wood. At other times, it is elaborately overlaid with fine gold, and it has a huge cover called the mercy seat. The mercy seat consists of two, nearly life size angels standing on either end of the box, with their wings meeting in the middle. Under their wings is a golden seat upon which no one has sat. This seat is presumed to be a resting place that symbolizes the very throne and presence of God.
The ark of the covenant is also a very mysterious box. Originally it contained the second set of stone tablets on which the 10 Commandments were inscribed (the first set was destroyed in a fit of anger). The Book of Hebrews says that it also contained Aaron’s walking stick and a pot of manna. Even today, the ark of the covenant gathers much interest. Officially, its location is unknown, and it is presumed by most sane biblical scholars to have been destroyed and burned in 586 BC when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the city. But, from time to time, somebody lets it be known that they know where it is, and people who are easily distracted by these sorts of things get easily distracted.
In ancient Israel, however, it was almost always the constant companion of the people of God. It was especially helpful to them in time of battle. When the ark was present on the battle field, the people of God prevailed. This certainly added to the mystery of it, especially in the eyes of God’s enemies. Our ancient foes, the Philistines, being brighter than average, put two and two together and got nearly five, and decided that if the ark of the covenant was beneficial to the people of God, that it would also be beneficial to them. And so they captured it. The Philistines as you remember, were the ones who gave spawn to Goliath, that great example of human genetic mutation.
But it did not work out as well for the Philistine people to have the ark of the covenant as they had hoped. The first night that they had possession of the ark, they put it in the Temple of their god, Dagon. They assumed that this was a safe place to put the ark, because it would be under the direct supervision and watchful eye of their own god. But during the night, bad things happened. The statue of poor old Dagon apparently stumbled and fell down. In the morning they found him face down on the floor, completely unable to help himself.
Now, this being a rather bad omen, one might have expected the Philistines to ditch the ark of the covenant right away. Get rid of the thing. Send it back. But no, instead, they just moved it to another city. But it brought a plague of tumors to that city and everyone had to wear masks and socially distance. And so they moved it to a different city, and the same thing happened, people got sick with tumors, really sick; and they did this same thing a bunch of other times, each time hoping for different results. But the results were always the same. Insanity was finally catching on among the Philistines, even as stubborn as they appeared to be, and so finally, it dawned on them that no matter where they sent this ark, it was going to cause trouble. It was going to keep making people sick with tumors.
And so in a flash of insight, (I told you they were brighter than average) they loaded the ark into a cart, and they hitched the cart up to a couple of cows, and they aimed the cows in the direction of the land of Israel; glad to be rid of it, I am sure. Anyone can read this delightful story in the First Samuel, chapters five and six.
Not surprisingly, the cows hauled it straight into the land of Israel, and eventually it ended up at Abinadab’s house, where it went into storage. Stuff in storage often gets forgotten, and the ark probably spent 20 years relaxing at Abinadab’s house.
One day, though, David decided that it ought to go to Bethlehem. But if it was going to go to Bethlehem, it was going to go in the midst of a grand celebration. There was to be a parade, and thirty thousand soldiers would be marching in this parade, and there was to be singing and dancing, and very loud music coming from lyres, and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals, and electric guitars. It was going to be grand, and it was grand until the ark arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon. And then it got bad, really bad. The cart that the ark was on started to wobble a bit. And Uzzah, one of the sons of Abinadab, who had grown up with the ark in his house, reached out to steady it, and he dropped dead on the spot.
And the music went silent. And so did a lot of hearts. The writer of Second Samuel tells us that Uzzah died because the anger of God was kindled against him. And we want to shout, “No! No! What Uzzah did was the most natural thing thing in the world. He was only going to steady the ark. He didn’t deserve to die!” That makes us angry! And it made David angry, too. And for the same reason that we are angry. We are angry at God for being angry at poor, innocent Uzzah, because we’ve all seen God do some very similar things in our own lives and in the lives of our loved ones.
But in addition to be being very angry at God, David also became very afraid of God, which is, of course, a very normal reaction after we have become angry with God. And because David was afraid of God, he decided that now was not the time to bring the ark to Bethlehem. And so he sent it to the household of Obed-edom.
Now it turns out that Obed-edom must not have minded keeping watch over the ark, and we know that he wasn’t afraid of it, because it actually did him some good. It brought him blessings. And word of those blessings got back to David, and without reading too much into the text, it seems like David might have wanted some of those blessings for himself, and so after only three months, another grand celebration with a big parade is planned to bring the ark back to Bethlehem. Only this time, though, they did a little test run first. They picked it up, walked six paces, and when nobody died, they figured that it was safe to carry on. And it made it safely to Bethlehem this time, and amid much fanfare, and all was well, and all manner of things was well, except for the bit of a kerfuffle between David and his socially conscious wife.
Now what should we make of all of this? I’m not even going to try to explain why Uzzah had to die, except to say that nobody was supposed to touch the ark, and David was well aware of the consequences for doing so. But for now we’ll just leave that whole business up to God. And that’s OK.
But what I’ve hoped that you have noticed throughout this whole very odd story, is that we have seen a very wide variety of reactions to the presence of the ark of the covenant.
The Philstines were a very superstitious lot. They had to have it, and so they took it. And it brought nothing but disaster to them, the least of which was persistent insanity. Finally, after being way too stubborn about it, they got rid of it.
Next, it sat for 20 years in Abinadab’s house, and nothing happened. No disaster, no plague, no blessing, no nothing. It was nothing more than a completely harmless piece of forgotten furniture.
And then Uzzah was struck down for doing something very ordinary, but also very forbidden. That event spawned both anger and fear, and no doubt, some more superstition.
At Obed-edom’s place, for three months, it brought wonderful blessings, so wonderful that David decided that it was time for it to come home to him.
And so what is it? Is the ark a magic box with a mind of its own that can bring blessing and bane, curses and disease, or death and destruction? Some people, even today, believe that it is all of these things. But really, it is none of these things. It is just a box. It is a pretty box, a nicely decorated box, but it is nothing more than a box. There is no magic in it at all.
It is merely a box that is symbolic of the presence of God. It is a visual reminder that God is present, here in this world. For God’s people, it was a reminder, that though God is profoundly invisible, that God is also wonderfully present. So why the widely divergent views and reactions to the ark of the covenant? Because it is a symbol of God’s presence, it mirrors human reactions to God. The Philistines were superstitious. They believed that the ark had magic powers, and they had to have it. I am sure that they had hoped to appropriate those powers for themselves. And in a sense, they did appropriate those powers. They wrongly invested the ark with all kinds of power, but it became power over them, rather than power for them.
And then there’s poor Uzzah; wrongfully dead, at least according to our own thinking. David’s anger over Uzzah’s death seemed righteous to him. Many of us believe that we have cause to be angry at God. God has done us wrong. God has brought disaster upon us. But because we are angry, we are also afraid, and if we are afraid of God, we set ourselves apart from God’s great love, and we keep our distance, and we lose the joys of intimacy with our Creator. We might even become jealous of people like Obed-edom, who seem to get nothing but blessings from God.
Obed-edom seemed to have benefited greatly from having the ark at his house. I strongly believe that Obed-edom, admittedly just a bit-character in this huge drama, is the only one who fully under stood what the ark was all about. He was neither superstitious of the ark, nor afraid of it. He welcomed the presence of the ark in his life and in his house, because it really did remind him of God’s presence. He understood that while God may not always be safe, that God is always good.
But what concerns me the most in all of this, is what happened at Abinadab’s house. Nothing happened; nothing at all. It was as if it was not even there at all. And it was there for a very long time.
I wonder, how often we come into God’s presence expecting nothing; nothing at all? How often do we show up here on a Sunday morning, without the slightest bit of anticipation or hope? Do we really come into this place expecting fully to engage ourselves with the awesome, living, wonderful, terrible, holy, all powerful, all loving, all caring, all forgiving, all blessing God of the universe, or are we the descendants of Abinadab?