Over the years, many have complained that God was unfair to kill Uzzah when he tried to protect the ark of God from damage or shame when the oxen stumbled and the ark slipped. Should not Uzzah have been praised for lunging forward to protect the ark of God?
There is no doubt that David’s intentions in bringing the ark to Jerusalem were noble and good. Now that his kingdom was established, he did not forget his earlier vow to return the ark to its rightful place of prominence. But what began as a joyful day quickly became a day of national grief and shame. Why?
A significant omission in 2 Samuel 6:1-3 sets the scene for failure. Previously when David needed counsel, for example when he was attacked by the Philistines, the text records that David “inquired of the Lord” (2 Samuel 5:19, 23). But those words are sadly missing in 2 Samuel 6:1-3. Instead, we are told in the parallel account in 1 Chron. 13:1-14 that David “conferred with each of his officers.”
There was no need to consult these men. God had already given clear instructions in Numbers 4:5-6 as to how to move the ark. It should be covered with a veil, to shield the holiness of God from any kind of rash intrusion, and then carried on poles on the shoulders of the Levites (Numbers 7:9).
God had plainly revealed his will, but David had a better idea—one he had learned from the pagan Philistines. He would put it on a “new cart” (2 Samuel 6:3). However, God had never said anything about using a new cart. This was a human invention contrary to the will and law of God.
Thus David did things in the wrong way, following his own ideas or those of others instead of God’s ways. Surely this passage warns that it is not enough to have a worthy purpose and a proper spirit when we enter into the service of God; God’s work must also be performed in God’s way. Pursuing the right end does not automatically imply using the right means.
But why did God’s anger break out against Uzzah if David was at fault? The Lord had plainly taught that even the Kohathites, the Levite family designated to carry the ark, “must not touch the holy things or they will die” (Numbers 4:15). Even if Uzzah were not a Kohathite or even a Levite, he still would know what the law taught in Numbers 4 and 7. God not only keeps his promises, but also fulfills his threats!
When the Philistines, who had no access to the special revelation of God, sinned by touching the ark and using a new cart to transport it, God’s anger did not burn against them (1 Samuel 6). God is more merciful toward those less knowledgeable of his will than toward those who are more knowledgeable. This is why it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than it will be for those who personally witnessed the great acts of the Savior in Capernaum (Matthew 11:23-24).
Uzzah’s motive, like David’s, was pure, but he disregarded the written Word of God, just as David did. Thus one sin led to another. Consulting one’s peers is no substitute for obeying God when he has spoken. Good intentions, with unsanctified minds, interfere with the kingdom of God. This is especially true of the worship of God and the concept of his holiness.
Because God is holy, he is free of all moral imperfections. To help mortals understand this better, a sharp line of demarcation was drawn between holy things and the common or profane. Our word profane means “before” or “forth from the temple.” Thus all that was apart from the temple, where the holiness of God was linked, was by definition profane. However, Uzzah’s act made the holiness associated with the ark also profane and thereby brought disrepute to God as well.
It is unthinkable that God could condone a confusion or a diffusion of the sacred and the profane. To take something holy and inject into it the realm of the profane was to confuse the orders of God. Thus in 1 Samuel 6:19 seventy men of Beth Shemesh were killed for peering into the ark.
The situation with Uzzah can be contrasted with that of the Philistines in 1 Samuel 6:9. These uncircumcised Gentiles also handled the ark of God as they carted it from city to city in what is now called the Gaza Strip, as they did when they prepared to send the ark back home to Israel on a cart. But where the knowledge of holy things had not been taught, the responsibility to act differently was not as high as it was for Uzzah, who should have known better.
In fact, in order to determine if the calamities that had struck each of the cities where the ark had gone (a calamity that was almost certainly an outbreak of the bubonic plague) was merely a chance happening unrelated to any divine wrath from the God of Israel, the Philistines rigged up an experiment that was totally against the grain of nature. They took two cows that had just borne calves, penned up the calves, and hitched these cows, who had never previously been hitched to a cart, to a new cart, and watched to see if against every maternal instinct in the animal kingdom the cows would be directed back to the territory of the Philistines. They were. The Philistines were convinced that what happened to them in the outbreak in each city during the seven months when the ark of God was in their midst was no chance or freak accident at all: it was the hand of God! And they had better not harden their hearts as the Egyptians did years ago (1 Samuel 6:6).
The Philistines had enough sense for the holiness of God to use a new cart and to send back offerings of reparation, to the degree that they had any knowledge, but they were not judged for what they did not know about the distinction between the sacred and the common.
Another case of trivializing that which is holy can be seen in the brief reference to Nadab and Abihu offering strange fire on the altar of God (Leviticus 10:1-3). It is impossible to say whether the two sons of Aaron, the high priest, erred in the manner in which they lighted their fire-pans, the timing, or in the place of the offering. The connection with strong drink and the possibility of intoxication cannot be ruled out, given the proximity and discussion of that matter in the same context (Leviticus 10:8-11). If that was the problem, then the drink may have impeded the sons’ ability to think and to act responsibly in a task that called for the highest degree of alertness, caution and sensitivity.
The offense, however, was no trivial matter. Nor was it accidental. There was some reversal of everything that had been taught, and what had been intended to be most holy and sacred was suddenly trivialized so as to make it common, trite and secular. Exodus 30:9 had warned that there was to be no “other incense” offered on the altar to the Lord. From the phrase at the end of Leviticus 10:1, “which he did not command them” (literal translation), what was done was a clear violation of God’s command.
As a result fire comes from the presence of the Lord and consumed Nadab and Abihu. Again, the fact that they are ministers of God makes them doubly accountable and responsible. Moses then used this as an occasion to teach a powerful lesson on the holiness and worship of God (Leviticus 10:3). — Hard Sayings of the Bible.