I have an atheist friend who hates the Bible because of the Old Testament: the violent wars, people struck dead, and idea of a fearful God. He doesn’t really understand those stories from a Christian perspective. If he did, he’d probably hate the Bible even more. Like the time Uzzah gives God a helping hand, and God kills him for it.
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The Ark of the Covenant had been the center of Israel’s worship since the Exodus, but after a few hundred years it was lost to the Philistines in a war. For seven months, the Philistines experienced plagues and panic, so they sent the Ark back to Israel where it languished in a backwater village not far inland from the border.
Sixty years later, David is crowned king and he decides to bring the Ark to his new capital, the recently captured Jerusalem. He arranges an elaborate celebration, displays the Ark on a cart to be seen by all, and orchestrates a parade of thousands to escort the Ark to its new home.
On the way to Jerusalem, the oxen pulling the cart stumble, and Uzzah—one of the cart’s drivers—puts out his hand to steady the Ark, and:
The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the Ark of God. (2 Sam. 6:7)
Uzzah tries to help God and he is annihilated. It’s stories like this that we all hate.
They All Did Everything Wrong
When God gave commandments for building the Tabernacle, He also gave precise directions for transporting the Ark. David and his merry band broke every single rule:
- The Ark was to be covered, not left open on display.
- The Ark was to be carried on poles, not put on a cart.
- The Ark was not to be touched, but people handled it to place it on the cart.
- The entire transportation was to be managed by Levites, which Uzzah wasn’t.
It’s easy to think Uzzah was punished because God blesses good people who obey, and he smites the bad people who disobey. But here, everybody screwed up, from the Levites who should have known better, to the people who man-handled the Ark onto the oxcart, to the celebrants who gaped at the Ark, to King David who orchestrated the entire fiasco.
Why didn’t they all drop dead? Why pick on poor Uzzah? After all, he was helping God not fighting Him: Uzzah was just trying to keep the Ark from the defilement of falling in the dirt.
We Think We Know What God Needs
Uzzah’s problem was not primarily breaking God’s rules (though I don’t recommend it), it was his brazen self-assurance, his shameless confidence in himself. He thought, “I’m a good person; I believe in God; I believe in the Bible. And I know exactly what God needs.”
How do we know Uzzah’s mindset? Look at his immediate impulse: he instinctively grabs hold of the Ark because he unconsciously believes the dirt of the soil will defile the Ark far more than the dirt of his own soul. It was a habit of his heart. So Uzzah gives God that helpful nudge.
We all think we know exactly what God needs to do. Instead of admitting our failings, we simply take charge:
- When Abraham and Sarah try to help God, they birth Ishmael whose descendants war with the Israelites for millennia.
- Moses tries to help God by killing an Egyptian, and he is put out to pasture for forty years.
- Paul thought he was helping God by killing Christians, and God has to tell him, “You are persecuting Me!”
I have seen disaster after disaster by well-meaning believers who “know” how to help God: from parents controlling kids, husbands and wives controlling each other, and pastors and elder boards controlling congregations. We think we know what needs to happen and that God is going to get it wrong unless we step in and manage it for Him.
We forget that “Unless the Lord builds the house, the laborers work in vain.” It is His work that is at stake, not ours. That’s why Isaiah is praised for his modest lack of self-assurance. He receives his commission only after he laments, “Woe to me, for I am a man of unclean lips.” Hardly an endorsement for a prophet.
The reason we hate these stories is we are afraid to give up control to God. And it’s killing us.
Wow! I am speechless! I have no comment this time, but countless thoughts running through my head..
My articles are always the result of struggling with some issue, a kind of wresting about spirituality in the presence of God.
And this one has been on my heart for months and months, both because I see it so much in others, and (alas) because I see it so much in me.
I really do believe God invites us up to serve with Him; He delights when we serve with Him. But too often we think it all depends on us, rather than (like a child) looking with an eager expectation to see what He will do.
May God save us from ourselves!
I’ll just echo what Chris said. Omg.
The problem is for me, how do I know when God wants me to step up or back off. How to trust that “he’s” got this. I need tangible signs, visual images. And yes I need help with my faith.
I think there are two kinds of Christians (and maybe two kinds of people): those to take charge and act, and those who sit back and wait for others to act.
I think God wants us to be a third kind of person: someone who has His heart, and sees the sufferings of the world, and so we have to make plans and act. But He calls us not to trust our own plans and not to trust our actions. To “do” but put our trust in Him.
Like the Psalm: “Some trust in horses and chariots, but we trust in the Lord.” God doesn’t ask us to go into battle with no horses and chariots, but he does ask us not to trust those horses and chariots.
I think I know (in my heart) when I am white-knuckling something I am doing, and it is those times I am trying to control God; it’s like I’m trying to force what I think is best. I sense my own inner forcefulness (well, at least some of the time).
God calls us to walk on the water, but to look to Him.
Was Uzzah’s action placing the last straw on God’s patience? I think you are saying we should see it as a demonstration of God’s forbearance instead of an unfair punishment. We are all going to die if Jesus tarries. That’s somewhat unjust, since only bad people should get the death penalty, right? We must remember that God will ultimately sort everything out in such a way that we will be amazed at His mercy and justness. He won’t have to explain anything.
Your last line sums it up perfectly:
And when we know that truth in our hearts, we can work with earnestness while (at the same time) remembering our ideas and plans just might be wrong … so we set our trust in Him who (as you said) will “sort everything out in such a way that we will be amazed at His mercy and justice.”
Michael Knower, MD
Well done, Sam. Something I have done, and cautioned folks against doing, multiple times. Your point on pastors and elders is especially well taken. Pray for those of us called to shepherd the flock of God.
Amen, let’s pray for those shepherds of the flock.
And put our trust in the One True Shepherd and in no earthly person.
“We all think we know exactly what God needs to do. Instead of admitting our failings, we simply take charge”
That was a fantastic insight… so true. Really made me think about myself and my attitudes.
I continue to be convinced that one of our greatest sins is wresting control from God. Which is really just a form of mistrusting Him, like when the Israelites grumble against God, saying He brought them to the desert to die.
In reading a comment from one of my Russian Orthodox friends (on Facebook), I learned that one requirement for becoming a priest is an initial attempt to avoid doing so — kind of like Isaiah’s reaction to God’s call. I doubt that Orthodox priests are any more perfect than the rest of us, but I think that initial attitude can put such a person on a path that makes them more useful to God than if they’d come to it from some other direction.
I love that idea that a requirement is the humble attitude of trying not to accept the role.
May we all be given the gift of humility.
Reminds me of a verse I memorized in Sunday school:
MY understanding is messed up, sinful, incomplete, selfish, etc etc… But if I lean on His understanding, then He will direct my paths.
You’re right, it’s such a humility thing. God doesn’t need helpers – He needs servants. That feels humiliating to think about, but because we lower ourselves to the status of slaves, He can lift us up to become His sons and daughters.
I am seeing so many Christians around me, especially in leadership, who are “helping God” by waging war against their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and it’s ripping the church apart. A tragic story, that replays itself over and over…
I was literally thinking of that identical verse when I first wrote this article. I even quoted it near the end of the article (but later removed it for length).
When I read “in all your ways acknowledge Him,” I also interpret it to mean, “Give all my ways to Him.” Meaning, I can make a plan about something (after prayer and seeking wisdom), and I can even think it is a GREAT plan, but then I look to Him “to direct my paths” … very often into ways I never imagined.
He’s in Control……. amen&amen
I had always wondering about this story, and felt bad for Uzzah. I am so glad that your devotional explained it. Here’s another one I wonder about that may be an article, if you felt so inclined. King David–he is called a man after God’s own heart, and maybe I am the only one who thinks this, but he seems pretty awful to me. I know he’s a darling of the Bible and most people highly regard him.
I love that your notice David’s life without the fairy-tale lens of sentimental Christianity. I especially love your questioning observation about David as a “man after God’s own heart” when David is obviously self-centered, unfaithful, boastful, and a murderer. I think too many Christians don’t think deeply about his life, and therefore their spiritual life is impaired.
There are lots of answers to why God could say this about him. I think the main reason is that God is really referring to the “True” David, which is Jesus. The original David was sort of a bad copy of the true David Jesus who really was exactly a man after God’s own heart.
But I also wrote an article ten years ago that references this idea that God sometimes calls his saints by better names than they deserve. Here is a link to that article, if you are curious: https://beliefsoftheheart.com/2012/04/10/how-does-god-view-us/