David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. David was angry because the Lord had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah; so that place is called Perez-uzzah, to this day. David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” So David was unwilling to take the ark of the Lord into his care in the city of David; instead David took it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months; and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.
It was told King David, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart. They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.
David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord. I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.” And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.
– 2 Samuel 6:1-23
They made their way through the countryside, man and beast – soldiers, priests, oxen, musicians, and at the head of it all, the new King David himself; the king, the commander, the parade coordinator and promoter. It was an impressive mass of movement as they all carried out David’s command to bring the Ark of the Covenant out of the relative backwater it had been stored in and out to a new home in Jerusalem, the city that David had captured from its original owners and had decided to make the capital of his kingdom. You can imagine the heat of this particular day, the praying and chanting of the priests blending together with the blare of the musicians and David’s half-naked dancing at the head of the column. You can imagine the soldiers way at the back of it all, so far back they couldn’t even see the front, they couldn’t hear anything, all they got was the cloud of everyone else’s dust and the oxen road-apples, and they wondered why they all got called up to do this moving job when a half dozen people could have done it without breaking a sweat. Of course, it was a lot more than just a moving job. It was a classic melding together of religious and political theater, intentionally planned to send the message that the old King Saul was dead – the old order was gone, there was a new king in town, and he was ordained as leader by God and man alike.
At some point, in the middle of all the flailing fury, the ox cart holding the Ark hits a rock, or a rut, and despite David’s political and military genius, he’d apparently forgotten to bring along any tie-downs or bungee cords, and now the Ark – this great symbol of God’s power and might, with the winged cherubim on top whose wings gracefully stretched inward, wingtip-to-wingtip, cradle-like, to form a seat, the very earthly throne of YHWH, God Almighty – was about to bounce off the cart and crash to the ground, becoming the ancient equivalent of that mangled, forlorn-looking pile of what used to be a wing chair sitting along the edge of the highway median after it had fallen out of the pickup truck.
But there, walking right alongside of the Ark, was Uzzah – one of the family of priests who had been taking care of the Ark. When he saw what was about to happen, he acted instinctively, reaching out to steady the Ark. And in return for his efforts, in an early scriptural illustration that no good deed goes unpunished, the storyteller tells us that God immediately struck Uzzah dead for having touched the Ark – to which David, along with all the rest of us, wonder what God was thinking. David gets angry at God for bringing down the whole mood of the parade, and he immediately names the place “Perez-uzzah.” In Hebrew, Perez means bursting forth or breaching; so David names the place either in recognition of God’s anger bursting forth at this place; or in recognition of Uzzah’s own bursting forth all over the place when God smote him, in which case, well, ick.
But anyway, after David’s anger subsides, he becomes afraid of the immense power of God that the Ark apparently brings with it, so he changes plans and leaves it with the first poor dirt farmer they can find right there along the road, a guy named Obed-Edom, and then he sends everyone home in the wake of God’s big Uzzkill to all of the partying. David figures that if God’s going to keep behaving badly, it’s going to hurt the little people and not him. For his part, Obed-Edom must have known the circumstances of why the King was foisting this apparently lethal white elephant onto him but he didn’t really have any say in the matter, since David was a king and he wasn’t.
But of course, as we heard God doesn’t behave badly. Because of the presence of the Ark, Obed-Edom’s fortunes reverse. His family grows, his fields overflow, his livestock flourish. He becomes very prosperous. And in an early scriptural illustration that the government giveth and the government taketh away, when David sees how the Ark has basically become the goose that laid the golden egg, he decides that maybe it really does belong with him in Jerusalem, after all. So before Obed-Edom can even say what the heck, David had called the parade back together again and had the Ark carted away, leaving us to only hope that Obed-Edom had been socking something away into his 401k.
Finally, after all that delay, David and the throng enter Jerusalem with all the pomp and circumstance intended to begin with, the soldiers still marching and the priests still praying and the musicians still playing and David still dancing, apparently flashing half of Jerusalem in the process – all to the disgust of David’s wife, Michal, who’s watching this whole thing from her window. She’s the daughter of the recently killed King Saul, who grew up with all the privilege of royalty and who’s now disgusted by what she sees as her husband’s lack of decorum and dignity, cheapening the throne by mixing it up out in the street in his underwear with the commoners.
I guess we can look at this whole story as maybe interesting, or scary, or humorous, but in the end, say “So what? Is there anything here that speaks to me, where I am in my life?”
Well, maybe on one level you can see something of yourself in Uzzah, who’d just tried to do the right thing but everything still went horribly wrong. Or maybe you can see something of yourself in Obed-Edom, who was continually victimized by the institutional power structures of his day in both bad times and good. Or maybe you can see something of yourself in Michal, who was filled with anxiety over the loss she was experiencing, not just her father but also all the social order and givens she’d grown up with that all seemed to be challenged by the challenging landscape she found herself in.
If you can identify with any of them, it may be helpful to realize that you aren’t alone, that others have faced what you’re going through, but this story doesn’t have any good word, any good news, just by way of that commonality. So where might we find something, anything, that’s some grace – some gospel – for us?
I think there is some good news, and it’s in the story of David himself, but you have to look at the arc of his whole life and not just this one chapter to find it. Looking at his whole story, we know that David was sincerely committed to serving God. His dedication was real, without question; that shows up time and again. Even here, in this story, his exuberance in bringing the Ark out of obscurity and restoring it to a place of honor, was real. He was doing it for God.
But he was also doing it for himself. As devoted as he was to God, throughout his life David showed that he had great skill in choreographing events to serve his own self-interest. This story was no exception – even in the midst of his religious fervor, he staged the procession in a way that bolstered his own claim to the throne. He was as adept as any modern-day politician at exploiting and manipulating religion for his own political gain.
Just in this story, we see David angry at God, afraid of God, willing to victimize others by putting them at risk to protect his own skin, and speaking rudely and thoughtlessly to his wife, not recognizing the real grief and anxiety she was obviously going through in this stressful time for her.
Through all of this, we can see that David is a very mixed bag – a person with the noblest of ideals and the most common of flaws; someone who simultaneously has the potential to be devout or despicable, obedient or oblivious. In other words, pretty much just like us. I suspect that all of us can identify with being that kind of person. So maybe the good news in this story for us is that God never gave up on David, this most human hero of all – and make no mistake, David’s missteps were far worse than most of our own. Yes, David paid consequences when he messed things up, but through it all, God continued to care for him, and bless him, and pull his ashes out of the fire time and again. The story of David is the story of God’s grace – that love and mercy that God pours over us out of love for us. The good news for us is that whoever we might identify with of all of the characters in this story, all of these people whose lives have intersected and bumped into one another all because of the near-crash of that ox cart, whatever our own situation, there’s no depth we can find ourselves in that God won’t still reach down and pull us out of. I admit, you have to dig pretty deep to find good news in this particular story. But there it is, and it is very good news, so I’ll take it.
Thanks be to God.