I. “How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?”
David, now King over all Israel in 2 Samuel 6, asks a poignant question, “How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?” (6:9) “How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?”
The ark of the covenant was the adorned chest in the tabernacle that symbolized the presence of God. It went with and settled among God’s people wherever they wandered. It contained the two tablets with the 10 commandments, a jar of manna—representing God’s provision in the wilderness, and Aaron’s rod—a sign of the authority and sovereignty of God to make for himself a people of his own.
There’s a weightiness in David’s question: “How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?” There’s a sincerity to it, a desire in David’s heart to truly commune with God. But there’s also fear and frustration. The verse before says, “Then David was angry because the LORD’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah…” (6:8).
II. A God of David’s Own Choosing?
We’re still in the part of 2 Samuel that narrates David’s rise to power, and his initial establishment of his kingdom. Most outlines of 2 Samuel have this chapter in the “successes” part of the David story. His moral failings and infidelity–to God and others–really start with the Bathsheba account.
There’s some truth to that. But already here, while David is still setting up shop as King, the complexity of his spiritual life begins to emerge. Sometimes he is inspiringly faithful, sometimes he’s not-so-faithful. No wonder so many have so deeply resonated with this historical character.
A. Faithful David
Let’s trace a portion of this narrative account to look at both David’s faithfulness to God, as well as ways in which he was already “prone to wander, prone to leave the God [he loved]”… just like we are. Let’s look first at the faithfulness of David.
1. David Practiced God’s Presence (5:10)
First, we saw last week that the key to David’s ability to lead, even before he was King, was his practice of the presence of God. 2 Samuel 5:10 says, “And he became more and more powerful, because the LORD God Almighty was with him.” David was rooted and grounded in the presence of God. Out of the assurance that God was with him, David led faithfully.
2. David Attributed His Success to God (5:12, 20)
Second, David attributed his success to God. 2 Samuel 5:12 says, “And David knew that the LORD had established him as king over Israel and had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel.” David knew that “every good and perfect gift comes from above,” as the New Testament says. And in verse 20, David says it is the LORD who has defeated his enemies.
He did not take credit for his own military success, or leadership effectiveness. He knew that it was God’s doing.
3. David “Inquired of the LORD” (5:19, 23)
A third way we see David’s faithfulness so far is in 2 Sam 5:19, 23. Both of these verses, before David makes a major decision, have the phrase, “[S]o David inquired of the LORD.” “[S]o David inquired of the LORD.”
Having sought the presence of God, having affirmed that his success was from God, he continued to regularly inquire of the LORD. And it doesn’t stretch the imagination too much to assume there are even other decisions and situations not described here where David inquired of the LORD some more.
4. David Got Rid of Philistine Idols (5:21)
Here is another sign of David’s obedience to God: chapter 5, verse 21 says, “The Philistines abandoned their idols there, and David and his men carried them off.” We have trouble with some of the militarism of the Old Testament, but perhaps it helps, at least a little, to realize that this was as much as anything, a sort of war of gods… a contest as to which god is really able to save a people.
Some of God’s people get in trouble in other passages for defeating an enemy, but then failing to destroy their idols. David does right here, and carries them off… completely removes them from the scene to physically show—there is no God but Yahweh. God is the best god out of all the gods, or, so-called gods. David removed the idols that others set up against the LORD God Almighty.
5. David Did What God Commanded (5:25)
And then, check out verse 25 of chapter 5: “So David did as the LORD commanded him, and he struck down the Philistines all the way from Gibeon to Gezer.” Again—we struggle with this “struck down” language, especially when we consider the value of every human life. But the Philistines are cast here as an oppressive people who want nothing more than to destroy a chosen people, worshiping gods who cannot save and who bring not life but death. David “did as the LORD commanded him” and went up against even Israel’s terrifying oppressors.
6. Praises Wholeheartedly; Leads Others in Same (6:5)
Finally, coming to our reading today, chapter 6, we see a portrait of a David as Spirit-filled worship leader. 2 Samuel 6:5 reads, ”David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums [a kind of hand-held shaker] and cymbals.”
Israel celebrates the defeat of their oppressors, and especially rejoices in the presence of God, moving alongside them, symbolized by the ark of the covenant. They went all out in praising God.
B. Not-So-Faithful David
But a picture of a not-so-faithful David also starts to come into view in chapters 5 and 6.
1. David “Took” More Women (5:13)
2 Samuel 5:13 says, “After he left Hebron, David took more concubines and wives in Jerusalem, and more sons and daughters were born to him.”
Deuteronomy had already said rulers were not to multiply wives for themselves. And we know that David would eventually kill a man to cover up his adultery with the man’s wife, later on. This would lead to severe consequences for him and his family, and would prove a major breach of his relationship with God. One of David’s moral flaws is already visible.
2. David Did Not (Always) “Inquire of the LORD” (6:1)
Second, and you can see this in your outline, too: David did not always inquire of the LORD. You remember that in 2 Samuel 5:19 and 23, it said, “so David inquired of the LORD.”
As this new chapter, chapter 6 begins, the attentive listener or reader may notice that that little formula (“so David inquired of the LORD”) is not here. Like in those two instances, here David was gathering people for a major task—this time the moving of the ark. This time, however, he does not inquire of the LORD, at least as far as we can tell.
3. David Put the Ark on A New Cart (6:3-4)
A third instance of David’s being not-so-faithful comes in chapter 6, verses 3 and 4. Look at those verses:
They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it.
What could be better than a sweet new ride for the sacred ark of the covenant? Well… a better question is: did the ark of God, the ark of the covenant need a new cart? No. It didn’t.
It had been in the house of Abinadab, after it had zapped some other irreverent Philistines who didn’t take it seriously. David didn’t inquire of the LORD before bringing the ark to Jerusalem, but moving the ark to Jerusalem itself seems to be okay. He’s bringing it to the city from which he will rule, as if to show that it is really God who is king.
However…the ark had rings and places for horizontal-running poles that were to be used to carry it. David, for whatever reason, is ignoring that instruction.
Had it been carried by its poles and not balanced on a cart, Uzzah probably wouldn’t have needed to reach for it, because it would have been more stable and likely wouldn’t have fallen in the first place. (HT: this commentary)
Not only that, but Uzzah does not appear to have been a Levite. He was not from the clan that God had commanded to be the ones to oversee the ark. So he was the wrong guy, carrying the ark the wrong way, and then he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Maybe his intentions were good, but so holy is this ark, says God, which symbolizes my presence, that you are not supposed to even touch it. Uzzah’s demise all begins with David’s carelessness in overseeing the transportation of the ark in the first place. David and company were not taking God totally seriously.
As king, as spiritual leader of Israel, David is in an ultimate sense responsible for this whole debacle.
4. Wants the Ark (Presence) Only for its Blessing? (6:10-11)
This event leads to the fourth and probably the biggest way in which we see David as a deeply flawed hero. Look at verses 10 and 11:
He was not willing to take the ark of the LORD to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. The ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite for three months, and the LORD blessed him and his entire household.
David now does not want anything to do with the ark, because he is afraid, but also because he is angry at God. He’s angry that Uzzah is struck down, but I wonder, too, if he’s angry that he got called out for trying to control God. One commentator says, “The ark would become central to Israel’s worship, but David needed to learn that it was not his to control.” He’s learned this lesson, but he’s learned it the hard way, so he sends the ark away.
Once it blesses the house to which it was banished, David wants it back after all!
III. A Fundamental Choice: Welcoming God’s Presence on God’s Own Terms
David, I think, realizes the folly of his ways. Now he dances in a priest’s robe, worshiping God with all his might. And verse 13 tells us that just six steps in to their Take 2 of moving the ark, they offer sacrifices to God. Now David seems to realize the utter care with which he must transport the sacred ark of the covenant, that symbol of God’s history and presence with Israel… a sign of God’s love and provision, but also his holiness that no human could ever attain to.
As I sit with this text and work with it and try to let it work on me, I keep hearing David’s haunting question in chapter 6, verse 9: “How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?”
And I ask, “How can the presence of the LORD ever come to me?”
The answer, or at least the answer that this passage gives, is: on its own terms. God comes to us as God comes to us, not how we wish God would come to us. God comes to us when God comes to us, now when we wish God would come to us. God comes to us, fully under his own control, not in manifestations that we can control or completely delineate, or fully understand. God will not be confined by the parameters we seek to impose.
Like David, we have a fundamental choice to make—it’s a choice which arrives many times a day, actually: will we welcome God’s presence on God’s own terms? Can the ark of the LORD, the presence of God, ever come to us? Will we welcome God’s presence when it appears as a challenge, as a rebuke, as a perplexing state of affairs over which God is somehow supposed to be superintending? Or, will we receive God when he shows mercy to the ones we wish would suffer the fate of Uzzah?
Tim Keller, a Gordon-Conwell grad and pastor in New York, says, “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.”
It is precisely David’s initial comfort with accepting God on David’s terms that will lead to even more trouble. And who of us cannot point to a time when we had God wrong, or realized that—either intentionally or not—we were worshiping an idealized version of ourselves? Or following just a God of our own understanding or, worse, a God of our own choosing?
Yet even after David fouls this up, chapter 7, which we’ll read next week—is one of the most beautiful and important scenes in all of Scripture. God reiterates his covenant with David and promises him a throne that will last forever–being fulfilled at last in the Kingship of Jesus.
While it is gravely important that we seek through the power of the Holy Spirit to be faithful to God—while that is a most serious undertaking, we do not, we have not, we cannot, and we will not consistently get it right. We connect so well with David not because of his military exploits or womanizing or deceitful and murderous impulse (did I miss anything?), but we connect with him because we see in him a heart like ours… a heart which at its core may be very much trained on God, but is so “prone to wander,” prone to walk off, “prone to leave the God [we] love” that we sometimes wonder if we will ever be able to find our way back to him.
Good thing being at peace with God does not depend on our choosing God always, but on God’s having chosen us. Our salvation, the letter to Titus proclaims, is “not because of righteous things we had done, but because of [God our Savior’s] mercy.”
So even when we spend more time on the not-so-faithful side of the spectrum, it is not our actions or consistency in faithfulness that actually redeems us. It is God who chooses, God who saves, and God who has mercy. On that basis we are called his own dearly-loved children, just as God would promise to be like a father to David and his family for all time.
“How can the presence [of God] ever come to us?” Only on God’s own terms, terms which include holiness and a call to lifelong obedience… and terms which also include great mercy and never-ending love, and a relentless drive to continue to pursue us. God will yet make his home among us as sovereign LORD and King.
May God give us strength, courage, faithfulness, and the openness we need to welcome God’s own presence exactly as it comes to us.
The above is adapted from the sermon I preached today at church.