Why Was a Man Killed for Touching the Ark of the Covenant? (2 Samuel 6)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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1David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. 3And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart, 4with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark. 5And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. 6And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. 7And 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. 8And David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day.

Military Presence and Pageantry

“David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel” is evocative of a military campaign, like those just described against the Philistines (2 Sam. 5:17–25), and this is probably how David views bringing the ark to Jerusalem (1 Chron. 13:1–4)—but with the surprising difference that he does not inquire of the Lord (2 Sam. 5:19, 23). Whether “thirty thousand” men or thirty military units are involved, a military presence provides the pageantry and security for this major national milestone.

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The phrase “they carried” (lit., “they made to ride”) along with the mention of a “new cart” signals how the first attempt to bring the ark to Jerusalem is flawed from the start. Though intended as a mark of respect, using a new cart is actually the Philistine mode of transporting the ark (1 Sam. 6:7), whereas the Lord had specifically directed the ark to be carried by Kohathites from the tribe of Levi, using poles inserted through rings incorporated into its sides (Ex. 25:13–15; Num. 4:4–6, 15, 17–20).

Three generations earlier, the ark had been left in the “house of Abinadab,” in the custody of Eleazar (1 Sam. 7:1). He has died in the interim, and Uzzah and Ahio, his descendants, are now its custodians. Though “Ahio” may mean “his brother” (ESV mg.), it is probably a personal name (as in 1 Chron. 8:31; 1 Chron. 9:37). The two brothers “were driving the new cart,” not seated on it but walking in front of it and beside it as they guide it.

A Joyful Procession

David and all the Israelites with him “were celebrating before the Lord.” The verb “celebrate” (found also in 2 Sam. 6:21 and in 1 Sam. 18:7, and as “compete” in 2 Sam. 2:14) indicates joyful exuberance, probably involving dancing. “Songs” is provided from the parallel text in 1 Chronicles 13:8 instead of “with all [kinds of] woods of cypresses [or firs].”

Approaching God in worship requires holy reverence derived not from human preferences and notions of the sacred but from the King who sits on the throne.

There is no indication of how far the joyful procession has progressed when it comes to a sudden end at the “threshing floor of Nacon.” The name is given as Chidon in 1 Chronicles 13:9; Nacon may be not a proper name but a term meaning “striking” or “stroke” (from the same root as the verb “struck down” in 2 Sam. 6:7). Here the oxen lose their footing, and in an attempt to prevent damage to the ark, Uzzah stretches out “his hand” (added from 1 Chron. 13:9) and grasps the ark. Although not motivated by irreverence, his action is still sacrilegious, violating the holiness of God. Of course, Uzzah would not have been put in such a position had the ark been transported correctly in the first place.

The Lord’s Anger

What happens next is similar to the outbreak against the men of Beth-shemesh (1 Sam. 6:19). “The anger of the Lord” is not some power inherent in the ark but the personal response of God to the contravention of his requirements. “God struck him down,” that is, killed him, “there,” on the spot where the offense was committed, so that there would be no doubt about the connection between offense and penalty. “Because of his error” involves a somewhat obscure term, but 1 Chronicles 13:10 makes it clear that Uzzah’s error was his unthinking irreverence in touching the ark. Uzzah’s death does not imply anything regarding his eternal destiny.

“David was angry” (lit., “it became hot to David”) employs the same verb as “kindled,” used of the Lord in the previous verse (cf. also 1 Sam. 15:11). The reason for David’s anger is “because the Lord had broken out [lit., “broken a breaking”] against Uzzah.” He perhaps considers it unfair that this has happened to such a man as Uzzah, who had looked after the ark for so long. David also feels keenly his loss of face in that such a grand event to honor the Lord and give prestige to his new capital has turned into a fiasco. But David has forgotten that God is not honored by failure to comply with his commands.

The site of this incident becomes known as Perez-uzzah (“the breaking out against Uzzah”), which incorporates the term used earlier in connection with the Philistines (2 Sam. 5:20), suggesting a connection between the Lord’s opposition and hostility on these two occasions.

God Sits on the Throne

David is animated by a genuine desire to grant God his rightful place, whether in his family life (2 Samuel 6:20) or in the life of the nation. As the ruler of God’s people, he is concerned for their spiritual well-being while acknowledging the Lord’s supremacy over them. The covenant king does not have authority over the conduct of worship, which is divinely committed to the priests, but he does have responsibility to remove all that might impede the people from approaching God while ensuring the priests have the resources needed to carry out their duties. This is at the heart of promoting true prosperity for the people and is now realized by drawing near through “the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us” (Heb. 10:19–20). However, a right goal does not validate the use of improper means to achieve it. Perhaps it was because David did not feel in personal danger that he forgot to consult the Lord as he had done so carefully in military affairs (2 Sam. 5:19, 23), neglecting to ensure that the Lord’s work was implemented in accordance with his known desires. Approaching God in worship requires holy reverence (Ps. 29:2; Isa. 6:2–3), derived not from human preferences and notions of the sacred but from the King who sits on the throne. It is a grave contradiction when worship degenerates into entertaining the worshiper; it must remain focused on the one who is adored. So God provides solemn reminders of the need to avoid impious infractions of the requirement to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28–29).

This article is by John L. Mackay and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: 1 Samuel–2 Chronicles (Volume 3) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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