The Ark of the Covenant – Exodus 25-27

Read Exodus 25-27

In today’s reading, we are introduced to the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:10-22). The word “ark” in Hebrew simply means chest. The Ark was a wooden box overlaid with gold. It was approximately 4 feet long, 2.5 feet high, and 2.5 feet wide. On the top of the Ark was a slab of pure gold called the Mercy Seat. There were two golden angels facing one another over the Mercy Seat.

The Ark of the Covenant was the central piece of furniture in the Tabernacle. It was placed in the back of the Tabernacle in the Holy of Holies. Only the Levites, a group from within Israel, could carry the Ark. It was the only piece of furniture in this room. It was over this Ark that the very presence of God appeared. The Ark represented the very presence of God (Exodus 25:22), thus a reminder we can know and experience God Himself.

If we follow the Ark of the Covenant through the pages of the Bible, we learn some important lessons for our worship of God.

Israel’s enemies, the Philistines, eventually captured the Ark at a time when Israel had no king (see 1 Samuel 5). The Philistines mockingly said to themselves, “This ‘God of Israel…’ He’s not so tough. We’ve captured His Ark!” The story that ensues would be amusing if it were not true. Every time the Philistines placed the Ark inside their temple, the Ark destroyed their god. Every morning when they woke up, their god, Dagon, was flat down on his face before the Ark. And even when they removed the Ark from their temple to place it in their town, tumors broke out upon the people (1 Samuel 5:9). So, the Philistines got rid of the Ark and sent it back to Israel.

Back in Israel, the Ark first came to rest in the small town of Beth-shemesh inside Israel. Curiosity overtook seventy men who decided to look inside the Ark and as a result, they died (1 Samuel 6:19). Messengers were soon sent to the town of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “Come, take this thing away from us.” So they returned the Ark but it only came to a fairly remote place in Israel, Kiriath-jearim (1 Samuel 7:2).

Twenty years go by and King David desires to bring the Ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). During this time, David had brought the Tabernacle to Jerusalem, and now wanted to bring the central piece of furniture there as well. David gathered thirty thousand men to bring the Ark to the Tabernacle in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:1). They placed the Ark on an ox-cart and Uzzah walked along side the ox-cart. Soon, one the oxen stumbled and the Ark was about to fall. It was then that Uzzah placed his hand out to steady the Ark from falling to hit the dirt. And it was right there that Uzzah was struck down dead for touching the Ark (2 Samuel 6:7).

Imagine the scene as thousands of people dancing and singing and Uzzah drops dead. The entire scene goes silent. Everyone went home and the Ark was left right there at the home of Obed-edom, a foreigner (2 Samuel 6:10-11). It remained there for three months.

What do we learn from the Bible’s story of the Ark? The story of the Ark is running commentary on your worship practices.

  1. God is Very Big. People thought they could manipulate God by taking the Ark to the battle. Once the ark was near the battle, they thought God was obligated to give them victory. God cannot be manipulated by a holy relic. Nor will He be manipulated through the use of a rabbit’s foot or a four-leaf clover.
  2. God is Infinitely Holy. Why did Uzzah die? God gave rules for the transportation of the Ark in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. What were those rules?

1) The Ark had to be covered. People were not to look upon it.

2) It was to be carried. There were golden rings on the sides of the Ark for poles, allowing four men to carry it.

3) The Ark had to be carried by Levites consecrated by God for this work.

4) The Ark was not to be touched.

Uzzah thought the dirt of the ground would defile the Ark more than he would. He thought the soil was dirty but he was not. Uzzah’s instincts assumed that his hand was holy enough to touch the Ark.

Again, why did Uzzah die? Every one of the instructions given by God were disregarded. Uzzah was not a Levite. The ark was not carried by Levites, instead it was placed on a cart. And Uzzah touched it. The rules for were broken.

No one can come before the holy presence of God without grace.

Prickly Passages: Why Did God Kill Uzzah?

Programming Note: This is the first in series on problem passages in the Bible. Frequently, pastors receive thoughtful questions from those who are interested to know more about God and His book, the Bible. Prickly Passages will be devoted to Scripture texts that have caused good people to scratch their heads in perplexed wonder. Check back here from time to time as I’ll prayerfully respond to some of the best questions I’ve received.

Tucked away in the middle of the Old Testament is a story that has caused many to think God is unfair. It’s the story where God takes the life of man named Uzzah (2 Samuel 6). We know very little about Uzzah as he makes but a cameo appearance in a story that is more about King David of Israel than it is Uzzah. Here’s a synopsis: David had assigned Uzzah and his brother, Ahio, the task of moving the Ark of the Covenant along with a host of others. As the Ark is being moved on the back of an ox cart the oxen stumbles. Uzzah puts out his hand to prevent the Ark from falling to the ground where the Bible records these words: “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark, and he died there before God.” (1 Chronicles 13:10). You can read the entire story in both 2 Samuel 6 and 2 Chronicles 13.

People are perplexed when they read these words. Maybe you’ve wondered what God was doing when you read this story. A friend recently commented, “My first reaction in reading about Uzzah was – why would God do this? After all, Uzzah was just to keep the ark from falling.” So, why did God kill Uzzah?

The Ark of the Covenant

Most of us are more familiar with Ark from the Indiana Jones movie series, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yet, the Ark is more than the stuff of Hollywood legends. The Bible gives us a rich history and meaning to the Ark of the Covenant. The word “ark” in Hebrew simply means chest. And the Ark was a wooden box overlaid with gold. It was over four feet long and approximately 2.5 feet high and 2.5 feet wide. On the top of the Ark was a slab of pure gold called the Mercy Seat. Above the slab of gold were two golden angels facing one another over this Mercy Seat. The Ark of the Covenant was the central piece of furniture in the Tabernacle. It was placed in the back of the Tabernacle in what was known as the Holy of Holies. Only the Levites, the group from within Israel, could carry the Ark. It was the only piece of furniture in this room. Amazingly, God appeared over this Ark as this chest signified the very presence of God Himself.

The Background to Uzzah’s Story

Again, the Ark represented the experience of God – it was the visible throne of God on earth. We sense the significance of the Ark and of God’s presence when read of how the Philistines captured it during the time when Israel had no king. Soon, the Philistines brought the Ark back to Israel because every morning when they woke up, their god Dagon was flat down on his face before the Ark. They set their god back up, only to find their god back on his face before the Ark, only with his hands and head cut off.

It had been twenty years since the Philistines returned the Ark where it came to rest in a small town within Israel, named Beth-shemesh. It’s in this small town where seventy men decided to look inside the Ark. Curiosity overtook them and the Bible says that these seventy men died by the hand of God that day. Because the seventy died, they sent messengers to the nearby town of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “Come, get this thing because it scares us.” So they returned the Ark but it only made it as far as the fairly remote place of Kiriath-jearim, a small town within Israel.

King David becomes the leader of Israel in time and he had a desire to place the Ark inside the Tabernacle. He wanted God to be central and in His rightful place again. King David gathered thirty thousand men to bring the Ark to the Tabernacle in Jerusalem along with brothers, Uzzah and Ahio. They placed the Ark on an ox-cart, those of you who have been to places in Asia can picture this scene easily. Uzzah walked along side the ox-cart when the oxen stumbled and the Ark was set to fall. It was right then that Uzzah placed his hand out to steady the Ark from falling to the ground. And it was right there that Uzzah was struck down dead for touching the Ark. Again, he simply placed his hand on the Ark in order that it would not fall. And he was instantly killed. Imagine the scene as thousands of people dancing and singing and Uzzah drops dead. Everyone and everything goes silent. Uzzah is dead and everyone goes home. And the Ark was left right there at the home of Obed-edom, someone described as a foreigner. The Ark stayed in his home for three months.

Why Did Uzzah Die?

God gave rules for the transportation of the Ark in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. What were those rules?

1. The Ark was to be Covered. People were not to look upon it.

2. The Ark was to be Carried. There were golden rings on the side of the Ark where you would poles through it. Here four men were to carry it. God gave specific directions on how the Ark was to be transported.

3. The Ark was to be Carried by Levites. These men were special and unique because they were consecrated for this work by God.

4. The Ark was not to be Touched.

Why did Uzzah die? Everyone of these rules were disregarded. Uzzah was not a Levite. They were not carrying it but instead David instructed the Ark to be placed on a cart. And lastly, Uzzah touched it. They broke everyone of God’s rules. Uzzah died because he broke the rules. Uzzah thought the dirt of the ground would defile the Ark more than he would. He thought the soil was dirty but he was not. Uzzah’s instincts assumed that his hand was holy enough to touch the Ark.

We must remember: no one can come before the presence of God without radical grace. God is radically unlike anyone or anything else.

I Cannot Believe in a “God” Who Kills 

No doubt someone may say, “I cannot believe in a God who does this to good people like Uzzah. I cannot believe in a God where you break just one rule and you are killed instantly.”

But that’s simply not the case. Look at the story again. There wasn’t just one rule that was broken. Instead, a number of God’s rules were broken. Let me count a few… How did they get the Ark on the cart? Didn’t multiple men touch it when it was placed on the cart? Why were these men not also killed? Why wasn’t David killed who lead the entire parade where each of these four rules were broken? Why was only Uzzah killed? Why didn’t God kill Ahio alongside with Uzzah? He was also guiding the Ark?

Even in God’s anger, He was tremendous mercy. Only one man was killed. God is merciful even when He’s angry.

Series Note: Next in the series of Prickly Passages – What are we to make of the “saints” who were raised on Good Friday (Matthew 27:52-53)?

The Second Command: God Doesn’t Want His Picture Taken

The second commandment begins with these words (Exodus 20:4-6):

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6)

In the first commandment, we see the “what” of worship – worship only God. But the second commandment focuses our attention on the “how” of worship – worship God the right way. The second commandment is explicit; God forbids idols. God is to be invisible to the physical eyes. He is the God who is heard but not seen (Deuteronomy 4:15-18). Even when God gives the Ten Commandments, God did not allow the Hebrew people to see Him. It was Moses who brought the commandments to the people. Again, He is heard but He is not seen.

Worship Not an Image but Around a Book.

God has intentionally designed worship not around a picture of Him but around a book. The Bible repeatedly says that God is not seen by anyone (John 1:18; 1 Timothy 1:17). This is significant for worship today. Only God is allowed to make an image of Himself (Genesis 1:26; Colossians 1:15). Please note: God didn’t say, “There shall be no art in my house.” But He did say, “There shall be no image in my likeness.”

Throughout the Old Testament, the center of Hebrew worship was the Temple. At the center of the Temple was the Holy of Holies; at the center of the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, or “chest” (in Hebrew), was roughly 4 feet long, 2.5 feet high and 2.5 feet wide. The Ark was the only piece of furniture and only the Levites could enter this central room of Israel’s Temple. The Ark was covered in gold and had two golden angels facing one another on the top of the Ark. If you were to open this box in King Solomon’s day, you would see only the two tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai (1 Kings 8:9). Again, it’s important to note: you wouldn’t find a picture at the center of Israel’s worship. Instead, the only thing at the center of Israel’s worship was the Ten Commandments, the law of God. So, God hasn’t given us images to worship, but rather a Book to read. In the New Testament, worship is still centered around a book, the Bible (John 4:23 ). God has divinely chosen to communicate through the written word and not an image (Romans 10:17).

Idols

The second commandment expressly forbids making idols, or pictures of God. Idolatry is not the stuff found only in the pages of a National Geographic magazine or Indiana Jones movies. Instead, idolatry occurs whenever we believe that true satisfaction can be found in anything other than Jesus Christ. Idols are all around us, even in the West. While many Americans are not into Buddha statues surrounded by flowers and incense, everyone of us still has a battle raging within us over what we love most – God or something else.

Why is God interested in forbidding idols?

  • Idols are built for control. We enjoy making things. There is pleasure in building something. But when we make something, we control it. When we build a boat, you have the ability to control where and when the boat sails. When you build a house, you have the ability to say who lives in the house. And when we build an image of God, whether it is wood or on the computer screen, you attempt to control God. You control what you build.
  • Idols are needy. Whenever you see temples filled with idols, you normally see people offering food for the idol. When a person gives a god something it needs, then the god would be obligated to give the worshippers back something return. This is quid pro quo. Few things are as fulfilling as having your god obligated to do something for you. But the God of the Bible doesn’t want food placed at His altar and He doesn’t want to be appeased. God doesn’t need anything from anyone (Acts 17:24-25). Instead, God requires you to live in a pure and holy manner. It’s easier to feed an idol than to live in moral purity. God isn’t needy.
  •  Idols are built for convenience. During the days of the Old Testament, idols were all over the place (Deuteronomy 12:2; 1 Kings 14:23). Unlike idols, God required His people to come together at the Temple at one time and in one place for worship. God required His followers to come to one central location. This was inconvenient. Worship of God required your time and your money. But idols remove all of this. An idol can be worshiped whenever you want and wherever you want. You control what is most convenient.

Seven Questions to Stimulate Worship

Think about your worship in light of God’s instructions in Exodus 20:4-6. As you do, here are some questions to consider:

  1. What do you enjoy the most?
  2. What do you spend the most time doing?
  3. Where does your mind drift when you don’t have to do anything else?
  4. What do you spend your money on?
  5. What makes you angry when you don’t get it?
  6. What causes you depression when you must do without it?
  7. What do you fear losing the most?

Programming Note: This is a blog series on the Ten Commandments. I will post each Tuesday and Friday for the next few weeks. Look here for the series introduction.