A God Who Is Near

1 “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you. Your eyes have seen what the Lord did at Baal-peor, for the Lord your God destroyed from among you all the men who followed the Baal of Peor. But you who held fast to the Lord your God are all alive today. See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?– Deuteronomy 4:1-8 ESV

God had just reconfirmed that Moses would not be leading the people of Israel into the land of promise. With his little display of self-aggrandizement in the Wilderness of Zin, Moses had angered God by attempting to steal glory from God. In his anger with the people of Israel, Moses had disobeyed God’s commands and attempted to grandstand before the people, leaving them to believe that it was he who was supplying their need for water. Moses was out to win the respect of the people, when he should have been leading the people to honor, glorify, and revere God.

Yet, in spite of the news that he would not be entering into the promised land along with the rest of the people, Moses didn’t shirk his leadership responsibilities. He continued to perform the task assigned to him by God all those years ago in the land of Midian. While Moses had been caring for his father-in-laws flocks, God had appeared to him in the form of a burning bush, telling him:

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” – Exodus 3:7-10 ESV

God was going to deliver the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt and He was going to use Moses to make it happen. But God’s deliverance of His people would include a deliverance to and not just from something.

“I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.” – Exodus 3:16-17 ESV

Now, more than four decades later, the people had arrived at their final destination: The land of promise. And while Moses would be denied the joy and pleasure of leading them into the land, he was going to make sure that were well-informed as to their obligations to God once the arrived in the land.

God had personally given His laws to Moses on the top of Mount Sinai, and Moses had delivered them to the people of Israel. Those laws remained binding upon the people and were intended to regulate their conduct once they arrived in the promised land. They were not suggestions, but were irrevocable laws that required willful obedience on the part of the people. So, Moses wanted to make sure that the new generation of Israelites, who would be the first to enter the land, would know and obey the commands of God.

“…listen carefully to these decrees and regulations that I am about to teach you. Obey them so that you may live, so you may enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 4:1 NLT

Moses was taking no chances. He was not going to assume that the parents of these people had been affective in passing on the laws and statutes of God. Moses knew that ignorance of God’s laws would be just as deadly as choosing to ignore them. And he also knew that God would not tolerate any alterations or additions to His law.

“Do not add to or subtract from these commands I am giving you. Just obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you.” – Deuteronomy 4:2 NLT

God would not tolerate any deviation from His law. His commands were not up for debate or open to interpretation. And, just to make sure the people understood the gravity of their situation, Moses reminded them of one of the many times when their parents had failed to keep God’s commands. It had happened on the plains of Moab at a place called Shittim. When the people of Israel entered the Moabite territory, Balak, the king of Moab, had attempted to hire a local diviner named Balaam to place a curse on them. But when Balaam discovered that God would not allow him to place a curse on the people of Israel, he came up with an alternative plan. He instructed the king to have the women of Moab seduce the men of Israel. And the book of Numbers tells us exactly what happened.

…some of the men defiled themselves by having sexual relations with local Moabite women. These women invited them to attend sacrifices to their gods, so the Israelites feasted with them and worshiped the gods of Moab. In this way, Israel joined in the worship of Baal of Peor, causing the LORD’s anger to blaze against his people. – Numbers 25:1-3 NLT

This was far more than a display of immorality that angered the Victorian sensibilities of God. It was a blatant violation of His law.

“You must worship no other gods, for the LORD, whose very name is Jealous, is a God who is jealous about his relationship with you. You must not make a treaty of any kind with the people living in the land. They lust after their gods, offering sacrifices to them. They will invite you to join them in their sacrificial meals, and you will go with them. Then you will accept their daughters, who sacrifice to other gods, as wives for your sons. And they will seduce your sons to commit adultery against me by worshiping other gods.” – Exodus 34:14-16 NLT

And yet, that’s exactly what the people of Israel had done at Shittim. And Moses reminded the people what God had done in response to their disobedience to His commands.

“You saw for yourself what the Lord did to you at Baal-peor. There the Lord your God destroyed everyone who had worshiped Baal, the god of Peor. – Deuteronomy 4:3 NLT

Those same laws still applied and God was not going to allow His people to bend or break them, without suffering the consequences for their disobedience. Moses knew that the abundance and fruitfulness of the land would mean nothing if they people refused to remain faithful to God. The land flowing with milk and honey would become a killing field flowing with blood if the Israelites did not take God’s commands seriously. Partial obedience would not result in partial blessing. It would bring the full wrath of God. Which is why Moses warned them, “Obey them completely, and you will display your wisdom and intelligence among the surrounding nations” (Deuteronomy 4:6 NLT).

God had a secondary purpose behind His laws. They were to guide and direct the lives of His people, providing them with clearly understood parameters for living in submission to His will for them. His laws were meant to protect them. His laws were intended to assure that they enjoyed His blessings and avoided His curses. But they were also meant to provide the nations living within the land with a visual testimony of what it looks like when men live in a right relationship with God Almighty.

The Mosaic Law was intended to display a never-before-seen relationship between a god and man. The pagan religions of the day featured a plethora of gods who were distant and, for the most part, invisible to their worshipers. Except for carved idols, these gods were nowhere to be seen. And the relationship between the worshipers and their chosen deity was a fickle one, with the people never knowing if their god was truly pleased with their behavior.

Yet, the God of Israel, while transcendent and all-powerful, had chosen to insert Himself into the lives of His people, providing them with laws that regulated not only their behavior concerning Him, but with one another. He wanted to influence every facet of their lives, providing them with righteous rules and regulations for every imaginable form of conduct. And as the people of Israel obeyed His laws, they would be displaying their wisdom and intelligence to the nations around them – a wisdom and intelligence that originated from God, not men.

Moses knew that if the Israelites would obey God’s commands, the pagan nations would be amazed at their wisdom.

“How wise and prudent are the people of this great nation!” – Deuteronomy 4:6 NLT

But he wanted the Israelites to remember that it would not be their wisdom that set them apart. It would be their God.

“For what great nation has a god as near to them as the Lord our God is near to us whenever we call on him? And what great nation has decrees and regulations as righteous and fair as this body of instructions that I am giving you today?” – Deuteronomy 4:7-8 NLT

The very presence of God’s law was proof of God’s proximity. He was with them. He was intimately involved in their lives and cared about every detail concerning their conduct and character. Unlike the false gods of the nations living in the land of Canaan, Yahweh was real and His relationship with His people was intended to be all-pervasive and highly personal. He was not a distant, disinterested deity, but a loving, caring God who longed to display His glory in the lives of His chosen people.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

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When I Saw…I Took.

10 The Lord said to Joshua, “Get up! Why have you fallen on your face? 11 Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. 12 Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you. 13 Get up! Consecrate the people and say, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow; for thus says the Lord, God of Israel, “There are devoted things in your midst, O Israel. You cannot stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you.” 14 In the morning therefore you shall be brought near by your tribes. And the tribe that the Lord takes by lot shall come near by clans. And the clan that the Lord takes shall come near by households. And the household that the Lord takes shall come near man by man. 15 And he who is taken with the devoted things shall be burned with fire, he and all that he has, because he has transgressed the covenant of the Lord, and because he has done an outrageous thing in Israel.’”

16 So Joshua rose early in the morning and brought Israel near tribe by tribe, and the tribe of Judah was taken. 17 And he brought near the clans of Judah, and the clan of the Zerahites was taken. And he brought near the clan of the Zerahites man by man, and Zabdi was taken. 18 And he brought near his household man by man, and Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was taken. 19 Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the Lord God of Israel and give praise to him. And tell me now what you have done; do not hide it from me.” 20 And Achan answered Joshua, “Truly I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and this is what I did: 21 when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”

22 So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent; and behold, it was hidden in his tent with the silver underneath. 23 And they took them out of the tent and brought them to Joshua and to all the people of Israel. And they laid them down before the Lord. 24 And Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver and the cloak and the bar of gold, and his sons and daughters and his oxen and donkeys and sheep and his tent and all that he had. And they brought them up to the Valley of Achor. 25 And Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord brings trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones. 26 And they raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his burning anger. Therefore, to this day the name of that place is called the Valley of Achor. Joshua 7:10-26 ESV

There is in this passage the revelation of a personal sin committed by a single individual, but there is also the corporate consequences of that sin. God had forbidden the Israelites from taking any of the items they found in Jericho as spoil.

18 “But you, keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted them you take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel a thing for destruction and bring trouble upon it. 19 But all silver and gold, and every vessel of bronze and iron, are holy to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord.” – Joshua 6:18-19 ESV

All the inhabitants and the livestock were to be destroyed. Nothing and no one was to be spared, except Rahab and her family. And all the gold, silver, and vessels made of bronze or iron were to be placed in the treasury of the Lord, as an offering to Him for His role in delivering the city into their hands.

But someone had disobeyed God’s command. And while the text reveals that it was one man who committed this crime, God held the entire nation of Israel culpable.

Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them…” – vs 11

“…they have taken some of the devoted things…” – vs 11

“…they have stolen and lied…” – vs 11

“Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies.” – vs 12

They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction…” – vs 12

God viewed Israel as a covenant community. And while Achan would be revealed as the guilty party, the entire nation was accountable for his transgression. Until he was eventually exposed and his sin confessed and punished, the Israelites would find themselves unable to stand before their enemies. The victory they enjoyed over Jericho would be their last, because the sin in their midst would deny them access to the presence and power of God. And God gave them an ultimatum.

“I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you.” – vs 12

How did they find themselves in this predicament? What led to this dramatic turn in their fortunes? It was the result of nothing more than what John described as “the desires of the eyes” (1 John 2:16 ESV). It’s that craving that rises up within as a result of something the eyes see. Solomon, the son of David and the king of Israel, had a constant struggle with this temptation.

“…whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them.” – Ecclesiastes 2:10 ESV

And Achan, when his sin became known, eventually confessed, “when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them” (Joshua 7:21 ESV). He saw. He coveted. He took. A simple, yet devastating process that had resulted in the deaths of 36 Israelite soldiers and had brought the anger of God against the entire nation. Achan, driven by his desires, thought he could get away with his sin. He had hidden the items in his tent, hoping that no one would notice, including God. He had not only disobeyed God’s command, He had ended up stealing from God. The items he took were to have been devoted to God and placed in the treasury of the Lord. But Achan had kept them for himself. The book of James describes the internal process that took place in Achan’s heart and led him to do what he had done.

14 But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. 15 Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death. – James 1:14-15 NLT

Achan’s sin had resulted in death – the death’s of the 36 Israelites who had fallen in the battle to take Ai. But there would be more deaths due to his sin. Achan and his entire family were stoned. This was the God-ordained punishment for such a crime. Achan’s real sin was that he had defied the law of God. He had defiantly disobeyed God’s command. And God had given very explicit instructions regarding this kind of behavior.

30 “But those who brazenly violate the Lord’s will, whether native-born Israelites or foreigners, have blasphemed the Lord, and they must be cut off from the community. 31 Since they have treated the Lord’s word with contempt and deliberately disobeyed his command, they must be completely cut off and suffer the punishment for their guilt.” – Numbers 15:30-31 NLT

And immediately after God had given this warning to the Israelites in the wilderness, one of their own was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath, in direct violation of God’s command. And God told Moses exactly what should be done with him.

35 Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must be put to death! The whole community must stone him outside the camp.” 36 So the whole community took the man outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. – Numbers 15:35-36 NLT

We may find God’s solution to the problem as a bit overbearing and heavy-handed but, as human beings, we have a tendency to minimize the impact of sin. We don’t view our decisions to sin as a form of defiance against a holy God. We may not even view our actions as sin at all. But God does and He takes them quite seriously. In the book of Acts, we see a very similar situation. In the early days of the church, as the number of Christians increased, there were those who were selling their possessions and giving the proceeds to the apostles, in order to care for the needs of those who had nothing. When a couple named Ananias and Sapphira brought money to the apostles and claimed that it was the entire profit from the sale of some property they owned, God exposed them as liars. They claimed to be giving all that they had made in the sale, but had actually kept back a portion for themselves. And Peter exposed their sin, saying, “How could you do a thing like this? You weren’t lying to us but to God!” (Acts 5:4 NLT). And as a result of their sin, their lives were taken from them by God.

In the case of Ananias and Sapphira, their deaths had a dramatic impact on those within the church. It was a wake-up call to take sin seriously and to treat God reverently. The same would be true for the people of Israel. The deaths of Achan and his family would have had a dramatic and sobering impact on all those who witnessed them. The temptation to violate the will of God would have been greatly diminished. In this passage we have seen the deadly influence of self-confidence and covetousness. The God-given victory at Jericho had led the Israelites to become over-confident and self-reliant. They thought they could win any battle and defeat any enemy – on their own. But they were wrong. And Achan’s personal struggle with covetousness led to Israel’s corporate defeat at the hands of their enemies. His sin infected the camp. He saw…he took…and the community suffered for it. God takes sin seriously. So should we.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Be Strong and Courageous.

1 After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory. No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:1-9 ESV

What do you do when your mentor and friend has died, the man who led your entire nation out of captivity in Egypt? And what if you’ve been tapped by God to act as his replacement and somehow lead the people of Israel in a Don Quixote-like quest to take over a land inhabited by nations that have no plans of being evicted? Welcome to the world of Joshua.

What we have recorded in the opening verses of this book is a changing of the guard, as the leadership of God’s people, the Israelites, is shifted from Moses to Joshua. Moses, the great emancipator of God’s people, the man who stood face-to-face with Pharaoh and brought the ten plagues on the people of Egypt, has died. Now Joshua is being commissioned by God to assume leadership over the people and to take responsibility for leading them into the land of Canaan. Sounds simple enough. And, initially, God almost makes it seem as if it was going to be a walk in the park.

“…arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them.” – Joshua 1:2 ESV

And God reemphasizes to Joshua that the land is a gift to be received. He is giving it to them.

“Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses.” – Joshua 1:3 ESV

Then God gives Joshua a very clear description of the exact territory He has in mind. He leaves nothing up to the imagination. And then He assures Joshua yet again, “all the land…shall be your territory” (Joshua 1:4 ESV).

But notice what God does next. He bolsters Joshua’s courage. He goes out of His way to assure this obviously reluctant leader that he is up to the task. But not because Joshua is a good leader with all the right credentials and appropriate leadership skills. The key to Joshua’s success would not be based on his abilities, but on the presence and power of God in his life. The assignment being handed to Joshua by God was formidable and, if the truth be known, he was not up to the task. And no one knew that better than God. Which is why He told His newly commissioned leader: “I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5 ESV). Those words had to have been a huge relief to Joshua. He would not be alone. Moses was dead, but the God of Moses was not. Yahweh was alive and well, and ready to walk beside His chosen instrument, every step of the way. And this was not the first time Joshua had heard these words. Moses had told Joshua the very same thing.

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” – Deuteronomy 31:7-8 ESV

But this time, Joshua was hearing these reassuring words directly from the mouth of God Himself. And the assurance of God’s presence and power were to produce in Joshua strength and courage. God commands him to “be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1:6 ESV). In fact, God says it two more times, repeating it again in verses 7 and 9, and adding the addendum, “Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Strength, courage, fearlessness and steadfastness. Those were to be the characteristics that marked Joshua’s life. But notice their source. They are to based on God’s power, not Joshua’s. It was the persistent presence of God that was to produce these qualities in Joshua’s life. He could have strength because his God was strong. He could show courage in the face of opposition, because his God stood before him. He could act fearlessly because his God was with him. And he could remain unshaken by any and all circumstances because his feet stood firmly planted on the rock-solid foundation of God Almighty.

But God added one important caveat that must not be overlooked. Yes, He would be with Joshua and He would be a constant source of strength and security. But Joshua must do his part.

“Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:7 ESV

Not only was Joshua to be courageous, he was to be careful. He was to observe the law given by God to Moses. And that obedience was to apply to all the people under his care. But it began with Joshua. He set the example, providing those under his leadership with a visible and tangible model of willful obedience to the law of God.

“This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” – Joshua 1:8 ESV

God would be with Joshua. His constant presence was a promise. But it was important that Joshua prove that he was with God. Through obedience to the will of God as revealed through the law of God, Joshua would give evidence that He trusted God. God was not commanding Joshua to worship the law. He was not suggesting that obedience to the law would be the key to Joshua’s success as a leader. But Joshua’s relationship with the law would reflect how he thought about God. Jesus Himself said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV). The apostle John wrote, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3 ESV).

The law had been given to Moses by God. It was a gift from God to the people of Israel. In it, God revealed not only His will regarding the manner by which they were to live their lives, but He exposed to them His very character. By meditating on the law of God, Joshua would be discovering the truth about God. And by obeying the law of God, Joshua would be revealing his knowledge of and love for God. Again, the apostle John provides us with insight into the role between our relationship with the law and that of God.

Those who obey God’s commandments remain in fellowship with him, and he with them. – 1 John 3:24 NLT

Joshua could be strong and courageous, not only because God was with him, but because he had the law of God to guide and direct him. By spending time thinking about the law of God, Joshua would come to know the God of the law. He would grow in his knowledge of God’s character and in his love for God’s holiness and righteousness.

The days ahead were going to be filled with difficulty. Leading the people of God was not going to be easy. Taking over a land inhabited by people who had no intentions of giving up without a fight was going to be anything but easy. But Joshua had everything he needed. He was assured of the constant, unwavering presence of God. He had been promised access to the power of God. And he had been provided with the law of God to guide, direct and protect him.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Being Zealous Can Be Dangerous.

David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. And 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. And 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, with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark.

And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And 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. 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. And David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. And David was afraid of the Lord that day, and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” So David was not willing to take the ark of the Lord into the city of David. But David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. And 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. – 2 Samuel 6:1-11 ESV

David had a heart for God. He was anxious to serve God well and rule according to the will of God. As we saw in the last chapter, David sought God’s counsel before doing battle with the Philistines and the result was a stunning and decisive victory. And as David began to plan and prepare for his future kingdom, including the creation of his new capital in Jerusalem, he was motivated by a strong desire to acknowledge God in all that he did. And one of the first decisions he made was to relocate the Ark of the Covenant from its place in Kiriath-jearim to the city of Jerusalem. The ark was an important part of the history of the Jews. It was their link all the way back to the days of Moses and the period of the exodus. The book of Hebrews provides us with some details regarding this holy and revered object: “the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant” (Hebrews 9:4 ESV). The cover of the ark was called the Mercy Seat and it was there that God’s presence dwelt. Exodus records God’s commands concerning the Mercy Seat:

“You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony…” – Exodus 25:17-22 ESV
The Mercy Seat was especially significant to the Jewish people because it was there, once a year, on the Day of Atonement, that the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of a bull and a goat as an offering to God for the sins of the people. So you can see why David was anxious to have the Ark of the Covenant relocated into his newly chosen capital. But in his zeal to do the right thing, David ended up doing the wrong thing. He got in a hurry and failed to do his homework, and his actions would result in the unnecessary death of Uzzah.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul discusses the problem of zeal without knowledge.
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. – Romans 10:1-3 ESV
Paul was talking about his fellow Jews who had refused to accept Jesus as their Messiah. In their zeal for God, they had failed to recognize the very one sent to them by God. Instead, they continued to seek a right standing with God through the keeping of the Law. They were zealous for God, but were refusing to do things God’s way.
And that was David’s problem. God had given very clear instructions regarding the Ark and how it was to be transported.
And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die. These are the things of the tent of meeting that the sons of Kohath are to carry. – Numbers 4:15 ESV
The Ark was designed by God in a very specific manner and it had two long poles with which it was to be carried and only by the sons of Kohath. Because of the holiness of the Ark, it was forbidden for anyone to touch it. If they did, they would die. No one was to look inside the Ark (1 Samuel 6:19). Again, if they did, they would die. So, when David got ready to move the Ark, he made a major mistake. Rather than doing things God’s way, he followed the lead of the Philistines. In other words, he did it the world’s way. Earlier on in the history of Israel, there had been an occasion when the Ark had been captured by the Philistines after a battle with the Israelites. How did this happen? The Philistines had defeated the Israelites in a battle and, as a result, the elders of Israel resorted to sending for the Ark and attempted to use it as some kind of good luck token. “And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, ‘Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies” (1 Samuel 4:3 ESV). But rather than bringing the Israelites victory, the Ark was captured by the Philistines. And when the discovered that having the Ark of God around proved to be deadly, they decided to return it to the Israelites. And, not knowing the law of God, they did so according to their own methodology.
Now then, take and prepare a new cart and two milk cows on which there has never come a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them. And take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart and put in a box at its side the figures of gold, which you are returning to him as a guilt offering. Then send it off and let it go its way – 1 Samuel 6:7-8 ESV
So, when David got ready to transport the Ark into Jerusalem, rather than doing so according to God’s prescribed methods, he followed the lead of the Philistines. The passage clearly states:
And 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, with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark. – 2 Samuel 6:3-4 ESV
And when the oxen pulling the cart stumbled, as the Ark began to fall, Uzzah reached out and tried to steady it with his hand. He touched the Ark. And he died. In fact, the passage tells us, “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 Samuel 6:7 ESV). This might appear to us as a gross overreaction on the part of God. How could He be so angry against Uzzah for simply attempting to keep the Ark from falling? But God’s anger is always a righteous and just anger. It is never capricious or without warrant. Uzzah had broken the law of God and, as a result, the righteous, just anger of God was the result. Had God not punished Uzzah for his sin, God would have failed to be God. He would have been unjust. Had Got not responded in anger toward the violation of His just law, He would have been an unjust God. This is why God gave clear conditions and commands regarding his people and their interactions with Him. Had David done things according to God’s plan, this would not have happened. Uzzah would not have died. And while his sin was not motivated by a heart of rebellion, it was rebellion nonetheless. And the outcome was death.
And David’s reaction to this event was much like ours would be. He became angry. He was frustrated. Then his anger turned to fear and that fear ended up paralyzing him into inaction. Rather than taking the time to determine what it was that he had done wrong, he simply left the Ark where it was. His intentions had been proper and right. But when he suffered for doing God’s will in the wrong way, David just gave up. So the Ark sat in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months. David returned to Jerusalem angry at God and without the presence of the Ark in his new capital. But while David pouted, God was busy blessing Obed-edom. And news of this would reach David, motivating him into action.
The problem was not David’s zeal. It was his methodology. It was also his lack of knowledge regarding the will of God. He attempted to do the right thing in the wrong way. He acted with sincerity, but in ignorance. He had celebrated, danced and sang as he led the procession with the Ark toward Jerusalem. He had been enthusiastic and excited about having the Ark in his new capital. But he had left out one important part: Obedience. As Samuel had told King Saul years earlier, God prefers obedience to enthusiastic sacrifice any day of the week.
Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
    as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to listen than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
    and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. – 1 Samuel 15:22-23 ESV
English Standard Version (ESV)
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