David consulted with the commanders of thousands and of hundreds, with every leader. 2 And David said to all the assembly of Israel, “If it seems good to you and from the Lord our God, let us send abroad to our brothers who remain in all the lands of Israel, as well as to the priests and Levites in the cities that have pasturelands, that they may be gathered to us. 3 Then let us bring again the ark of our God to us, for we did not seek it in the days of Saul.” 4 All the assembly agreed to do so, for the thing was right in the eyes of all the people. 5 So David assembled all Israel from the Nile of Egypt to Lebo-hamath, to bring the ark of God from Kiriath-jearim. 6 And David and all Israel went up to Baalah, that is, to Kiriath-jearim that belongs to Judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord who sits enthroned above the cherubim. 7 And they carried the ark of God on a new cart, from the house of Abinadab, and Uzzah and Ahio were driving the cart. 8 And David and all Israel were celebrating before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets. 9 And when they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzzah put out his hand to take hold of the ark, for the oxen stumbled. 10 And 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. 11 And David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-uzza to this day. 12 And David was afraid of God that day, and he said, “How can I bring the ark of God home to me?” 13 So David did not take the ark home into the city of David, but took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. 14 And the ark of God remained with the household of Obed-edom in his house three months. And the Lord blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that he had. (1 Chronicles 13:1-14)
Wham! Uzza sinned and God killed him! We don’t expect God to act that way, because we have become so accustomed to hearing of His mercy that we expect it—even count on it—especially over something that seems so insignificant. We feel equally shocked about the accounts of God’s judgment upon Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1–11) and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–1).
Remember, though, that these who suffered death because of their sins could never plead ignorance as an excuse. Yet they never dreamed that their failure to “get it right” would be so serious that God would strike them dead.
Let us now look at the death of Uzza and learn about God’s justice and grace, as well as the seriousness of sin. Remember always that the Bible teaches that willful sin is extremely serious in God’s eyes. Indeed, it’s high treason!
The Nature of God’s Justice
We learn about God’s justice in the early chapters of Genesis. God, the Judge of all the earth, always does right (Gen. 18:25). In the Psalms we learn that His judgments are always according to righteousness (Psa. 67:4; 96:13). His justice is never unfair, whimsical, nor tyrannical, but always righteous and holy.
God’s justice is never unfair, whimsical, nor tyrannical, but always righteous and holy
Let’s consider the story of Uzza. David is the king of the newly united kingdom, and he wishes to bring the ark, the earthly throne of God, to Jerusalem. The ark was the rallying point for the nation, and it had been constructed and ornamented by the strict design of God Himself. It was a chest made of acacia wood, overlaid with gold on the inside and outside.
Four gold rings were fastened to its feet so that poles could be inserted to carry the chest. The poles were also made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. The lid of the ark, also made of pure gold, was called an “atonement cover” or “mercy seat” (Exo. 25:17).
Two cherubim of hammered gold were mounted on the ends, facing each other with wings spread upward. The dwelling place of God on earth was between the cherubim on the mercy seat.
“And when they came unto the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzza put forth his hand to hold the ark; for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzza, and he smote him, because he put his hand to the ark: and there he died before God” (1 Chron. 13:9, 10).
Why did God kill Uzza? We must look back in Jewish history to the formation of the priesthood and the special commands God had given. To be a priest one had to be from the tribe of Levi and a male from the family of Aaron.
All other Levites—of which there were three family groupings (Gershon, Kohath, and Merari)—were appointed special duties associated with the service of God. The Kohathites, of which Uzza was a member, were consecrated by God for one basic job—to take care of the sacred articles of the tabernacle (Num. 4:4).
When the tabernacle was transported, it was necessary for Aaron and his sons first to cover and shield the holy vessels from view. Then the Kohathites would carry them.
“And when Aaron and his sons have made an end of covering the sanctuary, and all the vessels of the sanctuary, as the camp is to set forward; after that, the sons of Kohath shall come to bear it: but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kohath in the tabernacle of the congregation” (Num. 4:15).
God further warned the Kohathites that the articles of furniture were so holy that if they even looked at one of them before it was covered they would die (Num. 4:20). Uzza was a Kohathite who understood that God had declared that touching the ark was a capital offense. No emergency was grounds for breaking that command.
Further, the elaborate construction of the ark made it clear that it was not to be touched. Only the poles could be touched by the Kohathites who carried the ark. But Uzza reached out to steady the ark when he thought it was in danger of falling out of the cart. This was not an act of holy heroism but disobedience.
Multiple sins are involved. David sinned by not transporting the ark properly, and Uzza sinned by touching it.
The first sin set up the circumstances for the second sin. There is no indication in the text that steadying the ark was a premeditated act of rebellion.
Apparently it was an instantaneous reaction under the circumstances. But it didn’t matter that Uzza didn’t intend to violate the ark. He did, and he died. Remember that he was not innocent, for he knew better. God was not arbitrary, capricious or unjust about what He did.
The Nature of God’s Grace
The suddenness of the execution and its finality is shocking to us because we do not understand the difference between justice and grace. Grace is the display of God’s love and mercy to undeserving people (Eph. 2:4,5).
Divine justice speaks of conformity to a rule or a norm—namely God’s rules. He always “plays by the rules.” He never shows partiality, acts out of ignorance, nor makes a mistake. He never clears the guilty, and He never punishes with undo severity. His justice is perfect.1
Our problem with God’s dealings with Uzza stems from the fact that He does not always give immediate justice. He often acts with grace, which includes mercy. As R. C. Sproul points out, “Mercy is not justice, but neither is it injustice. Injustice violates righteousness. Mercy manifests kindness and grace and does no violence to righteousness. We may see non-justice in God, which is mercy, but we never see injustice in God.”2
The Seriousness of Sin
God has clearly said, “The soul that sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4; cf. Gen. 2:17; 3:3; Lev. 22:9). Every sin is a capital offense deserving death. If God gave us what we justly deserve when we sin, we would immediately drop dead.
The fact that He usually extends mercy to us does not mean that He is obligated to do so. He is not unjust when He allows a sinner to die or when He strikes a sinner dead. For sin is far more serious than we understand. It ruined God’s perfect and holy creation. It plunged the human race into misery and woe.
Sin plunged the human race into misery and woe.
“Sin is cosmic treason. Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward One to whom we owe everything, to the One who has given us life itself.”3
We should not ask, “Why did God strike Uzza dead?” but rather, “Why doesn’t God strike me dead when I sin?” Because God is long-suffering and slow to anger, we have grown bold in sin. We have forgotten that God’s goodness and forbearance are designed to lead us to repentance, to give us time to repent and be saved (Rom. 2:4).
Instead, we interpret His grace and mercy as proof that sin is not really so serious. The fact that we have received mercy upon mercy ought to cause us to fall on our faces before Him in humble gratitude. It is at the cross that we learn fully the seriousness of sin. If we wish to be shocked and outraged, let it be directed at Golgotha.
The only innocent person ever to be punished by God was Jesus. But even then, God punished Jesus for our sins only because He volunteered to be the Lamb of God that would take away the sin of the world (John 1:29; Isa. 53:4-12). When God poured out His holy wrath upon Jesus as our sin-bearer, God’s holy justice was perfectly manifest.
Jesus took what God’s justice demanded. The Just One suffered for the unjust so that He could bring us to God (1 Pet. 3:18). When we look at the cross we learn the meaning of justice, grace, and the seriousness of sin. But tragedy of tragedies, grace no longer amazes us! We have grown used to it, taking it for granted.
We seem to harbor the notion that God owes us mercy and that sin is not really as serious as some people try to make it. We forget that God views willful sin as an act of despising Him and despising His Word (2 Sam. 12:4, 5). Uzza’s death teaches us that sin is exceedingly serious—high treason against God.
Grace Must Never Be Assumed
Sometimes we think that God has not been fair toward us—that somehow He has not been gracious enough to us. But it is impossible for anyone, anywhere, anytime to deserve grace. For by definition, grace is undeserved.
It is impossible for anyone, anywhere, anytime to deserve grace.
As soon as we talk about deserving something, we are no longer talking about grace but about justice. Remember that God is never obligated to be gracious and merciful. Grace and mercy must be voluntary or they are no longer grace and mercy.
Let us also remember that God sets limits to His patience and forbearance. He warns us over and over again that someday the ax will fall and His judgment will be poured out.
God found it necessary from time to time to remind Israel—as He reminds us—that grace must never be assumed. Yes, He killed Uzza. It was as though He said, “Be careful. While you enjoy the benefits of my grace, don’t forget my justice. Don’t forget the seriousness and gravity of sin.”4
Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.
- Sproul, R.C. (1996, ©1985). The Holiness of God. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers.