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ACCEPTABLE WORSHIP (5): Irreverent or Undignified?

Ark of CovenantAnother curious event involving worship occurred when David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. You may read the entire story in 2 Samuel 6:1-23 and 1 Chronicles 15:1 – 16:36.

For more than a generation, the Ark of the Covenant was not in the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle. During the last days of Eli, the fourteenth judge of Israel, there was war with the Philistines. After a defeat in an initial skirmish, the Israelites decided to bring the Ark from the Tabernacle and let the priests lead them into battle. Eli’s sons, the priests, carried the Ark before the Israelite army into battle.
The Philistines heard the shout the Israelite army raised when the Ark arrived in camp. They said,

A god has come into the camp. We’re in trouble! Nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the desert. Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight! – 1 Samuel 4:7-9

The Philistines looked at the Ark as an idol god. Evidently, the Israelites thought of it that way as well. In the battle that followed, the Philistines routed the Israelites, killed the sons of Eli, and captured the Ark. They took the Ark back to Philistia where a series of miraculous events convinced them to return it to Israel.

In Israel, men of Beth Shemesh opened the Ark and looked in it. Many died, so they asked someone else to take it. The men of Kiriath Jearim, one of the cities of the priests, then took it to the house of Abinadab where Eleazar was put in charge of guarding it.

Two or three generations later, David was now king over the combined tribes. He had captured Jerusalem and determined to make it his capital city. One of the things he did to make Jerusalem a city for all of Israel was to bring the Ark of the Covenant there, though the Tabernacle was still elsewhere.

This brings us to 2 Samuel 6. David set out with his army of 30,000 chosen men to bring the Ark in triumph to Jerusalem. They set the Ark on a new cart with the sons of Abinadab guiding the cart, one before and the other – Uzzah – along side the cart with the Ark. The oxen pulling the cart stumbled, and Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the Ark and touched it. After he did that, we read,

The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God. – 2 Samuel 6:7

God had previously instructed Israel in the wilderness how the Levites were to carry the Ark using the poles attached to it so they could bear it without touching it. When David saw what happened to Uzzah he was angry. He took the Ark to the house of Obed-Edom instead of continuing to bring it to Jerusalem. Three months later, after realizing how he had sinned in the way he was bringing the Ark there, he went back to get it. This time, he had the Levites carry the ark as God had directed. The parallel account says David spoke to the priests and Levites, saying,

You are the heads of the Levitical families; you and your fellow Levites are to consecrate yourselves and bring up the ark of the Lord, the God of Israel, to the place I have prepared for it. It was because you, the Levites, did not bring it up the first time that the LORD our God broke out in anger against us. We did not inquire of him about how to do it in the prescribed way. – 1 Chronicles 15:12-13

This journey to Jerusalem was a joyous procession instead of the march of an army. Now the focus was on God, not on David, the king and general. 2 Samuel 6 describes it:

David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets. – 1 Samuel 6:14

When David’s wife, Michal the daughter of Saul, saw David dancing before the LORD in the presence of all Israel, she despised him in her heart. To her, he was not acting as a king should act. He was debasing himself in a way that her father never would have done. When David returned to his home, she said,

“How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!”

David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD’s people Israel! – I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor” – 2 Samuel 6:20-22

Irreverent or Undignified?

Human reason would view what Uzzah did in steadying the Ark as an example of careful concern that the Ark not fall and, perhaps, break. Why did God deem it irreverent?

Human reason would also be more likely to view David’s dancing in an ephod as irreverent. Some think the ephod was undergarments. [If it were underwear, the design enabled the priests to be modest when they would go up to the elevated altar (see Exodus 28:42f).] More likely, the ephod was the robe worn by the priests. The ephod of the High Priest had an elaborate breastplate attached to it, hanging from the shoulders, with jewels bearing the names of the tribes of Israel and the Urim and Thummim on it as well. Other ephods were not so elaborate, being a simple linen robe.

Michael thought David was irreverent because he laid aside his “royal” clothing and became as a common person as he danced “before the LORD.” In this, he was like our Lord who laid aside the splendor of heaven to become flesh and live among us as a man.

Uzzah’s act was irreverent because it was a violation of God’s instructions for carrying the Ark. In fact, Uzzah received the consequences of what all of Israel did that day. David acknowledged, “We did not inquire” of the LORD how to move the Ark. As he spoke of the event three months later, he recognized that the LORD broke out against “us,” not just Uzzah as he said at the time it happened. It was a national sin, and especially a sin of David himself since he was the King leading this move of the Ark.

From this, we can learn much about how God wants us to worship Him as well. We are certainly not to be irreverent, ignoring the instructions He has given us about worship. Yet, we are not to think that human dignity is what makes us reverent.

Wearing a somber face and being dressed in your “Sunday best” is not a display of reverence. It may be a display of human pride instead. Like Michael, some tend to look down on one who makes an open display of emotion. For these, worship to the LORD is more funereal than celebratory.

Our worship today is a foretaste of heaven. We come to praise the LORD, our God and Savior. In heaven, such praise is joyous. In a climactic statement in Hebrews, the unknown writer declared,

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel….

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” – Hebrews 12:18-29

Notice the great contrast with the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Then there was “darkness, gloom and storm.” In coming to Mount Zion, we come to (among other things) “thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.” We sometimes express joy in “undignified” ways – but holy joy is never irreverent.

I need to lay aside my human dignity and come clothed with robes of righteousness that comes by faith in the Son of God who is also the Son of David. If I try to stand on my dignity, I am destined to fall; if I, in reverent awe, rejoice in the Lord, I will stand.

The difference between the two is not necessarily in actions. It is in our hearts. Externally, we may do exactly what the Lord says, and still be unacceptable if our hearts are not right, as we discussed in our previous post. Some have done things “contrary to what was written” (2 Chronicles 30:18) and still found acceptance by God. In the next post of this series, I will examine Hezekiah’s Passover celebration where they did things contrary to the letter of the Law, but still found acceptance by God.

NEXT (6) Worship Contrary to What Was Written

PREVIOUS – (4) Nadab & Abihu’s Mistake

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