The story of Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant is found in 2 Samuel 6:1-7 and 1 Chronicles 13:9-12. As the ark was being transported, the oxen pulling the cart stumbled, and a Levite named Uzzah took hold of the ark. God’s anger burned against Uzzah and He struck him down and he died. Uzzah’s punishment does appear to be extreme for what we might consider to be a good deed. However, there are the reasons why God took such severe action.
First, God had given Moses and Aaron specific instructions about the Tent of Meeting and the movement of the Ark of the Covenant. “After Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy furnishings and all the holy articles, and when the camp is ready to move, the Kohathites are to come to do the carrying. But they must not touch the holy things or they will die. The Kohathites are to carry those things that are in the Tent of Meeting” (Numbers 4:15). No matter how innocently it was done, touching the ark was in direct violation of God’s law and was to result in death. This was a means of preserving the sense of God’s holiness and the fear of drawing near to Him without appropriate preparation.
Notice how David took men with him to collect the ark, rather than allowing Abinadab and his sons to bring it to him. That was a great mistake, since it ought never to have been put upon a cart, old or new. It was to be borne upon men’s shoulders, and carried by Levites only, and those of the family of Kohath (Exodus 25:12-14; Numbers 7:9), using the poles prescribed. Failing to follow God’s precise instructions would be seen as (a) not revering God’s words when He spoke them through those such as Moses, whom He had appointed; (b) having an independent attitude that might border on rebellion, i.e., seeing and acting on things from a worldly, rather than a spiritual, perspective; or (c) disobedience.
Second, the ark had stayed for a period of time at Abinadab’s house (2 Samuel 6:3), where his sons, Uzzah and Ahio, may well have become accustomed to its presence. There’s an old saying, “familiarity breeds contempt,” that could apply in this case. Uzzah, having been around the ark in his own home, could very likely forget the holiness that it represented. There are times when we, too, fail to recognize the holiness of God, becoming too familiar with Him with an irreverent attitude.
Third, the account tells us the oxen stumbled. The cart didn’t fall and neither did the Ark, just as the boat carrying Jesus and the disciples rocked fiercely in the storm, though it wasn’t necessarily in danger of sinking (Matthew 8:24-27). And yet, just as with the disciples who failed to put their faith in their Master, Uzzah, for a moment, felt it was his responsibility to save the integrity of God, and that our almighty God somehow needed Uzzah’s assistance. He presumed that, without his intervention, God’s presence would be dealt a blow. As Job asks, “Can you fathom the mysteries of God?” (Job 11:7). “His greatness no-one can fathom” (Psalm 145:3). “His understanding no-one can fathom” (Isaiah 40:28). Moses lost his right to enter the promised land because he felt his intervention was needed when he struck the rock, instead of speaking to it as God had commanded (Numbers 20:7-12). We need to listen carefully to what God has to say to us, and in obedience strive to do all He commands. Yes, God is loving and merciful, but He is also holy and He defends His holiness with His power, and affronts to His holiness sometimes bring about His holy wrath. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
Something of God’s presence in the Ark of the Covenant seems to be lost in the church today. In the time of Moses, the people knew the awesomeness of God’s absolute holiness. They had witnessed great miracles when the ark was with them. They respected that God’s ways and thoughts are much higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). In truth, the more we try to bring God down to our worldly way of thinking or reasoning, the further away He will seem to us. Those who would draw near to God and have Him draw near to them are those who approach Him in reverence and holy fear. Uzzah forgot that lesson, and the consequences were tragic.