Uzzah and the Ark: Was God Unfair?

Uzzah’s death for touching the ark leads some to characterize God as unfeeling and unfair. Why did Uzzah die, and what can we learn from this example?

The circumstances resulting in Uzzah’s death are recorded in 2 Samuel 6 and 1 Chronicles 13:1-14 (where his name is spelled Uzza).

King David decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant from Kirjath Jearim to Jerusalem, a distance of about 10 miles, and he had a new oxcart built to carry it.

As they traveled toward Jerusalem, the oxen stumbled. Uzzah, who was walking next to the cart, put out his hand to steady the ark from falling.

“Then the anger of the LORD was aroused against Uzza, and He struck him because he put his hand to the ark; and he died there before God” (1 Chronicles 13:10).

It seemed to have been an automatic reaction on the part of Uzzah, but God regarded his actions as so serious that He struck him down dead.

Why did God kill Uzzah?

What did Uzzah do wrong? What did King David do wrong?

Was God being overly harsh and unkind? Why did God record this in the Bible, and what are we supposed to learn from the story of Uzzah and the ark?

Disobeying God’s instructions

This incident is an example of people disregarding God’s instructions and doing what was right in their own eyes. God had given clear instructions about how the ark should have been carried.

In Exodus 25:14-15 and Deuteronomy 10:8 we see that the ark was equipped with poles to be carried on the shoulders of the Levites. Numbers 7:9 adds that this group of Levites, the sons of Kohath, would not use carts “because theirs was the service of the holy things, which they carried on their shoulders.”

And, while carrying the holy things, God clearly warned the Levites that “they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die” (Numbers 4:15, emphasis added throughout). Both David and Uzzah forgot or disregarded these instructions.

The parallel account in 2 Samuel 6:6-7 states that Uzzah “took hold of it” (margin, “held it”), and “God struck him there for his error; and he died there by the ark of God.” The word error is rendered “irreverence” in the margin of the New King James Version and “rashness” in the King James Version.

If God had compromised His holiness by overlooking Uzzah’s and David’s lack of care and respect, people could understandably conclude that His holiness was not that big of an issue and begin to treat God with disrespect in other ways. By showing its seriousness, God sought to protect the people from making that destructive mistake.

God expected the people to treat the ark with the greatest respect. In one incident a number of the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh were killed for profaning the ark (1 Samuel 6:19). Whatever God designates as “holy” should be revered, esteemed and honored, including God’s Sabbath and holy days (Leviticus 23).

David recognizes his mistake

Initially David became angry at Uzzah’s death.

The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament explains, “The burning of David’s anger was not directed against God, but referred to the calamity which had befallen Uzzah, or speaking more correctly, to the cause of this calamity, which David attributed to himself or to his undertaking. As he had not only resolved upon the removal of the ark, but had also planned the way in which it should be taken to Jerusalem, he could not trace the occasion of Uzzah’s death to any other cause than his own plans.”

After David’s initial confusion, he realized that he had acted contrary to God’s clear instructions about how to transport the ark.After David’s initial confusion, he realized that he had acted contrary to God’s clear instructions about how to transport the ark.

In 1 Chronicles 15:2 we read, “Then David said, ‘No one may carry the ark of God but the Levites, for the LORD has chosen them to carry the ark of God and to minister before Him forever.”

At this point David understood that the ark was to be carried with poles on the shoulders of the Levites, just as God had commanded Moses (1 Chronicles 15:15). Next, the priests and Levites sanctified themselves in preparation “to bring up the ark of the LORD God of Israel” (verse 14).

When they carefully followed God’s instructions, they were able to bring up the ark “with joy” (verse 25), and they successfully completed the journey without any further mishap. What a difference from their first attempt!

Did Uzzah go to heaven or hell?

Many people wonder if this sudden mistake affected Uzzah’s eternal fate. The question is often framed: Did Uzzah go to heaven?

The Bible is clear that God is merciful and desires for all to repent and to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). But many are surprised to learn that the Bible does not teach that people go immediately to heaven or hell upon death. Instead, it teaches that death is like sleep, and that God will resurrect everyone (John 5:25).

Even more surprising is how God will judge people in those future resurrections. Study it for yourself by reading our article “Judgments of God: The Real Story” and looking up the scriptures in your Bible.

You will see that God will be merciful to those who have not had a chance yet to repent, such as Uzzah.

Lessons for us from the story of Uzzah and the ark

  • Many scriptures show that God is not harsh, cruel and vindictive. Rather, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and He was willing to sacrifice His Son Jesus Christ so that all people may have the opportunity to inherit eternal life in His Kingdom (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). God always acts for the ultimate good of people.
  • Another far-reaching principle is that we must act in accordance with the will of God—do exactly as God instructs. When we begin to use our own reasoning or diminish His instructions, the consequences will be serious. Proverbs 3:5-7 says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes.”
  • Even though our actions may be well-intentioned, the outcome may be serious if our decisions are contrary to God’s commands. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12).
  • Consider these reflections from The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (revised edition): “The sad story of Uzzah’s fatal attempt to steady the ark of God is a painful lesson underscoring the necessity of doing what is right in God’s eyes, not our own eyes. The tendency to do what seems good in our eyes is at the heart of human rebellion against the authority of God (cf. Gen. 3:6) Similarly, today too often the standard of determining what is ‘good’ is approached from the vantage point of our own personal opinion (what is right in our eyes) rather than through the lens of biblical principles. Yet, as the incident with Uzzah shows, what is right in our eyes is irrelevant and frequently disastrous” (Vol. 3, p. 103).
  • Uzzah will live again. Even though Uzzah died a premature death due to his error, God will yet in the future offer him an opportunity for salvation: “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves [including Uzzah] will hear His voice and come forth” (John 5:28-29). The Bible teaches that those who are not called at this time will be resurrected and given a chance for salvation at a later time that God has ordained. Read more about this in our article “Resurrections: What Are They?

For our learning

The apostle Paul taught, “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

The incident with Uzzah is a case in point, as we learn important lessons his death teaches us. God has the right to take life, but He also has the power and loving desire to give life eternally.

God only wants the best for all people. He is filled with mercy, kindness, patience, compassion and forgiveness—possessing total and complete power. It is up to each of us to exalt and worship the living God.

Let’s be sure that our daily lives are based on the laws and commandments God has outlined in His Word for our benefit, and not on our own personal reasoning, values and standards.

About the Author

André van Belkum

Andre van Belkum

Andre van Belkum currently serves as the pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in New Zealand and the Pacific region. Previously he pastored congregations in southern Africa, including South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

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