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The priority - and the problem - of the presence of God

Back to all sermons The Life of David

Date: March 17, 2019

Speaker: Eric Stillman

Series: The Life of David

Scripture: 2 Samuel 6:1–6:23

This morning, I am continuing to go through the Life of David as recorded in 1 & 2 Samuel. As of last week, King Saul and his son Jonathan have been killed in battle, and David is finally able to return to Israel as the king, at 30 years old, where he establishes Jerusalem as his capital city. I want to read 2 Samuel 6:1-23 and notice three things we learn from this passage about the presence of God – our need for God’s presence, the problem with God’s presence, and the solution to the problem.


First, our need for God’s presence.


The first thing David does is to go and get the ark of the covenant and bring it back to Israel. 


2 Samuel 6:1-2 - David again brought together out of Israel chosen men, thirty thousand in all.  2 He and all his men set out from Baalah of Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark. 


David’s first move after establishing his kingdom in Jerusalem is to bring the ark of the covenant back. What is the ark?


You first hear about the ark in Exodus 25:10-22. The ark was a wooden box overlaid with gold, 4 feet long, 2 ½ feet high & wide. It had rings on the sides with poles that would go through it so that it could be carried. On the top was a slab of pure gold called the mercy seat, with 2 golden angels facing each other. Let me highlight four important elements to this:


  • God’s desire to dwell with His people


The ark was where the presence of God met with His people. It was the central piece of furniture in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle, and over the ark appeared the shekinah, the kabod, the glory of God, the presence of God. Exodus 25:22 - There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.


  • The kingly element - God as heavenly ruler


Secondly, it was also called a footstool for God the King. 1 Chronicles 28:2 - King David rose to his feet and said: "Listen to me, my brothers and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house as a place of rest for the ark of the covenant of the LORD, for the footstool of our God, and I made plans to build it.


  • The prophetic element – the law


 God’s law, the ten commandments written on the stone tablets, is in the ark. According to Exodus 25:16 – “Then put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you.”


  • The priestly element


And once a year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would go in and offer sacrifice for the sins of the people, sprinkling the blood of slain bulls and goats on the mercy seat. Leviticus 16:14-15 - He is to take some of the bull's blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover.  15 "He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull's blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it.


What does the ark teach us about God? He wants to dwell in the midst of His people. The ark shows us the prophet – the 10 commandments; priest – the mercy seat; and kingly – the footstool – dimensions to God.


But 20 years before 2 Samuel 6, the ark had been captured by the Philistines. The priest Eli’s two sons, Hophni & Phinehas, brought it into battle, thinking that having that with them would mean they would win, but instead they lost and the ark was captured. And so the Philistines were convinced that this Yahweh was not so powerful after all, and they put the ark in the temple of their god, Dagon. But the next morning, they came into the temple and found the statue of Dagon face down before the ark. They put the statue back in its place, but the next morning, the statue was not only face down again, but its head and its hands had been broken off. And so they moved the ark around their land, but everywhere they put it, it caused calamity. And so finally, they put the ark on a cart led by two cows and sent it back to Israel. And as the men of Israel saw the ark coming, they rejoiced, but some of the men who first found it looked into the ark, and were killed. And so we read in 1 Samuel 7:1-2, “So the men of Kiriath Jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD. They took it to Abinadab's house on the hill and consecrated Eleazar his son to guard the ark of the LORD.  2 It was a long time, twenty years in all, that the ark remained at Kiriath Jearim, and all the people of Israel mourned and sought after the LORD.”


For twenty years, the ark, the place where God was most present to his people, was left in this remote place, until David comes to the throne.


The first thing we learn from this passage is our need for the presence of God. David is a man who knows that his only hope of success as a king, and his nation’s only hope for greatness, is to put God in the proper place, to make him the center, to have the presence of God in their midst.  David understood that their power and his strength would not just come from a general belief in God or from doing good deeds, but from having the presence of God in their midst. Moses understood the same thing: many years earlier, he declared to God in the desert in Exodus 33:15, If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.”  David understood this, that if God is not present, if it is not His strength upon which we rely, we may as well stay where we are, because we have no real hope. 


Some of us need to be reminded of that today.  The Christian faith is not about doing good deeds, and it is not about some general belief in God. Think of churches who have watered down the message to doing good works – the next generation says rightly, “I don’t need to go to church to be a good person.”  Nor is church primarily about community, as important as that is. The Christian faith is about having the presence of God in your life. We need His power, His encouragement, His love, His leading. The Christian faith is about knowing God, relying on God, reaching that place where you can say “if your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.”  If you are not leading the way, I do not want to go.  If you are not here this morning, there is no point in us being here.  You are the center, God.  You are the reason.


How do you prioritize His presence in your day, your relationships, your work, your service? If you do not have His presence, you are living and working in vain. How are you prioritizing His presence?


Let’s continue reading to learn about the problem of the presence of God:


3 They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart  4 with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it.  5 David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.  6 When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled.  7 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.  8 Then David was angry because the LORD's wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.  9 David was afraid of the LORD that day and said, "How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?"  10 He was not willing to take the ark of the LORD to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it aside to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite.


Wow. Talk about worst Bible stories ever. David wants to establish God’s presence at the center of his kingdom. And they set the ark on a new cart, with a couple of men to guide it, and the whole house of Israel celebrated with all their might before the Lord.  V.5 - David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.  What a sight that must have been!  And how the Lord must have been pleased.  Right? 


Wrong. The oxen stumbles, the ark tips, Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark, and God strikes him down. The celebration stops, David is angry, and then in his fear says “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” and drops the ark at the nearest house, the home of a foreigner, a Gittite named Obed-Edom.


Seems like an overreaction on God’s part, right? What is going on here?


Remember that the Ark of the Covenant was the place most associated with the holy presence of God. The 10 commandments inside the chest were a reminder of God’s holy law and expectations. Ordinary people could not come into its presence, or even look upon it. Only the high priest could enter the holy of holies once a year to come before the Lord. They washed multiple times. They were even dressed in sacred underwear. And in the book of Numbers, God had laid out clear instructions on how to move the ark:


Numbers 4:5-6 - When the camp is to move, Aaron and his sons are to go in and take down the shielding curtain and cover the ark of the Testimony with it.  6 Then they are to cover this with hides of sea cows, spread a cloth of solid blue over that and put the poles in place.


Numbers 4:15 - "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 instructions are clear. The high priest and his sons cover the ark, poles are put in place, and the Kohathites, a division of the priests, are the only ones allowed to carry the ark by the poles. No one can touch the ark, and no one can look upon it. If even the priests touch the holy things, they will die. Now that you understand this, you can see how David’s procession, while full of joy and sincere motivation, did not take seriously the holiness of the Lord, which is the reason God has told them to carry the ark the way He has.


What is holiness?


RC Sproul – Holiness refers to “that sense in which God is above and beyond us. It tries to get at His supreme absolute greatness… He is higher than the world. He has absolute power over the world. The world has no power over Him. Transcendence describes God in His consuming majesty, His exalted loftiness. It points to the infinite distance that separates Him from every creature. He is an infinite cut above everyone else.”


God is holy. He is like fire, like electricity, like lightning. You can not just touch him, approach him as if he were your buddy. The ark, and the restrictions around it, were to communicate that God is holy. No one can see or touch the Lord and live. And to put the ark of the covenant on an ox cart? Is that how you would transport a king?


The oxen stumble, the ark tips, and Uzzah reaches out to steady it. Maybe you feel bad for Uzzah. After all, what if the ark hit the ground? But Uzzah didn’t get it.


RC Sproul – “Uzzah was doing what seemed right to him in God’s presence. Uzzah assumed that his hand was less polluted than the earth. But it wasn’t the ground or the mud that would desecrate the ark; it was the touch of man. The earth is an obedient creature. It does what God tells it to do. The ground doesn’t commit cosmic treason. There is nothing polluted about the ground.”


Uzzah, on the other hand, is sinful, a human like you and me. He can not touch the ark, can not presume to come that close to the presence of a holy God. Uzzah takes the fall, but they all deserved to die, most of all David, for their ignorance and presumption. And so when Uzzah dies, David rightly says in v.9, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?”  He is experiencing a holy terror. How can a holy God exist with a sinful man like me? Like Isaiah when he experienced the holiness of God in Isaiah 6:5 – “woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips.” Like John in Revelation, falling down as though dead.


What does this mean for us?


When I read this story, I think of Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman at the well in John 4.  She is asking him about where the proper place is to worship, since the Jews claim that worship happens in Jerusalem and the Samaritans worship elsewhere.  And beginning in verse 21, “Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."”


Many commentators have tried to explain what he meant by worshiping “in spirit and in truth,” but I believe what Jesus may have meant is that God is looking for people who worship him in two critical ways.  In spirit, meaning they worship not just in motions but from their heart, with their whole being, with His character of love and joy.  And in truth, meaning coming to him not just as some vague, unknowable God, or as a god of your own creation, but as the God revealed in the Bible and in Jesus – holy.  Righteous.  Love.  Merciful.  Gracious.  Just.  The Creator.  The sustainer.  The beginning and the end.  The redeemer.  The rock.  The shepherd.  The Lord.  The Savior. 


And when I look at David and those 30,000 men, I see a band of people who had that spirit part down cold.  They were fully engaged from their hearts, giving God all the glory He is due.  But they had neglected the truth part.  They had disregarded God’s words as to how His presence was to be handled.  And that lack of respect cost them greatly, and left them in fear, shaken, afraid to even bring the ark into Jerusalem.  The Uzzah experience showed them that God is not a tame God. He is not their buddy.  He is holy.  He must be respected and worshipped not only in spirit but also in truth. And as Uzzah is killed, the pendulum has swung from complete celebration to abject terror.


What does this mean for us? We must worship in spirit and in truth. Emotionalism does not honor God. Nor does cold truth. Worship should be according to the truth of who God is and what He had revealed, and it should engage the spirit, touch the affections, result in whole-body and spirit praise to the Lord! Our worship songs must be not only uplifting but Biblical.


Sometimes in the evangelical church we emphasize the familiarity of God but neglect the holiness. We highlight the nearness and friendship of God but downplay the preeminence, the transcendence. We meet in converted office buildings, not sanctuaries with high ceilings and stained glass that remind you that God is other. We talk about the love of God but not the holiness of God. We reduce God to a weakling begging for us to pay attention to Him.


“It is the confusion between justice and mercy that makes us shrink in horror when we read the story of Uzzah…When God’s justice falls, we are offended because we think God owes us perpetual mercy.” (RC Sproul)


Who are we to come to this place nonchalantly? Allow me to hold up a mirror to you this morning. How would you come into the presence of a king, a president, a celebrity? How would you come to something important, like a job interview? Would you not show up early? Prepare yourself? Look your best? This is not said to shame you, for there is no condemnation in Christ. But have you forgotten that this is a holy God?


We need God’s presence, but there is a big problem with His presence. He is holy, and we are not. So what is the solution?


Continuing in v. 11:


11 The ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the LORD blessed him and his entire household.  12 Now King David was told, "The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-Edom and everything he has, because of the ark of God." So David went down and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing.  13 When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf.  14 David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might,  15 while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets. 16 As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart.  17 They brought the ark of the LORD and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the LORD.  18 After he had finished sacrificing the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD Almighty.  19 Then he gave a loaf of bread, a cake of dates and a cake of raisins to each person in the whole crowd of Israelites, both men and women. And all the people went to their homes.  20 When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and 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!"  21 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 celebrate before the LORD.  22 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."  23 And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.


After a short time, David goes back once again to retrieve the ark, and brings it back to Jerusalem the proper way, dancing before the Lord with all His might, worshiping the Lord in Spirit and in truth. What changes? Two things.


The first is that he reads the instructions. In 1 Chronicles 15:1-16, David tells them the proper way to carry the ark. The second is that he sees what happens to the household of Obed-Edom. David was afraid of God’s holiness. And so he sent the ark to Obed-Edom to stay, probably because he was a foreigner in Israel – if someone is going to be killed by God, it may as well be a foreigner. But although Obed-Edom was a foreigner living in Israel, God blessed him. Do you really think Obed-Edom deserved it?  No – God blessed him by grace, sheer grace. Because the ark is not just about rules and punishment, but is about mercy, grace, and the undeserved presence of God.  God has blessed this foreigner, and when David hears this, he sees the mercy and grace of God, and goes up to get the ark again. And he dances with all his might before the Lord.


Where does this joy and worship come from? From understanding both the holiness and mercy of God. The ark shows the prophet, priest, and king. Yes, God is holy. Yes, He is King. Yes, we have broken the law. But Jesus is our high priest. And there is mercy and grace offered to all. The sprinkling of blood by the high priest once a year for the sins of the people points to Jesus:


Hebrews 10:1-14 - The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming-- not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.  2 If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.  3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins,  4 because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins…11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.  13 Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool,  14 because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.


David danced before the Lord with joy, worshiping the Lord with all his heart. How did he get there? By seeing both the holiness of the Lord and the mercy of the Lord.


What does this mean for us? God is not looking for general belief.  He is not looking for good people.  And he is not looking for whole-hearted worshipers who are not concerned about recognizing that He is the holy God who deserves to be approached with respect and awe.  He is looking for worshipers who will worship him in spirit and in truth.  He is seeking men and women who have been seized by the power of a great affection, whose lives have been gripped by the gospel, who recognize as David did, “how can the presence of God ever come to me?”  How can God ever want me, sinful as I am?  But he is seeking men and women who do not just stop there, but recognize the mercy of our God, that even though we deserve nothing, we have been given everything through Jesus, undeserved life and salvation, peace with God, hope for the future, a Savior in our brokenness.  He wants to transform you by that truth, until you find welling up inside of you an unspeakable, uncontainable, life-changing, tear the shackles off your hands and feet and set you dancing JOY!


Verse 12, again:


So David went down and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing.  13 When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf.  14 David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might,  15 while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets.


David, the king, goes back up with the men of God to retrieve the ark.  They carry it back this time.  And David, down to his simple linen garment rather than his kingly robe, dances before the Lord with all his might.  In spirit and in truth.  In unspeakable, uncontainable, life-changing, tear the shackles off your hands and feet and set you dancing JOY!  Now I know that we’re a good New England church, and it’s hard enough to get people to clap.  But you need to pay attention to David and his 30,000 men here.  I am not advocating just dancing and getting more lively just for the sake of dancing and getting more lively.  I would say that there are some of you who feel like dancing, lifting holy hands, clapping, shouting out, celebrating at times but you hold back because you don’t want to seem weird.  And to you I say, you’re not weird.  You’re Biblical.  Consider the following verses:


Psalm 47:1  Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.


Psalm 134:2   2 Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the LORD.


Psalm 95:6   6 Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;


David was not just celebrating for the sake of celebrating.  He was dancing with all his might out of the joy of knowing God. Joy may be the greatest evidence that a person really knows God.  After all, who receives joy from religion?  You receive a sense of morality, perhaps.  A sense of fulfillment and purpose, yes.  But unspeakable, uncontainable, life-changing, tear the shackles off your hands and feet and set you dancing JOY?  That only comes from recognizing that you have been known to your depth and loved.  That there is nothing left to fear, not even death.  That every enemy has been defeated.  That nothing can separate you from the love of God.


David danced with all his might.  Have you ever danced with all your might before the Lord?  Even in the privacy of your own home?  Do you know that kind of joy?  As Jesus said in John 15:9-13, "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.  10 If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love.  11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  13 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.  There is no joy in religion, but real joy comes in knowing Jesus. 


Michal his wife despised him for expressing such joy.  She saw it as disrespectful and indecent.  But David did not care, and seemingly God backed him, based on the last verse.  David was experiencing the presence of God, and it caused him to dance and not care what others thought.  It caused him to live and worship for an audience of one. 


Worship him in spirit and in truth.  Balance the respect with the joy, the holy with the mercy.  He is the God of the universe and yet he is our friend.  He is omnipresent and sovereign, and yet he is close. Worship in spirit and truth.