2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
1. General Responses to God
The subject of the existence of God invariably evokes a variety of responses. Some deny his existence and say that the world, and even our presence, is the result of random acts of nature. Some are quite willing to accept God, as an all-powerful creator—but only to a degree. Indeed, they may admit that he is the creator, but then say that he has taken a step back and left us to our own devices. And there are others who acknowledge God, not only as the creator, but as a God who is alive and well, and very much involved in the world today.
And just as the existence of God evokes a variety of responses, so too are the reactions of those who acknowledge his existence. For example, some want to keep him at arm’s length. Yes, they may acknowledge his presence, but that’s all—they don’t want to get too involved. And, at the other extreme, there are some who embrace him full on, with no holds barred. And, of course, there are the many shades in-between.
2. The Ark of The Covenant
Now, of course, there’s nothing new about any of that. Because the existence or otherwise of God, and the appropriate or inappropriate responses to God, has been a debate for a long time. And that is well illustrated in the story of a small wooden box—a little over a metre long, seventy centimetres wide, and seventy centimetres high.
It was a box covered in gold, known as the Ark of the Covenant, and it housed the two stone tablets on which were written the ten commandments, a pot of manna and Aaron’s rod. But it was the focal point of the community; it was where God revealed his will to his servants. And you wouldn’t think that such a small box, and what it represented, could be the cause of so much trouble.
B. RESPONSES TO GOD
1. Background—Manipulating God (1 Samuel 4:1-11)
Because if we go back to the beginning of this particular loop in the story of the Ark, we will see that people thought they could use it to manipulate God and to use it for their own ends.
The Ark was in the hands of the Philistines. And how it got there, was that the Israelites had tried to use it as a lucky charm. Recent battles with the Philistines had gone badly, so someone had come up with a bright idea: If the Ark was taken into battle with them, then hat would ensure, or force God, to make sure that they won.
Now, of course those people were in for a shock. God was not prepared to be treated in such a way. He consequently withdrew his favour and not only was the battle lost, but the Ark was carried off as a spoil of war.
2. Background—Denying God (1 Samuel 5 & 6)
Now, if the Israelites believed that God was someone who could be manipulated, then the Philistines had other ideas. Indeed, the second response to the Ark was that God didn’t really exist. The Philistines had their own God—Dagon. And the fact that they’d won the fight and captured the Ark, meant that, for them, Dagon was far more powerful than the Israelite god ever was.
But then, like the Israelites, they came in for a shock too. Because after having placed the Ark in Dagon’s temple, each morning they found Dagon’s statue face down on the ground in front of the Ark, as if worshipping God. And that was followed by some plagues. So the Philistines then treated the Ark as a hot potato, and they returned it back to Israelite territory—to a place called Kiriath-jearim.
3. Neglecting God (1)
Which is not only where our reading begins. But it is also where we discover a third response to God. And this time it is one of neglect. Now the Ark was supposed to be at the centre of all Jewish activity—in the midst of the people—and yet it stayed in this flourishing, but still small village of Kiriath-jearim, away from the main centres of Israelite life for twenty years.
Of course, shortly after its arrival at the village, a guard was appointed to look after it (7:1). But nothing was done to restore it to its central place. Indeed, nothing was done to restore the focal point of Israelite worship and life for twenty years.
4. Worshipping God – For A Time (2-5)
However, at the end of those twenty years… the fourth response to the Ark and to God was bit more positive. This time, accompanied with the worshipping of God—and treating the Ark with a little more respect, the Ark was moved. However, the worship and respect only went up to a point.
The procession involved bringing the Ark into Jerusalem—a fourteen-kilometre journey—and they had built a brand-new cart especially for the purpose. And there was singing and the playing of harps, lyres, tambourines, castanets and cymbals, while David and his entourage danced with all their might. It must have been quite a scene. Unfortunately, it all then came to a grinding halt. It didn’t last, because the commitment of the worshippers was superficial, their respect for God limited, and the mission was abandoned.
5. Dishonouring God (6-12a)
And the reason it was abandoned? Well the fifth response to God was that they were still not taking God seriously. The Ark had been treated with dishonour. As a result someone died. So people were scared to take the Ark any further.
Now the problem was, that the cart of which the Ark was being carried was about to tip. So one of the guardians put out his hand to steady it, lest if fall. And his immediate death, was the result.
But the point was, that new cart or not, the Ark should never have been on a cart in the first place. The Ark had been built to God’s specifications, only to be carried by men. Indeed, poles were supposed to be threaded through the rings in the Ark’s sides specifically for that very purpose. The Ark had been lovingly carried on poles for nearly forty years in the wilderness (Ex 25:15, Nu 4:5-6:15), and it should have been carried those fourteen kilometres in the same way.
So, they dishonoured God and were punished for it. And where did they leave the Ark? In the house of Obed-Edom—not an Israelite, but another Philistine—who lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
6. Worshipping God – No Holds Barred (12b-19)
Now wind the clock forward three months, and only then do we finally see God—and his Ark—given the respect and honour he deserved.
The journey recommenced and the distance they had to travel was not far. But now having picked up the Ark in the appropriate manner they went six paces and stopped—and nothing untoward happened. Then David, taking a major role, wearing a priestly apron, made the appropriate sacrifices.
After which, they then picked up the Ark and moved on to Jerusalem—accompanied by exuberant shouting, trumpets, leaping and dancing—until the Ark came to its resting place. And that having finally been achieved, there were more sacrifices and a feast of celebration.
That is, except for one sour note: Michal one of David’s wives, saw David prancing up and down in his short priestly apron (with nothing on underneath), and despised him for it. Now that may have been inappropriate for David to do—in modesty terms—but Michal had missed the point. It wasn’t whether David had exposed himself that was the issue, it was rather that he didn’t hold back from giving God his all.
When you take this whole cycle in the life of the Ark, then, you not only end up with a very interesting story, but you get a reminder of the varied responses people have to God. And, strange as it may seem, they are exactly the same responses that people still give to God today.
1. Manipulating God
Because, firstly, people still try to manipulate God. Yes, people may acknowledge his existence and even his presence but, just like taking the Ark into battle, some people ask for assistance—even make promises to God—to try to manipulate God to do certain things, only then to abandon all pretence of faith at a later time.
2. Denying God
Secondly, people still try to deny God or treat him as irrelevant. And like the Philistines some may even prefer to worship other ‘so-called’ gods, relegating the creator God to someone not worth their time and effort.
3. Neglecting God
Thirdly, people neglect God. They push him away—keep him at a distance. And like the Israelites posting a guard on the Ark fifteen kilometres from Jerusalem, they may acknowledge that he exists, and may take comfort that someone else is keeping the old religion alive. But regarding their own commitment, they have far better things to do.
4. Worshipping God – For A Time
Fourthly, there are people who worship God, and maybe appear very keen—at least at first—but it doesn’t last, just like the Israelites in their first attempt to bring the Ark in Jerusalem. The commitment isn’t really there, and the honour they give to God is not what it is supposed to be. For sure they may be very visible for a while, but later it’s as if nothing happened.
5. Dishonouring God
Fifthly, there are people who dishonour God, like those who used the cart to move the Ark. There are those who know what they are supposed to do, but they still don’t treat God with the honour he deserves.
6. Worshipping God – No Holds Barred
And, sixthly, there are those who commit themselves totally to God, and give him their undivided commitment. And they are the ones who sing his praises, dance, join in the music, etc. And like David (although I’m not encouraging everyone to do quite what David did), join in heart and soul with the worship of God.
D. THE ONLY APPROPRIATE RESPONSE
So things haven’t changed. Things are no different now than they were in the time of King David—and before. And you shouldn’t need me to tell you, that only one of those six responses is the correct response to God.
So what does this mean to us? And how can we combat some very different approaches?
Well if we criticise and point to other people’s failings, all we do is to get people’s backs up. And that won’t do any good. Apart from that it’s not our place to judge. And in any event, even the great King David didn’t always get it right. Indeed, he slipped up on a number of occasions—one of which we have just seen. And undoubtedly, from time to time, we will probably do the same.
No! The best response is for us, is to constantly remind ourselves of the different responses to God. That way we can keep ourselves on our toes, and practice what we believe. And that I believe is the value in recalling stories like what happened to the Ark.
In terms of that story about the Ark, it means that we should be on constant guard to acknowledge God’s existence and presence, and to want him to be part of our lives. We need to be on our guard not usurp him with other things, but to place him in the position of highest honour. We need to live constantly with him at our side, and we should listen and respond to appropriately to the things that he says and does. We need be aware that even when we don’t feel like it—when the enthusiasm is not there—that we still need to give God his due. We need to treat God with honour and obey the things that he says—which are invariably for our benefit anyway. And we need to join in singing his praises and worshipping him in whatever form is appropriate—shouting, song, dance, music or whatever. In other words, we need to be the people of God.
Having said that, in being the people of God there is a warning. If we give God our all, then our response to the living God will not always be fully understood by everyone. Indeed, Michal’s response to David giving God his all was that she then treated David with hatred and disgust. But then she’d missed the point of the celebration, her heart wasn’t in it, and all she did was criticise what she had seen.
And if being treated with hatred and disgust is something that David had to learn to live with, then it may be something we will need to learn to live with too. Because not everyone will agree or even understand our position. But then not everyone is our creator and redeemer and the one who offers us eternal life.
In the world in which we live, the existence of God evokes a variety of responses. Some will deny his existence, and others will acknowledge his existence to one degree to another. And even amongst those who believe in his existence, there will be some who want to keep him at arm’s length, and others who will embrace him in every way they can.
Now, in the story of the Ark, there are, at least, six different responses to God. There are those who tried to manipulate him, those who denied him, those who neglected him, those who were prepared to worship him—but only for a time, those who dishonoured him, and those who worshipped him—no holds barred. But only one of those responses is the appropriate response to God.
And now, of course, it is our turn… Now none of us are perfect—we all make mistakes. But which of the six responses best fits us?
Posted: 16th November 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis