The story in 2 Samuel 6 of Uzzah steadying the ark, although well known amongst adults in the church, is not known by our youth. When asked if they had ever heard of Uzzah steadying the ark, my students responded that they had never heard the story before.
To understand this event, symbolism, application and relevance, we must first read of Uzzah’s experience, then explain what the ark was and what it represented. By understanding what the ark was a symbol of, we can then draw parallels to the lives of our students so that they can understand what we termed in class “the Uzzah principle”.
1. The ark was supposed to travel in a specified manner- the Levites, specifically the sons of Kohath, were to transport the ark by carrying it on their shoulders.
2. The ark was to be covered by the veil of the temple as well as other coverings (see Numbers 4:5-6). Following this one rule would have prevented Uzzah from physically touching the ark.
3. Nowhere is there mention that the ark is prohibited from touching the ground.
4. Nowhere does it state that the ark is to be transported on a cart (as the Philistines transported it in 1 Samuel 6).
5. The ark was not to be touched or seen while it was covered (Numbers 4:15,20).
6. There were specific instructions as to who should touch the ark and when this was to be done.
What the ark represented
After reading the passages relating to the transporting the ark, we had a discussion on what the ark could represent. The ark rested in the most holy place in the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies. The ark was a symbol of the presence of the Lord. It was the place of revelation (Leviticus 16:2; Numbers 7:89).
As Israel is always to be led by the Lord and by the word of His mouth, so too the ark of the covenant was to go before them as they journeyed. This taught the children of Israel the necessity of following the path marked by the Lord and giving heed to His voice. The wood from which the ark was overlaid with gold was symbolic as well. It typified the twofold nature of Jesus Christ, who came to earth being both human and divine.
The ark was in a very real sense, a piece of the temple. It could represent a piece of heaven. When outside in the open, it was at all times to be covered with the veil. I find this an extraordinary symbol for other sacred applications with heavenly significance.
Some applications of the experience
Probably the most common application of this experience taught in our church today has to do with our relationship to God and His authorized servants. We do not correct the Lord, we receive counsel from Him. This is what the Lord states in the Doctrine and Covenants:
While that man, who was called of God and appointed, that putteth forth his hand to asteady the bark of God, shall fall by the shaft of death, like as a tree that is smitten by the vivid shaft of lightning (D&C 85:8).
Several statements from the leaders of the church have been used to make this point. President David O. McKay taught:
“It is a little dangerous for us to go out of our own sphere and try unauthoritatively to direct the efforts of a brother. You remember the case of Uzzah who stretched forth his hand to steady the ark. He seemed justified when the oxen stumbled in putting forth his hand to steady that symbol of the covenant. We today think his punishment was very severe. Be that as it may, the incident conveys a lesson of life. Let us look around us and see how quickly men who attempt unauthoritatively to steady the ark die spiritually. Their souls become embittered, their minds distorted, their judgment faulty, and their spirit depressed. Such is the pitiable condition of men who, neglecting their own responsibilities, spend their time in finding fault with others.” (In Conference Report, Apr. 1936, p. 60.)
From Brigham Young we have the following:
Let the Kingdom alone, the Lord steadies the ark; and if it does jostle, and appear to need steadying, if the way is a little sideling sometimes, and to all appearance threatens its overthrow, be careful how you stretch forth your hand to steady it; let us not be too officious in meddling with that which does not concern us; let it alone, it is the Lord’s work. (Discourses of Brigham Young, p.66)
You may examine from the beginning to this day, and continue to watch in the future, and where you find a man who wishes to steady the ark of God, without being called to do so, you will find a dark spot in him. The man full of light and intelligence discerns that God steadies his own ark, dictates his own affairs, guides his people, controls his kingdom, governs nations, and holds the hearts of all living in his hands, and turns them hither and thither at his pleasure, not infringing upon their agency. There is not the least danger of disagreeing with persons enjoying the Holy Spirit. (Discourses of Brigham Young, p.231)
Other significant applications relating to teenagers
There are two other significant stories relating to the ark of the covenant that are relevant to our discussion. One has to do with the Philistines when they captured the ark in battle, and the other has to do with what some Israelites did with the ark when it came back into their possession.
The Philistines and the ark
The Philistines captured the ark in battle (1 Samuel 4:10-11), and for the first time in their history, the ark was now in the possession of those that did not worship the true god. The Philistines worshiped the pagan god Dagon, and so they placed the ark in their temple near Dagon’s image (1 Samuel 5:1-2). It is at this moment when the Lord does two things to demonstrate His power and the uselessness of worshiping false gods.
First, the god Dagon was found the next day flat on his face. After propping him back up, the Philistines find that the following day “Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left…” (1 Samuel 5:4) This is where my sense of humor pops in and I say, “Dagon- buddy… hold yourself together!”
Notice the pattern: first Dagon tips over, but since the Philistines don’t get the message, the Lord turns up the heat as if to say, “Do you get it? Dagon has no power. I am the Lord.” Second, all the men of the city Ashdod become smitten with emerods (1 Samuel 5:6) or boils. This strikes a more personal tone with the Philistines. It is one thing to have your stone god tip over and break, but getting boils in your “secret parts” (1 Samuel 5:9) is something else entirely. Now we know this god of the Israelites means business.
Instead of immediately sending the ark back to the Israelites, the Philistines send it to their city Gath (1 Samuel 5:8). Moving it doesn’t work, as the people of Gath are plagued, and not quite getting the message, the Philistines send the ark over to Ekron (1 Samuel 5:10). It is at this point of the story where the heat is turned up on the Philistines. Now they start dying from the plague and the people cry, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go again to his own place, that it slay us not, and our people: for there was a deadly destruction throughout all the city; the hand of God was very heavy there.” (1 Samuel 5:11)
It is at this point in the narrative that the Philistines start to understand what it is that they are dealing with. They are handling something sacred which they do not understand. They do comprehend the pain and suffering that has come into their lives through their contact with the ark. They send the ark back to Israel on a cart, and their suffering (it is supposed) subsides. Note that God’s wrath came slowly and grew little by little over time. Understanding why they were punished gradually while the Israelites (specifically Uzzah) were punished immediately helps us to understand the mercy of Jesus Christ.
Brian Ricks stated:
We often take stories of divine wrath, such as this one, as evidence of the justice of the Lord, but the story of the Philistines and the ark of the covenant is really a story of the Lord’s mercy. As will be discussed later, when the Israelites desecrated the ark, the fatal consequences were immediate. The Philistines did not know how to properly treat the ark, thus their desecration of the ark was a sin of ignorance. In his mercy, and in contrast to what we will see happen to the Israelites, the Lord did not smite the Philistines with death immediately. Instead, he tutored them. First, he destroyed their idol, teaching them that the God of the Israelites was stronger than Dagon. Then, when the Philistines still did not return the ark, the punishments slowly increased and the people broke out with emerods. When the Philistines moved the ark to different cities, the emerods moved with the ark. Throughout all of these events, the Lord was mercifully giving the Philistines a chance to return the ark. Only when the Philistines hardened their hearts and would not acknowledge the Lord’s power or return the ark did the Lord allowed the curse to become so sore that some of the Philistines died.
The principles found in this story are still applicable today. As members of the Church, it is easy to be frustrated when we see those living in sin without any apparent punishment while other good people are going through severe trials. As this story of the Philistines demonstrates, the Lord in his mercy administers consequences based on the knowledge of those who commit sin, and we do not always know enough to explain the Lord’s justice. We can also remember this principle as we help those who know less about the gospel—whether they are nonmembers, children, or new converts. Like the Lord, we can mercifully teach and reprimand based on the ignorance of the person involved. (“The Death of Uzzah,” in BYU Religious Education 2010 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2010), 117-126. See also: http://bit.ly/yERmKr )
The Israelites look into the ark
The second account relating to the ark has to do with what happened when the Philistines returned the ark to the people of Israel. It was brought to the city Beth-Shemesh (1 Samuel 6:1-18). We read that instead of showing reverence towards the ark and following the rules prescribed in Numbers 4, they opened it to see what was inside. This was the wrong choice!
From the text we read:
And he asmote the men of Beth-shemesh, because they had blooked into the ark of the Lord, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter. (1 Samuel 6:19)
After this event, the people of Beth-shemesh did not want the ark in their town, so they sent it to Kirjath-jearim (1 Samuel 6:21). This story shows us what happened to the Israelites when their curiosity got the better of them. They wanted to look at something sacred, something they were not authorized to look at. At this point some of the students began to see the correlation between the three accounts of contact with the ark and their lives.
Each narrative covered in class had to do with not following the Lord’s specific instructions on handling something sacred: in this case we were discussing the ark of the covenant. The question then raised was, “How do these accounts of the ark apply in your lives? What sacred things or powers has God given you that have specific instructions for their handling and use? How are we like Uzzah?”
There were many answers to this question, but the majority of the students saw a direct parallel to the sacred powers of procreation and the ark of the covenant. The ark was a manifestation of the power of God, His presence, a piece of sacred space. Our bodies are sacred, and the power to create life is a divine power granted by our Heavenly Father. Our bodies are also sacred space, in fact the apostle Paul calls the body the temple of God:
Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. What? know ye not that your abody is the btemple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your cown? For ye are abought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s (1 Corinthians 6:18-20).
The sexual purity of the saints is something the Lord is concerned with. Our moral purity shows our spiritual maturity and our ability to be trusted with the sacred. From the For the Strength of Youth we read, “physical intimacy between husband and wife is beautiful and sacred. It is ordained of God for the creation of children and for the expression of love between husband and wife. God has commanded that sexual intimacy be reserved for marriage. (see: http://bit.ly/z14cMa )
Are good intentions enough?
Another application of the lessons learned from Uzzah have to do with our actions and our intentions. Uzzah is just one example of someone who had good intentions but poor decision making capability. Just prior to the narrative in 2 Samuel 6, we read of how Saul had good intentions but poor actions when he offered unauthorized sacrifice (1 Samuel 13:8-14). There are countless examples of young people who fall in love, only to cross physical boundaries the Lord has set- thus finding themselves in a position where they have transgressed the laws of God.
We live in a day where it is becoming increasingly more difficult to see clearly as the path of good intentions supersedes the path of obedience to the Plan outlined by our Heavenly Father and His prophets. Some young men think it wise to forsake the mission field for the ball field. Leaders of countries often wrap vice in virtue, hoping that the people will not see it for what it is. With good intentions laws have been made which slowly erode the freedom of this and other great nations.
By applying the lessons learned in the scriptures, youth will come to see true principles applied in their lives. The lessons in the scriptures were meant to be understood and lived in real life. By keeping sacred things sacred, understanding that the Lord works with us according to our level of understanding, and knowing that good intentions must fall in line with obedience to God’s laws, we will learn the lessons of Uzzah and the children of Israel. Understanding true principles and sticking to them while walking through the mists of the world will help the youth of this church return to their heavenly home.