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The Filth of Human Hands

This morning I read with joy an account of God’s abundant grace in the life of my friend Stacey. On her blog she wrote about God’s grace despite her long-lingering doubts about His goodness. “For the past couple of years, until not long ago actually, I was constantly plagued by doubts and uncertainty in the goodness of my God. I was confused and always questioning God, unable to read my Bible without doubting and virtually demanding explanation. … I would read, I would question. I would pray, I wouldn’t find comfort. Doubts and fears and uncertainties assailed me almost daily! It got to the point where I was actually afraid to read my Bible and pray, and I wouldn’t just so I could avoid questioning God.”

I know these doubts and confusions. I think all Christians do, really. I find that they tend to arise in my heart when I read or ponder particular passages of the Bible. One such story that came to mind recently is the story of Uzzah. You know the tale well, I’m sure. Uzzah is accompanying the ark of the covenant as it is brought towards Jerusalem after so many years away (1 Corinthians 13). The people rejoice as they see this manifestation of God’s presence being brought back to its place in their midst. “David and all Israel were rejoicing before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets.” As they come to a certain threshing floor, the oxen stumble and the cart lurches. Uzzah, the driver of the cart, puts out his hand to steady the ark lest it fall to the ground. God reacts instantly, striking down Uzzah. Uzzah dies right there beside the cart in the presence of the people. Rejoicing must have turned to mourning and terror. David was so terrified by this act of God that he would not bring the Ark to Jerusalem, but instead placed it in the home of Obed-edom the Gittite, where it remained for months.

This act of God seems so harsh, so arbitrary. Wasn’t Uzzah just seeking to serve God by keeping His ark from crashing to the ground and perhaps becoming damaged? Was this not just a simple mistake that God should have chosen to overlook? What would compel God to act to harshly? Was it that bad of a mistake?

There are many who look at this passage and, asking “What does this tell us about God?” conclude that He is arbitrary, impulsive and unjust. And reading just this passage one could easily come to such a conclusion. Doubts may well linger.

On Sunday evening I heard a sermon that clarified this passage for me in such a helpful way. The story of Uzzah was not the point of the sermon and the preacher only just touched on it. But he quoted R.C. Sproul and what Sproul said just clicked in my mind. Suddenly it all made sense.

It is clear in the Old Testament that God gave laws regarding the ark. Every Israelite would have known what was expected of him—he would have known that he had no business touching it. Uzzah violated those laws. But there must be more to it! After all, Uzzah was helping God, by protecting the ark. How could he allow that sacred object to fall from the cart and smash to the ground, getting covered in the filth of the threshing floor? How could he allow the ark to be so defiled?

Yet here is where Uzzah went wrong; this is where we see what he did as an act of arrogance rather than compassion. The purpose of the laws regarding the ark were not to protect it from contact with mud. Rather, the laws were given to protect it from contact with sinful human hands. It was not the filth of the ground that would defile the ark, but the filth of human sin. Sproul wrote about this in his book The Holiness of God and also spoke of it in a recent keynote address at a Desiring God conference. Here is how they summarized this portion of his address on their blog:

Consider now the story of Uzzah. The ark of the covenant was being carried in a cart. This was not the way it was designed to be carried. It should have been on the shoulders of priests. When one of the oxen stumbled the ark looked like it was going to fall. Uzzah keeps it from tipping in the mud. God’s reaction was not, “Thank you, Uzzah!” No, God killed Uzzah instantly. Uzzah believed that mud would desecrate the ark, but mud is just dirt and water obeying God. Mud is not evil. God’s law was not meant to keep the ark pure from the earth, but from the dirty touch of a human hand. Uzzah presumed his hands were cleaner than the dirt. God said no.

There was nothing arbitrary about it! Mud is simply water and dirt coming together in obedience to God. There is nothing in mud that can cause it to defile God’s ark. But Uzzah was a sinful human being defiled by sin who arrogantly supposed that his hands were cleaner before God than the dirt and water. And God was forced to strike him down for an act of such spiritual arrogance.

In The Holiness of God Sproul writes, “Uzzah was not an innocent man. He was not punished without a warning. He was not punished without violating a law. There was no caprice in this act of divine judgment. There was nothing arbitrary or whimsical about what God did in that moment. But there was something unusual about it. The execution’s suddenness and finality take us by surprise and at once shock and offend us.” The reason we are shocked and surprised and offended is simply that we do not understand as we should God’s holiness, justice, sin and grace. Were we to better understand the character of God we would see immediately why God had to act as He did.

Stacey found the character of God behind the words of the Old Testament and behind the acts of God they describe. “I am still reading the minor prophets and where I once would have only seen wrath, I now see abundant grace and mercy, where I once would have been suspicious of God, I am now delighting in him, where I once would have been demanding answers from God, I am now examining my own heart for sin, where I once met with frustration and emptiness, I now find life for my soul.”

To understand the character of God is to understand His acts. To understand the character and acts of God is to find life for the soul.