(2 Sam. 6:7) Why does God kill Uzzah for trying to protect the Ark of God?

CLAIM: 2 Samuel states “Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled” (2 Sam. 6:6). However, as a result, God “struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God” (v.7). Why was God so severe in this passage?

RESPONSE: If you are bothered or offended by this event, you are in good company. Even David “became angry because of the Lord’s outburst against Uzzah” (v.8). Therefore, this is truly a hard saying to grasp! What is happening in this passage?

To put it simply, God’s severity was in reaction to the flippancy with which David chose to transport the Ark.

David formerly looked for counsel in big decisions (2 Sam. 5:19, 23), but we do not find those words here in this section. Instead, the parallel account in 1 Chronicles states that “David consulted with the captains… even with every leader” (1 Chron. 13:1). God had commanded that the Ark should be moved with poles—not on a cart (Num. 4:6). God was very clear on his stipulations for carrying the Ark. God warned the priests, “They will not touch the holy objects [or they will] die” (Num. 4:15; cf. vv.19-20).

David had the novel idea to put the Ark on a “new cart” (2 Sam. 6:3). When the Philistines moved the Ark, none of them were killed (1 Sam. 5:1). But what was the difference between the two? It seems clear that God didn’t judge the Philistines, because they didn’t know better. But the people of Israel were judged because they did know better.

By way of practical application, this passage informs us that we can’t trust our spiritual leaders to make our decisions for us. In this situation, Uzzah could have said, “I was just following orders! David told me to do it!” But clearly God held Uzzah responsible for his own decision to move the Ark in this way.

Human beings typically try to coerce religious objects to perform their will. While we do not know Uzzah’s motive for reaching for the Ark, his actions could have led to further consequences of which he was unaware. Consider a similar situation: A believer has good motives to reach his friend for Christ. The Christian tells his friend that they are going to a keg party on Friday night, but he actually takes him to a Bible study. Is God obligated to work through this situation? Not necessarily. Of course, God could work through such a “bait-and-switch,” but this isn’t God’s usual way. That is, we need to learn to do God’s work in God’s way. By repeatedly giving in to pragmatic strategies, our mission could easily get distracted. This was a new era in Israel’s history. As a result, God was acting in a particularly strict fashion to ensure that they followed his directions. Walter Kaiser writes, “Surely this passage warns that it is not enough to have a worthy purpose and a proper spirit when we enter into the service of God; God’s work must also be performed in God’s way. Pursuing the right end does not automatically imply using the right means.”[1] We concur.

[1] Kaiser, Walter C. Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988. See “2 Samuel 6:6–7 Why Did God Destroy Uzzah?”