Icons and Idols

2 Samuel 6

Last week we heard the story of the ancient Hebrew people demanding a king. Although this was not God’s original intention for them, and God warned them what would happen to their society if they got a king, they insisted. So God allowed them to have a king. The first king was Saul, whose only qualifications for the job were that he was tall and handsome. The second king of Israel was someone chosen not for his stature and good looks, but because he had the potential to lead the people in a way that honored their covenant with God. That person was David, who is mentioned more times in the Bible than anyone else. After years of fighting with Saul, David finally became king. This morning’s story takes place right after David has unified all 12 tribes, and won two battles with the Philistines, who were the arch enemies of the ancient Hebrews. After winning these battles, David consolidated his military and political power in the newly captured city of Jerusalem, and then began looking for a way to emotionally unify the people. He decided to do this by bringing an ancient religious symbol to his new city. So he set out to retrieve the ark of the covenant, which had been stored at one family’s house for at least 20 years. And that’s where today’s story begins. This morning, instead of hearing the whole story at once, I’m going to read a little, explain a little, and then read a little more. The reading begins in Second Samuel chapter 6, verses 1 through 5.

2 Samuel 6:1-5

“David gathered all the elite soldiers of Israel, thirty thousand men total. David and all the people with him set out for Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.”

Let’s pause here for a little more context. Since we aren’t the original audience for this story, there’s some important cultural and historical details here that we can miss. First of all, a little refresher on the ark of God. The ark of God, also known as the ark of the covenant, was a big box that God instructed the the ancient Hebrews to build while they were wandering in the desert after escaping slavery in Egypt. It was a tangible reminder that God’s presence was traveling with them, that they worshipped a God who could not be contained and was always on the move. It held the stone tablets with the 10 commandments written on them, and was covered by a lid carved with two angels. The only appropriate way to transport the ark was to have priests carry it on poles. When the ark was handled properly, it took time, and it required the handlers to remember that they had received direction from God, the God that hovers above the lid and is not contained in the box. The ark was an icon, a visible physical tangible object designed to remind people of God and God’s presence. Icons remind us that God’s power is all around us, and not under our control.

The religious objects of the other nations were idols, physical objects which people believe contain an actual spirit with power. Idols are actually way more useful to humans than icons because idols make us think we are in control. With idols, we think we know where the power is located. We can set it up where we want to and handle it the way we want to and feel confident that the power is contained in a specific spot, and we can come visit it when we want to. We love to be in control and to think we can anticipate or even manipulate what God can and will do. In the Bible, idolatry is the sin that people fall into most often. The ancient Hebrew people fell very easily into the habits and customs of the nations around them. And those nations had idols. So eventually, the Hebrew people started treating their icon like an idol. 

Second, why is the ark at Abinadab’s house instead of being where the ancient Hebrews usually worshipped God? (Note: see 1 Samuel 4-7 for background) At least 20 years before this story takes place, even before Saul was king, the ancient Hebrews were in another battle against their enemies the Philistines. The Hebrews were losing so they decided to get the ark out of their place of worship and take it with them into battle. They remembered that the ark had been present at some of their great military victories in the past, like the fall of Jericho. But they forgot that in those situations God had instructed them to carry the ark with them. This time was different because they made the decision on their own, without any instruction from God. They used the ark as a superstitious weapon, as an idol, the same way the Philistines treated their gods. They hoped it would bring them luck, but they lost the battle and the Philistines captured the ark.

The ark wasn’t lucky for the Philistines either. Everywhere the ark went in Philistine territory, the people experienced sickness and plagues, so they finally sent the ark back to Israel on a cart pulled by cows (sound familiar?). The Israelites who received it also disrespected it and suffered deadly consequences. They got rid of it by sending it off the house of Abinadab where it stayed for 20 years, until David decides to bring it back into the public eye.

David is a complicated character in the Bible. On one hand, bringing the ark to Jerusalem is a really calculated political move. He’s trying to get the conservatives on board with his new government by bringing religion and politics into the same city. But everything we’ve seen about David so far also indicates that he genuinely loves God and has a sincere desire to follow God’s ways. 

The problem in this situation seems to be that, just like 20 years before when the Israelites took the ark into battle without consulting God, David doesn’t slow down long enough to ask God for direction. There’s no discernment here; there’s just David, acting on his good intentions.

Even when we have good intentions, acting without discerning is foolish. David doesn’t follow the guidelines for handling the ark. Remember, those guidelines were designed to remind the people that they were handling something that symbolized God’s presence, but was not a power they could control. And David doesn’t follow any of those guidelines. He takes soldiers instead of priests. He puts the ark on a cart instead of having it carried by people. He transports it in the open instead of covering it. In short, David handles the ark the way the nations around him handled their gods. He treats it like an idol, assuming that by physically controlling the ark he is controlling God’s power. Acting without discerning is not only foolish, sometimes it’s dangerous. So we shouldn’t be totally surprised when tragedy strikes.

2 Samuel 6:6-11

“When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God to steady it, because the oxen stumbled. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. David was angry because the Lord had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah. David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?’So David was unwilling to take the ark of the Lord into his care in Jerusalem; instead David took it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months; and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.”

This is the really troubling part of the passage, but we need to remember that this description of God is consistent with how the ancient Hebrew people viewed God. All ancient people believed that gods were always the active agents in things that seemed outside human control. They don’t have any other explanation for what happened here. But didn’t this guy do a good thing by stopping the ark from falling? Maybe. The point is, if David, as the leader, had carefully considered this trip in the first place, this wouldn’t have happened. David was doing things the way he wanted to do them, instead of the way that was guaranteed to remind the people of the God who loved them and was with them. 

Something about this tragedy is clarifying for David. It reminds him who God really is. What we see here is that the ever-present God is alive again in the situation. God has been silent so far in this story, not active. The ark has just been a magic box, or an important relic, or an idol. But in this moment, David realizes again what he really has, and it makes him reconsider his actions. David and the people had not taken the actual God into account, but they have to now. This tragedy makes it very clear for David that he has not fully considered this project. The full reality of the situation comes crashing down on him and he’s angry and terrified. Anger is usually the emotion that presents when the deeper emotion is fear. 

David abandons his plan and abandons the ark at the house of a man who is probably ironically a Philistine. We don’t know who this person is or why David takes the ark to him. But the story says this foreigner receives blessing directly from God because he’s caring for the ark of God. It’s another reminder that God is not always going to act as we expect. 

This whole section of the story is full of the mystery and ambiguity that we experience living on this earth. We can try to explain it away, or we can try to only accept what we are comfortable with and what benefits us. Or we can sit with it, in all its complexity, knowing that we don’t sit in it alone. Let’s read the last part of the story.

2 Samuel 6:12-19

“It was told to King David, ‘The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.’ So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might; wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the shofar trumpet. They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.”

After months of waiting, David decides to try again to bring the ark to Jerusalem. But this time he changes a few things. His last experience with the ark has stayed with him and he’s given some thought about how he wants it to go this time. This time the text says that people are carrying the ark, presumably the way they are supposed to. David is dressed as a priest and is making sacrifices. He’s still dancing, but this time, instead of the cacophony of instruments mentioned the first time, his soundtrack is the sound of the traditional shofar. This is the ram’s horn trumpet that the ancient Israelites carried with them and used in their worship and their important moments. 

Apparently these differences are enough, because the ark makes it to the city, where it is installed in the traditional tent and commemorated with the appropriate sacrifices. David is able to bless the people in the name of God. This is a huge moment, not just for David, but for all of Israel. The text is clear that everyone is included in this celebration. Men and women are both blessed, and everyone is fed. It hasn’t been a smooth journey, but the ark of God is once again in the center of Israel’s religious life, reminding God’s people of the presence and provision of Yahweh, the Lord of Hosts, enthroned above the cherubim, true King of Israel and defender of foreigners.

So what’s the point of all this? Well, as always there are lots of options. But this morning I’d like you to hear the cautionary tale of treating holy things in unholy ways. Are we treating the holy things in our lives as though they are no big deal? Do we come to worship like it’s just another thing that happens in our week? Do we read our prayers and sing our songs like they are just words on a page or a screen? Or do we come with a sense of anticipation, really trusting that in this place, with these people, through these holy texts and songs and prayers, we could actually encounter the real presence of the God whose name we can’t even speak? 

When we say that our faith is the most important thing to us, that we want to put God first in our families, is that obvious from our daily lives, from the way we spend our time and our money? When we make decisions, are we practicing discernment, seeking God’s direction, or just going off our good intentions?

What about our bodies, these temples of the Holy Spirit and image bearers of God? Are we treating ourselves and one another with reverence and gratitude and honor? Are we allowing ourselves to rest and eating well? Are we treating other people like resources to be used, or are we honoring their individuality and ability to reveal God to us?

Now we don’t want to go overboard with this story, to the point of being afraid that God is going to smite us for every little mistake. That’s not healthy and it’s not really a fair representation of God. This story is the culmination of years of unhealthy patterns. And as we discussed last week, much of what the Bible describes as “God’s wrath” is often simply God giving us over to the natural consequences of our choices. This is another reminder that it’s always a good time for repentance. That word has been coopted and misused in our culture and I’d like for us to reclaim it. It simply means to think again, to turn around and go the other way, to change directions. And that is God’s perpetual invitation to us. No matter what we’re currently in the middle of doing, we can always think again. There is nothing that we have done or has been done to us that God can’t redeem. God’s love and grace is always being extended to us. The holy is always waiting for us to take notice and shape our lives in ways that reflect the reality that we have been blessed to be a blessing. Amen. 

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