After 9 chapters of genealogy, the Chronicler begins his history with the death of Saul and the rise of David. The latter part of 1 Chronicles 12 describes the assembly of warriors from the twelve tribes to Hebron to celebrate David’s coronation as king. They have a three-day feast, with seven kinds of food brought from the farthest reaches of Israel on four different animals. There is joy in Israel.
Following on his own coronation and enthronement, David wants to ensure that the ark of the Lord comes to Jerusalem, his new capital city. David doesn’t make this decision autocratically; he consults the captains of thousands and hundreds, the wise men who serve as local judges and elders. He lays his proposal before them, with two conditions, “if it seems good to you” and “if it is from the Lord our God” (v. 2). He wants to bring everyone from Israel to transport the ark from its place in Gibeon to the central city of Jerusalem. This is the Lord’s ascension and enthronement. It’s a liturgical procession, which is also a political procession. They are shouting and singing and playing instruments “before God” (13:8) as the King of Israel ascends to His throne. It is the parousia of Yahweh. The goal is liturgical as well. David’s project won’t be complete until he sets up a permanent liturgy for the ark.
David is able to assemble a crowd, reaching to the southwesternmost part of the country in Shihor all the way up to the northwesternmost area in Hamath, the “entrance” to the land, the gateway between the land of Israel and the Gentile world to the east. This is going to be an event that not only fulfills the purpose of Israel but symbolizes their relationship with the nations. The ark is called the “ark of Elohim”; that is, they don’t use the specific Israelite name Jehovah or Yahweh, but the more universal name “God.”
In the Hebrew, David says, “let us break through (paratz) and send” or “let us spread out and send” (v. 2). It’s an unusual turn of phrase, and on one level has positive connotations. It evokes a use of the phrase in Genesis 28 (Sara Japhet, 1 & 2 Chronicles, 275), where the Lord promises Jacob at Bethel that his seed will “burst out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 28:14). David seems to be fulfilling that promise as he gathers the people from the corners of the land to share in the ascent of the throne.
As things turn out, the use of the word is ominous. As they are transporting the ark to Jerusalem, it starts to slide from the cart where it sits. Uzza, one of the men who is caring for the ark, reaches out to steady it. It happens at a threshing floor, a place where wheat and chaff are separated, a place of discrimination and judgment, a holy place. We aren’t even told that Uzza touched the ark, but reaching for it was enough: The Lord strikes and kills him, killing the celebration.
David is initially angry, angry at God. He was trying to do something good, something faithful. He was trying to seek God, something Saul had not done, and instead of approving and welcoming him, the Lord burst out against him. The Lord struck out, apparently at random, against a man who tried to keep the ark from toppling to the ground. David is angry at the Lord’s outburst; that’s the same root as the verb used in verse 2 (peretz) and it’s used twice: The Lord burst out an outburst. And that outburst gives the place its name: Peretz-Uzza, outburst against Uzza. David stops the procession and leaves the ark in the house of Obed-edom, who is identified as a “Gittite,” a native of the Philistine city of Gath.
In retrospect, David’s decision to “break out” and send to the tribes looks premature, presumptuous, impetuous. Because David “burst out” without proper preparation, the Lord “burst out” against David. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, burst for burst, peretz for peretz. When David consulted the assembly, he said: “If it seems good to do” and “if it is from the Lord.” It did seem good to the people. But it turns out that it was not from the Lord.
We’re not immediately told why this happened. That’s the end of the ark story for a while, and the Chronicler turns his attention to the expansion of David’s families and David’s wars with the Philistines. But it’s not the end of the story of the ark, and the Chronicler connects the two by repeating that same word paratz again. In 14:11, the chronicler uses the root four time. Twice it’s used in the name of the place where David fights the Philistines – Baal-Perazim means “Baal of the Outburst” or “Lord of the outburst. And in the brief account of the battle, we learn that the Lord breaks out against David’s enemies like a flood of water breaking through a barrier.
It’s the same word, the same sort of action, but what a difference! God is the God of the outburst; He is not tame, not controllable. He is dangerous and powerful and fearful. He is going to break out in one direction or another. When David brought the ark into Jerusalem, the Lord burst out against David’s servant Uzza. On the battlefield, the Lord bursts out against David’s enemies. Given a choice, David prefers the latter.
After David’s Philistine wars and some building projects, he tries again to bring the ark to Jerusalem. He has learned his lesson. He knows why the Lord broke out against Uzza. He tells the Levites, “Because you did not carry [the ark] at the first, the Lord our God made an outburst on us, for we did not seek Him according to the ordinance” (15:13). And so he makes the proper preparations for this second attempt. He appoints Levites to carry the ark, and tells them they have to carry it on their shoulders, not on a cart. He organizes Levites to sing and play instruments. The whole procession is put in the hands of the Levites who were designated to carry and care for the ark. In short, David handles the ark the way it’s supposed to be handled. He arranges for it to be carried “according to the ordinance.” He has the Levites carry the ark with poles “as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Lord’ (15:15).
This time, he’s successful. There is no outburst against David or the Levites. The Lord’s throne is taken to Jerusalem and placed in a royal tent, until Solomon can build a permanent home for it.
It’s possible for us to do something that seems good to us, something that we believe in all sincerity is the will of God, and find that God frustrates our efforts. To say something “seems good to us” is not identical to saying “it is from the Lord.” The way we tell the difference is by consulting the ordinances, by obeying the word of the Lord.
The passage holds important lessons for contemporary Christians. There is growing interest in liturgy among Evangelical Protestants. But we need to be conscious of the possibility that what “seems good to us” may not be “from God.” In my view, there has not been nearly enough attention given to the ordinances, to the Bible’s teaching and instruction about worship. Without that grounding in Scripture, the Evangelical interest in liturgy may turn out to be a passing fad.
Attending to the ordinance: That’s the way we can be sure that the Lord won’t burst out against us. It’s the only way to be sure that the Lord will burst out against our adversaries.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.