Enthusiasm vs. Ritual – a lesson from 2 Samuel 6

This is a version of my sermon given at Grace Anglican Church on 15 July 2012.

In 2 Samuel 6, we see the story of the Ark of the Covenant being brought into Jerusalem.  It’s kind of interesting, we haven’t heard about the Ark in a while – Saul seemed to do nothing about it while he was king.  ‘Tis probably a sign of his lack of religious fervor and devotion to the God of Israel.  Whateverso, King David, now that he’s established his capitol in a tribally-neutral city, has decided to bring the Ark – the presence of God – into Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is not only to be the political capitol, but the religious capitol as well!  As one Catholic Commentary says,

Jerusalem is to be not only the political but also the religious centre – leading up to the climax in the Oracle of Nathan (ch 7).  This is the starting point of that momentous development in OT and NT which sees Jerusalem, ‘city of the great king’, as the centre, both in reality and in type, where man meets his God…

But something goes wrong: the cart that’s carrying the Ark shakes around, and a man named Uzzah valiantly tries to stead the Ark, and is instantly struck down dead for it!  Touching the Ark was forbidden, after all.  But his intentions were good, so how is this fair?

A careful reading of the entirety of chapter 6 reveals an interesting dynamic of spirituality.  It’s basically a big Venn Diagram:

Part 1 – On Enthusiasm

The first 11 verses of the chapter give the story of the first attempt at moving the Ark to Jerusalem.  It’s characterized by great enthusiasm but a distinct lack of ritual.  When in transit, the Ark is supposed to be supported by poles carried by Levites, not stuck on the back of an ox-drawn cart.  If it had been carried correctly, the whole incident with Uzzah’s sudden death would have been avoided.  But as it happened, he died, and David was angry – feeling both personal guilt for overlooking the Law as well as political shame for this public slap in the face by God.

There’s that expression “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  It’s not in the Bible, and it’s a bit of an overstatement here, but it conveys the right idea – simply intending to honor God was not enough here:

How many in the past and more so today act like Uzzah when in service for God they employ the methods of the world and disregard entirely His Word.  Godly fear and faithful submission to the Word of God are essentials in true service for God.  Service without these is often a snare and results in dishonor.  – the Annotated Bible vol I, p202

A more specific spiritual application for us, then, is the importance of recognizing God’s holiness in our worship and in our lives:

David learned that he was not free to do as he liked with the ark; still less could he manipulate the God represented by the ark… [Uzzah’s death] also taught them that respect for God’s holiness was essential to the well-being of the community. – New Bible Commentary, p320.

For example, in our own prayers today, we ought to be sure to keep that healthy balance of understanding our relationship with God.

Though Jesus taught us to call God “our Father,” he also taught us to pray “hallowed be thy name,” implying the need to pay careful attention lest privilege becomes presumption….  is such reverence was due to the symbol [the Ark], with how much greater reverence should the realities of the Christian covenant be regarded? -Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, 1 and 2 Samuel, p223

Thus when we enter into worship, especially in preparation for the Eucharist, we make sure we share a liturgy that prepares us appropriately.  We confess our sins, we acknowledge our unworthiness, we prostrate ourselves before God’s throne and submit to the reading and preaching of His Word.  Yet we also praise Him for His faithfulness, steadfast love, the work of redemption that frees us from sin and gives us hope beyond death, and raises us to the status of His own adopted children!

Part 2 – On Enthusiasm & Ritual

Having learned his lesson, King David again calls for the Ark to be brought to Jerusalem.  The first ’round  he was “celebrating before the Lord” – a word that connotes unrestrained exuberance, perhaps suggesting that his enthusiasm had gotten the better of him.  But now in this second round, he still “danced before the Lord with all his might” – clearly no less enthusiastic than before!  The difference is that this time, his enthusiasm was combined with the proper ritual.  The parallel account in 1 Chronicles makes this explicit: he made sure that Levites were carrying the Ark on poles this time.

Perhaps an even better illustration of this union of enthusiasm and ritual comes in 1 Chronicles 16, wherein David sings a song of praise to God.  On one hand it’s a song of praise, clearly an enthusiastic heart-felt act of worship, but on the other hand it’s comprised of excerpts from three different Psalms which may well have already existed – Psalm 105:1-15, Psalm 96, and Psalm 106:1, 47-48.  Even Psalm 47, which was written later, looks back on this event with a sense of enthusiastic wonder, while giving it formal expression in psalmody.

Part 3 – On Ritual

In verses 16-23 of 2 Samuel 6, the story turns to Michal’s reaction to all this.  It’s very telling that she’s described as “Saul’s daughter” rather than “David’s wife.”  She was one of David’s wives, but the author wanted to point out that her behavior is more in line with Saul than with David.  She scorns David’s enthusiasm, probably thinking he shouldn’t be mixing with the people, and should just oversee the formalities.  She’s fine with the ritual, but despises the enthusiasm injected into it.  This illustrates precisely the opposite problem that David first made, and for which Uzzah died.

For this sin in her heart, Michal is cursed by God with barrenness.  Just as David’s initial sin resulted in loss of life (the death of Uzzah), so also has Michal’s sin resulted in loss of life (no children).  At the end of the day, being a slave to empty ritualism is just as bad as working up a disorderly enthusiasm!  Does one of these extremes bother you more?  Would you rather see beautifully ordered worship than crazy off-the-wall pentecostal worship?  Would you rather see the Spirit free to work spontaneously among his people than a stifling old liturgy?  This story of David and Michal, and their corresponding mistakes on either side of that spectrum reminds us that we cannot take sides in this polarity, but must seek a healthy balance of both.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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