I preached this sermon at the Carmel New Church in Kitchener, Ontario, on July 18, 2010.
BRINGING THE ARK TO JERUSALEM
A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn
This morning we read the story of David taking the ark to Jerusalem, and the sad story of Uzzah touching the ark. But the story actually begins long before our reading takes place, before David was king, before his predecessor Saul was king, when Samuel had just become the leader over Israel – decades before the story in our reading took place. In those days, the ark was captured by the Philistines, but it brought curses on them, and so they returned it to the people of Israel. The people of Israel took it and brought it to the house of Abinidab on the hill. There the ark stayed for decades. Samuel grew old while the ark was there. Saul was anointed king, and then after him, David was anointed king, and all the while, the ark was in the care of Abinadab and his household.
It stayed there for seven even after David had become king, while he was ruling Israel from the city of Hebron. It was not until David finally conquered Jerusalem in the seventh year of his reign that he called for them to bring the ark to Mount Zion, the site of Jerusalem, which was then called the city of David.
This story is a literal history of the movement of the ark. But like all the stories in the Word, it contains an internal sense that is about our spiritual lives. The progression of the ark represents our spiritual progression – our progression from being merely natural, to being spiritual, to finally being celestial. The ark represents the Lord’s presence with us along the entire journey, and especially His Divine Truth, or His Word, because the ark contained the Ten Commandments, which are the heart of the Word.
In our story, the ark began in the home of Abinidab in Baale-Judah, in Gibeah, where it had been for decades. This represents the most external things of the church in a person. This is where we all begin. Here we view the Ten Commandments mostly as rules to be obeyed. This is where we spend our childhood, growing up and learning about the Lord. We act according to a sense of obedience rather than charity or love.
As we follow the teachings of the commandments on a natural level, we begin to move. The ark leaves the house of Abinidab towards the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. We progress from mere obedience toward acting from love toward our neighbour – from the natural to the spiritual. The home of Obed-Edom represents the spiritual with us, when we are acting from charity toward the neighbour. And the final destination is Mount Zion, which represents celestial love – acting not only from obedience, not only from charity toward the neighbour, but from a deep and abiding love for the Lord.
In this summary, it sounds like a simple progression. But it’s not always as simple as that. The journey was far from straightforward, and it contained both joy and heartbreak. When the ark first left the house of Abinadab, it was placed on a new cart drawn by oxen, and driven by the sons of Abinadab, Uzzah and Ahio. From the outset of the journey, there was music and rejoicing. We read, “Then David and all the house of Israel played music before Jehovah on all kinds of instruments of fir wood, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on sistrums, and on cymbals.” The book Apocalypse Explained tells us that the playing on these instruments represents “the gladness and joy that result from the affection of truth and good from the Lord through the influx of Divine truth.” They represent the gladness that comes along with enjoying the truth on a natural level and on a spiritual level. From the very beginning of our journey, we experience satisfaction in learning truth from the letter of the Word, and as we progress, we experience the pleasure that comes from living by the Word and treating our neighbour with charity. That is the music of the instruments that accompanies the ark.
When we start to follow the Word – when the ark starts to move – we usually notice that it just works for our lives. Our interactions with other people start to become more pleasant. Right from the beginning, there is pleasure and happiness associated with learning and doing the truth. If there weren’t, it would be impossible to motivate ourselves to continue – the ark couldn’t move by itself. The oxen that were pulling the ark represent natural good – that is, the pleasure and enjoyment that come from following the literal sense of the Word. For example, if you decide to start being more honest – from the first day you start, there’s just a natural sense of peace from the fact that you don’t have to worry so much about thinking of lies. Even though you’ve just started your journey, you already start to see some benefits.
At the beginning of the ark’s journey, everything went smoothly. But after some time, something seemed to go wrong: the oxen that were drawing the ark stumbled.
Remember, the oxen represent that natural good. At first, following the Word just seems to work, and it makes you happy. But as time goes by, you might find that it’s not making you as happy as before. Even though you were excited about reading the Word, and it gave you pleasure, now you’re starting to come across things that are hard to understand, or that are hard to accept. It seems that the oxen are stumbling – something just seems wrong.
Recall what happens in the story. At the threshing floor of Nachon, the oxen stumble, and the ark begins to slip. Abinidab’s son Uzzah, who has been accompanying the ark, puts out his hand to touch it – and he is immediately struck down dead. In the historical sense, this happened because Uzzah was breaking a commandment, that only a consecrated priest could touch the holy things. But it’s also a picture of the way we can do ourselves harm by trying to “steady the ark” – trying to “fix” what the Word says if it doesn’t seem to match up with what we’d like it to say.
Think about Uzzah’s life. He was the son of Abinadab, in whose house the ark had been stored for so many years. He had grown up with the ark in his house. And he and his brother were charged with taking care of it as it made its way from their home to its new home in Jerusalem. He probably felt a special sense of closeness with it. And all of this so far is good. Uzzah, for the most part, seems to represent something good in us. David wept for him when he died. And Arcana Coelestia says that he represents, “the truth that ministers to good.” He seems to represent our understanding of truth. He represents something good – but he makes one mistake – he touched the ark and tried to steady it. If we put ourselves in his place, it’s easy to understand why he would do so. If the ark fell, he might have been embarrassed. He was used to having it around – although he knew it was holy, it was also a familiar thing. It seemed perfectly natural to try to steady it, to keep it from falling.
But in doing so, he put his faith in his own abilities, rather than trusting that the Lord’s Word could take care of itself. And we can find ourselves in a very similar position. We have the Lord’s Word with us always. We know that it is holy and true. And yet there are times when we “put out our hand to steady it” – and in doing so we put our faith in ourselves, rather than in the Word.
Remember, when the oxen stumble, it is a time when the Word suddenly seems to stop being so enjoyable, or it seems to have something wrong – it’s about to fall over. Maybe it makes a statement about the difference between men and women that makes us cringe a little. Maybe it says something about love-of-self that seems to contradict what psychology says. And in cases like that, we might be tempted to put out our hands to steady it. We might say, “Oh, it doesn’t really mean that.” We’re a little embarrassed for it – we don’t want other people to know what it says, and we’re quick to explain it away. And we can explain away things that don’t seem to be working in our lives. We’ve decided to stop lying, for instance, and we’re finding that telling the truth, while rewarding at first, is just getting us into trouble. We might tell ourselves, “Well, there must be some exceptions – the Word can’t really mean we’re supposed to be honest all the time.”
This tendency comes from a fundamental error. When we live with the Word for a long time – and especially for us in the New Church, when we are familiar with a revelation that is unknown to most people – we can start to feel like it belongs to us. If there is something a little off-putting about it, we feel embarrassed about it, because we feel like we’re somehow responsible for it – that it is a reflection of us, rather than the other way around. This may have been a little how Uzzah felt – remember, the ark had been in his family’s possession for years and years and years. The Writings tell us that Uzzah reaching out with his hand represents trying to approach the Word from our own power, what is our own, from our proprium – which is closely related to a sense of ownership.
We usually talk about a sense of ownership as a positive thing when it comes to religion. And it’s true that we have to have a sense that our religion is our own rather than someone else’s. But we belong to the Lord – the Lord does not belong to us. We have discovered the Writings, and they have touched us, and they speak to us – but they do not belong to us, any more than the ark belonged to Uzzah. And we cannot “steady” them – we cannot try to “fix” what they say – without doing ourselves serious harm. The end of the book of Revelation forbids anyone to add or take away anything from the words of that book – it is specifically talking about the book of Revelation, but the truth applies to the entire Word.
We cannot change the Word to make it more palatable. But this does not mean that Uzzah does not have his place. We need to have an understanding of truth to carry the ark, to lead us in following the Lord. And sometimes this understanding of truth does involve resolving seeming contradictions in the Word. Some people have accused the Writings of doing precisely what is forbidden in the story of Uzzah and at the end of Revelation, of denying the hard truths in the literal sense of the Word. For example, the Writings say that the Lord is never angry – despite clear statements to the contrary in the Old Testament. Are the Writings just trying to “steady the ark,” to make an unpleasant truth more palatable? Now, the Writings are a new revelation, so their interpretation of the Old and New Testaments is not really the same as a person doing it on his own. They are not a human hand but a Divine hand touching the ark.
But the Writings indicate that even without a new revelation, the Christian church could have known that God was never angry. How would coming to this conclusion be different from reaching out to touch the ark? The big difference is that the conclusion that God is never angry is itself drawn from the Word, rather than from a person’s own intelligence, or from a desire to “fit in” with the cultural mores. A person needs to use their understanding and enlightenment to see the governing truths in the Word, and to see other statements as appearances of truth. So, for example, the truth is clearly expressed in the Old and New Testament that the Lord loves the world; that the Lord does not desire the death of anyone; and in short, that God is love. A person can use reason to say, “Anger as I know it contains hatred within it; and so when it says God is angry, it must mean a different kind of anger from human anger – a kind of anger that is completely free from a desire to hurt anyone.” This kind of thinking is permitted, because it is from the Word, and not from one’s own power.
But it’s easier, when we come across a difficult teaching in the Word, to start from the assumption that it’s wrong, and try to make it fit what we already believe – rather than allowing it to change what we believe. When we start to do that – to guide ourselves from our own intelligence, rather than from the Word – we seriously harm something inside of ourselves. Uzzah represents our understanding of truth. And as soon as we believe that we are able to know truth of ourselves without the Word, we die. When Adam and Eve were in the garden of Eden, the Lord forbade them to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – and told them that if they ate of it, they would die. Why would He forbid them from eating of a tree of knowledge? Isn’t knowledge good? The reason is that tree did not really represent knowledge – it represented the attitude that a person has knowledge and wisdom from himself, that he can figure things out on his own, without needing the Word. And it’s this kind of attitude that leads to death. And it’s this kind of attitude that leads us to try to “steady the ark” – to say to ourselves, however subtly, “Well, the Word doesn’t really know what it’s talking about here – it’s not going to work to do it that way, so I’ll do it my own way.” If we follow that path, we put ourselves above the Word.
It’s easy to do. And that’s scary. How do we know when we’re “correcting the Word” from our own intelligence versus re-examining it from the Lord? There’s not an easy solution. It involves a lot of prayer, a lot of self-examination and reflection, and above all honesty with oneself.
David was frightened by the power of the ark after it killed Uzzah, and he stopped its journey. When we are reminded what is at stake in religion – that it is eternal life or an eternity in hell – religion can be so frightening that we stop in our tracks. It seems too big for us. It can make us afraid to even go to the Word – it’s too painful, or it would be too painful, to honestly look at all the ways we ignore what it says. It is no wonder that David no longer wanted the ark to come to him.
But while the ark is with Obed-Edom, it does not curse him. It blesses him! And this encourages David. In the same way, we can call to mind that the Word is NOT there to condemn us. The Lord said He did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world from its sins. And so we can continue on our spiritual journey. It takes a lot of courage – when we believe all the things the Word says about heaven and hell, about the possibility of backsliding – it can be scary. But when we remember that it is there to give us life, and give it to us more abundantly, we can set out again. We can rededicate ourselves to our mission, and continue to try bring the Word into our lives. David went before the ark dancing and shouting. The Word can give us greater joy than anything else in the world. We may still carry fear, but our fear is transformed into a holy fear – not a fear that we will be condemned, but a fear of doing any harm to the things that are of the Lord. We can follow the ark, and let it lead us, and trust that it will bring us further and further into heaven – that is, further and further into charity toward our neighbour and love toward the Lord. “So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of Jehovah with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet.”
Lessons: 2 Samuel 6:1-15; Revelation 22:12-19; Arcana Coelestia 8944
AC 8944. It is believed in the world that a person is able to know from the light of nature, thus without revelation, many things that belong to religion; as that there is a God, that He is to be worshipped, and also that He is to be loved, likewise that a person will live after death, and many other things that depend upon these; and yet these things being such as are from self-intelligence. But I have been instructed by much experience that of himself, and without revelation, a person knows nothing whatever about Divine things, and about the things that belong to heavenly and spiritual life. For a person is born into the evils of the love of self and of the world, which are of such a nature that they shut out the influx from the heavens, and open influx from the hells; thus such as make a person blind, and incline him to deny that there is a Divine, that there is a heaven and a hell, and that there is a life after death. This is very manifest from the learned in the world, who by means of knowledges have carried the light of their nature above the light of others; for it is known that these deny the Divine, and acknowledge nature in place of the Divine, more than others; and also that when they speak from the heart, and not from doctrine, they deny the life after death, likewise heaven and hell, consequently all things of faith, which they call bonds for the common people. From this it is plain what is the quality of the light of nature without revelation. It has also been shown that many who have written upon natural theology, and from the light of their nature have skillfully confirmed those things which belonged to the doctrine of their church, in the other life at heart deny these same things more than others do; and also deny the Word itself, which they attempt utterly to destroy; for in the other life hearts speak. It has also been shown that the same can receive nothing of influx out of heaven, but only from the hells. Hence it was plain what is the quality of the light of nature without revelation; consequently what is the quality of that which comes from a person’s own intelligence.