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What Is Our Response To God’s Presence?

We need to recover the sense of reverence that ought to characterize those who gather in the holy presence of the living God. In many churches the fellowship is warm and the Bible teaching is faithful. But each week the people file in and out of what is labeled a “worship service” without ever coming close to sensing the holy presence of God. It’s easy to fall into the disease of “playing church,” of going through the motions of worship without encountering God.

Worship should be a reverent response to God’s holy presence. When we gather as God’s people, we gather unto the Lord Jesus who is in our midst. It is because of who He is, God in human flesh, and His work on the cross which satisfied the divine penalty for our sins, that we can draw near unto God.

The ark of the covenant was the symbol of God’s meeting with His people on the basis of atonement. The Lord told Moses, “there I will meet with thee” (Exodus 25:22). It was a type (or picture) of the Lord Jesus Christ. The materials of the ark, gold and wood, typified the person of Christ as both God and man. The function of the ark as the mercy-seat typified the work of Christ as the sacrificial lamb of God.

Since the ark was the visible symbol of the presence of God in the midst of His people, you would think that there would have been a uniform response of reverence on the part of all who were in the presence of the ark. But if you trace the history of the ark, you find quite different and instructive responses to its presence.

The Israelites: “A good luck charm” (1 Samuel 4). The worship of God was a dead ritual for most of Israel at this time. When they encountered difficulties with the Philistines, someone got the idea, “Let’s get the ark and carry it into battle” (1 Samuel 4:3,5-11). They were using it as a good luck charm. God allowed them to be defeated, and the ark was captured by the Philistines.

There are churchgoers in our day who are having problems in their lives, so they think, “I’ll go to church and maybe God will solve my problems.” But for them, worship is nothing more than a good luck charm to try to get God on their side. They know nothing of God’s holy presence.

The Philistines: “A plague” (1 Samuel 5). The Philistines set up the ark next to their god, Dagon, but the Lord caused their idol to fall down and break into pieces. Next, God struck them all with tumors and with mice (1 Samuel 5:6; 6:4-5). As you can imagine, the Philistines wanted to get rid of the ark as quickly as possible.

Even so, there are some who feel a plague of guilt when they come near a church where God’s presence is known. They are uncomfortable around those who manifest the presence of the Lord.

Abinadab: “Ho hum!” (1 Samuel 7:1-2; 2 Samuel 6:3). The Philistines sent the ark back to Israel on a cart, and it wound up in the house of Abinadab. It had been there for almost 70 years by David’s time. It is significant that we do not read of any results in Abinadab’s household for having the ark there all those years.

Some churchgoers are like that. They can come for years into a church where God is present, but it has no appreciable effect on their lives. You can be in the very presence of God and have it glance right off, if your heart isn’t seeking after Him.

Uzzah: “What’s the big deal?” (2 Samuel 6:6-7). As David and company moved the ark toward Jerusalem on an oxcart, the oxen stumbled and the ark almost fell to the dirt. Uzzah reached out his hand to steady it and God struck him dead on the spot. Some folks think that God was a bit touchy and harsh for doing this. What was so bad about what Uzzah did? Any wagon driver would have done the same with any valuable piece of furniture under his care, wouldn’t he?

Yes, and that was precisely Uzzah’s problem. He saw no difference between the ark and any other valuable article. He was overly familiar with that which was utterly sacred. Uzzah was the son (or grandson) of Abinadab. He had grown up with the ark in his home. It was commonplace to him: “What’s the big deal?” But he should have known that even the Levitical priests who carried the ark were not permitted to touch it, but carried it on poles inserted through rings attached to it.

Some in our day—often they are people who have grown up in the church—trifle with the things of God. God is commonplace to them. We need to gain the Bible’s perspective on God’s absolute holiness and man’s utter sinfulness. As R.C. Sproul points out, what Uzzah did was an act of arrogance. He “assumed that his hand was less polluted than the earth. But it wasn’t the ground or the mud that would desecrate the ark; it was the touch of man.” We need to take God seriously!

David: “Angry at God” (2 Samuel 6:8-10). David got angry at God and then he grew afraid—not a healthy fear of the Lord, but an unhealthy fear that caused him to draw back and ask, “How shall the ark of the Lord come to me?” There was some pride behind David’s anger. God had not done things David’s way. 

But the problem was that David hadn’t done things God’s way. Where had they gotten the idea of an oxcart? From the Philistines (1 Samuel 6:7)! Any time the church starts imitating the world in its worship, they can’t expect the Lord to give His blessing. What they ought to do is not get mad, but rather get on their faces and figure out why God’s blessing is not on their lives or on their church.

David’s wife Michal: “Don’t get fanatical!” (2 Samuel 6:16,20). Notice her relationship to the worship celebration: she was a spectator. Why wasn’t she a participant? She should have been down in the streets, rejoicing in the celebration. But instead she peeked out the window and got embarrassed by what she saw as David’s fanaticism.

The critics of true worshipers are always proud spectators, not humble participants. They’re concerned about what others may think. It doesn’t occur to them to be concerned about what God thinks.

Obededom: “Delighted in God” (2 Samuel 6:10-11). We’re not sure who Obededom was. But he had no problem bringing the ark to his house right after Uzzah was struck dead for touching it! Here was a man whose heart was right before the Lord.

How could it be that the same ark could be one man’s delight and another man’s death? How could the same ark be one man’s pleasure and another man’s plague? How could the same ark result in seven different responses from these various people?

The difference must not lie with the ark of God’s presence, but with the hearts of the people who were in contact with it. If that is so, where is your heart? Do you come on Sundays expecting to meet with God? One way to answer that question is to ask another question: How carefully do you prepare your heart for that meeting?

If you were granted an audience with the president, would you prepare yourself before you went, or would you just go into his office in your work clothes? If you’re going to meet with the holy God, should you not at least spend a few minutes beforehand preparing your heart? The Hebrews didn’t have a bad idea in beginning their Sabbath at sundown the night before. That way, they were ready for worship the following day. I find it helpful to spend a portion of Saturday night getting my heart ready for meeting with the Lord corporately on Sunday morning.

Would you worship any differently if Christ were watching you? Would you sing any differently if Christ were listening? Would you listen to His Word being preached more attentively if He were in the chair next to you? He is present, of course. The question is, are you aware of His presence? Do you come expecting Him to be present, expecting to meet with Him as we gather in His name?

—Adapted from “David,” Copyright 1993 by Steven J. Cole, All rights reserved