The Ark of the Covenant was an important part of the sanctuary where the people of Israel met with God because it contained the mercy seat which was necessary for atonement of sins to be made (Leviticus 16:15-17). God told Moses, “There I will meet with you, and from above he mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel” (Exodus 25:22). In the early years of Samuel’s ministry, “The Israelites treated the ark as a kind of magic charm instead of the testimony of God’s presence and power” (note on 1 Samuel 4:3). The Israelites brought the Ark of the Covenant into their camp during a battle with the Philistines thinking it might save them from the power of their enemies (1 Samuel 4:3), but “there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. And the ark of God was captured” (1 Samuel 4:10-11). The ark was in the country of the Philistines seven months (1 Samuel 6:1) and then, it was voluntarily returned to the Israelites because “the LORD was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors” (1 Samuel 5:6). First Samuel 7:1-2 states, “And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the LORD. From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD.”
One of the first things that David did after he became king over all Israel was to bring up the ark of God from the house of Abinadab. It says in 2 Samuel 6:3-10:
And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart, with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark.
And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. And David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. And David was afraid of the Lord that day, and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” So David was not willing to take the ark of the Lord into the city of David. But David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite.
“The severe judgment on Uzzah, despite his good intentions, served notice to the people of Israel that God must be revered and obeyed. Uzzah showed disrespect for the Lord by touching the ark (Numbers 4:15). Furthermore, as one of the priests, he was disobeying God by letting the ark be carried on a cart. The ark was supposed to be carried by priests upon staves or poles (Exodus 25:12-15). Uzzah’s actions illustrate that one is often led into additional error and disastrous consequences by disobeying God’s specific instructions” (note on 2 Samuel 6:7).
David was angry because the LORD had broken out against Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:8), but later realized that his enthusiasm to bring the ark of God to Jerusalem didn’t excuse him from doing it the right way. David explained to the priests and the Levites before they made a second attempt, “Because you did not carry it the first time, the LORD our God broke out against us, because we did not seek him according to the rule” (1 Chronicles 15:13). The New Living Translation of 1 Chronicles 15:13 indicates that the problem with David’s attempt to move the ark was that he didn’t ask God how to do it properly. When the Philistines returned the ark to Israel, they transported it to Beth-shemesh on a new cart pulled by two milk cows that had never been yoked and had just had their calves taken away from them (1 Samuel 6:7). The Philistines did this so that they would know if the hand of the LORD had struck them or “it happened to us by coincidence” (1 Samuel 6:9). “It is normally difficult for even cows who have been trained to be driven straight down a road when their calves have just been taken away from them. In this case, the cows did follow a straight line, carrying the ark back to the Israelites, which revealed that their behavior was controlled by God” (note on 1 Samuel 6:7-12). The Philistines success in transporting the ark on a new cart may have influenced David’s decision to do the same, but the mistake that David made was assuming that he didn’t have to transport the Ark of the Covenant the way that God had instructed the people of Israel to do it.
The Hebrew word that is translated seek in the phrase “we did not seek him according to the rule” (1 Chronicles 15:13) is darash (daw-rashˊ), which means to consult or ask. “One of the most frequent uses of this word is in the expression ‘to inquire of God,’ which sometimes indicates a private seeking of God in prayer for direction (Genesis 25:22), and often it refers to the contacting of a prophet who would be the instrument of God’s revelation (1 Samuel 9:9; 1 Kings 22:8). At other times the expression is found in connection with the use of Urim and Thummim by the high priest as he sought to discover the will of God by the throwing of these sacred stones (Numbers 27:21)” (H1875). David inquired of the LORD on numerous occasions (1 Samuel 23:2, 4; 30:8; 2 Samuel 2:1; 5:19, 23), and yet, he did not do so in this instance. It could be that his enthusiasm to bring the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem overshadowed David’s sense of dependence upon God. 2 Samuel 6:20-23 suggests that David was humbled by his tragic mistake. It says in 2 Samuel 6:14 that David “danced before the LORD with all his might” as the ark came into the city of David. Afterward, David’s wife Michal accused him of being one of the vulgar fellows who shamelessly uncovers himself (2 Samuel 6:20), but David responded, “I celebrate before the Lord. Yes, and I am willing to look even more foolish than this, even to be humiliated in my own eyes!” (2 Samuel 6:21-22, NLT)