And when they came to Nachon’s threshingfloor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it.
And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God.
In 2 Samuel chapter 6, David got the bright idea to move the ark of the covenant to his city. He knew that the ark has been in times past a harbinger of great blessings. But neither David nor any of the others he involved in his plan bothered to consider the strict guidelines the Lord had established for transporting the ark. Uzzah was one appointed to help with the move. Unfortunately when the ark shook and Uzzah put forth to steady the ark, the Lord struck him dead for touching the ark.
In our modern era this episode is often cited as an example that people without authority shouldn't seek to "steady the ark" or direct how the Church is moving. D&C 85 started this line of thinking, but it's still taught regularly. Take for example this quote from the Old Testament Institute Student Manual:
“Uzzah’s offence consisted in the fact that he had touched the ark with profane feelings, although with good intentions, namely to prevent its rolling over and falling from the cart. Touching the ark, the throne of the divine glory and visible pledge of the invisible presence of the Lord, was a violation of the majesty of the holy God. ‘Uzzah was therefore a type of all who with good intentions, humanly speaking, yet with unsanctified minds, interfere in the affairs of the kingdom of God, from the notion that they are in danger, and with the hope of saving them.’"(Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 2:2:333.)
The quote above is then followed by this commentary:
"In modern revelation, the Lord made reference to this incident to teach that very principle (see D&C 85:8). The Lord is in His heavens and does not need the help of men to defend His kingdom. Yet in our own time we see those who fear the ark is tottering and presume to steady its course. We hear of those who are sure that women are not being treated fairly in the Church, of those who would extend some unauthorized blessing to those not yet ready, or of those who would change the established doctrines of the Church. Are these not ark-steadiers? The best intentions do not justify such interference with the Lord’s plan."
Taking away this lesson from the story of Uzzah is not inappropriate. However I'm afraid that we get so caught up in this one meaning that we miss other, perhaps more important, implications in the story.
Lesson 1--We are responsible for our own salvation
Uzzah's first mistake was not touching the ark. He should never have agreed to David's plan for moving the ark in the first place. We don't know for sure whether or not Uzzah was familiar with the law regarding ark transportation. If he wasn't, then his first mistake was not studying and seeking out God's will in the matter before acting. If he was aware of the strict commands regarding the ark but chose to move the ark anyway, then his first mistake was not standing up to David. (If this were the case, perhaps his first error was actually giving into vanity, for surely being asked to play such an important role in the king's festivities was a great honor.) If our leaders tell us to do something we know we shouldn't, we should be strong enough to express dissent. We can do this politely, but we need to do it.
I find it interesting that this scripture says, "And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error." Here the italics are not emphasis; here they mean this word is not in the original text. The italics means the translator using context has added this word to clarify what was missing from the text. From the context, it is very likely the author meant "his error". But what if the author actually meant "their error"? I'm not a Hebrew scholar. Perhaps there's no way that this could be read from the text. But given David's reaction, I think all there that day felt reprimanded.
Lesson 2--Our actions affect other people
It was David's plan to move the ark that resulted in Uzzah's death. It was not David's fault alone, that Uzzah died (see lesson 1). But David certainly bore some of the blame. And it is apparent from the text that Uzzah's death affected David. He took it personally. We see this in the second attempt at bringing the ark to his home. This time he orders the Levites only to move the ark. Speaking to them he says, because they did not move it the first time, "the Lord our God made a breach upon us, for that we sought him not after the due order" (1 Chron 15:13 emphasis added).
When we approach the scriptures we need to be careful not to assume we know the message they have to teach us, lest we miss other important truths.