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Bible Commentaries

The Church Pulpit Commentary

1 Chronicles 21

Verse 2

THE IMPOTENCE OF NUMBERS

‘And David said to Joab and to the rulers of the people, Go, number Israel from Beer-sheba even to Dan, and bring the number of them to me, that I may know it.’

1 Chronicles 21:2

What was it that made David’s deed ungodly? The answer is that it was a departure from the place he held in the Kingdom of God. He was losing the heart which could make him say, ‘I am small and of no reputation, yet do I not forget Thy commandments.’ Judging by the remonstrances of David’s candid friend, Joab, he was moved by the hope that he should find the people big enough to cope with the nations about them on their own ground. Had they armies? So had he. He would hold his own on their terms. Could they fight? So could Israel. The world around should know that Israel was not to be despised. And the people themselves would appear to have shared David’s pride and ambition. They had prospered and were proud of their prosperity. David’s proposal was likely enough to be popular among the Israelites. They had now settled in the land. They would realise their material strength. Once they were a horde of freshly emancipated slaves. Now, a fixed people, they would let their reserve of strength be known. God might have given them in the past strange and unlikely victories; now they felt their feet, and would stand of their own strength. David must needs be assured of the resources of his kingdom, and the sum-total would be a proud reckoning for the people.

I. Now, such a mood, such a ranging of himself with neighbouring powers, was a grievous departure from David’s position as king of a chosen race.—He might not have known what it was then, but he had to be taught. Think for a moment how unique that race was. Nothing is more wonderful, or so wonderful, in history as the survival of the Jews. The Egyptians failed to destroy them; so did the Assyrians. The Babylonians, the mighty Persians, who overran Egypt itself, came and went; and after their power had risen and fallen the Jews remained. Other great nations of the Gentile world rose and fell; Greeks and Romans left the Jews as they were found.

There is nothing like it in the history of the world. This most wonderful phenomenon appears. One strain or thread of the human race, small and obscure compared with the nations around it, often trampled on in the march of history, has yet survived all the great powers of the ancient world. But more is to be noticed. It has remained, in one sense, stationary, and yet it has given birth to the most widely penetrating body upon earth, the manifold Church of Christ. This cannot be disproved. The Christian Church came from nowhere unless it came out of the Jewish. Nay, to this very hour it sets up the law of Sinai in its churches, it reads the Jewish Bible in its congregation, it sings the Jewish psalms in its worship. Its cradle and nursery was Jerusalem. Its first Apostles and teachers were all Jews. Its Head was a Jew Himself. And though the old Jewish community does not proselytise, its child, the Christian Church, does, with accumulating energy. It has had its failures; it has stood and striven long, with sometimes a seeming hopelessness, against the thick walls of Oriental paganism, but it has never drawn back; its unconquered and stubborn heart beats with desire and intention to go on in a belief that after His own way, and in His own time, the uplifted Christ will draw all men unto Him. And the whole of this mighty growth has sprung from a small race which reaches like a thread through the great historical fabrics of the past, and, though they have crumbled around it, has not been broken.

David’s act was a forgetfulness of, a departure from, God’s purpose. In seeking to realise his material resources, and count the swords which he could draw, he so far gave up that unseen vital force which distinguished his people the most, and descended to the meaner level on which those around him took their stand.

II. The whole scene is no mere vision of poetical beauty terrible in the realism of its imagery, but it reveals the very centre of Divine life.—It shows the secret of the Lord, and declares how that there is a power often hidden, but never dead, which fulfils its purpose with finally irresistible force. In the preservation of the Jews and the development of Christianity, which traces its pedigree up to the Jewish Church, we see a process which David ignored when he tried to range himself with the nations around, who were about to shrink or disappear.

But this is not the only lesson to be learned. It points to some of those mistakes which men are apt to make at all times in the conduct of their society and their lives.

I refer to a reliance on numbers as a guarantee of stability and truth. I am not thinking of war alone.

In national economy, and most especially in religion, that faith in mere numbers may prove to be disastrous. The consent and unanimity of a thousand fools does not render the folly of one man harmless. On the contrary, it may arm with power to do a thousandfold more harm. We should be specially cautious in guiding our course by that weathercock, public opinion. No doubt it shows us which way the wind blows, and indicates the presence of numbers, but the question remains, In which direction does it blow, and how long will it last? Some pursue a zigzag path without any reference to a point at which they continually aim. They yield to the claim of sheer numbers, sometimes sailing in one direction, sometimes in another. Be sure that the radical mistake of David can be repeated in the conduct of many a modern nation, and is most likely to be mischievous when it is led by mere party government.

No persuasion may be taken as true because it is accepted even by all. There was a time when the whole world believed that the sun moved round the earth. Nay, the Church was ready to assert it as a Divine truth, and to condemn any one who questioned it. But was it the less false because, for a while, the universal suffrage of mankind was in its favour? The great convictions and changes in history are irrespective of numbers. A man who really gets hold of a truth is not more persuaded of it when it has been accepted by others. He is pleased, but not dependent on the verdict which they pass. And a man who has not embraced a particular statement, but wants to see how it is received before he commits himself, can hardly be said to be convinced. He has no root in himself, being merely the slave of numbers.

That slavery, worse than Egyptian, has arisen again and again in the world’s course. It shows itself in the discharge of our business and the profession of our faith. It is the deadly hindrance to which David exposed himself and his people. He, for a while, lost sight of the Lord of truth and righteousness. For a time he forgot His works and the wonderful things which He had done.

And so we are all tempted to number the people. When we would be secure in the possession of a thought we are too often drawn to ask only: ‘What do others think?’

But it is of the first importance that a man should be, and do, what he is, and does, Divinely, that he should be true to himself, to the voice of his Father which is in heaven, but Who never leaves His children to walk alone if they will only take His hand.

Preb. Harry Jones.

Illustrations

(1) ‘We are often tempted to enumerate our possessions, our friends, the sources of our income, the various avenues along which our help may come. The rich man makes wealth his strong city; and as he goes over his investments, they resemble the lines of defence behind which a threatened garrison may retreat. But in all these calculations there are elements of weakness, and the course of those who refuse to count up their resources, and simply rest in the all-loving care of God, is much more consonant with the spirit of Christ. Let us not dwell on the numbers of the children of Israel, but on the promise which has guaranteed that they should exceed the number of the stars. When faith embraces and appropriates the Divine promise, it garrisons the heart against all Satan’s provocations to a distrustful calculation of our resources.’

(2) ‘In 2 Samuel 24:1 we learn that this census of the people was prompted by the Lord: here it is attributed to Satan. The temptation emanated from Satan, but it was permitted by the Lord. May we not explain the whole sad incident by saying that the pride of David’s heart lay at the root of his determination; therefore God gave him up to it, and Satan obtained permission to sift him as wheat? When Moses took the census of Israel, it was at the express command of God, in order to assess the atonement money, but there was no such arrangement here. Joab seems to have had a clearer perception of the fatal mistake that David was committing than the king himself, and shrank from his unwelcome duty. But God interposed, and stopped the completion of the work.’

Verse 8

SIN AND PENITENCE

‘I have sinned greatly, because I have done this thing.’

1 Chronicles 21:8

The life and experience of David are a mirror reflecting human nature and Christian feeling. If no man sinned more grievously, none repented more sincerely than he. The words he used when convinced of his error in numbering his subjects are a striking representation of the enormity of sin, and of the blessings of true repentance.

I. The occasion prompting to sin.—It is usually the love of self, whether in sensual gratification or in pride and vanity, which leads men astray from the paths of rectitude and religion. David was a great king, and in a self-confident and boastful spirit—a spirit of forgetfulness of God—took this course which proved so disastrous.

II. The nature of sin.—This is apparent in this narrative in its two elements. (1) Transgression of the Divine law. Men are under authority, moral government, and control; and sin consists in breaking through the restraints by which they are hedged in. (2) Disobedience to the Divine Lord is not an abstraction, but, as this passage so forcibly teaches, the utterance of an authoritative mind. ‘Against Thee have I sinned.’

III. The conscience of sin.—The king’s slumbering conscience awoke, and he became aware of the magnitude of the evil he had wrought. He felt (1) its enormity: he had sinned greatly; and (2) its folly: he had done unwisely. The way of obedience is the way of wisdom; and he who is alive to the nature of disobedience acknowledges and feels its foolishness and unreasonableness.

IV. The penitence which sin should occasion.—(1) True penitence takes the blame entirely where it lies, i.e., upon the sinner himself. (2) True penitence expresses itself in confession before God, Who has been wronged and offended.

V. The pardon which the sinner craves.—The expression of David is very significant: ‘Do away the iniquity of Thy servant.’ The contrite and repenting sinner, approaching God by the mediation of the Divinely appointed Saviour, asks that (1) the power, (2) the love, and (3) the punishment of sin may be done away. God’s forgiveness is as complete as man’s sin is heinous; and God’s reconciling mercy surpasses the vastness of human transgressions.

Illustrations

(1) ‘The grave sin of proud self-exaltation, which David and the people of Israel here had in common, presupposed the elevation to victory and power that God had bestowed by His gracious might, and its consequence was the judgment that revealed God’s anger against the perversion of His favours into plans of self-aggrandisement. God’s honour does not permit a king and people to seek their own honour in the power conferred by Him. The aims of God’s kingdom cannot, according to God’s laws of moral order, be abridged or obscured with impunity by the aims and purposes of human pride. God’s judgments fail not against false national honour and ambitious, self-seeking pride of rulers, as is shown by the history not only of Israel, but of all nations to the present time.’

(2) ‘David’s heart smote him, that is, his conscience chastised him. So he comes to know that he has sinned and how sorely, and to acknowledge the foolishness of his sin, and to pray for forgiveness. But to the inward voice of his smiting conscience is added the voice of the Word of God, which comes to him from without through the prophet Gad with the announcement of punitive righteousness. The penitence of the heart proves itself in humble submission to God’s punishing hand, whence David, instead of the asked-for pardon, takes without murmuring the announcement of punishment, and in the unconditional trustful self-abandonment to God’s mercy. Under the sorrowful experience of punishment the feeling of personal guilt is deepened, wherefore he acknowledges himself and his house alone to be the proper object of the Divine punitive justice. Having suffered himself to be led thus far on the path of penitence by God’s hand, he encounters the prophetically announced Divine mercy, which stops the punishment and gives proof of the renewed obedience rising from the depths of true penitence, in the deed (commanded by the Lord) of faith and devotion of his whole life to him.’

Verse 13

ALTERNATIVES OF PUNISHMENT OFFERED AND BALANCED

‘And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let me fall now into the hand of the Lord; for very great are His mercies: but let me not fall into the hand of man.’

1 Chronicles 21:13

I. It is better to fall into the hand of God than into the hands of men, because in His whole treatment of human sin God is constantly seeking, not the destruction, but the salvation of the sinner.—God has never answered our sin merely by punishment. Instead of confining Himself to penalty, He sets up the cross and shows men the sinfulness of sin through the depth and tenderness of His own mercy.

God’s government is not a mere magistracy. It is a moral dominion—a government of the heart.

II. What is wanted for a full acceptation of the principle of this text?—(1) A deep sense of sin. David had it: ‘I have sinned greatly in that I have done; and now, I beseech Thee, O Lord, take away the iniquity of Thy servant, for I have done very foolishly.’ (2) An unreserved committal of our case to God. David gave himself up entirely to God’s will. We must fall into the hand of God, an expression which signifies resignation, perfect trust in the Divine righteousness and benevolence, and an entire committal of our whole case to the disposal of God.

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Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on 1 Chronicles 21". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cpc/1-chronicles-21.html. 1876.