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A FATAL BLUNDER
‘And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.’
2 Samuel 24:1
We do not see immediately upon its being mentioned how it was wrong for David to number the people; that is, in the modern phrase, to take a census of the population. We have a census of the population taken at certain intervals, and this is not wrong, but very proper and useful. What is the difference between the circumstances of the children of Israel and our own?
I. Notice first the object with which this act was done.—It was very clear what David had an eye to in numbering the people. It was one of those steps which the kings of the nations around were accustomed to take from time to time when they wanted to know how strong they were and what wars they could carry on, what countries they could invade and what cities they could take. This was the way of the heathen world, whom the Israelites were specially bidden not to imitate. They were not meant by God to be a conquering nation; they were a holy nation, a peculiar people, whom God had admitted into a special covenant with Himself. David’s act was one of vulgar kingly ambition, in absolute contradiction to the express designs of God for the Jewish people. It pleased God by a terrible visitation at once to check this new temper and suppress at its very commencement this dangerous aim.
II. Another reason why David’s act was a sinful one was that it was done under a very different dispensation from that under which we live.—To the Jews God was not only their God in heaven, but their King on earth as well. Anything that interfered with this special Divine sovereignty was treason, because the chosen people were not to set up governments and modes of policy for themselves, as other nations did, but were to wait upon the voice of their Divine King. David was only king under a Divine King, and had no right to be constructing great plans out of his own head.
III. There is a sense, and a very true sense, in which David’s sin applies to us.—People are very fond of numbering the good things they have or suppose themselves to have. This is the peril to which our Lord refers when He says, ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth … for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also;’ that is, you will be always brooding in your heart upon them, and they will fill your mind to the exclusion of all spiritual thoughts. The Bible takes us out of ourselves, and directs us to God as the great object of our love, and in Him to our neighbour. ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.’
(1) ‘The numbering of the people was one of the last and most reprehensible acts of David. From the expressions here used we learn that God permitted Satan to tempt David to the commission of a crime, which would draw down punishment on himself and his people, as he afterward permitted the same evil and lying spirit to seduce the prophets of Ahab 1 Kings 22:22), and the disciple of Christ (St. Luke 22:3). The ruling passion by which the tempter assailed David was the pride of life, which, though checked and mortified by the wholesome restraints of adversity, broke out again in the sunshine of prosperity.’
(2) ‘It was not the census itself which was displeasing to God, but the motive which inspired David to take it. Various conjectures have been suggested to account for David’s wish to number the people. Some suppose that he intended to develop the military power of the nation with a view to foreign conquest: others that he meditated the organisation of an imperial despotism and the imposition of fresh taxes. But whether any definite design of increased armaments or heavier taxation lay behind it or not, it seems clear that what constituted the sin of the act was the vainglorious spirit which prompted it. In a moment of pride and ambition—pride at the prosperity of the kingdom, ambition to be like the kings of the nations round about—he desired to know to the full over how vast and populous a kingdom he ruled, forgetting that the strength of Israel consisted not in the number of its people, but in the protecting care of God. This view is strongly corroborated by Joab’s expostulation. It was a momentary apostasy from Jehovah; an oblivion of that spirit of dependence which was the duty and the glory of the kings of Israel.’
THE COST OF WORSHIP
‘Neither will I offer … of that which doth cost me nothing.’
2 Samuel 24:24
Here we have great principle of all worship for all time. Neither in worship, expressed by material sacrifices, nor by the spiritual sacrifices of prayer and praise will God accept offerings made without cost. Our worship should cost us:—
I. Money.—Apostolic precept enacts rule of Christian almsgiving as a weekly accompaniment of weekly worship. The re-establishment of the weekly offertory is the restoration of this principle. But the offering must cost something. ‘Cost’ is a relative term, but whatever gift we do not feel is a gift that costs us nothing.
II. Time.—The Jews sacrificed a great deal of time (e.g. journeys to Jerusalem) for their worship, yet in our own day, with churches at our very doors, want of time is the excuse for absence. Even shortened services are too long for the present generation. Yet time is given ungrudgingly to amusement.
III. Thought.—Worship can never be by proxy. The worshipper’s own spirit must be alert. Easy to be a silent auditor, but the chief glory of English Church worship is the audible part worshippers are bidden to take in the service. What concentration of thought and heart needed to worship in spirit and in truth!
Canon John Robertson, d.d.
‘David would not serve the Lord with that which cost him nothing. The thought needs only to be put in words to commend itself to every conscience. God’s service is neither a form nor a sham; it is a great reality. If we desire to show our honour for Him, it must be in a way suited to the occasion. Yet how often is God served with that which costs men nothing? Men that will lavish hundreds and thousands to gratify their own fancy—what miserable driblets they often give to the cause of God! The smallest of coins is good enough for His treasury. And as for other forms of serving God, what a tendency there is in our time to make everything easy and pleasant,—to forget the very meaning of self-denial! It is high time that that word of David were brought forth and put before every conscience, and made to rebuke ever so many professed worshippers of God, whose rule of worship is to serve God with what does cost them nothing.’
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 24". Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25