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The Census and the Pestilence
2 Samuel 24:0
THE chapter opens:
"And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah."
In another part of the record it is said that "Satan" tempted David to number the people ( 1Ch 21:1 ). In this chapter it is explicitly said that the Lord "moved David," saying, "Go, number Israel and Judah." Can there be evil in the city and the Lord not have done it? How many Lords are there? In whose keeping, in the last result, is the universe? There are certain bold inquiries which we must reverently face, and when we come to the point of mystery we must reverently adore, confessing our ignorance, but asserting our willingness, as a very miracle of grace, to wait until the light dissolves the cloud. That Satan was the tempter is unquestionable. It is marvellous, though, how often the divine Being seems to be associated, directly or indirectly, with the temptation, in the sense of the trial and the testing of men. "Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil." At first a sense of revulsion draws us back, makes us stand aghast at the horrible contradiction and blasphemous irony of such an assertion. Then we say, It is better so: God must have been in this temptation at some point: "There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it" So there are points at which we must build altars, saying, All the rest of the line has been a stroke of light, beautiful, lovely, full of solace and of hope; and as for this dark point, let us build here, and cover it as with the sanctuary of God.
Wherein was David's sin in numbering the people? The ideal Israel was a theocracy, with as little outside work as possible, with as little shape and form and mechanism and obtrusiveness as possible; it was to be a spiritual kingdom, ruled over by the unseen Spirit. Did David imagine in his heart that the time had come for the creation of a grand military despotism built on the lines of Phoenicia and of Egypt? Was his last effort in poetry an effort stimulated by ambition? Was he but a man at the best? Does the despot rise up within all kings even those who sing amongst them most sweetly saying, Build an empire upon the earth that cannot be shaken; appeal to the senses of the people; hold up before them a throne, and a flag that cannot be mistaken, and rally them round you in patriotic zeal? How could this have been the project of the king, when so crafty and daring a man as Joab opposed the suggestion? Joab undertook to be preacher on the occasion; said he:
"Now the Lord thy God add unto the people, how many soever they be, an hundredfold, and that the eyes of my lord the king may see it: but why doth my lord the king delight in this thing?" ( 2Sa 24:3 ).
When some men preach to us we should take heed: it is not their custom; they are speaking an unknown tongue; they are wielding unfamiliar thunders: "Notwithstanding the king's word prevailed against Joab, and against the captains of the host" ( 2Sa 24:4 ). So we dismiss the idea of David having in his heart a military despotism, for surely he would have whispered it to such men, and they would have answered it with an emphatic acquiescence. Was it on account of the time that would be wasted in taking the census? From the time of starting until the time of closing nearly ten months were occupied. Could ten months not be better used than by counting heads? Is there not a religious use of time? Do we not fritter away some hours and years in useless reckonings, needless and profitless speculations? That may have been the reason; we cannot tell. But we dwell upon these suggestions to show that they need not be dwelt upon at all. The answer is given by David himself. In the tenth verse we find the secret resolved:
"And David's heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the Lord, 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."
So it was a sin of the heart. Better we should not know it in words. Some ghosts cannot be transferred to canvas; they disdain the manifestation of paint; we feel them; we know them well, almost by name. Who can tell what temptations glare upon a man's soul, and say to him, in masonic language, the cipher of perdition, Do this, and win; eat of that tree and live; stand up, and be as God? Is not that human life? The temptations are on the right hand and on the left. If they would speak in our mother tongue we might answer them in some degree, but they speak in allegory, in music heard far away, in suggestions rather than in fully elaborated pictures. They speak of the need of immediate consent. They too have their Gospel words: now is the accepted time, now is the day of satisfaction; whilst the sun shines gather what you may. This is our tragical life. We cannot pray "without ceasing," because our continual prayer is punctuated and marred by suggestions hot as hell. The best men have these visitations; the saints of God have this abiding struggle. Here was a sin in the motive. David does not tell us what his motive was, but he confesses that it was a sinful one: and that is enough for us to know. But what right have we to condemn David if it be a question of motive? Save us from the judgment of motive; deal with our overt actions, and see how keen we are in debate, how agile in self-defence, how gifted in invention, how damnable in genius; but motive must it be dragged out of the heart's secret place and held up to the sunlight? "Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for in thy sight shall no man living be justified." We are warranted only in dealing with this case because David himself said that his motive was impure, and that his heart had gone astray. How many mysteries could be cleared up if we would look within, and let the heart speak! We have turned mysteries into intellectual riddles; we have made them the subjects of special and appointed controversy; we have appointed a plaintiff and a defendant in this court which we have extemporaneously erected for criticising the mysteries of the universe. Herein is our fatal mistake. What is the explanation of many mysteries? It must be found in the soul; the heart must be subpoenaed to bear testimony. "If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God."
So much for the human side of this transaction. Now let us look at the divine side, and estimate the quality and degree of the wickedness by the punishment with which it was followed.
"Go and say unto David, Thus saith the Lord, I offer thee three things; choose thee one of them, that I may do it unto thee. So Gad came to David, and told him, and said unto him, Shall seven years of famine come unto thee in thy land? or wilt thou flee three months before thine enemies, while they pursue thee? or that there be three days' pestilence in thy land? now advise, and see what answer I shall return to him that sent me" ( 2Sa 24:12-13 ).
That is the measure of the iniquity. If we would know what sin is we must know what hell is. We stand aghast at great punishments, but who trembles at great sins? How wonderfully sensitive we are when we see the mysteries of providence expressing themselves in penalties and chastisements almost intolerable! Where is there a man who stands up to vindicate eternal providence and justify the ways of God to men? We need a prophet who will say, Now let us look at the other side of the case; is there not a cause? We say, Why do children die why should the innocent be punished why should children in their earliest years be deprived of father, mother, home, friend? How mysterious are the ways of God! Where is there a man who will stand up and say, No more talking like that; or it can only be allowed as an introduction? We must not daub the wall with untempered mortar; we must not heal the hurt of the daughter of God slightly; we must be fundamental. It is useless to dwell with tears upon effects; we ought to dwell with wonder and with a feeling of worship upon causes. But it is at this point that the narrowness of our judgment is revealed, and the littleness of our ways is made known. Ours is a selfish grief. Who lifts his head heavenward, and says, How God must be grieved, how heaven's own snow must be blackened, by these innumerable and infinite wickednesses! Heaven is almost un-heavened because of God's grief over man's iniquity. Until we become sterner in our view of sin, we cannot preach Christ's Gospel. It will be to us a beautiful display of spiritual jewellery, quite a wonderful casket of tender and gracious sentiments, quite a gathering-up upon golden threads of beautiful things, translucent as dew and precious as diamonds; but nothing more; it will not burn, it will not be as a sword among the nations, it will not be first a terror and then a benediction. So God must take up his own cause and show what man's sin is precisely by the punishment which follows it; and that punishment cannot be limited to a day, unless we use the word "day" in other than a literal sense; it must go through the first, second, third, and fourth generations of them that hate him. The hate does not die with the sunset, nor can the judgment die at the gathering of night. Human nature must be looked at in its solidarity, unity, completeness, and we cannot calculate when and where divine punishment may fall. Let us, therefore, look earnestly and pray vehemently, and repent until there be not one entire piece in our hearts, but the whole be shattered, broken, and thus made into a dwelling-place fit for God. Punishment soon makes men religious, at least for the time being. It is pitiful to see how weak the strongest disbeliever is when God continues the pressure of providence upon him. He can endure three days' east wind, remarking merely that the weather is severe; but let him have three weeks of it, and then three months; let it interfere with his seedtime, let it diminish his crop of green things, so that he may have to look otherwhere for the nourishment of his flocks; let it still blow more chillingly than ever, and he says, What is this? Let the earth be dried up and be as a pot of white dust, so that he can find in it no cohesion, no reply to the sun, no flower growing upon all the monotony. Then watch him! When a day of prayer is proposed, he does not wreathe his face into a sardonic smile; rather he says, If anything can be done, let it be done. Poor fool! Unbelief has but few resources; it is soon run to earth, it quickly flees into bankruptcy; only faith can say, Though the fig-tree shall not blossom, I will sing, I will rejoice, I will build mine altar higher; my poverty shall be made an element of my wealth. There is a time, full "nine months and twenty days," when we can number the people, carry out our dreams and ambitions, strut our little hour upon the stage, play such fantastic tricks before high heaven as make the angels weep; but by mere effluxion of time God transfixes us, until, if we cannot pray, we begin to whimper like cowards, and to sigh like those who have no more resource. Sometimes, therefore, we have to estimate sin by the punishment which follows it; in other words, sometimes, to estimate at its proper value the cause, we have to dwell upon the effect and work our way back from overt and terrific punishment to spiritual and metaphysical explanation.
"So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed: and there died of the people from Dan even to Beersheba seventy thousand men" ( 2Sa 24:15 ).
And still the pestilence kept outside Jerusalem. But the angel came very near: he stretched out his hand over the city of God, and the Lord said, "It is enough: stay now thine hand;" and the angel was so near Jerusalem that he was actually at "the threshingplace of Araunah the Jebusite." So near had God's anger come to Zion! And when David saw the angel that smote the people, he said,
"Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly: but these sheep, what have they done? let thine hand, I pray thee, be against me, and against my father's house" ( 2Sa 24:17 ).
So David went forward at the bidding of Gad, the seer, who said: "Go up, rear an altar unto the Lord in the threshingfloor of Araunah the Jebusite" ( 2Sa 24:18 ) go and rear an altar almost on the very spot where the temple will one day stand. So, as the king came near,
"Araunah said, Wherefore is my lord the king come to his servant? And David said, To buy the threshingfloor of thee, to build an altar unto the Lord, that the plague may be stayed from the people. And Araunah said unto David, Let my lord the king take and offer up what seemeth good unto him: behold, here be oxen for burnt sacrifice, and threshing instruments and other instruments of the oxen for wood. All these things did Araunah, as a king, give unto the king" ( 2Sa 24:21-23 ).
Let not this be a matter of buying and selling. He offered it unto David. David said: No; not only is this forbidden in the law: I will not offer unto the Lord that which cost me nothing. "So David bought the threshingfloor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver" ( 2Sa 24:24 ). David would return an equivalent. He would have no borrowed altar; he would not avail himself of other men's religion. There comes a time when a man's religion affirms itself and justifies itself by distinct, positive, costly sacrifice. We cannot do some things in crowds. We are thankful now and again for a prayer in the great congregation, because it is touched by a pathos impossible to solitude, yet every man must pray his own prayer, give his own tribute, and go through the costly process of self-sacrifice. We are not ashamed of the faith which believes that man must do something before God will cease to afflict David built his altar, "and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings." And "the Lord was intreated for the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel" ( 2Sa 24:25 ). The Lord will lure us or drive us. "The Lord reigneth." We must either fall upon the stone and be broken, or the stone will fall upon us and grind us to powder. "Acquaint now thyself with him, and be at peace." "Kiss the Son, lest he be angry." We belong, as Christian thinkers and workers, to those who are not ashamed to confess that before things can be rectified or adjusted and brought back into harmonious and beneficent action, man must do something. What is that something? "Then Jesus began to preach, saying, Repent," where every great prophet must begin, where every grand reformation must originate. It must start in self-conviction, in bitterest tears, in self-renunciation, in speechless contrition. God will not be appeased by our controversies, our battles of words, however skilfully and deftly fought; he will only be pleased with repentance towards himself and faith in his Son Jesus Christ. "Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee." What then? Shall the air be rent with song, and the sun be amazed by music, where before he has only heard noise? Shall angels hasten to listen to melody unexpected but not unwelcome? No; that is not the ending of the psalm. Let us read the whole of it: "Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee. Then shall the earth yield her increase," and be a mother to us, nourishing us, answering our hunger with abundance, and our thirst with fountains of water.
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 24". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26