24 The Sin of David

<< 2 Samuel 24: The Sin of David in Numbering the People >>

“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.”-2 SAM. xxiv. 10.

“WE must never forget in reading the history of Israel in the Holy Word, that Israel was the divinely appointed type of the Church of God. They were chosen to be a nation not for themselves, and their comparatively small interests, but as a symbol of the Lord’s spiritual kingdom in the world, and a lesson for mankind in all ages. They were an earthly Israel representing accurately the Israel of God.

Unless we bear this important fact in mind there will be much in the history from time to time. that will be difficult of explanation, as in the subject before us. There does not appear to be any sin or impropriety in numbering a people, or in accurately examining and statistically defining a nation’s resources. A tradesman who did not take stock would hardly be considered to be exercising that prudent care which would avoid serious error and lead to prosperity. To take stock of a people, to become acquainted with the facts of their national life, seems to be absolutely needful to those who desire to diminish whatever is injurious, and to promote all that would be advantageous to its well-being, If the Israelitish people had simply been as other people, it would appear very difficult to understand in what the sin of David in taking the census of the nation consisted; and yet it is clear that he had done a sinful thing; both from its being resisted by his counsellors before it was carried into effect, and from his own conscience, which smote him afterwards, and caused him to utter the words of our text.

The first verse of the chapter indicates that the Israelites had come into a very evil state. They had been triumphant under David, and the vigour of his government, and the protection he had afforded, had brought prosperity and wealth, Forty years of valiant rule and able government had produced their usual blessings, peace and abundance; but they had brought also their usual dangers, self-elation and pride of heart. Weak, erring man is prone to forget that all he has is from God, and not from his own merit or ability; and the more he abounds in the gifts of heaven, the more he is in danger of attributing to his own skill and power what ought to induce him to be more humble daily; for the more he has, the more he owes, Israel was constantly forgetting this, and Israel’s fault has been too often repeated in all ages. It is equally the error of to-day. We ought to tremble when we are prosperous, and pray to be kept thankful, but lowly in heart. When we are straitened, we mourn and complain : when we are rich we too often glorify ourselves, are thankless and proud, forgetful of God, and greatly overlooking the slender tenure of health and of all temporal possessions. ” Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked: thou art waxen fat, thou art grown thick, thou art covered with fatness: then he forsook God which made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation.” Alas! that it should be so: but it is the old and oft-repeated story. Prosperity has more dangers, and needs more wisdom than adversity.

Outward success often induces inward poverty. ” Thou sayest thou art rich, and full of goods, and hast need of nothing, and: knowest not that thou art poor and miserable, and blind and naked.”

This had obviously become the state of Israel; for it is said the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. These words are only another mode of saying Israel was in a very wicked condition. The Lord is never really angry, but He appears angry when man is wicked, as the sun appears lowring when the clouds are thick. When men are drawn away of their evil lusts and enticed, as the apostle James expresses it, they hesitate, they ponder, they debate with themselves more or less, the attraction of vice grows stronger, the allurements redouble, their self-deception becomes more persuasive, un til they become defiant against the divine laws; they know they are opposed to Him, and they feel thoroughly that He must be opposed to them, and all the sorrows that flow from their sins, they thenceforward attribute to God’s anger. They drive themselves against the divine laws, which cannot be’ altered; they suffer pain, and they cry out God is punishing them. A person who has pursued a course which has induced severe inflammation of the eyes, goes into the full sunlight, and screams with pain. He cannot bear the sun. Another has severe inflammation of the ear; he cannot bear the joyous notes of the lark: a whisper even is a pain to him. One who has an inflamed. soul feels God as angry, yet it is not God; It is an evil heart, which makes an evil eye. An evil eye sees everything in a perverted manner, To sombre, jealous, melancholy hearts the world in brightness and its Almighty Maker seem deriding, condemning and scorning them. To obstinate and vigorously evil men, the Lord seems angry, for they feel an opposition from Providence to their efforts constantly. The evil man’s schemes fail, nothing goes well with him, and he imagines Providence to be against him, He cannot conceive that the evil is in himself: that he is his own worst enemy, and that for Providence to, gratify him with success would be to do him deadly wrong, ,He won’t humble himself and put himself right. He becomes angry, and the more his objects are defeated, the more angry he is, and the more he supposes God is angry with him, when in reality the whole of the anger is in his own wicked heart. When God is said to be angry then, the meaning is that man is evil.

Anger has absolutely no existence in the Lord, no more than darkness exists in the sphere of the sun. Yet, in the changes of life, and in many of the declarations of Scripture, anger is attributed to the Lord, the All-merciful. In the interpretation of these we must remember that men attribute to God, as they do to their fellow-men, the states which they cherish in themselves, Jealous men attribute jealousy to others. Angry men regard others as acting from anger. And the opposition and pain they feel they charge to the anger of God.

But how wild and audacious must man be when he believes that God is angry with him. God, the centre of every blessing, the source of all the benefits and glories of earth and heaven without whose aid no pulse would beat, no breath could be drawn, no food could be grown, no flowers would bloom no trees would wave, no birds would sing, no sun would shine, how can He be angry with us, when He is sustaining us every moment? O how evil we must be when we fancy there is an anger in Him!

When the railway train is rushing on, the steady banks seem moving in an opposite direction, When a sinner is rushing on in sin, he soon comes to sorrow, and He says God has punished him. HE HAS PUNISHED HIMSELF. And the more he persists, the longer he continues in a wrong course, the more he destroys himself soul and body; the more he feels and says that the wrath of God is heavy upon him, So with a nation, when it is puffed up with its prosperity, and insolence and pride induce in it a life of luxury, of lust, and the greed of conquest, already it is digging the grave of its happiness. When it has despised gentle warnings and remonstrances, and brought itself into calamities of various kinds, the result of licentiousness and wrong, it is said the anger of the Lord is kindled against it. The real explanation is that the nation is so utterly depraved that its blessings are turned into curses.

What a nation is so is its government. The king becomes the instrument of the spirit that reigns among the people. The king is rarely anything but the index of the general mass, What the body is that also is the head. Cruel and persecuting kings have usually had a fierce body of the nation whose prejudices against those who differed from them, and whose hate urged them on, so that like people like prince is an ancient and veritable adage. When, therefore, it is said the Lord was angry with Israel, and moved David to number the people, it means that the people and their king were inflated and depraved. The anger kindled again, signifies a deeper degree of wickedness. They wished to take stock of their numbers, their wealth and their power, that they might glorify themselves, and exult in their merit and their might.

The business being intrusted to Joab and the captains of the host, and account being only given of the men capable of ‘wielding the sword, would seem to indicate that the end in view was to make war on the surrounding nations. The lust of conquest was the impelling motive for this numbering of the people. Hence, there is no return made of any but the eight hundred thousand men of Israel ‘who drew the sword, and the five hundred thousand men of Judah (ver. 9).

David had become a military monarch, a warrior king. He was swelled with the pride of conquest and thought only of his warlike men, by whom he could go forth and subjugate others. The numbering itself, the pride of greatness apparent in it, and the motive involved, are all opposed to the Divine Law, and represent evils destructive of the Church.

The numbering of the people had not been forbidden by the Lord to the Israelites, but it was to be done according to prescribed rules. These rules maybe found in the 30th of Exodus: “When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel, after their number, than shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord when thou numberest them, that there be no plague among them when thou numberest them, This they shall give, everyone that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary, a half shekel shall be the offering unto the Lord. And thou shall take the atonement-money of the children of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation, that it may be a memorial unto the children of Israel before the Lord; to make an atonement for your souls” (12, 13-16). We learn, then, that the people might be numbered, but according to the three conditions: first, they were all to be numbered who were above twenty years of age; secondly, they were each one to give a half shekel, a piece of silver of the value of one and threepence, on the occasion; and, thirdly, this was to be used for the service of the tabernacle, to make an atonement for their souls. The taking account, then, of the children of Israel was not forbidden, but, when it was done, there was to be an acknowledgment that each one was the Lord’s, and that they were to perform His service.

To number spiritually is to take account of ourselves: to notice what we have received from the Lord, our faculties, powers and possessions. But in doing this, we must offer to the Lord our piece of silver, or in other words our interior acknowledgment that whatever may be our powers or attainments they are all from the Lord, they are His, not self-derived. And they ought to be used in His church, and for His service. This was what was signified by the commands respecting the numbering, Unless, we thus acknowledge all things of the church to be the Lord’s, indeed all we have, whether natural or spiritual gifts, we are actuated by the serious error of attributing merit to ourselves, of exulting in self-righteousness, of trusting in our own strength, and claiming as our own the bounties and graces which are the Lord’s mercies, and should only be used in dependence upon Him.

Our strength is in dependence upon the Lord. Our weakness is in dependence upon ourselves. It is written, “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in Me is thine help” (Hos. xiii, 9.) “Without Me ye can do nothing” (John xv. 5.) To reckon up, then, our gifts -and possessions, and to inflate ourselves with the idea of our power and excellency, is to swell up with self, and to expose ourselves to certain downfall and condemnation, WHAT HAVE WE THAT WE HAVE NOT RECEIVED? The very breath we draw is the momentary gift of the Most High. Our health is imparted by His Merciful care, and if forfeited and lost, our condition is pitiful indeed. The feeblest bark might as well hope to ride safely in the wildest tempest, as a man of himself to resist the assaults of the powers of hell. As the fiercest hurricane smites the blade of grass to the earth so would the awful influence of infernal might destroy the strongest man, undefended by a strength greater than his own.

Hence the danger of self-complacency, The man who boastfully imagines he is wise or good, or strong or amiable of himself, will ere long feel the blast of a mental simoom which will leave him withered, bare and weak, Instead of having the ability to maintain God’s cause, to overthrow evil and falsehood in the world, or to advance the progress of mankind in virtue and truth, he will be broken clown, and incapable, self-condemned and visibly paralyzed for all good. Humility is the only ground in which heavenly virtues can grow. Blessed are the poor ill spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. In religion he who would save himself must lose himself He who fancies himself rich, is poor. He only who is poor in his own estimation is rich. He who will lose himself will save himself.

The three punishments which were placed before David by the prophet Gad, represent the three ways in which the presumption of self-merit in religion produces its sad results.

In some it produces famine of soul. Seven years of famine come upon them in the land; or in other words, they become altogether unable to receive goodness and truth into their soul. The Lord “satisfieth the thirsty soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness” (Ps. cvii. 9), when these blessings are desired in a true spirit of lowliness and self-denial. But when the soul is puffed up with a sense of its many excellencies; when it conceives it is rich and has need of nothing; when it is vain of its virtues, and thanks God for its gifts and graces, and that it is not as other men. The leprosy taints the whole, and no heavenly goodness enters. There is a famine of the Word of God, and there is a famine of true love, the BREAD OF LIFE; the bread of God which comes down from heaven, and gives love to the world, No heavenly grace can animate our hearts while we are full of a sense of our own self-sufficiency, and imagine we are good and strong and have need of nothing.

It may be we have plenty of men of war to draw the sword. We can be victorious in argument, both on spiritual and celestial grounds, but our hearts, will be cold, our interior states poor and feeble. Our food will have failed; and we shall be lean, hard, and the holy flesh will have gone off us (Jer, ii. 15). The heart, will lack food, and become hollow and unsatisfied, ever yearning for, but never receiving, the rich supply of angelic life. No real good can enter, while self desires to make heaven and divine things subservient to Pharisaic pride. There will be seven years of famine, or in other words a complete deficiency of THE BREAD OF HEAVEN.

In other cases self-sufficiency in religion leads to bitter harassings and mental persecutions in matters of faith. Doubt and darkness fill the soul. Months having relation to the moon, and the moon being the symbol of faith, which illuminates our spiritual nights, to fly three months before thine enemies, as expressed by the prophet Gad to David, represents a state in which on all the subjects of faith the most painful uncertainties and misgivings shall be felt. Defeat and distress fill the soul with consternation when through interior pride it has puffed itself up with ‘the idea of a strength of its own.

The third sad result of self-sufficiency is pestilence, or inward destruction of the good formerly received, signified by the perishing of seventy thousand men (ver. 15).

This destruction is said to have been inflicted by the angel of the Lord, who sent a pestilence which destroyed the people. There are evil angels as well as good ones, and because the Divine Providence is over all events, and rules by what He permits among the evil, down to the lowest hell, as well as by what He ordains even to the highest heaven; in this general sense evil angels that delight in smiting are said to be angels of the Lord. Of the plagues of Egypt it is written, He cast upon them the fierceness of His anger, wrath and indignation and trouble, by sending EVIL ANGELS among them (Psa, lxxviii. 49.)

This permission was for great and ultimate good, hence it is said, “When He slew them, then, they sought Him : and they returned and enquired early after God” (ver.34). So in the case of the slaughter of the seventy thousand in this pestilence in David’s old age, it induced sorrow, humiliation; and repentance. It stayed any presumptuous war, and prepared for the peaceful reign of Solomon.

Yet how sad it is that only by blows so severe can men and nations learn righteousness. What merciful reproaches are breathed in the Divine words, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children as a hen, gathereth her chickens under her wings, but ye would not” (Luke xiii, 33). The death of the seventy thousand men from pestilence represented the destruction in the Jewish Church of all the holy principles of interior religion from the desire of merit and spiritual pride.

The pestilence was the blast of presumptuous eagerness to rule over all in the pride of self glory stimulated by evil spirits. This scorches up all innocence, all true virtue, and begins a spiritual death that may be palliated and stayed for a time, but goes on like a fatal disease until all is ruined.

David’s giving way to this represented the tainting of conscience, so that the Divine Itself in them was clouded, and in their corruption the idea of God was perverted, and they imagined that the Lord Himself favoured their presumption and designed to lift them above all other nations, and gratify their lust of glory. The misery this induced led to repentance for a time, and the plague was stayed, but only to resume its ravages after a while, until the ruin of the nation was consummated, So is it with individuals who give way to the same spirit of presumption.

The number seventy, like seven, is used when the idea of sacredness and fulness are intended to be conveyed. The seventy elders who went up Mount Horeb with Moses and Aaron, and the seventy who were sent out by the Lord to heal the sick and to preach the gospel, are instances of the use of this number to denote the Lord’s operations in His Church and in the human mind by the sacred affections of interior good, by innocence, by the love of peace and the love of wisdom, On the other hand, the destruction of these principles by the lust of merit and the profanity of self-righteousness was indicated by the seventy years’ captivity of Israel in Babylon, the seventy weeks mentioned in Daniel, when it is said the Messiah should be cut off, and here the destruction of the seventy thousand from Dan to Beersheba.

As the Lord is Wisdom itself and Order itself, He cannot interpose and stay the plague until the impression of the solemn warning which will lead to repentance and reformation has been made. Then Mercy interferes and the plague is stayed. The Divine Love is full of pity and tenderness while the suffering is going on, and removes it at the earliest possible moment, Let us learn then to avoid sins, especially the sins of self-conceit, self-merit, and the lust of power, for thus only can we avoid the destruction of the interior virtues within us, and ultimately the entire loss of our souls.

Author: JONATHAN BAYLEY from The The Divine Wisdom of the Word of God (1892)