Sermon preached on 2 Samuel 24 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/24/2016 in Novato, CA.
2 Samuel 24
“For His Mercies Are Great”
Sin. It is a regular struggle for the Christian. Yes, we have the Holy Spirit shaping our hearts and giving us growth. But we know that in this age, every Christian will still struggle with sin. We see that again here with King David. David was a man after God’s own heart. We see that he was a man after God’s own heart in several ways in this passage. And yet the passage begins with this godly man committing a sin that had national consequences. And yet God is faithful. God chastens David in his sin. And not just David. The passage actually begins with a reference that the God was again angry at his people. What is implied is that God’s people had again engaged in some serious sin that needed to be dealt with. And so God chastens both David and all his people. But in the midst of his chastening, we again are reminded of his mercies. Verse 14, David confesses that God’s mercies are great. May we too be encouraged today in the mercies of God, even when we go through difficult times of God’s fatherly chastening. Because of our regular struggle with sin, we should expect such chastening. But let us see God’s mercy in that chastening.
So then, we begin today by considering this sin David committed in taking a census. Well, right in verse 1 we are presented with a very interesting matter. In verse 1, we see that God is the one behind all of this. In light of how God is angry with Israel over some unspecified sin, God incites David against them. God works in such a way that results in David committing this sin with the census. Now that might seem a bit odd, but what we are not told here is explained to us in the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 21:1. That passage begins this story by saying that Satan is the one who incited David to number Israel. Though there have been different attempts to harmonize those two accounts, I believe the answer is rather simple. What we have in this passage shows how God is ultimately behind all of this, but 1 Chronicles 21 we see that he accomplishes it in some way via Satan. This is another testimony for how God is able to use even Satan to accomplish his holy will. Surely Satan is not trying to serve God in what he does, but God in his wisdom is able to nonetheless make use of Satan’s actions to accomplish his bigger purposes. It’s like how in the New Testament God’s plan made use of how Satan tempted Judas Iscariot into betraying Jesus. Or in 2 Chronicles 12:7, Paul speaks of some thorn in the flesh that he has and he calls that a messenger of Satan. However, in the context Paul clearly recognizes that God has ordained for that to happen to teach Paul to depend upon his grace. So that seems to be what is going on here. God ordained for David to fall prey to the Devil’s temptations. God did not restrain Satan from tempting David, even though God knew David would give into it. God thus permitted this to happen, but he allowed it in order that God could use it for chastening David and the people. In the end it would strengthen David and God’s people in God’s mercy and grace.
So then, David proceeds to order this census to be taken and he sins in doing this. There is a tough question here. Why was this a sin? The text is clear that this was wrong of David, but why was it wrong? I ask this, because the text doesn’t explicitly say why it was wrong. And furthermore, Exodus 30 speaks about a process for how Israel was to take a census, implying that taking a census wasn’t inherently wrong. So what was the reason why this was sinful? A few reasons have been proposed.
One is to go back to Exodus 30 and see that it requires that when you take a census, that every man was to pay a half shekel ransom for himself, so that no plague comes upon the land. Since a plague is what comes upon the land here, some think that is what is the issue here. Some think that David conducted a census but didn’t follow the correct procedure for paying the ransom for each person. Well, that’s possible. But the text doesn’t comment on this at all. It doesn’t mention whether they did or didn’t pay the ransom. If this was the issue, you might expect it to be mentioned. You might also have expected that to be part of what David would have to do afterwards as part of his repentance. But it’s not mentioned. It’s quite possible that we should assume that when they conducted the census that they did follow the practice of paying the ransom fee. But again, we just don’t know.
Another option here deals with David’s heart in the matter. I think this is a better option, because it seems to better fit with how Scripture itself comments on this event. 1 Chronicles 27 is helpful here. There it speaks of a census that Joab conducted but didn’t finish because God’s wrath came upon Israel. Presumably it is talking about this same census. And there in 1 Chronicles 27 it said that David only counted those 20 years and older because the LORD had said He would multiply Israel like the stars of the heavens. What is suggested there is that the very action of taking a census might begin to conflict with God’s promise to multiply Israel so great that it can’t be counted. So that questions David’s heart in asking for a census. By trying to count what God said would be uncountable, it could seem almost like a lack of faith. I think verse 3 helps further bring this out. When Joab objects to the idea of a census, he says, “Now may the LORD your God add to the people a hundred times more than there are, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it.” Joab is basically saying we don’t need to count the people, because God can multiply the people even more and you might even be alive to see it.
To clarify, I think David may be trying to count the people in order to be able to see ascertain how powerful the country has become. In the results of the counting, we see in verse 9 that the focus was on the fighting men; people who could draw the sword. That shows us that the point of his census was particularly about the military strength. So, I think the idea here is that Joab is trying to tell David that we don’t need to trust in the numbers of our military. We only need trust in God. If we need more numbers for our military strength, God will provide it. Remember how God used Gideon and just 300 soldiers to defeat the Midianites (Judges 7). It’s like in Psalm 20:7 where it talks of how some trust in chariots for victory, but that we need to trust instead in God. Now I don’t think this means that it would be wrong to have a chariot in the army, but you shouldn’t ultimately put your trust in the chariot for the victory, but in God. Likewise, it’s hard to say that it would have been inherently wrong for David to take a census, but if his census taking reflected his reliance on physical numbers instead of in God, then it would be wrong. Maybe to say it another way, this may be David trying to walk by sight instead of by faith. He needs to trust in God’s promise to bring the victory regardless of what the outward circumstances may look like. David, a man after God’s own heart, did not have God’s heart here.
As a point of application then. You know you are in trouble when someone like Joab is correcting you. Joab is not presented as the most godly man among God’s people. Yet, he seems to be right here. If only David had heeded his advice. We too need to be humble enough to listen to counsel even when it might come from a source that maybe you wouldn’t have expected. And yet when someone like a Joab does give you counsel that is right on, it should especially wake us up. If this was so obvious even to a Joab, that should be a wake call to how greatly you’ve been spiritually asleep concerning this issue.
So, I tend to think the issue here is David’s heart behind asking for a census. And yet whether the specific sin is because he failed to have paid the ransom per person, or his heart, we are reminded of an important point about righteousness. A truly righteous deed must be both right in outwardly following God’s standard, but it also must something done with a right heart. God says that righteousness involves both a right heart and a right action. And of course all of it must be done to the glory of God.
So then, let’s move next to consider God’s chastisement in this. I love to see how it first started with verse 10. David’s heart condemned him after numbering the people. Here we see again that David was a man after God’s own heart. Here, by the grace of God, he had a right conviction of sin. And that caused David to confess his sin. I especially think this is great because this happened before God sent Gad the prophet to him. Remember when we saw David’s sin with Bathsheba, he didn’t confess any sin until after Nathan confronted him. But here David’s confession comes first. He prays to God and asks for divine pardon. And that is when God then sends the prophet Gad to him.
Well, when Gad comes, we see that God is going to bring a chastisement to David. It’s interesting that God even gives David a choice of three possible punishments. Based on the timeframes given for each of the three choices, the plague from the Lord sounds like it would be the most severe, so severe that it would only be for 4 days. Yet David chooses that one, and his reason is that he’d rather fall directly into God’s hands, than into man’s hands. His reasons is what we said before; because he will hope in the great mercy of God. David knows the heart of God, and he will put his hope there. Again, this shows that David was a man after God’s own heart, since he understands the heart of God.
So then we see the lex talionis principle in God’s chastening. In other words, the punishment fits the crime. David wanted to count the people to see how many people he had grown to have. So, in turn, the chastening resulted in a loss of 70,000 men. And yet his eye for an eye principle is met with his mercy. For as God’s angel of destruction approaches the city of Jerusalem, God orders him to stop. God’s mercy intervened and kept Jerusalem from experiencing the plague.
As an interesting side note here, in verse 17 David is surprised that the people have suffered when it was he who sinned. Of course we remember from earlier, that God’s people can be effected negatively by the actions of others in the church, especially the leaders. We remember Saul and the situation with the Gibeonites. And yet we also know that something more is going on here too. Remember back in verse 1 that all this started because of the anger God had toward Israel. David evidently was not aware of this. He didn’t know that while God was working with him and his house, he was also chastening Israel through this for their own sin. This is the amazing God that we have that he is able to work in complex ways like this, teaching multiple people all at once. But I digress. The overall point here it that God chastens his people whom he loves. He chastens David and Israel back then and we should expect it today as well. But let us as God’s people look to his mercy in it all.
Our third point for today is to consider David’s offering that he brings here. This is verses 18-25. I love how God takes the initiative here. After God gave the order for the angel to stop his destruction, God then sends the prophet Gad back to David. David is instructed to build an altar for God. David obeys, builds the altar, and then offers burnt and peace offerings. And look at the wonderful outcome in verse 25. “God heeds the prayers for the land, and the plague was withdrawn from Israel.”
I think this is very interesting. Think about what just happened. God showed mercy by halting the plague. But it seems like that was just a temporary stay of the execution. Because he has David go and make these offerings right at where he told the angel to stop. It’s not until after the offering that God then officially withdraws the plague. And so what we see here is another example of how God’s mercy and justice come together. Yes, he begun in mercy when he told the angel to stop. But it was like that wasn’t enough for God to just remove the plague. There had to still be an offering for the sin. In other words, that shows that the sin still needed to be atoned for. And so God in his further mercy even instructs David how to make atonement for the sin. Verse 21 shows that David knew that this was an offering for atonement, because he tells Arauanah that he has to make this offering so God can withdraw the plague. And so it’s only after the offering is finally given that God actually withdraws the plague. In other words, we see God’s merciful character initiate this way of salvation for David and Jerusalem. But God couldn’t just overlook the sin. God’s justice required it to be atoned for. And that is what God accomplished through ordering the offering from David. What a wonderful picture of God’s mercy and justice coming together.
I also love David’s heart here that realized he couldn’t give an offering to God that didn’t cost him anything. So he insists to Araunah that he must pay for the land, and not just get it for free. This is another example of David being a man after God’s own heart. It’s another example of why David is a good king for God’s people, even though he had another moral failing in this chapter. And of course the silver lining in all of this chastening and then the mercy that God gives is this site that David purchases. We see in 1 Chronicles that it is this site that goes on to be the exact place where the temple is built in Jerusalem. The place would continue to be a place of both atonement and mercy for God’s people.
Well, in applying this all to us, David’s offering reminds us of the offering of Jesus Christ. David’s offering to atone for his sin, reminds us of the atonement we have for sin. And yet though David would not give an offering that cost him nothing, we remember today that Christ’s offering cost us nothing. We did not pay for that offering. In fact, there is no way would could ever pay for such a priceless offering. It was again, another way that God took the initiative by his grace. God took the initiative to provide a sacrifice for us, that our sinned be could be forgiven. In this way, God was able to show mercy to us while also satisfying his righteous character which demands justice. Let us thank our God again today for such an amazing sacrifice that cost us nothing.
Brothers and sisters, in closing, I would like to urge us then to an offering that does cost something, so to speak. In terms of our atonement, there is no cost. But then I remember that in the Old Testament offerings, there was the notion of the thank offering. And so in thankfulness to God for this offering which cost us nothing, let us give a thank offering in return to him. It’s what we read about in Romans 12:1. That says, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”
Hopefully you understand what Romans 12:1 was saying. In response to the mercy God has shown us in Christ, offer yourself as a thank offering to God. Yes, there is a cost in a sense to that. The only thing we really do have in this life, is ourself. The gospel says to give that up to God. The gospel says it’s our reasonable act of worship. But may we have David’s heart in this. David didn’t lament the cost of his offering to God. He was pleased to give that to God. How much more should we be pleased to offer our lives in service to God when he has already given so richly to us. Let us not hold back from our God. Let us in great cheerfulness and joy give of our entire selves to our Great God and Savior. Praise be to him! Amen.
Copyright © 2016 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.