Inscrutable Justice and Mercy

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This passage concludes the narrative of the book of Samuel, and it does so with a story that sounds odd to modern ears—for various reasons. Some of those reasons have to do with the coming of the gospel, and some of them have to do with us drifting away from a biblical understanding of God’s ways with man.

The Text:

“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 Sam. 24:1-25).

Summary of the Text:

God’s anger was kindled against Israel, and so He made David make a bad decision (v. 1). David told Joab to go and number the people of Israel (v. 2). Joab, wisely, was opposed (v. 3). But David prevailed against Joab and the military leaders (v. 4). They traveled through all Israel, taking 9 months on the census (vv. 5-8). The number was 800,000 in Israel and 500,000 in Judah (v. 9). Upon receiving this information, David’s conscience struck him (v. 10). A prophetic word came to the prophet Gad (v. 11), and it was a word that offered David three options (v. 12). So Gad came to him and gave him the choice between 7 years of famine, 3 months of fleeing from enemies, or 3 days of pestilence (v. 13). So David chose to fall into the hands of God, not man (v. 14), and God sent pestilence that killed 70,000 men (v. 15). The angel of pestilence was coming upon Jerusalem, but the Lord “repented him” of the evil, and told the angel to stand by (v. 16). When David saw the angel, he offered himself and his own house instead of the people (v. 17). Gad told David to build an altar where the angel was, which was the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (v. 18). David obeyed (v. 19), and Araunah saw David coming and bowed before him (v. 20). David told him that he had come to buy the threshing floor, in order to build an altar that would stop the plague (v. 21). Araunah offered to give him everything he needed (vv. 22-23). David refused to offer that which cost him nothing, so he paid fifty shekels of silver for it (v. 24). And so David offered burnt offerings and peace offerings, and the plague was stopped (v. 25).

The Census Sin:

First, what was the sin involved in the census? It was not because of the mere fact of the census—because that was allowed and assumed by the law (Ex. 30:12). And Jesus teaches us that counting our troops is a wise and prudent thing to do (Luke 14:31). So what was the problem here? Note that Joab, the consummate politician, was against it. Note also that David repented as soon as he heard the numbers. And note that the breakout of the numbers divided the troops according to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. The cultural fault lines that defined two future kingdoms were already there, and I believe that David realized that he had just badly exacerbated them. It was his job to be king of all Israel, and not to toy with war games that speculated on what would happen if they turned on each other.

Sin As Judgment:

We know that sin brings judgment, and this is a truth that needs to be emphasized in a generation that desperately wants to forget it. But at the same time, we also must recognize that God is sovereign over all things, sin included, and that He sometimes arranges things so that judgment brings sin, which brings more judgment. He is the Lord, and we are not to talk back.

Note here that God’s anger was kindled against Israel (for unspecified sin), and as a result of that He stirred up David to number the people (v. 1). And then, because David numbered the people, he and the people were judged. I said a moment ago that God is sovereign, and we must not talk back. But if we wanted to talk back, is the material here? God judged David for a sin that God “incited” David to commit? Yes. Not only this, but the parallel account in Chronicles says that Satan provoked David to do this (1 Chron. 21:1), the first mention of Satan by title in the Bible.

Some who want to pretend that God does not hold all of history in the palm of His hand point to expressions like what we find here—God repenting, or changing His mind—and they insist on taking the words at what they say is face value. When we say that it is an obvious expression—how we experience God’s dealings with us—and that it is just like us saying “sunrise” when we know intellectually that it was actually “earthturn,” they say that we are trifling with the plain meaning of the text. Okay, if you want the plain meaning of the text, then why don’t you repeat the whole story? What did God repent of? He repented of killing 70,000 people because He was angry at something that He made David do in the first place, and He was angry for unspecified reasons. And He sent Satan as His agent. There is no resolution to any of this except in high octane Calvinism.

The Angel at the Threshing Floor:

The Bible teaches that angels and celestial powers were assigned a governing role over mankind until the coming of Christ. Prior to the Incarnation, it was God/angels/man. After the coming of Christ, there has been a cosmological revolution, and it is now God/man in Christ/angels (Heb. 2:5). The world to come—the world we inhabit—has been subjected to man, and not to angels. This was not the case three thousand years ago. Then mankind was in his minority (Gal. 3:19, 24).

Sin As a Stroke of God:

The sovereignty of God over evil is not something that has disappeared in the new covenant. But make sure you understand the doctrine correctly. Is God the Author of sin? In one sense, no, of course not, and in another sense, yes, absolutely.

James tells us that God cannot be tempted by evil, and that He himself tempts no one. Let no one say that God is “tempting” him to commit sin (Jas. 1:13). God is present with you in the person of the Holy Spirit. God never tempts or lures to sin.

But God most emphatically wields sin, for His righteous and holy purposes. We have this text, and countless others. Assyria, full of military arrogance and sin, was an ax in the hand of God (Is. 12:12, 15). Herod, Pilate, Pontius Pilate, and all the Jews did with wicked hands (Acts 2:23) what God had determined beforehand to be done (Acts 4:27-28), and to which Jesus submitted as the will of His Father (Luke 22:42). God often picks up dirty tools with holy hands.

Close to home, we have the rod of our sexual license, which God is using to beat us senseless (Prov. 22:14). The wrath of God is visited upon us when God “gives us up” to homosexual lusts (Rom. 1:24, 26). Whenever you see and form of “gay pride,” and all the rest of that foolishness, do not think that this is something for which God will judge us (although He will do that). Think of it as a judgment for something else. It is the judgment itself.

We might want to say that we “don’t know” what it could have been. But two things . . . a spirit of true repentance would actually want to know. And a spirit of true faith would turn to God through Jesus Christ—the only available provision for this kind of thing. We have an offering far greater than what David was able to offer on Araunah’s threshing floor.

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Eric Stampher
Eric Stampher
10 years ago

Awesome point about sin = evidence of God’s involvement. Would you say that whenever you are given to gain consciousness and look at a sin you just committed, you should see God’s hand? “He made me do that,” so to speak. And then “He woke me up and made me see it as sin too”, and now you’re in a world of hurt if you don’t see it as a sign to repent immediately?

Eric Stampher
Eric Stampher
10 years ago

Granted this comment comes from an Amiller, but the paragraph about how angels aren’t now governing is superfluous to your point and serves only to invite extraneous questions from many (or boo’s from us Amillers). Might strike it.

10 years ago

Thank you for this great series on the Books of Samuel!

I was browsing the archives for this category, and I found that for some reason, starting with May 5, 2013 and working “older than that”, every entry has lost its title. I checked with the general archive “What’s Done Been Wrote”, and indeed every single blog article dated April 2013 and older seems to have lost the title. I don’t know if this has already been pointed out to you.

10 years ago

James Allison says Paul’s “wrath” in Romans and John’s “devil” are synonymous. The wrath of God is the devil in some sense. Do you agree and if so to what extent?