Lord, please help us this evening to see the pattern of sin, repentance, discipline and mercy from this part of your Word and change us so that we grow as a result of it. In Jesus' name. Amen.
When I was young I was, like many children, inquisitive. I have memories of asking lots of different questions about why things are the way they are and how the world works. My Dad bore the brunt of these and I'd often push him hard on his answers by asking 'but how do you know this Dad? How can you be sure?' The parents among you will be familiar with these types of questions! And I'd often hear the repeated refrain 'because Daddies know these things!' And because I'm not argumentative that was often the end of it.
There is much in this final chapter of 2 Samuel which is unclear. And it can leave all of us asking: Why? What? How? And we need to grapple with those questions but we need to realise that we won't always be entirely satisfied with the answers. God is God and we are his children. But what we do see in 2 Samuel 24 is a clear pattern in the people of Israel and particularly in David which mirrors our own experience today – a pattern of sin, repentance, discipline and mercy. So let's follow that through together. It would be helpful if you could follow along with me by having 2 Samuel 24 open in front of you. And my first point this evening is:
1. David Sins and Repents (vv.1-10)
So read with me from verse 1:
"Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go, number Israel and Judah.""
This passage is silent on why God is angry with Israel but again he is. God must act and he does so through David. David as King represented Israel before God and God uses him as the vehicle by which he will judge the entire nation. Now you might be thinking: 'Is David being used as some sort of puppet for God's purposes?' Well what we see through the Bible is that God's sovereignty and our human responsibility are like inseparable train tracks that always run together. So God allowed David's sin as a means of judging Israel – but David is still responsible for it. But there is the problematic word 'incited' in verse 1 which implies God is forcing, not merely allowing David's sin. One commentator (Walter C. Kaiser) writes this:
"According to Hebrew thinking… whatever God permits he commits. By allowing this census taking God is viewed as having brought about the act… Under the divine providence [i.e. God's control of all things] everything ultimately was attributed to him; why not say he did it in the first place?"
We can't understand this completely. What we do know is that David is responsible, and at fault, for his sin but our good God is in control of this situation. So back to our passage – verses 2-4:
"So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, "Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people." But Joab said to the king, "May the LORD your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see it, but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?" But the king's word prevailed against Joab and the commanders of the army. So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to number the people of Israel."
So Joab objects, the army commanders object (perhaps they knew this was wrong), but they are overruled by David and set off round the country – and so, verse 9:
"And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to the king: in Israel there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000."
Throughout its history Israel had a volunteer force and God provided the soldiers from within Israel when they were needed. Now it seems David wants to know how many men he has – perhaps to compare Israel's strength to surrounding nations and invade, or perhaps to raise a fulltime military force, neither of which would be trusting God. So that's the best guess of why this census is wrong – but the reality is the text is silent. We don't know for definite, but this seems the best fit. Any of us who have spent time with children will remember times when we've asked them not to do something and they've replied: 'why not?' We explain but if they don't understand they still need to obey. Many things God commands will make sense, but some may not be 100% clear (e.g. why this census is wrong). God is wiser than us and he knows what is best for us – whatever our understanding is, we, his children, need to obey.
It's often tempting to look at Israel in passages like this and think: 'How can they keep failing to trust God, after all he's promised and done for them?' And then we've got David who had the privilege of having seen, and deeply experienced, God's faithfulness to him. If you remember back to chapter 22 we saw a beautiful picture of that in his song of deliverance rejoicing in how God delivered him from the hands of Saul. Has he forgotten this? How can he now be being so self-sufficient by organising this census?
We have little reason to feel affronted. Because Israel – and particularly David – is actually a picture, a pattern, of what we're like. God loves us, he rules over our lives and he works for our good. Yet time and time again we say to God 'I don't trust you'. We say 'I don't think you can look after me; I need to take things into my own hands'. 'I won't fit in in the office unless I join in this gossip with everyone else.' 'I won't get everything done unless I constantly rush around like a headless chicken.' 'I won't have enough if I give money to church'. Insert whatever it is for you. Those of us who have been Christians for a long time and who ought to know better are still guilty of this, like David. But David soon realises he was wrong – verse 10:
"But David's heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the LORD, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly.""
David has grown in his relationship with God. If you can remember back to 2 Samuel 12, the Prophet Nathan confronts David for his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah. It's an account of a David blinded by sin and sorry first and foremost that he's been found out. Now, probably years, after those events David is walking closely with God, realises his mistake and begs God for forgiveness. We keep failing to trust God and we ought to know better. Like David, we need to learn to keep a short account with God, to repent and throw ourselves at his mercy, knowing that he will forgive us but do as he sees fit, which leads us to our next point:
2. God Disciplines (vv.11-15)
Let's read on from verses 13-14, where God sends Gad!
"So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, "Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days' pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me." Then David said to Gad, "I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.""
I think the main thrust of David's reply is this: David knows that repentance does not mean that both forgiveness and being spared the consequences of sin (being spared God's discipline) will both follow. Forgiveness is guaranteed. But David accepts that when it comes to discipline he, and the people (who remember have sinned too – v.1), are in the "hands of the Lord" and that God will do as he sees fit – because he's God. And God's discipline and judgement does come and it is devastating. Verse 15:
"So the LORD sent a pestilence on Israel from the morning until the appointed time. And there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba 70,000 men."
This may be difficult for us to stomach – sin to census to slaughter. But God is not a capricious God. He is just and he is a loving Father. We see this supremely at the cross. Because of the cross we do not face what we deserve, such is God's love for us that the wrathful rejection that we deserve was taken by Jesus. Sometimes however we do face his Fatherly discipline when we sin. We are not going to be protected from all sinful consequences; instead God will use them to convince us just how damaging sin is. So that we keep learning to stop doing it.
When I was involved in CU leadership at University I made a foolish mistake and I knew it. But I now looked foolish to other people, which exposed a lot of my pride. When I was bemoaning this situation with a friend he said: "the truth is Matt, you're far worse than they think you are". Which isn't the most pastoral advice I've ever had… but it is some of the most pointedly true – and it was what I needed to hear. A mistake and its consequences led to more awareness of my sinful stupidity and more awareness of God's grace – I regret doing it but I don't regret the lessons learned. Think now, how many of us could say the same for situations in our lives? Sin. Repentance. Discipline.
We don't have to enjoy discipline (it's a disincentive to sin) and we don't have to be happy when it's happening. But we do need to realise we need it and we should be thankful for it because God disciplines the ones he loves. Now I don't think we should become hopelessly introspective in every situation constantly asking ourselves 'is God disciplining me?' It is important to spiritually self-examine ourselves, but ultimately if God really wants us to learn lessons, we'll learn them. The better questions in any moment are: 'am I being obedient?' and 'am I trusting God in this?' Rather than 'am I being disciplined?' God will not protect us from all the consequences of our sin. He doesn't owe us that protection. He gives us discipline because sometimes we need it to see the sinfulness of sin and the love of our Father - because with discipline God always shows mercy. And that's our final point:
3. God Shows Mercy (vv.16-25)
The plague does not continue indefinitely. Verses 16-17:
"And when the angel stretched out his hand towards Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, "It is enough; now stay your hand." And the angel of the LORD was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. Then David spoke to the LORD when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, "Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father's house."
God had been merciful in stopping the plague but it seems it is only on hold. Because the problem is the sin still needs dealt with. And God's perfect sense of justice means that it can't be swept under the carpet and ignored, or forgotten about. A sacrifice is needed to take the punishment so the people can go free. And this passage stresses that the sacrifice is brought about by God's initiative, again through sending Gad. Verses 18-19:
"And Gad came that day to David and said to him, "Go up, raise an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite." So David went up at Gad's word, as the LORD commanded."
So as the verses continue David and Araunah come to a protracted agreement on the purchase of the land – verse 25:
"And David built there an altar to the LORD and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the LORD responded to the plea for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel."
The site of this altar that David builds – Araunah's threshing floor – is the location where the King after David, his son Solomon, would build the Temple which would be where sacrifices would take place for years and years to come. But these sacrifices only symbolised God's forgiveness - they did not accomplish it, because no animal was worthy of paying the price of human sin before God. That's what we see throughout the whole of the Old Testament, God's people struggling in obedience and showing that a permanent and better sacrifice was needed. We see in verse 17 that David longs to give himself up for his people. That's the right idea, but it won't and can't be David. It is the Saviour Jesus who is to come.
Jesus' death would satisfy God's righteous judgement of sin so that God could extend his mercy to sinners. The Bible word is that Jesus 'atones' for sin. Jesus would atone for David and those in Israel who trusted in God at the time of 2 Samuel and years down the line. And what happened on the cross atones for our sin today, except, unlike David, we look back to it. All this means that we can stand this evening as brother and sisters in Christ in Newcastle knowing that the great sacrifice has been paid – God's anger has been poured out on his own Son Jesus. Our sin is no more, we are free from wrath and instead we are enjoyers of mercy. And we can enjoy God's mercy again and again – because at the cross our sin was dealt with once and for all. So as 1 John 2:1-2 says:
"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."
What words of reassurance! Yes, we will fight sin. But however many times we sin, Jesus defends us before the Father. Which means that when God looks at our sin Jesus is able to say 'I've paid for that so they don't have to'. God sees Jesus' sacrifice for us, not our sinful record. We do sin but mercy endures. That's such a precious truth for us who sin again and again. We keep struggling with lust, we keep getting angry at the kids, we keep battling selfish pride... Despairingly, we think 'can God really still love me?' Answer: 'Yes – look to the cross'.
And it's especially precious to those of us who are, or will be, under God's discipline to know that discipline and God's mercy co-exist and can function at the same time. There are times when God is saying to us, 'I'm disciplining you – but I still love you'. The discipline will stop but God's mercy will endure and it will always have the last word.
So… despite the puzzle of God's sovereignty, a strange census, a strange choice of punishments and a bit of middle eastern haggling for the purchase of a threshing floor… we see so clearly that although our sin may have painful consequences, if we repent God extends his arms of mercy to us. Christ dealt with sin once and for all. He is the one true sacrifice that we might walk free. Discipline is real but mercy has the last word. 2 Samuel 24 points to the fulfilment of this in the coming of Jesus. Today as Christians we can experience it. Let's pray…
Father, we keep failing to trust you and a lot of us ought to know better. We're sorry for it and pray that you would help us to trust you more. Thank you that when we repent because of Jesus you forgive us – whether that's the first time, or the millionth. Help us to trust you in times under your discipline and help us to grow in our awareness of our sin and awareness of your grace. In Jesus' name. Amen.