Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.David's Census
1 Chronicles 21:2
What was it that made David's deed ungodly? The answer is that David's act was a grievous forgetfulness of, and departure from, God's purpose (an act in which the people acquiesced with their king). He appears to have been moved by the hope that he should find the people big enough to cope with the nations around them on their own ground. And the people themselves would appear to have shared David's pride and ambition. Once they were a horde of freshly emancipated slaves. Now, a fixed people, they felt their feet, and would stand of their own strength.
I. In considering the leading lesson here taught, think for a moment (1) how unique that race was. Nothing is so wonderful in the history of the world as the survival of the Jews. They were in the midst of mighty nations which far outnumbered them, but which (as the centuries rolled by) all lost their place and power in the world, while the Jews remained. But (2) more is to be noticed. This peculiar nation, destined to survive with incredible vitality, produced One Who should spread His kingdom from shore to shore, not by the sword, but by the Word of Truth; and that process is going on. That nation has given birth to the most widely penetrating body upon earth, the manifold Church of Christ. The Christian Church came from nowhere unless it came out of the Jewish. It reads the Jewish Bible, and chants the Jewish Psalms. Its cradle was Jerusalem. Its first Apostles and teachers were all Jews. Its Head was a Jew Himself. And though the old Jewish community does not proselytize, its child, the Christian Church, does, with accumulating energy. It is the most conspicuously aggressive teacher of religion on the face of the globe, setting itself to convert every nation upon earth; its unconquered heart beats with desire and intention to go on in the belief that, after His own way and in His own time, the uplifted Christ will draw all men unto Him.
Thus the lesson is clear that David's act was forgetfulness of God's purpose. In seeking to realize his material forces, and count the swords which he could draw, he slighted that unseen vital force which distinguished his people, and descended to the meaner level on which those around took their stand. In the preservation of the Jews and the development of Christianity we see a Divine process which David ignored; the whole history shows the secret of the Lord, and declares that there is a power, often hidden, which fulfils its purpose with irresistible force.
II. But this is not the only lesson to be learned. It points us to some of those mistakes which men are apt to make at all times in the conduct of their society and their lives. Of course I refer to a reliance on numbers as a guarantee of stability and truth. I am not thinking of war alone. In national economy, and most especially in religion, the faith in mere numbers may prove to be disastrous, and the impotence of numbers demonstrated. The consent and unanimity of a thousand fools does not render the folly of one man harmless. On the contrary, it may arm it with power to do a thousandfold more harm. We should be very cautious in guiding our course by the weathercock of public opinion. No doubt it shows which way the wind blows, and indicates the presence of numbers; but the question remains—in which direction does it blow, and how long will it last? The mariner does not sail before the wind unless it drives towards the haven where he would be. The radical mistake of David can be repeated by many a modern nation, and is most likely to be mischievous when led by mere party government. The great convictions and changes in history are irrespective of numbers. Again, a man who really gets hold of a truth is not more persuaded of it when it has been accepted by others. He may be pleased at, but he is not dependent on, their verdict. And a man who waits to see how a statement is received by others before he commits himself has no root in himself, being merely the slave of numbers. That slavery, worse than Egyptian, has arisen again and again in the world's course. It shows itself in the discharge of business and in the profession of Faith up to these last days. It is the same deadly hindrance to which David exposed himself and his people. He, for a while, lost sight of the Lord of Truth and Righteousness. And so we are all tempted in the formation of our opinions and actions. We are all tempted to number the people—to ask only, 'What do others think?'
It is of the first importance that a man should be, and do, what he is, and does, divinely; that he should be true to himself, to the voice of his Father which is in heaven, Who never leaves His children to walk alone, if they will only take His hand.
Davids Sin in the Numbering of the People
1 Chronicles 21:13
What was David's sin in the numbering of the people?
I. The sin of David was self-confidence, pride in his own strength, and forgetfulness of the source of all his strength—even of God.
II. It was the greater sin in him because he had such marvellous, such visible witnesses of God's love and care and guidance.
III. When men dwell securely, in full peace and health, they grow to be careless in religion. We do not half know our mercies till we think them over, and hear what sufferings and calamities befall our brethren in other lands.
—R. D. B. Rawnsley, Village Sermons, Series III. p. 150.
Reference.—XXI. 13.—W. H. Hutchings, Sermon-Sketches, p. 204.
The Sword of the Lord
1 Chronicles 21:16
There are many points of interest and instruction contained in the account, from which our text is taken, of the numbering of the people by David and of the awful consequences of that act.
I. Why was it so Wrong: in David to Number the People?—To count the strength of his people so as to know how many men, women, and children there were in the land seems to us a reasonable and natural course enough. Nay, more than this, we find a similar proceeding twice plainly and positively ordered by God. How was it, then, that God punished David so severely for doing the same thing that He had commanded Moses to do? The truth would seem to be that David's sin consisted not in the act of numbering Israel, but rather in the spirit in which the act was done. So many things, harmless and even commendable in themselves, become offensive to God on account of the human motives with which they get mixed up. Thus in this matter of numbering the people there could surely have been nothing to make God angry had it been set about and performed simply for reasons of political or military expediency. So we must conclude that it was in the heart of David that the cause of Divine wrath existed. We can only discern the outer act; but God saw into the secrets of David's heart, and there beheld, no doubt, much of which He disapproved—e.g. pride, vainglory, over-confidence in human strength and resources.
II. God put before David a Terrible Choice.—David was to choose between three years' famine, three months to be destroyed before his foes while the sword of his enemies overtook him, or else three days the sword of the Lord, even the pestilence in the land, the angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the land of Israel. Now, these three dreadful scourges—famine, war, and pestilence—have appeared like black spots from time to time in the pages of the world's history. Do what we will, they must reappear in our midst from time to time; we cannot prevent them. We know that, so far from their vanishing away altogether, as time goes on their continued prevalence in the world will be among the signs of the last days.
III. A Time of National Disaster or Calamity puts to the Test, as Nothing else can, the Various Characters of Men.—Then, as at no other time, the difference between different people stands out clear and distinct. Each assumes his own separate individuality. Think, for instance, how in the presence of famine, war, or pestilence one man would go on still in his way unmoved, unaltered, persisting yet in his sins, not caring for the distress that prevailed around him so long as it did not touch himself. We can see another panic-stricken, craven, utterly helpless in his terror, his self-control and reasoning powers alike merged in his fear; he looks about with horror and dismay, his heart fails him with dread. Another, with kindness of heart that is natural to him, cannot bear to contemplate the sufferings of others; he bestirs himself and tries to do all he can in the way of help and succour. There are yet others; there is the practical man who keeps calm and cool; he recognizes the peril, but maintains his self-possession. He too takes a deeper, more searching view of the question. He traces the calamity to its true cause. He looks on it as a judgment, permitted by God, on wrongdoing and disobedience. The others look on it and accept it, some in one spirit and some in another, as a most unwelcome fact, and there they leave the matter. This man lifts up his eyes as David did, and sees, as it were, the angel of the Lord with drawn sword and outstretched arm. This is the true and the religious view to take of calamities and disasters; God allows them for the punishment of sin, and therefore shall they last as long as the world lasts because of the sin that shall remain and increase to the very end.
IV. There is a Further Point in David's Conduct which calls for special notice. He did not lay the blame on other people. As a matter of fact, the pestilence was not the result of his fault alone, though in that fault of his a long series of misdeeds on the part of a perverse and stiff-necked people would appear to have reached their culmination. It is especially recorded that 'the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel'. But David thought only of his own sin; the burden of that was quite heavy enough for him to bear without his turning his attention to the sins of other people. How different it often is! There are those who are quite ready to admit that temporal punishment follows on sin, but they mean in a general way; that is to say, they are thinking more of the sins of other people than of their own. There are those who, while they deplore the prevalence of vice and irreligion among us, and declare that thereby we merit the wrath of God, forget the secret sins, the evil thoughts that are lurking in their own inmost hearts, and adding just a little more to the vast aggregate of sin and wickedness at large in our midst. Is it so with us? Are we duly sensible of the inevitable personal responsibility that rests on each of us? Which is it that we hate most, sin in the abstract or our own sin? Can we say with David, 'Even I it is that have sinned and done evil indeed'? or with the Apostles who, when our Lord foretold that one of them should betray Him, did not wonder which of the others it should be, but in humility and deep self-abasement asked, 'Lord, is it I?' In David's penitence we see the essentials of real, genuine repentance.
Far-reaching Consequences of Sin
1 Chronicles 21:17
The one thing that strikes us in reading the history of David always seems to be the quality of his character. He is an instance of the twofold possibilities of human nature. At one time we see him soaring to the highest conception of truth and goodness and love and purity, and at another time we see him sinking in the veriest mire of deceit and injustice and wrongdoing and impurity. And yet we are told that this man was a man after God's own heart. And here is the explanation. 'God knoweth whereof we are made, He remembereth that we are but dust.' Well for us that it is so! If God were extreme to mark what was done amiss, who among us should stand before Him? But let no man think that God countenances evil. The seal of heaven is upon David's life, not because he was a victim to some of the worst passions of our nature, but because his aspirations were towards the perfect likeness and perfect holiness of God.
I. Personal Accountability for Sin.—David said, 'I have sinned'. That was David's impulsive acknowledgment. It was the sin of pride—the sin of numbering his people that he might boast himself in the strength of his armies instead of reposing in the protection and the might of God. And David knew and felt what he had done directly it was done. 'I have sinned greatly.' Notice the personality of his guilt and the candour of his confession. He mentions nothing to exculpate his sin. And the same thing is noticeable in his other great cry. 'I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me.' A very little knowledge of human nature will show us that this is not at all a common attitude. It is hard to believe that the sin we commit is our own. We try all we can to shift the responsibility. We urge all kinds of pleas by way of self-exoneration. But whatever we may think or plead, sin is personal and guilt is personal. We like to group ourselves with others and feel that we are sinners as a class. Yet all is individual, all is incommunicable.
II. The Consequences of Sin.—Now let us pass to the second aspect of the subject, viz. the unfortunate consequences of sin. It is evident that David felt the guilt of sin to be his own, from which he alone needed purging. But the consequences of his sin did not stop at David. To human judgment it must seem fair that in this respect every man should bear his own burden. Could Israel help the sin of their king? Yet thousands of men were stricken down in consequence with the misery of a pestilential death. David's great soul would gladly have borne the full penalty if that had been possible. But his sin had wider consequences—consequences distributed over the whole of his nation. It has been so from the beginning. It is part of the inexorable law of God that it should be so. By one man sin entered into the world and death by sin. God says, 'I will visit the sins of the fathers upon the children'—the innocent children as we call them—'unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me'. I want you to distinguish between the consequences of sin and the punishment of sin. There cannot be punishment where there is no guilt. Suffering there may be, but no punishment You and I will never have to bear the punishment of another's sin, but we cannot escape the consequences of another's folly, and others cannot help suffering on account of our sins and follies. It is this that adds to the heinousness of sin; it is this that makes our accountability to God so awful. The soul that sins may sink into the bottomless pit of perdition, but the influence of its sin will ripple on the eddying waters of life to the farther verge of eternity. The sinner may be truly penitent, and may be forgiven, but the consequences of his sin are beyond recall. 'I have sinned, but what have these sheep done?'
References.—XXI. 17.—R. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. ii. p. 43. XXI. 28.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxx. No. 1808.
And David said to Joab and to the rulers of the people, Go, number Israel from Beersheba even to Dan; and bring the number of them to me, that I may know it.
And Joab answered, The LORD make his people an hundred times so many more as they be: but, my lord the king, are they not all my lord's servants? why then doth my lord require this thing? why will he be a cause of trespass to Israel?
Nevertheless the king's word prevailed against Joab. Wherefore Joab departed, and went throughout all Israel, and came to Jerusalem.
And Joab gave the sum of the number of the people unto David. And all they of Israel were a thousand thousand and an hundred thousand men that drew sword: and Judah was four hundred threescore and ten thousand men that drew sword.
But Levi and Benjamin counted he not among them: for the king's word was abominable to Joab.
And God was displeased with this thing; therefore he smote Israel.
And David said unto God, I have sinned greatly, because I have done this thing: but now, I beseech thee, do away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.
And the LORD spake unto Gad, David's seer, saying,
Go and tell David, saying, 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 said unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Choose thee
Either three years' famine; or three months to be destroyed before thy foes, while that the sword of thine enemies overtaketh thee; or else three days the sword of the LORD, even the pestilence, in the land, and the angel of the LORD destroying throughout all the coasts of Israel. Now therefore advise thyself what word I shall bring again to him that sent me.
And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let me fall now into the hand of the LORD; for very great are his mercies: but let me not fall into the hand of man.
So the LORD sent pestilence upon Israel: and there fell of Israel seventy thousand men.
And God sent an angel unto Jerusalem to destroy it: and as he was destroying, the LORD beheld, and he repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed, It is enough, stay now thine hand. And the angel of the LORD stood by the threshingfloor of Ornan the Jebusite.
And David lifted up his eyes, and saw the angel of the LORD stand between the earth and the heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders of Israel, who were clothed in sackcloth, fell upon their faces.
And David said unto God, Is it not I that commanded the people to be numbered? even I it is that have sinned and done evil indeed; but as for these sheep, what have they done? let thine hand, I pray thee, O LORD my God, be on me, and on my father's house; but not on thy people, that they should be plagued.
Then the angel of the LORD commanded Gad to say to David, that David should go up, and set up an altar unto the LORD in the threshingfloor of Ornan the Jebusite.
And David went up at the saying of Gad, which he spake in the name of the LORD.
And Ornan turned back, and saw the angel; and his four sons with him hid themselves. Now Ornan was threshing wheat.
And as David came to Ornan, Ornan looked and saw David, and went out of the threshingfloor, and bowed himself to David with his face to the ground.
Then David said to Ornan, Grant me the place of this threshingfloor, that I may build an altar therein unto the LORD: thou shalt grant it me for the full price: that the plague may be stayed from the people.
And Ornan said unto David, Take it to thee, and let my lord the king do that which is good in his eyes: lo, I give thee the oxen also for burnt offerings, and the threshing instruments for wood, and the wheat for the meat offering; I give it all.
And king David said to Ornan, Nay; but I will verily buy it for the full price: for I will not take that which is thine for the LORD, nor offer burnt offerings without cost.
So David gave to Ornan for the place six hundred shekels of gold by weight.
And David built there an altar unto the LORD, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings, and called upon the LORD; and he answered him from heaven by fire upon the altar of burnt offering.
And the LORD commanded the angel; and he put up his sword again into the sheath thereof.
At that time when David saw that the LORD had answered him in the threshingfloor of Ornan the Jebusite, then he sacrificed there.
For the tabernacle of the LORD, which Moses made in the wilderness, and the altar of the burnt offering, were at that season in the high place at Gibeon.
But David could not go before it to inquire of God: for he was afraid because of the sword of the angel of the LORD.