The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.1Chronicles 21:1-13
1. And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.
2. 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.
3. 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 [In the place of these words we find in 2Samuel 24:3, "And that the eyes of my lord the king may see it," a much more emphatic sentence]? why then doth my lord require this thing? why will he be a cause of trespass to Israel? [This clause does not occur in Samuel. It is perhaps added by the writer of Chronicles to show what was in Joab's mind: "Why wilt thou, by numbering them in a spirit of vainglory, run the risk of provoking God's wrath against Israel?"]
4. Nevertheless the king's word prevailed against Joab. Wherefore Joab departed, and went throughout all Israel, and came to Jerusalem.
5. ¶ 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 tour hundred threescore and ten thousand men that drew sword.
6. But Levi and Benjamin counted he not among them: for the kings word was abominable to Joab.
7. And God was displeased [Heb. And it was evil in the eyes of the Lord concerning this thing] with this thing; therefore he smote Israel.
8. And David said unto God [2Samuel 24:10], 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.
9. ¶ And the Lord spake unto Gad, David's seer, saying,
10. Go and tell David, saying, Thus saith the Lord, I offer [Heb. stretch out] thee three things: choose thee one of them, that I may do it unto thee.
11. So Gad came to David, and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Choose thee [Heb. take to 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.
13. And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let me fall now into the hand of the Lord; for very great [or, many] are his mercies: but let me net fall into the hand of man.
The Hands of God Better Than the Hands of Men
DAVID was tempted to number the people of Israel. He said unto 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" (1Chronicles 21:2).
Joab was a wise counsellor; in this case the wisdom was with the subject, not with the king. 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?" (1Chronicles 21:3).
The protest was disregarded. When kings are mad, who can stand before them?—mad, not intellectually, but morally; the madness of the heart, compared with which mental lunacy is an unspeakable blessing. There are times when the soul seems to be given over to the power of the devil, when it is caught on every side, when religion itself becomes little better than a temptation to sin. Men are sometimes brought to suppose that they are doing things for the glory of God when in reality they are but heightening the crumbling pedestal on which their own little dignity is to be shown. David might have said to himself, I will see how many fighting men there are in Israel that can be brought up to the Lord's cause in the day of battle; I have no wish to magnify my own strength, or to put a fictitious value upon my own position; in fact, I am not concerned about myself at all in this matter, my only object is to see how many qualified men might be called up to the help of the Lord in the day of battle. In saying all this David might assure himself that he was deeply concerned only for the Lord's name and glory, and that nothing could be more unselfish than his godly concern for the welfare of Israel. There are what may be called subtle sins, as well as vulgar sins. A man may set himself in open opposition to God, and boldly say that he means to fight down the divine supremacy, and put a mark of dishonour on God's throne; he may be mad enough and vulgar enough for that and defeat his own intentions by his exaggeration. We need not argue the case with such a man, for he is not the kind of character that does much evil in society; his very fury is its own best check. The drunkard who is rolling in the ditch is rather a warning than a temptation to other people. The thing to be noted is, that there are subtle sins—sins which do not look like sins; sins that are done up in beautiful parcels, that have an inviting aspect, that come to men altogether in false guises, and take men unawares. There is a possibility of doing things that look well, and yet are bad; of encouraging ambitions, and strengthening tastes which, under a passable reputation, are eating away the substance and strength of our best life. It will be a mistake on our part to imagine that David exhausted the sin of counting, and that now arithmetical calculations may be made without trespassing upon the province and honour of God. It is easy for us to rise in petulant indignation against David, and to declare that he ought not to have counted his men; but let us beware, lest in so doing we provoke the spirit of David to retort that it is possible for us to count our money so as to disclose the very motive and intention which in him we condemn as vicious. Yes, there is an atheistical way of counting money. A man may go over coin by coin of his property, and look at it in a way which, being interpreted, signifies, This is my strength, this is my confidence; so long as I have all these coins it is impossible that I can get far wrong, or know much trouble; these will be my answer and defence in the day of accusation and adversity! The most harmless looking things may be done in a distrustful and self-considering spirit. David was undoubtedly giving way to low considerations; he was trying an arm of flesh; he was encouraging himself by a review of forces which he imagined to be invincible. God, who is jealous for the honour of his servants, and jealous for the honour of his own name, sent Gad, David's own seer, to put three propositions before the king:
"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" (1Chronicles 21:12).
To these propositions David answered:
"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" (1Chronicles 21:13).
Let us regard this answer as showing that in the saddest experiences of the heart, in the extremities of human guilt, in the allotment of penalties, and in the working out of law, it is better to fall into the hand of God than into the hands of men; that the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and plenteous in mercy, and that like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.
The doctrine is, that as sinners, as sinners before God, and as sinners towards each other, our highest hope is not in the incomplete and perverted mercy of man, but in the infinite mercy which is founded upon the infinite righteousness of God. We may, perhaps, help ourselves towards a clearer understanding of this doctrine by first considering that it is better to fall into the hands of the highest class of men than into the hands of the lowest; if this be made clear, it will give us a hint of how much better it may be to receive sentence from God than from the highest human authorities.
Take a debated legal case. In the first instance it may be brought before the local magistracy; but, very possibly, the result may be considered unsatisfactory by one party or the other, hence the case may be moved to the court above; there again dissatisfaction may be the result, and an appeal may be carried to the highest court in the land. The decision of that court carries with it the advantage that at all events nothing further can be done—all that legal learning, acumen, skill, and experience can do, has been done. The result, even then, may not be satisfactory; still, by so much as the case has been carried to the highest tribunal, and pronounced upon by the highest wisdom, there is strong ground to rest upon. Not only so, there is a point beyond this; for by so much as a man wishes that there were yet another superior court to which an appeal might be made does he show how deeply graven upon the heart is the law that it is better to fall into the hands of the highest than into the hands of the lowest; that it is better to fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men. It is quite true that the decision of the highest may not bring with it satisfaction to the mind; that is not the point; the one point is, that men do aspire to have their cases determined, not by the lowest, but by the highest authorities, and it is only by so much as they are persuaded that they have had access to those highest authorities, that they approach anything like a condition of satisfaction.
What is true in the law is equally true in all criticism. Take an amateur painter: as his work approaches completion, he permits his friends to look at it. His father declares himself lost in wonder; his mother unhesitatingly says that the work of her son is perfect; his kinsfolk generally admit that there is genius in the family. So much for one class of critics; but, inasmuch as the artist is aware that this is the very lowest class, it is impossible for him to be satisfied even with the most flattering commendation of his skill. Next come other competitors for fame; and they, as becometh incipient greatness, look on critically and coldly; and the amateur consoles himself under their censure, by finding in envious rivalry a full explanation of their reserve. Is the artist satisfied with the opinions which have been pronounced upon his work? Does he consider himself favoured of fortune, because his father and his mother have, without modification, accorded to him the tribute of their favour? Or does he consider himself condemned to neglect and forgetfulness, because men who are in the same position as himself have treated his work with coldness? He says, alike to the flattery and the censure, I have yet to be judged by the academicians; you are not the judges; they will say what the work is worth; by their word I abide. I cannot accept your flattery; I cannot be discouraged by your censure: I must appeal to the highest, and by the highest I stand or fall. Even supposing the judgment of the highest to be unfavourable, the painter knows that, morally, it is impartial, and, artistically, it is supreme; and by so much he is set at rest as to the value of his work. But suppose that all preliminary criticism is favourable, the wise artist will yet say, I must not rest content with this, it has not the full consent of my own mind; these people are not able to judge my work by the right standards: the great judgment has yet to be pronounced; all that has been said may be confirmed or reversed, and not until the appointed authorities have expressed their opinion can I feel at rest.
Take the case of the young public speaker. It will be for the advantage of such a man to be judged by the greatest orators which the country can supply. Do not let his audience consist of half-educated men, but fill the house in which he is to speak with the highest talent of the land. Even then, should the young man fail in his effort, there will be in his hearers a discrimination that can find out any sign or trace of power that may be discovered in his service: there will be an honourable treatment of his failings; and everything that he does that looks in the direction of power will be viewed with hopefulness and encouraged with stimulating words. It is better to be judged by the highest than by the lowest; men have less to fear when they act or speak in the presence of the noblest minds than when they are criticised and judged by men of inferior sagacity and culture. Constantly in life we are seeing the conflict of opinions, and waiting for the expression of the highest, and when the highest has been ascertained, society settles down into contentment and rest. On the other hand, until the highest has been made known, men cannot be quite at ease; the vexed question is still beset with perilous possibilities, and no man is foolhardy enough to build upon it with confidence and satisfaction.
In carrying these illustrations into the religious realm, we must distinguish between the principle and the accident. There is of course infinite disparity between God and the highest human authorities; those authorities are not infallible, even upon matters which come within the scope of their proper functions; judges may err in law; academicians may err in art; physicians may err in medicine;—the one thing to be remembered is, that by so much as men are sure that they have appealed to the highest accessible tribunal, are they satisfied with the decision. We come then to the one great question of sin. How is sin to be met? How is sin to be forgiven? That sin must somehow be recognised and punished is made abundantly clear by all the arrangements of society. By common consent it has been determined to hunt down sin that affects our social relations; how is the great sin which affects the heart and disturbs our attitude towards God to be met? We may seek to punish one another, or to heal one another, but our punishments are mockeries, and our healings do not touch the disease. You may scourge a felon, but he is a felon still. When you have shut up the manslayer for life in the gloomiest solitude, you have not touched the spirit of murder that is in him. When we have sought to modify sin, to show that corruption is not so corrupt, and that there are spots of light even in the densest moral darkness, we have not really healed the heart which we have addressed in such vain words, we have only put over it a thin covering of lies which will be consumed; and the heart will be the worse for the delusion to which it has yielded. All human punishment is but negative. Human punishment is, in fact, simply a protest.
Why is it better that the sinner should fall into the hands of God rather than into the hands of men? In reply to this question, good use might be made of the many pleasing considerations which arise in connection with God's wisdom, God's righteousness, and God's perfect knowledge of facts; but we shall include all these in a higher answer—viz., it is better to fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men, because in his whole treatment of human sin God is constantly seeking, not the destruction, but the salvation of the sinner. The punishment which follows sin is not mere punishment; it is not a bald assertion of the rights of law: there is a redemptive element in it; the rod itself conveys a call to the cross. God has never answered our sin merely by punishment. To have contented himself with punishment, strictly as such, would have been to proclaim his weakness. Nothing is easier than to measure sin by penalty, and to make an end of transgression by a visitation of the rod. All this, however, is weakness itself; it is impotent compromise; it leaves the great rebellion untouched. God answers sin not by his hand only, but by his heart. When we ask, How does God propose to encounter sin? He does not point to the spear of lightning, and say, So long as that spear is at my command the sinner shall not go unpunished; he does not refer us to the thunder of his power, and say, So long as I can avail myself of such resources the sinner shall be humiliated: all this would amount to less than nothing; it is negative; it is puerile, if it be considered strictly within its own limits; God, instead of confining himself to penalty, set up the cross, and shows men the sinfulness of sin through the depth and tenderness of his own mercy. Man seeks to magnify his own righteousness, by pronouncing sentence of condemnation upon other people. Man is apt to think that he will be considered virtuous if he speak loudly against other people's vices. It is possible to have quite a genius in devising penalties, and yet for the heart to know nothing of true loyalty to virtue. Magistracy is one thing, righteousness is another. Law-making may be reduced to a science, but law-keeping comes out of the heart. All human legislation in reference to crime is of necessity incomplete, because it touches simply the overt act, and not the motive or the spirit underlying and explaining the life. All incompleteness is weakness, and weakness has but three courses before it—it succumbs to an ignominious fate; it takes advantage of compromise; or it defends itself by exaggeration. All human penal law is ex post facto; it is made after the crime; it is something that comes up to meet a certain class of facts; or by so much as human law is apparently anticipative, it is founded upon inferences and probabilities which make it really retrospective. Crime came first, the Statute Book came next. On the other hand, God's treatment of sin was determined before the creation of man; for we read in the Holy Book of the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world. The idea of redemption was established before the infliction of mere punishment could by possibility be accomplished. The cross is the first figure in the immeasurable past. Redemption lies at the very foundation of the divine government. It is no afterthought; it is not the device of a magistracy organised to put down public crime; it is the expression of the infinite righteousness and the infinite love of God.
Let us be clear upon this point, lest sentiments overrule reason. We are not to suppose that the punishment of sin is either unrighteous or inconsistent with the love of God. Sin must be punished. The law must smite. Sin punishes itself; it kindles a fire in the soul; it pierces the sinner with the sharpest sword. No man can do wrong without smarting for his iniquity, and all his smarting is a testimony that God is on the throne, that God is looking on, that the streams of his infinite life are flowing through the universe in one continual protest against all evil, and one continuous encouragement and benediction upon all good. We shall abuse the spirit of the text if we imagine that by going to God we shall escape the punishment of our sins. It is possible that some who have not been closely following our argument may say, Inasmuch as God deals so mercifully and lovingly with sinners, we shall leave our whole case in his hand and cast ourselves upon his mercy, in order that we may escape the consequences of our sin. They may say that, but let it be understood that it is not with the authority of the argument which we have been considering. It is more than a delusion, it is practical blasphemy. By going to God, we go to punishment; in appearing before his infinite holiness, we bring upon our souls a swift and sure condemnation of everything that is evil in our nature; but herein is the difference between the punishment man accords, and the punishment with which God visits the sinner who casts himself into his hands—under the divine punishment there lies the great and infinitely precious fact that God is seeking the salvation of the sinner. The punishment is not merely negative. God's government is not a mere magistracy. It is a moral dominion—a government of the heart.
Need a word be added about the fallacy that men would deal more lightly with one another, if the whole question of punishment were left between themselves, because of selfish reasons? First of all, the suggestion is philosophically untrue; and, secondly, its moral unsatisfactoriness is obvious. The conscience would remain after the judgment. To deal lightly with sin is actually to commit sin. To tell lies to one another, by way of modifying each other's guilt, is a method which carries its own condemnation. We must accept the great principle, that punishment can never lessen sin; that punishment is strictly negative; and that God alone can accompany punishment with a scheme of righteous and merciful redemption. It is good to fall into thy hands, gracious Father; when thou dost smite, it is that we, feeling the bitterness of sin, may desire to abandon it; when thou art angry, we see how true and pure is thy love; when thou dost terribly thunder against us, it is not that we may be driven to destruction, but that we may be called to salvation and peace.
What is wanted for a full acceptation of the principle of this text? I. A deep sense of sin. David had it, "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." If men have inadequate notions of sin, they will, of necessity, have inadequate notions of its treatment. If a man comes to God with a sense of his own integrity, with a spirit that is prepared to defend itself against the charges of God's law, the gospel will be to him nothing but a mockery, an offer that is to be declined with indignation, if not with contempt, He does not need it; he imagines that he is superior to it; he is not at all on the moral line on which the gospel operates. But let the heart be smitten with a sense of evil; let the whole soul cry out with contrition and with despair; let the watchword of the life be, "O wretched man that I am!" then in that hour of extremity, when all nature gives way, when life is a burden, when futurity is a threat, let the proposition be made to such to fall into the hands of God, who is gracious, long-suffering, and infinitely merciful, and who will mingle with all his judgment elements of love, and the heart will feel that the proposition appeals to its very deepest needs, and that there is but one answer which can be made to an offer so infinitely gracious. To those who are overwhelmed with a sense of their own moral respectability this message will be without meaning or application; but to the broken-hearted and contrite, to whom sin has become the most tormenting problem of their lives, it will be a word of illumination and encouragement.
2. An unreserved committal of our case to God. David gave himself up entirely to God's will. Mark the beauty of the expression, Let me fall into the hand of the Lord; not, Let me stand before the Lord and consult him, laying before him my opinions and pointing out a modification of his judgment; not that at all; God would not have treated with David on any such terms, nor will he treat with us if we come before him with a proposition instinct with such selfishness. We must fall into the hand of God—an expression which signifies resignation, perfect trust in the divine righteousness and benevolence, and an entire committal of our whole case to the disposal of God.
Fall into the hand of God, O misjudged man! We are living in a world where misjudgments are being constantly pronounced upon our conduct; our words are mistaken, our tones are perverted, our whole spirit is misunderstood: what is our hope? and in what does our soul find rest?—in the belief that God is over all, and that he himself pronounces the final judgment! In doing what is right and true, and doing it with individuality of method, we shall unquestionably expose ourselves to the censure of many critics. Men who profess to be men of taste, men who have made taste their idol, men whose taste is so highly cultivated as to have become the most odious vulgarity, will tell us that their whole nature shrinks from this or that method of doing things, and they will not be slow to suppose that because what they call their "whole nature" shrinks from something that bears our individuality, they are, therefore, very lofty and righteous judges! God knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust; and in the hour of his judgment he will look upon our life, not in such incomplete portions as are visible to the public eye, but in all the secret things, in all the hidden elements and forces that have gone to make it what it is; he will look at our life from its beginning to its end, and see how circumstances that never could be told to men have often asserted an overruling claim in our spirit, and caused us to assume attitudes and relations which have actually been distressingly painful to ourselves; he will judge not by the outward but by the inward, and if it be possible for his infinite love to find in us one redeeming feature, he will so magnify that as to cause our weaknesses and our failures, in so far as they have been mere infirmities, to be forgotten in the amplification of those features on which he himself can look with any degree of approbation. The whole world is in the hand of God, let us be thankful. The whole past is under his review, let us leave it with the assurance that his judgment is righteous. The whole future is under his control, let us pass into it with the steadiness, the quietness and the majesty of those who know that all the resources of God are placed at the disposal of all who put their whole trust in his wisdom and love. We can talk but inadequately about these things now; poor are our best notions about the goodness of the divine rule and the blessedness of falling into the divine hands. Not until we reach heaven can we fully know how good a thing it is to have given up our whole heart and life to the keeping and direction of our heavenly Father.
So the LORD sent pestilence upon Israel: and there fell of Israel seventy thousand men.1Chronicles 21:14-30
¶ 14. So the Lord sent pestilence upon Israel [From Samuel we learn that the plague raged throughout the land, from dawn to the time of the evening sacrifice]: and there fell of Israel seventy thousand men.
15. And God sent an angel unto Jerusalem to destroy it ["And the angel stretched out his hand towards Jerusalem to destroy it"]; and as he was destroying ["About (at the time of) the destroying;" when the angel was on the point of beginning the work of death. It does not appear that Jerusalem was touched (comp. 2Samuel 24:16)], the Lord beheld, and he repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed, It is enough, stay now ["Enough now, stay (drop) thine hand"] thine hand. And the angel of the Lord stood [was standing. Samuel "had come to be"] by the threshingfloor of Oman [or, Araunah, 2Samuel 24:18] the Jebusite.
16. 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. [On the bursting out of the pestilence it would be natural that David and the elders should put on sackcloth (see 2Samuel 3:31; 1Kings 21:27; 2Kings 6:30, etc.); and on seeing the angel it would be natural that they should veil their faces (see Exodus 3:6; 1Kings 19:13)].
17. 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 [verbatim as in Samuel, save that the appeal, "O Lord my God," is wanting there. (Literally, "But these, the sheep." The king was the shepherd)], 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 [Literally, "and on thy people, not for a plague "].
THE ministry of angels is not always a ministry of salvation. We read in the epistle to the Hebrews, "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?" But in this case we find an angel charged with the awful mission of destruction. The city towards which the angel was flying was none other than Jerusalem, the fair, the beautiful, the comeliest object upon all the earth, the very city of peace and of God. But position, history, outward advantages, cannot save men from divine judgment, when they have rebelled against God and invoked his wrath. Curious, however, it is to notice how judgment and mercy meet together, even under circumstances the most appalling. A beautiful instance of this occurs in the fifteenth verse—"and as he was destroying"—the Lord was looking on, and he himself interrupted the judgment which he had ordered to be poured out upon the doomed city. The Lord cannot look upon destruction with complacency. He did not make the earth to destroy it, or create the children of men that he might turn them to destruction; his thoughts are ever thoughts of restoration, maturity, completeness, and the blessedness of peace and sweet contentment "Turn ye, turn ye; why will ye die?" "As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked." Are there not many interrupted judgments in human history? Sometimes we have wondered why the judgment was not carried on to the point of extremity, so that nothing whatever should be left behind of all the heritage of evil-doers. The explanation of our wonder is given in this verse, and specially in these words, "and as he was destroying." God has left a remnant; he would not have the uttermost farthing extracted; he would not carry out his judgment until there was nothing left upon the earth but the signs of the fire which had consumed it. What applies to a nation or to a city applies also to the individual life. We have had much taken away, and yet how much have we had left! As the angel was destroying, "the Lord beheld," and into his eyes there came tears of pity, and his voice was heard saying to the angel, "It is enough, stay now thine hand." In wrath God has remembered mercy; thus, although our house has been shaken down, and our life has suffered great chastisements, and all objects of beauty seem to have been withdrawn from our vision, yet when we come to look on what God has left behind, we may indeed often be more astounded by the mercy than we have been appalled by the wrath. "It is enough, stay now thine hand,"—enough, if rightly interpreted, but not enough if the right interpretation has been missed. Enough was done to assert the reality of divine righteousness, the certainty of the divine superintendence of human affairs; enough was done to show that God could have done more, had not his pity arrested his anger. Blessed are they who themselves say, "It is enough," and who justify their verdict of sufficiency, not because of their cowardice under the strain of suffering, but because their distresses have brought them to penitential humiliation and to full-orbed views of life and of God. We have never had enough punishment until we have been brought to an attitude of humiliation, confession, and uttermost penitence. The object of God in sending the destroying angel to city or nation, to family or individual, is to bring men to repentance, to use even the ministry of fear in order that he may bring home those who have wandered far from him. When David beheld the awful spectacle, he began to accuse himself with just severity, yet he began in that hour to know what it is to respond to priestly instincts and to pursue the holy work of mediation. David said unto God, I only am to blame—"I it is that have sinned and done evil indeed "—I am the guilty one before high Heaven: O thou God of mercy, kill me if thou wilt, but spare those who have no part or lot in this iniquity. Happy indeed is the man who can bring himself even to this distress of mind. Contradictory as the mere words may appear to be, there is joy in a distress in which we have not involved others, but which righteously falls upon ourselves, and which we accept in a spirit of submission and penitence. David was great in his repentance. The circumstances developed the highest quality of the man's nature; he did not seek for the mitigation of his punishment in the punishment of innocent men: he felt that he could bear that penalty more resignedly, and even gratefully, if he himself were left alone to receive the full outpouring of divine indignation which he had justly incurred: "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." Yet a curious illustration of providence is afforded by this very association of innocent people with divine judgments. We cannot sin ourselves without involving others in some measure of penalty and suffering. Surely this should be some restraint upon our eager appetites, our unholy ambitions, our diabolical desires. When the father of the house goes down in character he carries down with him, to a considerable extent, the character of his innocent children. The bad man is laying up a bad fortune for those whom he has brought into the world; long years afterwards they may be told how bad a man their father was, and because of his iniquity they may be made to suffer loss and pain. If any man is now seeing innocent people suffering on his account he ought at once to confess the sin to be his own, and openly implore God to keep back the hand of judgment from those who are involved in the grievous offence.
"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 [Heb. Give] 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 [comp. Leviticus 2:1]; 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" (1Chronicles 21:18-27).
Another link is now introduced into this ministry of mediation. The Lord commanded the angel, and the angel of the Lord commanded Gad, and that prophet was to tell David to go up and set up an altar unto the Lord. The setting-up of an altar unto the Lord was not a mere act of masonry. Many sinners there are who would be willing to build altars and churches if thereby they could escape the penalty of their sin. There is no way into the blessedness of pardon through any golden door. How easy it would be for the rich man to claim a pardon because of the multitude of his donations, or the magnificence of the buildings for whose erection he has paid! The way of escape does not lie along that path at all. We are indeed to set up an altar, but that altar is to express the condition of the heart; in the heart itself the altar is first set up: all the building of the hand but shows forth visibly what has already been done secretly in the innermost parts of the soul. Instantly David went up at the saying of Gad, which he spake in the name of the Lord. David said to Ornan, "Grant me the place of this threshingfloor, that I may build an altar therein unto the Lord." David did not ask for a privilege, he asked to be allowed to purchase the site upon which his eyes were fixed. He told the object which he had in view, that object being none other than that the plague might be stayed from the people. He who had seen innumerable thousands of men slain by the sword, in the time of what he considered to be just and honourable war, could not bear to see innocent people mown down by the scythe of divine wrath. Here embodies the true idea of amelioration and all true restoration, namely, that the man must be made right with God in order that he may be made right with his fellow-men, and in order that divine judgments may be turned into divine blessings. David had nothing to say to Gad, nor had he a word to speak to the angel; these were but instruments in the divine hand: his business was to go immediately to God himself, and there, in amplest submission and deepest humiliation, make his peace with the offended Creator. Our rupture is not with our fellow-men, it is with our God. The answer to all the results of that rupture, therefore, is not to be found in political rearrangements, in social reforms, in manipulations suggested by an inventive genius; it is to be found in a deeply religious exercise, namely, the up-going of the soul to God with tears and brokenheartedness and uttermost contrition; and thus having purified the fountain the streams will all be cleansed and sanctified. When David built his altar "he offered burnt offerings and peace offerings, and called upon the Lord." After all, this was work which David loved. With all his shortcomings, with his manifest and even monstrous defects, there was deep down in his heart an inextinguishable love for God and for God's house. Nor was the Lord slow to answer him; the Lord commanded the angel, and the sword was at once put up into its sheath. This was answered prayer. If we have difficulties in the matter of prayer being answered, we ought to consider whether those difficulties should not turn upon the nature of the prayer itself. What is the prayer which we offer? Is it a cry of selfish pain or selfish shame? Or is it in any way limited by merely selfish desires and considerations? If so, it is not prayer at all; it is the mere cry of cowardice, the mere whimper of childish timidity. We shall prove the reality of our prayer when we publicly confess our own sin, and when we openly go forward and at all costs purchase what is required in order to show the depth and power of our conviction, and when we lovingly and audibly cry in the hearing of the whole world that God would have mercy upon us and heal us: when our prayer comes to that point of agony, we shall be in a position to say whether God hears our prayers or allows them to die upon the idle wind. Before pronouncing upon prayer we ought ourselves to pray. We ought also to remember that to pray is not to use a form of words, however sacred and tender, but to pour out the living heart in absolute and ungrudging sacrifice before the throne of grace. Few men pray. Many men utter the words of prayer, but never truly aspire to heaven. Lord, teach us how to pray!
"At that time when David saw that the Lord had answered him in the threshingfloor of Ornan the Jebusite, then he sacrificed there [i.e., then (from the time of the fall of fire from heaven) David made this his regular place for offering sacrifice]. 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 [comp. ch. 1Chronicles 16:39-40, and 2Chronicles 1:3-5]. 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" (1Chronicles 21:28-30).
This is a parenthesis, showing why David did not resort to the ancient tabernacle which stood then at Gibeon. The dwelling-place of Jehovah is set forth in contrast with Ornan's threshingfloor, or the new sanctuary. David could not go to inquire of God, for he was afraid because of the sword of the angel of the Lord. David could not go to Gibeon because of the sword of the angel of Jehovah—that is to say, because of the pestilence which raged at Gibeon. It has been supposed by some that the awful vision of the angel had afflicted David with some bodily weakness; perhaps it is better to suppose that the sight of the angel had made an indelible impression upon the mind of David.
There are some sights which we never wish to see repeated; so thoroughly unmanned have we been by certain spectacles that nothing could induce us to look upon them again. No man can see God, and live; and God can so show an angel to the human vision that that vision would on no account look again upon the appalling and bewildering sight. We know not what we ask for when we desire to see the invisible world. We cannot tell what is the meaning of the word "spirit"; we see one another in the body, and become familiar with one another in that relation, but who can tell what would be the effect upon the mind if we could really see the spirit of our dearest friend? Mysterious spirit! spirit of fire, spirit of life; an amazing, wondrous, immeasurable thing, palpitating in every part of the body, and yet wholly resident in none: the thing that thinks, that brings riches to the mind from afar, that wonders, schemes, plots, prays, blasphemes, and conducts the whole tragedy of life, and yet is itself invisible— impalpable! By our self-study we approach in some degree a knowledge of the nature of God. God is a Spirit. God is invisible. We are to know God meanwhile as we know one another, namely, through embodiment, incarnation, phenomena; we are to know him by the very nature that is round about us—the shining heavens, the flowering earth, the living air: all these things, rightly understood, interpret God as we are able to bear him. There is indeed another interpretation always to be desired and always to be earnestly sought for, and that is the indwelling Holy Ghost, taking of the things of Christ and showing them unto us, leading us into all truth, comforting us with appropriate solaces, and giving us confidence that the future shall be larger and brighter than the past, and that all our sorrows shall be but as dark roots out of which the flower of joy will spring. Solemn indeed ought every religious exercise to be: it should heighten the whole level of the mind, and bring to a finer pitch of harmony the action of all the powers of the soul. If we have left the altar in any other frame of mind than this, then our service there has been a vain oblation. When men go down from the house of God, their whole spirit should be marked by reverence, tenderness, submission, and a complete desire to obey and fulfil every tittle of the word of God. By this sign shall men know that they have offered acceptable worship.
Almighty God, make us as little children. We want to be taken up into thine arms and have thine hands put upon us, and to be blessed of God. Without this we cannot live. We have tried to keep all the commandments, and the stones fall down from the top of one another, because we are on the wrong foundation and there is no binding quality in the cement we use. We cannot build these stones at all. When we try to rise upon them they and we all fall down together. Who can build himself up into heaven? Not one. So we cease to do all this, and come to Jesus Christ our Saviour, and knowing nothing, arguing nothing, questioning nothing, we want simply to be taken up by him into his arms, and to feel his warm hands upon us, and to know that his blessing is stealing into our hearts with most tender persuasiveness. This is true godliness—to know no will but thine; to know nothing of argument and controversy and fierce quarrelling of words, but to know that thou art in us and we in thee; hardly to know ourselves from thee; to be absorbed in God, to be lost in love. Then shall we prove all this by many a generous deed. We shall be out before Pharaoh in the morning, and accost him ere he bathes in the water. We shall go to Pharaoh by night when he sends for us, as all cowards do, and shall there in the darkness be as free and safe as if in heaven. We shall serve the Lord; we shall rejoice in the Lord and greatly magnify his Name; and our life shall be no scented perfume but a daily service and sacrifice, and thus an acceptable oblation. But this is a great mystery, and it concerns Christ and his Church. It is not in man to work this miracle. Man argues, and builds stones that will not hold together, and invents long and foolish words. Lord, displace this first man and set up within us the Second Man, which is the Lord from heaven. Then our life shall upward go, our soul shall struggle to the skies, our whole estate shall have resting upon it the oath of consecration, and thy wing shall cover us all the day. Thou knowest who we are and what we want—the man with the burdened back, the sore heart, the scorched estate; thou knowest the broken in spirit, the weary and sad: they who laugh, when internally they are full of tears and crying bitterly: they who sit down to the feast and make believe they are eating when all the while they die of sad satiety; thou knowest the strong and the weak. Let a blessing come to every one of us—some word our own, some message all for us, some tone picked out of the general speech and meant for our attention. If thou wilt hear us in this, we shall know at the end that our prayers have been turned at the Cross into a great Amen, because of the love that shall glow in our thankful hearts, Amen.