When David saw the angel striking down the people, he said to the LORD, "Surely I, the shepherd, have sinned and acted wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please, let Your hand fall upon me and my father's house."
David had good reasons for the choice he made. He knew well, from his own treatment of defeated enemies (2 Samuel 12:31
; 1 Chronicles 20:3
), how fearfully cruel were conquerors in war in those days, what an awful scourge to his subjects would be the ravages of a victorious invading army. He also doubtless dreaded the disgrace and permanent damage to the kingdom which would be thus wrought, and the dishonour, in the view of the heathen, which would be cast on the Name of Jehovah its God (see Joshua 7:8, 9
). Taking the words wider application, they express what will be the natural preference of good men.
I. GROUNDS OF THE PREFERENCE HERE EXPRESSED.
1. The great mercy of God and the unmercifulness, or limited mercy, of men.
2. The righteousness of God and the unrighteousness of men. We can never be sure that in a particular case righteousness will guide human proceedings; we know that the Divine are always thus guided. Many men are utterly regardless of what is right where their own interests, inclinations, or passions are concerned; and even the best men are liable to fail in respect to pure and constant regard for rectitude.
3. The knowledge and wisdom of God, and the ignorance and folly of men. Much of the misconduct and untrustworthiness of men springs from ignorance and folly. When they mean well, they often do ill through not knowing the actual state of the affairs with which they are called to deal, not taking the trouble, perhaps, to ascertain it; or, when they know it, not understanding how to treat it. But the Divine knowledge and wisdom are perfect.
4. The power of God and the weakness of men. Men are often incapable of doing the good they know, and even strongly desire to do; and their weakness often causes them to do mischief while endeavouring to do good. God is Almighty to effect what his wisdom, mercy, and rectitude prompt.
5. The relation of God to good men. Their Father, their covenant God. The certainty that he will honour those that honour him, and turn all things, including his own chastisement of them, to their good, and ultimately bring them to eternal glory. The preference will be strong in proportion to the actual contrast between the men with whom we have to do and God. There are some men who are so God like that we should not be averse to falling into their hands in a considerable variety of circumstances. It would be to a limited extent like falling into the hands of God.
II. CASES IN WHICH THE PREFERENCE WOULD BE EXERCISED.
1. The endurance of suffering. As in the text. It is better to suffer from disease than from human violence. The suffering will be easier to bear, more likely to profit, less likely to excite resentment and other evil passions. The infliction will be more tempered with mercy, and promote in a greater degree the ends of mercy.
2. Judgment of character and actions. To be judged by God is preferable to being judged by men. Men are often fond of passing judgment, but for the most part very incapable. They commonly judge ignorantly, or from prejudice, and therefore unjustly. They are apt to be wrong alike in their favourable and unfavourable opinions of others. When condemned by them, it is well if we can appeal with confidence to the judgment of God, which is always just.
3. Forgiveness. Men forgive reluctantly, in a limited measure, with reserves; and soon grow weary of pardoning the same offender. To pardon "seven times," much more "seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21, 22), seems to them an impossibility. Indeed, repeated offences, as they appear incompatible with real repentance, may justify hesitation to pardon repeatedly, since the state of the offender's heart cannot be known. But God, who knows the heart, discerns where it is true, notwithstanding frequent falls; and, pitying human weakness, forgives many times a day. And his pardons are full and complete. Add that forgiveness from men does not ensure forgiveness from God, and that having the latter we can, if need be, dispense with the former. There is then abundant reason why, in the matter of pardon, we should prefer to have to do with God rather than men.
4. Spiritual guidance and help. God has appointed that men should instruct and aid their fellow men in matters of religion and morals. But those who offer themselves as spiritual guides are fallible, and they differ widely on important points. It is then encouraging and assuring that Divine guidance and help are available. By the devout study of God's holy Word, and earnest prayer for the Holy Spirit, whose aid is promised to those who seek it (Luke 11:13), all may obtain such heavenly wisdom and strength as shall ensure them against serious error and failure. And after listening to the conflicting statements of human teachers, and their denunciation of those who decline their counsel, a religious inquirer may in many instances wisely turn from them to God, saying, "Let me fall into the hand of the Lord rather than of man." In conclusion:
1. It is a great comfort to sincere Christians to know that they are ever in the hand of the Lord. When they seem to be most left to the will of arbitrary, unjust, and cruel men, God is over all, controlling, overruling, sanctifying, compelling their most malignant foes to promote their real and lasting good. He will rectify and compensate for all the injustice and injury which he permits men to inflict upon them.
2. Impenitent sinners might well prefer to fall into the hands of men rather than of God. The limited knowledge and power of men, as well as their feeble hatred of sin, would be in their favour; at the worst, they can only "kill the body." But God abhors sin with a perfect hatred, knows fully the guilt of each sinner, and "hath power to cast into hell" (Luke 12:4, 5). "Who knoweth the power of thine anger?" (Psalm 90:11). - G.W.
And David spake unto the Lord when he saw the angel that smote the people.
David's sin in numbering the people was want of confidence in God. At any rate, it is certain that for a time he lost his faith, and was in open rebellion against God. Then came his punishment — a grievous punishment for the king who has the welfare of his people at heart. One man sins; his sin is punished; but the punishment fails on the innocent — that is the strange problem which rises before us on reading this chapter, and it is a problem which very often presents itself in the facts of human life. The problem is forced on our notice every day we live. A careless shipwright does not send his bolt or rivet home properly, and, in a storm at sea, a gallant ship founders, carrying with it many precious lives. A man commits a great crime; he is found out and punished, but the punishment does not stop with himself: it falls also on his family, who have to bear the shame and the reverse of fortune. A husband and father becomes a drunkard; the sin brings its inevitable punishment; but the punishment is as heavy on the wife, who is never free from anxious care, and on the children, who grow: up weakly, uneducated, and wilful, for the lack of parental guidance. Two or three men combine in a gigantic fraud; they are detected and punished, and utter ruin falls on them; but the consequences of the fraud, in a thousand ramifications, affect the happiness and prosperity of a whole nation. A sovereign does not feel himself secure on his throne, and, in order to surround himself with military glory and strengthen his position, declares war against a neighbouring people. The punishment of his ambition is disastrous to himself; but still worse are the calamities which come on thousands of his unoffending subjects. Is not the suffering of the innocent with the guilty, and for the guilty, one of the most familiar facts in human life? We would think it fair and right that each one should start in life with the same chance of good and evil, and should have it in his power to carve out his fortunes as seemeth, good to him but it is only too plain that such is not the case. Some are overweighted from the very first; some spend all their lives in reaching the point from which others start; some struggle on for a few years, and die in the bloom of youth, through inherited feebleness of constitution. And even if we did all start with the same chances, it is evident that we do not work through life freely and independently; our aims are defeated, our efforts crushed by events over which we have but little influence. Job, sitting among his comforters and bewailing his unhappy fate; Prometheus, chained to the rock and defying the unjust power that chains him; Philoctetes, left behind in his misery on the desert island — these present, in the highest flights of tragic poetry, what many a one feels bitterly in his own thoughts — the truth that wrong-doing and suffering do not always go together; and to those who believe in a Governor of the universe they present also some apparent justification for the complaint of mankind, which is most briefly expressed in the words of Solon to Croesus, King of Lydia, "The Deity is altogether envious and full of confusion" (Herod 1, 32.) So long as the facts are put in this way, I do not think it possible to explain or palliate them. It is of no use to say that, looking to the whole experience of human history, sin is punished and righteousness prospers. The doctrine of averages, however true and consoling to the plilosophising observer, does not make the: individual wrong lighter. Nor is it of much use, I fear, to point out that suffering is not always a misfortune, nor prosperity a gain; for the man who has been ruined by others' guilt, the wife who has been bereaved through another's folly, the youth who finds himself cramped and fettered by the circumstances of his birth, does not cry out against the suffering so much as against the seeming injustice and unfairness. But let us look at all these facts from another point of view. Our difficulty hitherto has been, that the innocent have often to suffer for the guilty, that punishment often falls on those who have not deserved it. But what are we to say about the enjoyment of benefits for which we have not laboured, the reaping of reward where there has been no desert on our part? Is there not such a thing as receiving good where we had not earned it? And, when we talk of the innocent suffering with or for the guilty, should we not also speak of the undeserving being blessed with prosperity along with the deserving, or even instead of the, deserving? We cry out passionately against receiving less than justice in the arrangements of the universe; but do we not sometimes receive more than our just share? To go back to the case from which we started: the people were suffering in Israel on account of the sin of their king; but had they not derived great benefit from the same king's good government, or success in war? If they did not deserve to share in his punishment, can we say that they deserved to share in his prosperity? But the same is true of life generally. If we suffer where we have not sinned, do we not also prosper where we have not proved worthy? If, after all our toils and honest exertions, our hopes are defeated through the fault of others, do we not also reap where we have not sowed, and gather where we have not strawed? If the wrong-doing of others sometimes brings an undeserved retribution on our heads, is it not true that every day some happiness is added to our lot, through the right-doing of others? The fraud of two or three men causes a national calamity; but the honest dealing of a thousand others, with their conscientious discharge of duty, makes the nation prosperous, secures to very many the advantages of an easy income with little trouble to themselves, and preserves the country from bankruptcy, moral and commercial; and if the calamity is undeserved, surely we cannot say that we have deserved all the prosperity. Just think how, in a hundred ways, we reap the benefit of other men's labour; how our enormous material prosperity during this century has been chiefly due to James Wart's invention of the steam-engine, so that thousands have now the opportunity of culture and refinement, who otherwise would hays been toiling in the fields all day, with dulled senses and faculties of thought disused. Think how many lives are saved every year in our coal-mines by Sir Humphrey Davy's lamp; think how much physical suffering has been spared us, in the practice of surgery, by the discovery of nitrous oxide and chloroform; think how many pure and pleasant thoughts have come to us through the work of some great poet, or painter, or musician — and say, is it not emphatically true that, if we suffer by the sins of our fellow-men, we benefit also by their virtues? Here, again, it would be easy to furnish examples; it is sufficient to observe the general' principle that the influence of other men on our fortunes is for good as well as for evil. But look further at the problem of hereditary evil — "the sins of the fathers coming on the children" — is there not also such a thing as hereditary good? We have not all inherited feeble constitutions from our ancestors, or the race would come to an end; we are not all placed in circumstances where we cannot lead an honest life, otherwise society would cease to exist. As an actual fact, hereditary evil is the exception; and what we have to consider, in most cases, is the great fact of hereditary good, which is as little deserved by us as the evil. Is it not the case with many of us that the patient industry, the upright conduct, and the virtuous lives of our fathers and forefathers, have surrounded us with advantages from the very moment of our birth — advantages which they perhaps were morally bound to secure for us, but which we have in no sense earned by our own merit? If our fathers and forefathers were only discharging their duty, none the less have they, in such ways, conferred great blessings upon us. Thus far our considerations have involved no principle distinctively religious. We are dealing with facts which are facts to the Atheist or Agnostic quite as much as to the Christian. Up to this point, we have only reached this conclusion — that our weal and woe are indissolubly linked with the actions of our fellow-men, that from this connection there come to us both good and evil, and that we must be content to take the evil with the good. Now, how does the gospel of Christ stand to all this? Does it help us further in solving the problem? It does give a complete solution, but in a very unexpected way. So far from regarding this problem of undeserved suffering as a part of the universe to be explained or defended, Christianity takes it up as the starting-point of its moral teaching. Now, see how all this bears on our problem. The universe is so ordered that we live in the closest relations to one another; we exercise an immense influence over one another's fortunes, both for good and evil. We accept the good without acknowledging it with gratitude; we receive the evil with loud complainings against fate, and passionate upbraidings against Providence; but all the time we think only of ourselves. Christ bids us think of others. While we complain because we suffer from others' wrong-doing, Christ says to us, "Take heed that others do not suffer from your wrong-doing. You live in close relation with your fellow-man; then see to it that, from this relation, nothing but good flows to him; love even your enemies, bless even them, that curse you, do good even to them that hate you; in all things strive to make your fellow-man better, happier, nobler, by loving him with all your heart." In short, while we cry out about our rights, Christ bids us think of our duties; while we think only of the claims we have on others, He calls us to consider also the claims which others have on us. In this there seems to me to lie the true solution of the problem. We must cease to look at it with purblind selfishness of vision; we must not continue to ask the one question, "Why should I suffer, being innocent?" but we must also ask, "Why should I receive benefit when I have neither laboured nor deserved?" and above all, we must ask, "How can I live and act, so that my life and actions shall bring good, and good only, to my fellow-men?" We utter passionate complaints about our own wrongs and woes, about the evil influences which our fellow-men exercise on our fortunes; but we should utter heartfelt acknowledgments of boundless good received from the good offices of those who went before, and those who are living now. We are related to one another, not as Alpine peaks rising from a cold sea of mist — divided, solitary; but as stones which help each other in building up the great fabric of God's world. God has clearly meant it to be so. Not one of us lives to himself or dies to himself; the living or dying, even of the humblest man, has its influence on some other fellow-creature for evil or for good. What a changed world it would be if all such influence — if the influence of every man's living and dying — were an unmixed good to others! Where, then, would be the undeserved suffering which at present seems such a grievous wrong? But Christ's command has, for its practical result, the direction of every man's influence for good; and the whole essence of Christian morality lies in the words of St. John, "Little children, love one another." If we could only adopt, in its entirety, the principle of Christ's commandment, we would be vexed no more by perplexing doubts and anxious fears — we would find, in this solidarity of the human race, our greatest strength and our best educator. Buffering, whether deserved or undeserved, can always be traced to sin; and sin has its root in the selfishness of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. If love were to take the place of selfishness in every human heart, sin would be unknown, its consequent suffering unheard of, and earth be changed from a purgatory into a paradise. In spite of the centuries which are completed since Christ lived and died in the world, Christianity, as a moral force among men, is little more than in its infancy. Whatever power it may have had over individual hearts, in cleansing them from sin and widening them to some comprehension of God's love, the full significance of its teaching has been little felt on society as a whole. But more and more, as men become possessed by this intense feeling of sympathy with their fellows, this single-hearted desire to make all their influence on them tell for good, this death of all selfishness, this regenerator of the moral nature which Christ called forth, and which we denominate love — more and more the evils under which the race of men now groan will disappear.
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