His Wise Decision
2 Samuel 24
"When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them" (Ex. 30:12). In the absence of any commission From God to do so, David not only did wrong in yielding to the pride of his heart by insisting that a military census should be taken of Israel, but he also erred grievously in the way it was carried out. This it is which explains to us why divine judgment followed upon his being so remiss, and why that plague fell on all the nation, for the law laid the responsibility on every individual alike. The amount of the required "ransom" was so small (a shillingóa quarter) that it lay within the capacity of the poorest. "The rich were not allowed to give more, thus teaching us that all mankind are, in this matter, equal. All had sinned and come short of the glory of God; therefore all needed, equally needed a ransom.
"This numbering was a solemn ceremonial that could not be done quickly, as we see by the first chapter in the book called Numbers. Therefore there was time for the officers to have looked up in the Law what was required of them. For a man to present himself to God without a ransom was a solemn and dangerous thing to do. The fact that the result, which they were warned by this law to avoid, came upon them, shows us that we are expected to read the Word, and that God will not contradict His own Word. As Paul warns us, ĎIf we believe not, yet He abideth faithful; He cannot deny Himselfí: (2 Tim. 2:13)" (C. H. Bright). How loudly ought this incident to speak unto us in this flesh-pleasing and God-defying age: to ignore the requirements of the divine law is to court certain disasterótrue alike for the individual and for the nation.
"So when they had gone through all the land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. And Joab gave up the sum of the number of the people unto the king" (2 Sam. 24:8,9). For nine long months the pride of Davidís heart deceived him, as alas, lust had before dimmed his eyes the same length of time (2 Sam. 11, 12). During this season his conscience slumbered, and there was no exercise of it before God over his actionósuch is ever the case when we are caught in the toils of Satan. Does it strike us as well-nigh incredible that one so favored of God and one who had so signally honored Him in the general course of his life, should now have such a deplorable and protracted lapse? Let each of us answer the question out of his checked experience. We doubt not that the majority of our Christian readers will hang their heads with shame, as they are conscious of similar backslidings in their own history; and if perchance a minority have been preserved from such falls, well may they marvel at the distinguishing mercy which has been vouchsafed them.
"And Davidís heart smote him after that he had numbered the people" (v. 10). This indicated that he was a regenerate soul, for it is ever one of the marks of a true believer to repent of his misdeeds, for though on the one hand the flesh lusteth against the spirit, on the other the spirit (the nature received at the new birth) is contrary to the flesh, and delights not in its works. For almost a year David appears to have been indifferent to his sin, but now he is conscious of his wickedness, without, so far as we are informed, any human instrument convicting him of the evil which he had done. It is good to see that though he had remained so long in the path of self-will, yet his heart was not obdurate: though his conscience had indeed slumbered, yet it was not dead. It is cause for real thanksgiving when we end that we have hearts which smite us for wrong doing.
We are not here told what it was that aroused David from his spiritual stupor and caused his heart to smite him: simply the bare fact is stated. Here again is where we receive help by comparing the supplementary account furnished by 1 Chronicles 21, for there we are told "And God was displeased with this thing; therefore He smote Israel. And David said unto God, I have sinned greatly" (vv. 7, 8). In 2 Samuel 24 Davidís confession of his sin (v. 10) followed his contrition, so that a careful comparison of the two passages enables us to ascertain that the chiding from his heart was the effect of the Lordís being displeased at what he had done. This is one of many illustrations which serves to bring out the characteristic differences of the two books: the one is mainly exoteric, the other largely esoteric: that is to say, 1 and 2 Samuel narrates the historical facts, whereas 1 and 2 Chronicles generally reveals the hidden springs from which the actions proceed.
"And God was displeased with this thing; therefore He smote Israel" (1 Chron. 21:7). Here we learn how God regarded the policy David had pursued: He was offended, for His Law had been completely disregarded. "And He smote Israel": observe particularly that this comes before Davidís confession of his sin (v. 8), and before God "sent pestilence upon Israel" (v. 14). Ere God caused the plague to fall upon the Nation, He first smote Davidís heart! He did not turn His back upon David! As another has pointed out, "The whole system of Israel, by this national transgression, was now defiled and tainted, and ripe for severity or judgment: this pride was the giving up of God, and God would have been dealing righteously had He at once laid Israel aside, as He did Adam, in such a case." Instead, He acted here in sovereign grace.
No, the Lord was far from utterly forsaking David. Put together the two statements, and in this order, "And God was displeased with this thing; therefore He smote Israel" (1 Chron. 21:7), "And Davidís heart smote him after he had numbered the people" (2 Sam. 24:10). Do not these two statements stand related as cause to effect, the one revealing the Lordís working, the other showing the result produced in his servant. God now smote Davidís heart, making him to feel His sore displeasure. David, as a child of God, might be tempted, over-taken in a fault, and thus brought to shame and grief; but could he be left impenitent? No; no more than Peter was (Luke 22:32). The reprobate are given up to hardness of heart; but not so the righteous; the Lord would not suffer David to remain indifferent to his sin, but graciously wrought conviction and contrition within him. And so far from Davidís conscience being as one which had been "seared with a hot iron" (1 Tim. 4:2), it was sensitive and quick to respond to the influences of Godís Spirit.
"And Davidís heart smote him after that he had numbered the people." What a warning is this for us. How it should speak to our hearts! What a solemn and salutary lesson does it point: the very thing which David imagined would bring him pleasure, caused him pain! This is ever the case: to listen unto Satanís temptations is to court certain trouble, to be attracted by the gilt on the bait he dangles before us, will be to our inevitable undoing. It was so with Eve, with Dinah (Gen. 34:1, 2), with Achan. Indulging the pride of his heart, David fondly supposed that to secure an accurate knowledge of the full military strength of his kingdom would prove gratifying; instead, he now grieves over his folly. What insanity it is for us to invest folly with the garb of satisfaction: not only will a sense of sin dampen the Christianís carnal joy, but "at the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder" (Prov. 23:32).
"And David said unto the Lord, 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" (v. 10). David had been convicted by the Spirit, and a heavy sense of guilt oppressed himóever an intolerable burden to a renewed soul. Sensible of his wrongdoing, he earnestly sought forgiveness of the Lord. Where divine grace possesses the heart, the conscience of a saint, upon reflection, will reprove him for his transgressions. It is at this point there appears the great difference between the regenerate and the empty professor or religious hypocrite. The latter may afterwards have a realization of his madness and suffer keen remorse therefrom, but he will not get down in the dust before God and unsparingly condemn himself; instead, he invariably excuses himself by blaming his circumstances, his associates, or those lusts which are now his master. This is one of the outstanding characteristics of depraved human nature: Adam took not upon himself the blame for his fall, but sought to throw the onus of it upon his wife, and she upon the Serpent.
But it is far otherwise with those who have been made the subjects of a miracle of grace. One who is born again has been given an honest heart, and one of the plainest evidences of this is that its possessor is honest with himself, with his fellows, and above all, with God. An honest soul is sincere, open, candid, abhorring deception and lies. Therefore in unmistakable contrast from the hypocrite the genuine believer will, upon realizing his transgressions, humble himself before the Lord, and with unfeigned contrition and fervent prayer seek His forgiveness, sincerely purposing by His grace to return no more to his folly. Wondrous indeed is the ministry which grace performs, making our very pride to be an occasion of increasing our humility! Thus it was with David. The same appears again in the case of Hezekiah: "Hezekiah rendered not again according to the benefit done unto him: for his heart was lifted up: therefore was wrath upon him, and upon Judah and Jerusalem. Notwithstanding, Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart" (2 Chron. 32:25, 26).
"And David said unto the Lord, 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." It is by the depth of his conviction, the sincerity of his repentance, and the heartiness of his confession, that the child of God is identified. So far from making any attempt to extenuate himself, so far from throwing the blame upon Satan (who had tempted him), David unsparingly condemned himself. To others it might seem a small thing that he had done. But David felt he had "sinned greatly." Ah, he now saw his deed in the light of Godís holiness. In true confession of sin we do not spare ourselves or minimize our misdemeanors, but frankly and feelingly acknowledge the enormity of them. "I have done very foolishly," David owned, for what he had done was in the pride of his heart, and it was veritable madness for him to be vain of his subjects when they were Godís people, as it is insane for the Christians to be proud of the gifts and graces which the Spirit has bestowed upon him.
"For (Heb. "And") when David was up in the morning, the word of the Lord came unto the prophet Gad, Davidís seer" (v. 11). This seems to indicate that Davidís confession had been made during the hours of darkness. God "giveth His beloved sleep" (Ps. 127:2), and likewise He withholds it when it serves His purpose. And it is always for our good (Rom. 8:28) that He does so, whether we perceive it or no. Sometimes He "giveth songs in the night" (Job 35:10); we read too of "visions of the night" (Job 4:2, 13); but at other times God removes sleep from our eyes and speaks to us about our sins. Then it is we can say with Asaph, "My sore ran in the night, and ceased not: my soul refused to be comforted" (Ps. 77:2), and then it is that we have a taste of Davidís experience: "I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears" (Ps. 6:6). But whatever be Godís object in withholding sleep, it is blessed when we can say, "By night on my bed I sought Him whom my soul loveth" (Song of Solomon 3:1).
"And when David was up in the morning, the word of the Lord came unto the prophet Gad, Davidís seer, saying, Go and say unto David, Thus saith the Lord, I offer thee three things; choose thee one of them, that I may do it unto thee" (vv. 11, 12). The solemn exercises of Davidís heart during the night season were to prepare him for Godís message of judgment. He had been made to taste something of the bitterness of his folly while others were slumbering, but now he is to know definitely how sorely displeased God was. When the Lord is about to send us a special message, be it one of cheer or of reproof. He first fits the heart to receive it. When the morning broke, the Lord commissioned Gad to deliver His ultimatum to the king. Gad was a prophet, and he is here designated "Davidís seer" because he was one who, on certain occasions, was wont to counsel him in the things of God (cf. 1 Sam. 23:5). At this time he had to deliver a far-from-pleasant messageósuch often falls to the lot of Godís servants.
His heavenly Father must correct David, yet He graciously gave him leave to make choice whether it should be by famine, war, or pestilence: whether it should be a long-protracted judgment or a brief yet terribly severe one. Matthew Henry suggested that the Lord had a fourfold design in this. First, to humble David the more for his sin, which he would see to be exceeding sinful, when he came to consider that each of the judgments were exceeding dreadful. Second, to upbraid him for the proud conceit he had entertained of his own sovereignty over Israel: he had become so great a monarch that he might now do whatever he would: very well, says God, choose which of these three things you prefer. Third, to grant him some encouragement under the chastisement: so far from the Lord having utterly disfellowshiped him, He let him decide what He should do. Fourth, that he might more patiently endure the rod seeing it was one of his own selection.
"So Gad came to David, and told him, and said unto him, Shall seven years of famine come unto thee in thy land? or wilt thou flee three months before thine enemies, while they pursue thee? or that there be three daysí pestilence in thy land? now advise, and see what answer I shall return to Him that sent me" (v. 13). Here is the third thing connected with this incident which is apt to greatly puzzle the casual reader. First, that such an apparently trifling act on Davidís part should have so sorely displeased the Lord. Second, that He suffered Satan to tempt David, and then was angry with him for doing as the tempter suggested. These we have already considered. And now, after David had been convicted of his sin, sincerely repented of the same, had confessed it, and sought the Lordís forgiveness, that judgment should fall so heavily upon him. It is really surprising that so many of the commentators when dealing with this "difficulty" fail to bear in mind the opening sentence of the chapteróthe key to all that follows: "And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel."
God had a controversy with the Nation, and this it is which accounts for the character of His governmental dealings with them. His judgment could not be averted, and therefore He punished their pride and rebellion by leaving them to suffer the consequences of their kingís following out the natural impulse of his heart. But there are several other aspects of the case which must be borne in mind. Davidís sin had not been a private but a public one, and though God forgave him as to his personal concern, yet he had to be publicly humiliated. Again, while God remits the penal and eternal consequences of sin unto a contrite saint, yet even penitents are chastised and often made to smart severely in this world for their folly. Though God be long-suffering, He will by no means clear the guilty. True, His gifts and calling are without repentance (Rom. 11:29), and unto His own His compassions fail not (Lam. 3:22); yet, the righteousness of His government must be vindicated.
What has last been pointed out holds good in all dispensations, for Godís "ways" change not. Correction is ever a characteristic of the Covenant, for whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth" (Heb. 12:6). Had David walked in his integrity and in humility before God, he would have been spared severe discipline, but now he must bear the rod. "Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes; nevertheless My loving kindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer My faithfulness to fail" (Ps. 89:32, 33): that clearly states the principle. "And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the Lord; for His mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man" (v. 14). Here was his wise decision, the meaning and blessedness of which we must leave for consideration in our next chapter.