137 - The Blessing of a Sensitive Conscience (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21)
Temptation is ever present and unrelenting. To the very end of his remarkable reign, David never escaped it, and neither will we. His life gives substance to the appeal of James 4:7: Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
As the book of 2 Samuel comes to a close and recounts the later days of King David’s life, we might expect some kind of glowing account of David’s faith, or poetry, or military victories. But instead, we are given the details of yet another sin he committed.
That is not how I would end the book of 2 Samuel, but God doesn’t staple wings on His people or put halos around their heads. His people are presented for who they are, and they happen to be sinners.
Here’s how chapter 24 begins:
Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”
This immediately presents us with a problem. If taking the census is wrong—and David will be judged for doing it—then how could God incite him to do it? After all, in the New Testament, James 1:13 tells us God does not tempt anyone.
The parallel account begins this way in 1 Chronicles 21:1: “Then Satan … incited David to number Israel.” So, who motivated David to take the census—God or Satan?
Remember, 1 Chronicles and 2 Samuel present parallel accounts of the same events, much like we see with the New Testament Gospels. The Gospel writers take photographs of the same thing from different angles. Together, they give us a fuller picture of Jesus.
I believe that is what we have here. Samuel is viewing this “telescopically.” He is looking at everything from the beginning to the end, and he sees that God is at work. The chronicler views it “microscopically.” He is looking at the immediate issue at hand, and he knows that Satan is tempting David.
So, we can understand it this way: 1 Chronicles is focusing on the scene at hand; 2 Samuel is focusing on the hand behind the scene. Satan is the immediate tempter; God permits it for His own purposes.
One other question comes to mind here: Why is taking this census a sin? Verse 2 seems innocent enough:
The king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel . . . and number the people, that I may know the number of the people.”
When Joab completes the mission, however, the numbers he gives down in verse 9 are of the “men who drew the sword.” So, what is actually happening here is that David wants to know how many men are able to go to war. Satan has found a chink in David’s armor—it is called self-confidence.
David should have known by now that his confidence should not be in military might but in the Almighty. He could look back and see his little army had overcome large enemy armies, and he knew it was by the power of God. But now he is saying, “Oh my, if Israel is going to survive into the future, I had better make sure we have enough men who know how to use a sword.”
Listen, we tend to think the same way in the church today—we think God uses people because they are powerful. The reality is that God uses people who know they are powerless.
I think it’s interesting here that even crusty old General Joab objects to taking this census. He asks David here in verse 3, “Why does my lord the king delight in this thing?” That is, “Why are you doing this?”
But David will not be stopped. When Joab and his officers finish the census, they report back that Israel has 1.3 million men available for military duty, and David puffs up with pride. Wow, 1.3 million men!
But immediately David’s conscience smites him with guilt, and he realizes his sinful pride. He says to the Lord here in verse 10:
“I have sinned greatly in what I have done. . . . O Lord, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly.”
This was the wonderful work of a sensitive conscience. David listened and immediately asked for forgiveness.
And forgiveness was available to David. PQ - But remember that even though there is forgiveness, there may be lasting consequences of our sin. Keep in mind we were given the inside scoop back in verse 1 that God was going to judge Israel for their rebellion. With David’s sin, that discipline is now going to take place.
A prophet named Gad comes to David and gives him a choice of punishments (verses 11-13). David can choose three years of famine, three months of defeat in battle, or three days of a pestilence. There are no good choices here, but David chooses the epidemic; and verse 15 informs us that 70,000 men die.
In the parallel passage of 1 Chronicles 21:16, David sees an angel holding “a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem,” which represents the epidemic. The elders, along with King David, fall down and plead with God for mercy.
God responds with something that will have eternal impact. He tells David by way of the prophet Gad, “Go up, raise an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite” (2 Samuel 24:18), a man known as Ornan in 1 Chronicles.
It was at this threshing floor where David had seen the angel. David connects the dots and understands that his offerings on this altar will bring the plague to an end. He also knows this threshing floor will become a very special place. In fact, David buys the threshing floor from this farmer, as we see in verse 24. David then builds an altar and offers burnt offerings and peace offerings, and verse 25 concludes, “So the Lord responded to the plea for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel.”
Over in the parallel account of 1 Chronicles 22, we are told in verse 1, “Then David said, ‘Here shall be the house of the Lord God and here the altar of burnt offering for Israel.’” So, while David wasn’t permitted to build the temple, as you recall, God does allow him to pick out the parcel of land upon which it will be built.
Araunah’s threshing floor was the perfect spot; it was situated on a flat, elevated area just beyond the northern walls of Jerusalem at that time. This was Mount Moriah, where Abraham had taken his son Isaac to offer him to the Lord in Genesis 22. This is where David’s son Solomon will build the magnificent temple of the Lord (2 Chronicles 3:1).
Let me quickly draw three lessons from this last chapter of the book of 2 Samuel. First, you will never outgrow the attraction of sin. You will never outlive temptation, and it will be unrelenting. No matter how old you are or how long you have walked with the Lord, you need to stay alert and on guard—dressed out in your armor—to fight against the appeal of sin.
Second, never underestimate the destructive effects of sin. David’s private sins had tremendous public consequences that affected many more people than just David himself. Our sin doesn’t just hurt ourselves.
Third, don’t ignore the whispers of conscience. Remain sensitive to what God is telling you through the gift of His Word and that special little creation He put into all of us that we call the conscience.
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