Chronicles takes some figuring out. I confess I originally considered preaching on 1 Chronicles because I was looking for a short version of David's life that would fit into a summer series. But alas, Chronicles was not actually written to tell the story of David's life. Not exactly, anyway. In fact, David comes off as a kind of epic hero in every story. That is, till we come upon this catastrophic story of David's census.
The story of King David's census is a strange, unsettling story, but preachers can help hearers wake up and say, "That passage is about my life."
It is very important to remember that the Chronicles—narrative sermons, really—were delivered to Israel hundreds of years after they happened. The preacher—Ezra, perhaps—took his texts from 1 and 2 Samuel but he chose and tailored the stories for a people still beleaguered by the exile. To preach a text from 1 Chronicles you have to think about why those people needed this text first. They needed this tragic story, as we do, to remember that we face terrible consequences even from our merciful God when we fail to trust and obey him.
The challenge in preaching this lay in two kinds of hard questions. The first challenge was simply making sense of the story. What was so bad about this census? Why would God give David a multiple choice of judgments? Why does 1 Chronicles 21:1 say, "Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census" when 2 Sam. 24 say that God "incited David"? The climax of the story—the end of the plague—is a kind of severe mercy foreshadowing the cross.
The second batch of questions was harder. The answers weren't in the text itself. I had to reflect on all I knew from Scripture (any my own life) about temptation and the effects of sin upon even the repentant sinner. David confessed earnestly (v.8) yet the terrible punishment of God still fell. How is it, in this story, that "confession is good for the soul"?
As you read this sermon you'll see how I move between explaining the story's subtleties and reflecting a on how "Satan lurks in the weeds of our insecurity and shadows of our successes." All of that to ultimately bring us to the cross-roads of God's judgment and mercy.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.