This sermon is part of the sermon series "Remembering Who We Are (part 2)". See series.
You've probably heard the expression, "Into every life, a little rain must fall." I was reading an article about a movie star who was having some difficulties, and the writer quipped, "Into every reign a little life must fall." I thought right away of King David.
In our study of 1 Chronicles, written 500 years after David lived, it looks like he lived a charmed life. We know from 1 and 2 Samuel that that was definitely not the case, but in Chronicles there's not a peep about the heartaches and sins of his life, until we stumble into 1 Chronicles 21. You'll remember from last week that things had been going swimmingly for David. God had made an astonishing and wonderful covenant with him followed by three chapters of military victories—some tougher than others, to be sure, but nary a defeat in sight. But, "into every reign a little life must fall."
The "life" that fell into David's reign was the temptation to a colossal moral blunder. Maybe you know the feeling. Maybe you've messed up your life royally. Sometimes it is a long, slow slide to disaster, and sometimes it is one horrible fall. There are all kinds of struggles and griefs in life, of course, but when someone committed to God blows it big time, that causes a unique kind of pain and a unique kind of trouble.
You've heard the story from 1 Chronicles 21 already—a strange, unsettling story about a census that David insisted on taking, despite the pleas of his general Joab, and the terrible consequences that followed. It seems so far removed from our lives, but it really isn't. There is a sense, as with so many parts of Scripture, where each of us could say, "That's the story of my life." I'll show you. Let's start with verse 1.
Satan lurks in the weeds of our insecurity and the shadows of our successes.
What's so bad about a king taking a census? Well, David didn't just take a census. According to verse 17, he actually counted the fighting men. He wanted to know just how big his army actually was. But why? Could it have been he was feeling insecure and wanted to measure his military muscle? The truth is that God was his military muscle. In fact, as a rule, God made sure Israel was outnumbered in their battles so he could show his strength to them and their enemies. So in the way unique to God's people, being outnumbered is to our advantage. So why count the troops then? Pride, I think. It would make David feel good to know just how big his army had grown. He remembered when it was just a little rag-tag band and now, I wonder just how many guys I've got? he thought—like a man who likes to look at his abs in the mirror.
God's people are God's people because we've agreed to trust and obey him, to live by faith and not by sight, not to live life by the numbers, to store up treasures in heaven. Isn't it interesting that of all David's sins and failings, this is the only one highlighted in 1 Chronicles' abbreviated story of his life? This is a book about remembering who we are as God's people. One reason this story is emphasized is that nothing is so dangerous to us as God's people as the temptation to stop trusting God and God alone. Insecurity will stop us from trusting God, and so will pride.
There was more going on here than meets the eye. The text begins, "Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel." Later, in verse 17, David says the whole sordid mess was all his fault, but actually that isn't really true. Israel was guilty, too. This same story is related in 2 Samuel 24. That chapter begins this way: "Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, 'Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.'" Whoa! That seems like a big difference, doesn't it? Was it God or Satan? Actually, I think they dovetail very naturally. It is clear in 2 Samuel that God had a problem with the whole nation of Israel: "the anger of the Lord burned against Israel." Once again they had provoked God by their disobedience and faithlessness. At the same time, David himself was growing careless about his relationship with God and his attitude toward all God had done for him. And that is where Satan found him, as ripe for picking as a September apple.
Remember how Jesus taught us to pray, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Why would you have to pray that? Why would a good and loving God lead us into temptation? Because sometimes we won't pay attention to him. Because we've stopped trusting him. Because we've gotten too big for our britches. We've gotten too cavalier and careless about sin. So God lets Satan show us what we're made of, what we're really like, what we're capable of. Satan lurks in the weeds of our insecurities and in the shadows of every success, looking for a way into our lives. God will protect us from him, but when we stop trusting and obeying God, it's as if God stands aside, and Satan slithers in to incite, to tempt, us as he did David. That is why Jesus taught us to pray, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." It is a prayer of humility: "Lord, I know I am on the edge of sin, unless you preserve me. I see where my pride or insecurity or carelessness is taking me. You don't need to show me how weak I am; I know it, and I pray that you will protect me from evil and the evil one. I don't want to sin!"
Well, that's not what David did, and things went very, very badly. Do you ever find that when temptation is really strong, when you're really thinking about going ahead with sin, you figure you can always ask God for forgiveness? One German poet wrote glibly, "Of course [God] will forgive me; that's his business." Well, there's something we must remember about our sin.
Setting things right with the Lord can be very painful.
To begin with, when temptation is strong, we always seem to underestimate the whole business of confession. Hear David's heartfelt confession in verse 8: "I have sinned greatly by doing this. Now, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing." Of course, the storyteller leaves to our imagination the groans and cracked voice, the face buried in his hands and the slumped shoulders, the sense of horror David felt at what he has done. But we know what that feels like, don't we? Confession, they say, is good for the soul. And that is true, because confession, done right, is truth-telling—the unmasking of a terrible hypocrisy. But there are some things about confession we forget.
Real confession is deeply painful. It's painful because we must admit that we've betrayed God, because we are so ashamed of ourselves, because we've unleashed consequences we can never pull back. We're stunned at what we're capable of.
I remember a guy years ago in another place who made a terrible mess of his marriage. He was cruel and utterly self-centered, and finally his sweet wife just walked out and refused to come back. Some husbands like that never get it, but this guy did. He saw his sin. He would often come to the church after work and go into the darkened sanctuary to pray. I could hear him, all the way in my office, sobbing. Real confession is deeply painful.
Real confession really does change us—it humbles us and brings truth—but it can't change the sin or the guilt. Just go to a court room. A guilty plea, no matter how repentant, doesn't change what's been done, nor does it change the justice that must follow. We've all been guilty of thinking that saying "I'm sorry" is some kind of Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card, but that's never true. Confession might change us, but it doesn't change our guilt.
Real confession actually prepares us for God's discipline. That was true of David here. He confessed his sin and waited for the sentence. We may think confession is how we dodge the bullet, but in real confession, we readily acknowledge that we deserve God's discipline, that we actually need it. Real confession is not a way to dodge trouble.
Real confession is all we can do. It is what we must do, but there's nothing else in our power. We wait.
Here's another thing we forget when temptation is strong: God's discipline will absolutely get our attention. Jesus died to pay for our sin—all of it—but God disciplines us, harshly sometimes, to teach us righteousness. We may think that we can come to God like we came to our parents as kids. We stand there stoically, ready to get the spanking over with so we can get on with what we were doing. God's discipline doesn't work that way. It hurts. And it really does rivet our attention on the righteousness we've ignored.
Here, God gave David three devastating choices of discipline. God doesn't always do it that way; in fact, I can't think of another time in which he did. David chose the three-day plague at God's own hand, and 70,000 men died. No enemy had ever inflicted such casualties when God was on his side, and it took only one angel of the Lord to do it. He handed David and Israel a defeat they would never forget. Look at verse 16: "David looked up and saw the angel of the Lord standing between heaven and earth, with a drawn sword in his hand extended over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell facedown." So much for a let's-get-this-over-with spanking.
When we set out to sin, don't believe the lie in the back of your head that the spanking won't be so bad. Jesus paid for your sin—no doubt about that—but God is determined to set righteousness in our hearts, and his discipline will absolutely get our attention. Count the cost!
There is another thing here: In verse 13, when forced to choose between the three plagues, "David said to Gad, 'I am in deep distress. Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.'" What a thing to say when judgment hangs so heavy in the air: "for his mercy is very great!" God's discipline drives us to his mercy.
Imagine a teenager whose parents catch her with drugs. Imagine her father, a good and loving man who is furious with her, saying, "Take your pick, honey. Deal with the police or deal with me." If she knows her dad loves her, no matter how frightening his discipline might be, she'll choose him, because she trusts that love will temper justice. Even when we know our heavenly Father is angry, there is no place safer, for "his mercy is very great." We learn that when we've sinned.
When Satan is whispering in your ear, read this story. Look at that angel, sword drawn, standing between heaven and earth. That mighty angel could have been David's ally. That mighty angel had been on David's side, his defender and protector in other battles. It didn't have to be this way.
God in his mercy stopped the angel right at the threshing floor of Araunah, who might have been his very next victim. And God tells David to build an altar right there on Araunah's threshing floor, right on that spot where God had sifted the wheat of David's heart from the chaff, right there where God had threshed his sinful people, right there where judgment was halted by mercy. So God told David to build an altar on that spot where he could offer sacrifices for his sin and for Israel's sin, and offer sacrifices to restore his fellowship with God. The Chronicler reminds Israel of this story so they will remember why God's temple was built on that spot. This story all leads to 22:1, "Then David said, 'The house of the Lord God is to be here, and also the altar of burnt offering for Israel.'" God's temple was not simply a beautiful place to worship God; it was Israel's "monument to God's grace." Here Israel was to remember that God had spared them, accepting a sacrifice for their sin. That temple building became obsolete when Jesus died on the cross and rose again. But God provides an altar at the junction of judgment and mercy.
God provides an altar at the junction of judgment and mercy.
David had done all he could do, but the real work here of restoring sinners and stopping judgment was up to God. No one else could do it. God accepted the sacrifice of the oxen, not because the blood of bulls was adequate payment for a nation's sin, but because, in offering that sacrifice, David trusted God to find a way to forgive him and his people. David had insisted on paying Araunah for that threshing floor, saying, "I will not offer a sacrifice that costs me nothing." In effect, God made that posture his own: "I will not offer a sacrifice that costs me nothing." Jesus said, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life." At the junction of judgment and mercy, God has given us an altar, where the blood of Jesus halts God's righteous anger against us and restores our fellowship with him. And God offered the sacrifice we never could—his own Son.
The sin that tempts us is dangerous and deadly. God told Cain when he was angry with his brother Abel, "If you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." Thanks to God's Holy Spirit within us, Paul promises, "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it."
When we sin and throw ourselves on the mercy of God, we have this very great promise from 1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." Jesus is sacrificed for us and rose again to give us life.
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.