Has it taken you a long time to get where you are today? Maybe you’re in a good place in life right now, but it was a long road getting there. Maybe you’re in a challenging time in your life. Has it taken a long time to get where you are today? Have you ever gone to the rooftop of your mind and gazed out beyond your career and accomplishments, your accolades, your wealth and possessions, and remembered just how long it took you to get where you are? Those early flops and failures, the education and internships, the gains and the losses. Has it taken you a long time to get where you are today?
David waited so long to take hold of the throne, to take hold of the power and position of king. From the time he was anointed by the prophet Samuel to the time he reigned as king, 15 years had passed. Fifteen years from the time he held the staff of a shepherd to the scepter of a king. During that time he served Saul, then was pursued by Saul. David was a fugitive, on the run in the wilderness, through the hills and valleys, hidden among the caves. Saul’s armies chased him in hot pursuit of the young warrior, musician, and poet. David waited so long to take hold of the throne, to take hold of the power and position of king. But he didn’t wait alone. A loyal group of mighty warriors fought alongside him. They fought for him. During that long period of waiting to take hold of the kingdom, pockets of people scattered throughout the realm stood behind David and cheered him on while others hurled rocks and insults. David waited so long to become king. In times of solitude, tucked away in a cave under cover from the enemy, he penned poetry—prayers to God—to the God he loved and worshiped and trusted.
It took years for David to move from the depths of the caves to the hills of Jerusalem. After reigning seven years in Hebron (about 20 miles south of Jerusalem), David overtook the city of Jerusalem in a daring military expedition. The Gihon Spring was located outside of city walls. An underground tunnel channeled water into the city. David’s men crawled through the tunnel and into the city and up the water shaft. It took years for him to increase his boundaries from the Nile River all the way north to the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. And it took years for David to build his palace—with the help of Hiram, king of Tyre—from the time the cornerstone of David’s house was laid to the time the final timber was placed on his rooftop deck, the rooftop of his palace. Standing on the roof of his palace, I wonder if he ever looked out beyond Jerusalem into the hills of Bethlehem and remembered how long it had taken him to become king. It had taken him so long to get to that position, so long to gain that power. It took years for David to climb from the depths of the cave to the top of his palace roof. But it took only moments to fall. Had he forgotten that it was God who got him there?
What about you? Through it all, getting to where you are today, have you remembered God?
Because forgetting God’s hand in our lives can lead to pride. And as the proverb says (16:18), pride leads to destruction. In the last chapter of the second book of Samuel, David sins greatly. We’re not told the nature of the great sin, but many scholars believe it was pride. It was significant enough to warrant a severe punishment. One has to wonder if David has forgotten that it was God who got him where he was and it was God who sustained him.
(Read 2 Samuel 24)
-David’s sin might have been pride
-God permitted Satan to tempt David in order to accomplish the purposes he had in mind
-He allows David to choose his punishment (there’s mercy in that)
-The punishments were listed in Deuteronomy
-God is responding to the sin of Israel
-God is responding to the sin of David
David took a census. He was counting the fighting men. It’s something a king would do before waging a military campaign. There was nothing sinful about taking a census. Many commentators believe the sin had to do with David’s motive in taking the census. His pride. He was not relying on God for his strength. David was relying on his own military might. He was not pursuing God’s plans. David was relying on his own mind.
Position and power easily lead to pride. Pride cannot remain internalized. It is demonstrated in our actions and in the way we look at other people, haughty eyes. Proverbs 16:18 says: Pride goes before destruction; a haughty spirit before a fall.
The tide was right and I brought the three boys to Long Sands at York beach last week. We met our cousins there. It’s a favorite among our three boys. Every 12 hours the tide comes in and covers the entire beach. The sand never dries before the next tide so it’s perfect for building castles and waterways. The boys dumped out two pails full of army men. They each scouted a location for a base and began building massive structures with spires, walls, and moats. They incorporated rocks and driftwood into their designs. The bigger, the better. Then the boys positioned their army guys behind sand-formed barricades and up high on tall towers. Then it started. “Mine is the best.” “Look at how tall my structure is.” “Mine is better than yours.” “My castle is bigger than yours.” “My army is gonna wipe yours off the face of the earth.” And the little one yells, “Nobody can attack mine. Mine will stand forever.” As they taunt each other, I watch the tide from beneath my wide-brimmed beach hat. The boys haven’t noticed, but it’s getting closer. I shout, “Gather your troops. The tide’s coming!” We hustle as we toss sandy army guys back into the beach pails. We close our chairs and pack our bags. We run up the rock embankment. We turn and watch as the tide destroys every last tower. Not one is left standing.
Proverbs 16:18: Pride goes before destruction; a haughty spirit before a fall. Proverbs 6 lists seven sins that are particularly detestable. The first is pride.
Perhaps David’s sin was pride. It took David so long to get where he was. But maybe now he’s forgotten that it was God who got him there.
And he had opportunity to relent and repent. Joab warned David that a census was a bad idea. And Joab wasn’t exactly known for his moral scruples. In verse 3, Joab said: “May the Lord your God multiply the troops a hundred times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?”
In addition to Joab’s warning, the census took more than nine months to complete. Joab and his men traveled all through Israel. David could have called it off. But he persisted in his sin for nine months.
Maybe you know what it’s like to watch someone in a season of sin. They persist in it, even when God gives them off ramps and course corrections along the way. But they don’t take them. They persist in sin. Do you know anyone like that?
But maybe some of you are saying, “Wait a minute, this wasn’t David’s fault. Verse 1 says that the Lord incited David, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.’ How could David fight against that? God made him do it.”
But let me confuse things even more. The chronicler tells of the same incident in 1 Chronicles 21. Verse one says, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” Was it God or Satan? Either way, David didn’t stand a chance.
Or did he?
The Hebrew mindset had no trouble understanding the two. As Walt Kaiser suggests, Hebrew people believed what God permits, God commits. Nothing is outside of God’s sovereignty.
And the Bible is clear that God does not tempt people to sin. James 1:13–14 says: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.”
In this case, God permitted Satan to tempt David. It sounds terrible that God would allow such a thing. But we can never fully comprehend the ways in which God restrains the work of the devil in our lives and in our world. Ultimately, even sin is not outside of God’s reach. He is sovereign over all. And that should give us hope—that a good and gracious God oversees even the worst of life. If we didn’t fundamentally believe that God was good—then we’d have some trouble with this. But we can trust God to be sovereign over everything because he is good.
But God is concerned with more than the sin of one king. He’s concerned with the sin of the nation. Verse one tells us that God incited David against them. The anger of the Lord burned against Israel. We are not told what their sin was, but they must have broken the covenant law. Deuteronomy 28 describes what would happen if Israel broke the law. The punishments listed in Deuteronomy 28 include plague, famine, and war.
-God oversees judgment with mercy (God takes mercy seriously)
-David receives a choice in punishment—there’s mercy in that
-God relents when the Angel of Death approaches Jerusalem
But God also takes mercy seriously. He gives David three punishments from which to choose. There’s mercy in that.
Check out verse 13:
Shall there come upon you three years of famine in your land? Or three months of fleeing from your enemies while they pursue you? Or three days of plague in your land?
Famine. War. Or plague. David replies: “I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.”
Theologically, David knows this truth about God: God is merciful. When we talk about God’s mercy, we’re talking about God’s saving love toward his people—despite their unworthiness and unfaithfulness. Let me give you an image: the mercy seat. The mercy seat in the tabernacle helps us to understand God’s mercy. It was a gold slab placed over the Ark of the Covenant. You remember the Ark was a box containing the Law—the Ten Commandments. The Ark with its mercy seat was placed in the Holy of Holies inside the tabernacle and later, in the permanent worship structure—the Temple. Once a year the high priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of an animal sacrifice on the mercy seat. The sacrifice of blood removed God’s wrath for the people’s sin—of breaking the commandments that were etched in the box below the mercy seat. A price had to be paid for breaking God’s law. Blood had to be shed.
David knew that God was merciful so he chooses a punishment in which God, instead of man, is the primary actor.
The three days of plague begins and verse 15 tells us that 70,000 people die from Dan to Beersheba. From north to south, the population is decimated. The plague comes at the hand of an angel—an instrument of God’s judgment.
Of course, the text does not tell us where David is during the plague, but he is able to see the angel of judgment at work. Perhaps he stands on the rooftop of his palace and watches as the plague overcomes his kingdom. Servants report to him from every reach of the kingdom. Maybe they have numbers. Maybe they have names.
David cries out to the Lord and he takes full responsibility for his sin. Even though the people are not without guilt, David, as king, is responsible for the well-being of his people.
As the angel approaches Jerusalem, coming from the north, on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, the Lord is grieved and calls out “Enough! Withdraw your hand.”
Yes, God takes sin seriously. But God oversees his judgment with mercy.
And knowing that God oversees judgment with mercy allows us to live in hope.
Look at what happens next. The prophet Gad goes to David and tells him to build an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. Why there? That’s where the plague ended. That was the place of God’s mercy. David purchases the site, he purchases oxen from Araunah and he builds an altar and makes a sacrifice to the Lord. This site, the chronicler tells us, is the future site of the Temple that will be built by David’s son, Solomon. David says in 1 Chronicles 22: “The house of the Lord God is to be here, and also the altar of burnt offering for Israel.”
If I asked you what were David’s two greatest sins, you might tell me his sin with Bathsheba and this one—the census. I’d agree with you. But look at what comes out of David’s sin. The Temple. David secures the site as a result of the plague and David and Bathsheba’s son will build the temple on that very threshing floor.
God takes sin seriously. But God oversees his judgment with mercy. Knowing that allows us to live in hope. We can live in hope because we can look back on our lives and when some sin rises to the top we know that God can build a temple out of it. That’s God’s mercy. Even in our sin. He can build a temple out of sin.
Maybe you’re here today and there is something in your past that plagues you. You know that God takes sin seriously, but maybe you need to be reminded that God oversees his judgment in mercy. And out of the ashes of sin, a temple can still rise.
Maybe today you are persisting in sin. Stubborn in it. Ask God for a way out and take it.
The truth is we’re all sinners. We’ve all broken God’s law. We’re all in need of mercy and forgiveness. David built a wooden altar and sprinkled it with the blood of a bull. In his mercy, God accepted that sacrifice for sin. But we don’t need to build altars and sacrifice animals any more for the forgiveness of sin.
Why? Because God’s mercy hung on a wooden cross. That mercy rests in the tomb sealed by a cold stone slab. That mercy is a miracle that rises in the dawn on Easter morning. That mercy is the peace treaty signed in the blood of Jesus Christ that says “Forgiven.” None of us deserve God’s mercy. But he gives it to us just the same.
Knowing that God oversees judgment in mercy allows us to live in hope. He builds temples out of sin.
Patricia Batten is a Ranked Adjunct Assistant Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and serves as an interim pastor at Community Congregational Church in Billerica, MA.