Numbers

Sermon by Derek Thomas on March 4, 2007

1 Chronicles 21:1-30

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The Lord’s Day
Morning

March 4, 2007

I Chronicles 21:1-30

“Numbers”

Dr. Derek W. H.
Thomas

Now turn with me to II Chronicles, chapter 21. And you may
find that in your pew Bibles somewhere before you, or you may join with me in
your own Bible. But before we read the passage together, let’s come before God
in prayer.

Father, we thank You again for the Scriptures that
holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Help us to
read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.

This is God’s holy word:

“Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number
Israel. So David said to Joab and to the princes of the people, ‘Go, number
Israel from Beersheba even to Dan, and bring me word that I may know their
number.’ And Joab said, ‘May the Lord add to His people a hundred times as many
as they are! But, my lord the king, are they not all my lord’s servants? Why
does my lord seek this thing? Why should he be a cause of guilt to Israel?’
Nevertheless, the king’s word prevailed against Joab. Therefore, Joab departed
and went throughout all Israel, and came to Jerusalem. And Joab gave the number
of the census of all the people to David. And all Israel were 1,100,000 men who
drew the sword; and Judah was 470,000 men who drew the sword. But he did not
number Levi and Benjamin among them, for the king’s command was abhorrent to
Joab. And God was displeased with this thing, so He struck Israel. And David
said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly, in that I have done this thing. But now,
please take away the iniquity of Thy servant, for I have done very foolishly.’

“And the Lord spoke to Gad, David’s seer, saying ‘Go and speak to
David, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord, ‘I offer you three things; choose for
yourself one of them, so that I may do it to you.” So Gad came to David and said
to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, ‘Take for yourself either three years of famine, or
three months to be swept away before your foes, while the sword of your enemies
overtakes you, or else three days of the sword of the Lord, even pestilence in
the land, and the angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the territory.’
Now, therefore, consider what answer I shall return to Him who sent me.’ And
David said to Gad, ‘I am in great distress; please let me fall into the hand of
the Lord, for His mercies are very great. But do not let me fall into the hand
of man.’ So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel, 70,000 men of Israel fell. And
God sent an angel to Jerusalem to destroy it; but as he was about to destroy it,
the Lord saw and was sorry over the calamity, and said to the destroying angel,
‘It is enough, now relax your hand.’ And the angel of the Lord was standing by
the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. Then David lifted up his eyes and saw
the angel of the Lord standing between earth and heaven, with his drawn sword
and his hand stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, covered
with sackcloth, fell on their faces. And David said to God, ‘Is it not I who
commanded to count the people? Indeed, I am the one who has sinned and done very
wickedly, but these sheep, what have they done? O Lord my God, please let Thy
hand be against me and my father’s household, but not against Thy people that
they should be plagued.’

“Then the angel of the Lord commanded Gad to say to David, that
David should go up and build an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of
Ornan the Jebusite. So David went up at the word of Gad, which he spoke in the
name of the Lord. Now Ornan turned back and saw the angel, and his four sons who
were with him hid themselves. And Ornan was threshing wheat. And as David came
to Ornan, Ornan looked and saw David, and went out from the threshing floor, and
prostrated himself before David with his face to the ground. Then David said to
Ornan, ‘Give me the site of this threshing floor, that I may build on it an
altar to the Lord; for the full price you shall give it to me, that the plague
may be restrained from the people.’ And Ornan said to David, ‘Take it for
yourself; and let my lord the king do what is good in his sight. See, I will
give the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing sledges for wood and the
wheat for the grain offering; I will give it all.’ But King David said to Ornan,
‘No, but I will surely buy it for the full price; for I will not take what is
yours for the Lord, or offer a burnt offering which costs me nothing.’ So David
gave Ornan 600 shekels of gold by weight for the site. Then David built an altar
to the Lord there, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. And he
called to the Lord and He answered him with fire from heaven on the altar of
burnt offering. And the Lord commanded the angel, and he put his sword back in
its sheath.

“At that time, when David saw that the Lord had answered him on the
threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite, he offered sacrifice there. For the
tabernacle of the Lord, which Moses had made in the wilderness, and the altar of
burnt offering were in the high place at Gibeon at that time. But David could
not go before it to inquire of God, for he was terrified by the sword of the
angel of the Lord.”

Amen. And may God bless to us that reading of His holy and
inerrant word.

Well, if you haven’t read the story recently, as you
may not have done, this is a somewhat strange and perplexing story for us in the
twenty-first century. But it contains several important and timely lessons, I
think, for us as the people of God just now.

Let me begin by reminding you of an incident in the
life of the great golfer, Arnold Palmer. He records it in his biography. It
occurred during the 1961 Masters tournament, and he had a one stroke lead coming
into the final eighteenth hole. And he says he hit a marvelous tee shot right
down the fairway. And as he’s walking–and you remember the customs, of
course…people begin to applaud as you walk down that eighteenth fairway–he spied
a friend, an old colleague sitting right in the front of the gallery. And the
man of course by this time was standing and shouting, and waving, and stuck out
his hand. And as Arnold Palmer passed him, he shook his hand, and the man said
to Palmer, “Congratulations!” “Thank you!” he says. And then he realized he had
made a colossal mistake. He had lost his focus, and the next shot went into the
sand, and the one after that went across the green somewhere, and he missed the
final putt and lost the Masters. It was, he says in his biography, a case of
pride going before a fall. And, so he says in his biography, he has never
committed that error since. That I’m not sure about!

But that story illustrates something that lies right
at the heart of this strange story from the life of David. It comes at the end
of David’s life. He’s been king for forty years: seven years in Hebron and 33
years in Jerusalem. And just in a context, the previous chapter — we don’t have
time to look at it, but the previous chapter tells us about some of the great
military exploits that David had just experienced against the Ammonites and
against the Philistines, and a colorful character with six fingers on each hand
and toes on each foot, that was slain by one of David’s brother’s sons by the
name of Jonathan. Time of great success, everything is going well, doesn’t get
better than this. He’s at the end of a wonderful, wonderful life as king; and
then, just when you least expect it, he falls headlong into pride, and a
colossal foolish thing that he does that brings not just him but the people of
God under the judgment and wrath of God.

Three things I want us to see: David’s sin, of
course; but before that, Satan tempts…the temptation of Satan; then the fall of
David; and then, the wrath and mercy of God.

I. Satan’s temptation.

Satan tempts. Oh, we’ve got Bible scholars
here, so this will touch us…those who know your Old Testament narratives all too
well, you’ll know there’s one of these old chestnuts here. It’s one of these
passages that is often trundled out: ‘The Bible can’t be trusted; full of lies
and fabrications; lots of contradictions…’–you know the story. It’s about a
parallel in Samuel, because this parallel in Samuel reads (at least according to
some translations) that it is the Lord who moved David to number the people. And
here in Chronicles it is Satan who tempts David to number the people. Of course
there is no contradiction here. God is a sovereign God. He overrules even the
activities and malevolence and machinations of Satan. You see it on the Day of
Pentecost: Peter speaking about the crucifixion of Jesus, and points to the men
and women of Jerusalem and says, ‘You did it! By wicked hands you took Him and
slew Him!’ He lays culpability and blame and guilt and liability to all of its
consequences squarely on the shoulders of the people of Jerusalem: ‘You did this
thing.’ And in the same breath…in the same breath…he says it was all by the
determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.

Well, we’re Presbyterians, so this is not new to us,
of course. Sometime this afternoon–if you’re feeling a little sleepy I would
advise you not to–but if you’re wide awake, read the third chapter of The
Confession
on God’s decrees, because nothing happens outside of the decree
of God, not even the malevolence and hatred and venom of Satan. And yet, God is
not the author of sin, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken
away, but rather established. Now on another day and another occasion, and with
a whole lot more time, we could spend a couple of hours talking about the joyous
relationship of sovereignty to determinism and all the rest of it. But Satan
does this thing. The destroyer, the accuser, the enemy of Christ who throughout
the life of Christ punctuated it with moments of intense temptation.

Now you understand Satan is not God; he’s not
all-powerful, he doesn’t know everything, and he can’t be in more than one place
at the same time. So when you say “Satan was tempting me,” it probably wasn’t
Satan, it was one of his minions. You’re probably not important enough for Satan
to come directly and tempt you (though you may be)!

We are to learn some strategies here. Just
when you least expect it, the devil comes, or one of his minions. You may be at
the end of the road–some of you are close to the end of the road–and you may
think ‘I have progressed so much in godliness and sanctification now that I am
immune.’ Beware. “Him that thinks he stands, take heed, lest he fall,” because
you get the impression here at the end of David’s life (and turn a few chapters
and you’ll see the record of the death of David), but right at the end of his
life Satan gets a hold of him and tempts him, and allures him and brings him
down. So learn from this, and remind yourself of the reality of Satan, and that
we live in a fallen world where he is the prince and power of the air, and, that
for a season at least, God in His sovereign providence has allowed him certain
liberties–all under the divine control of God, of course. Learn from those
stratagems, and realize that we are in a war until the day we die. We are in a
war! We live in enemy-occupied territory, and there is no respite to this war
this side of the grave. Satan tempts.

II. David’s sin.

Secondly, David falls. He listens to the voice
of Satan and commands Joab, his chief military officer, to do the task that he
is commanding, namely taking a census throughout all of Israel. Now Joab is a
man of the world. It’s all very well for David to have these high-faluting
thoughts and aspirations in his palace, but Joab is the one who has to carry it
out. It’s going to take him ten months to do this census, and Joab says in no
uncertain terms: this is a very bad idea. Think of Colonel Jessup in A Few
Good Men
, if you can bring that picture into your mind. That’s Joab.

Now, we’re not told why Joab thought this was a bad
idea. We’re not told specifically why it was a bad idea. Maybe it was something
to do with temple tax. There was an atonement tax in Exodus 30 when a census, a
similar kind of census, was undertaken. Maybe it has something to do with that.
Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that David may have wanted even men
under twenty to be taken in the census…and there’s a reference to something that
may allude to that in chapter 27. But let me plow through all of the
possibilities here and tell you what I think is the reason.

At the end of his life David has lost touch with
the reality of the promises of God in His covenant.
He’s saying in effect,
you see, ‘I need reassurance here that Israel is going to prosper because it has
one of the mightiest fighting armies in the world.’ When the census comes back
ten months later (according to Samuel), there are over one and a half million
men in Israel and in Judea who can take up the sword. And it’s as though David,
instead of looking to God and instead of looking to the promises of God, and
instead of looking…. Do you remember the Psalm that Brad read for us this
morning? That beautiful, wonderful Psalm? Do you remember how many times…and
Brad emphasized the word as he read the word this morning: covenant…
covenant…covenant…
the covenant that God had made with Abraham and Isaac and
Jacob and Moses and with David: a covenant that promised that Israel would be as
numerous as the stars in the night sky, or the sand upon the seashore. And it’s
as though David is saying, ‘Well, that all may be true, but let me hear once
again how big my army is.’ It sounds as though David is resorting to men and to
numbers, and to that which is tangible, and to that which can be seen, and that
which can be recorded, rather than looking to God with the eye of faith.
He has turned away from God and is turning to men, and he has sinned. And as the
representative king, the consequences of his sin affect the nation, and God
comes in punishment, because that’s the third thing that we see here.

III. The wrath and mercy of
God.

He comes in wrath; He comes in holiness. He
comes through the hands of a prophet named Gad. You remember when David was in
trouble before, with Bathsheba, a prophet came to him. Nathan. When prophets
come to David, it’s always trouble! And he’s got three choices: three years of
famine, in which he will be dependent upon the generosity of surrounding nations
(a very bad idea); three months of invasion, relentless invasion, whereby he’s
going to be dependent on the kindnesses of men like Hanun, the king of the
Ammonites. You remember in a few chapters before this one, he’s the one who cut
off the britches, or whatever it was they were wearing, of the men…you
remember…at their waist, and sent them back naked. A very bad idea. Or, three
days of pestilence at the hands of God.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re saying
‘Where’s the fourth option? Because I don’t like any of those.’ Why isn’t there
an option (and here’s a fourth option)–no punishment at all? Because the passage
is teaching us that God is holy, and that God — even God — can’t “just” forgive
sin. There has to be justice. Behold the severity of God. Behold the anger of
God. Behold the wrath of God. Behold the holiness of God.

Do you remember the story of Binti, the gorilla? In
Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, in 1996 a three-year-old boy had climbed over the
fence and fallen some eighteen feet down into the hold where the gorillas were.
And Binti, who had an eighteen-month-old baby gorilla on her back, got up from
where she was sitting beneath the tree and walked over and picked up this
unconscious boy, and carried him to the door of the enclosure and left him
there, and growled at all the other gorillas that tried to get at this little
boy. She was given a medal from the American Legion!

I wonder if that’s your view of God. You’re in awe at
the display of kindness, but you wouldn’t want to put it to the test again,
because deep down, however in awe as to what this gorilla did, you just wouldn’t
trust a three-year-old in an enclosure with a gorilla the second time.

And do you notice what David says in verse 13:

“And David said to Gad, ‘I am in great distress; please let me fall into the
hand of the Lord…’”

Why?

“‘…Because
His mercies are very great.’”

If you’re giving me the choice here to be at the
mercy of men or the mercy of God, give me the mercy of God any time, any day,
because His mercies are great. Because that’s the way God is. Yes, He’s holy.
And yes, He’s righteous. And yes, there is the wrath of God. But His mercies are
very great. And so David puts himself in the hands of God. Seventy thousand
people are killed by the pestilence, and the angel of the Lord, God’s instrument
of retribution, comes to Jerusalem and to the threshing floor of a man by the
name of Ornan. And the angel is standing there with his hand lifted and a sword
in his hand, and stays. And you remember what happens. David purchases the
threshing floor from Ornan. It’s an astonishing thing that David says to Ornan,
because Ornan says ‘Look, you can have it. And you can have the oxen and you can
have the wood, and you can have it all.’ And David says ‘No. Because I cannot
worship God with something that costs me nothing.’ This was his fault and he’s
taking the responsibility for it; and he builds an altar and sacrifices are
offered.

And do you notice, in verse 27:

“And the
Lord commanded the angel, and he put his sword back in its sheath.”

At the sight of the blood…at the sight of the blood of
atonement, the angel of retribution put his sword back in its sheath. God’s hand
was not only stayed; it was also satisfied because justice had been done and
atonement had been offered, and blood had been shed.

You see, down the road–a thousand years down the
road–in this same city, something similar happened. When the angel of God’s
retribution came down upon Jesus, His Son, in wrath and holy anger, in
retribution for sins committed, for violence done to His covenant, God did not
spare Him. God did not spare Him. But at the sight of the blood…at the sight of
the blood…those in union with Christ…the angel puts his sword back into its
sheath, and God is stayed and God is satisfied.

My friends, this is a strange story at the end of
David’s life. It is a story that is meant to remind us of the nature of God and
the character of God. Yes, but He’s holy. And He’s so holy that He cannot even
look upon sin, and there can be no forgiveness apart from atonement made on
behalf of sin. He’s full of mercy. That’s the astonishing thing, isn’t it? We
understand that He is holy; the astonishment and the wonder is He’s full of
mercy and compassion.

That which God has begun in you and me, my friend, He
will complete unto the day of Jesus Christ, and we need have no cause to look to
men or to look to something visible and tangible, but we trust Him. Just as we
trust Him at the first, and just as we trust Him this morning to cover all of
our sins and to wash us from all of our iniquities, so we must trust Him in the
end…all the way…all the way.

“Nothing in my hands I bring;

Simply to Thy cross I cling.

Naked, look to Thee for dress;

Foul, I to the fountain fly;

Wash me, Savior, or I die.”

And the assurance is the assurance of David: Let me
fall into the hands of God, because He is full of mercy, and I know that. I know
that because of what Jesus has done for me. He did not spare His own Son, but
freely delivered Him up for us all. How shall He not then with Him freely give
us all things?

Persevere, my friends, in faith. In faith, despite
what that crazy director is saying about the bones of Jesus! The bones of Jesus
are in heaven at the right hand of God. And trust Him to the very end.

Let’s sing together hymn No. 160 — Shepherd of
Tender Youth
.

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