Reflections on II Samuel 24 —
“Now again, the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and it incited David against them…'” (II Samuel 24:1)
This verse can cause some real trouble for those who do not believe in the absolute sovereignty of God. It’s pretty deep and a little messy. We avoid it like the plague.
But let’s not be hasty. When God says, “all scripture is inspired by God, and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16), He’s not kidding around. There is tremendous wisdom packed in this little, troublesome verse; wisdom that some poor, hungry souls need to hear. If we are careful, if we are patient, if we are diligent to connect the dots in scripture tying common verses throughout the Bible together, if we dig for knowledge like buried treasure, we can glean timeless principles that transform our minds.
The church today loves practical applications…something we can check off our list…something we can work real hard at achieving. We don’t have time to understand principles. We are strong in behavior management, but weak in knowledge. I know I tend to be too egg-headed and probably need more application in my life. But I think contemporary Christianity is off-balance the other way. We need balance.
I’m thankful the author included verse 1 of II Samuel 24. Without it, the rest of the chapter would just be another lesson about the importance of confessing your sins, a trite, practical application. But as it is, we have verse 1. We have God directing the course of events through the stirred-up ambition of David. Given that backdrop, David’s confession in II Samuel 24:10 tells us there is culpability and responsibility even in a worldview where God is absolutely sovereign. Even more, David’s attitude throughout his life demonstrates that belief in the absolute sovereignty of God, and being OK with that, is the path to real contentment.
I suggest there are at least five timeless principles packed in this chapter that build on one another, and lead us to the conclusion that there is culpability and contentment in embracing God’s sovereignty over everything:
1. God has over-arching objectives. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in what is happening to us, we forget there is a God who is working, who has a plan, and who brings all things together to accomplish that plan. God is the director of a symphony, and we are the instruments. He has objectives. He does things intentionally to meet those objectives. When He speaks a promise, He never, never lets it sit idle, but uses it to accomplish things (Isaiah 55:11). He displays His glory to heavenly witnesses (Ephesians 3:10). He puts people with various gifts in a church together just as He desires (I Corinthians 12:18). He works all things for good to those who love Him (Romans 8:28). He appoints people for important tasks before they are born (Jeremiah 1:5). He uses donkeys, worms, bears, lions, fish, blindness, leprosy, hemorrhaging, seas, deserts, fruit trees, wind, floods, storms, earthquakes, hail, poverty, famine, and much more to bring about His plans. He also uses people–armies, kings, witches, prostitutes, false prophets, priests, young boys, widows, and old women–sometimes thousands of individuals at any given time–to bring His plans to fruition.
Americans have trouble with this. We are free thinkers, romantic lovers, and rugged adventurers. We don’t like to think of ourselves as content bond-servants. We are comfortable with a God who is a benevolent, reasonable grandfather. We have trouble with a God who is an absolute monarch dictating the course of events, including my own. But that’s what He does. We need to get over ourselves. There is great value in accepting God’s absolute sway over things that happen to you….I’ll get to that later.
2. Our sin makes God angry. Israel had once again incurred God’s anger by their actions. Not surprising, given their history of complaining, arguing, idolizing, testing, and cheating … going back to the time of Moses. Sin makes God angry. This is a truth that contemporary Christians hate to hear and refuse to accept. We like to sing of God’s love, grace, and mercy, how we have escaped His wrath forever. We may have escaped eternal wrath, but there is a temporal wrath, applicable to this life, that still hangs over us. God will not turn a blind eye to sin. It always incurs His wrath. He judges all sin, regardless of who commits it–the death-row murderer or church-going elder (Romans 2:5-11). He judges any suppression of truth, any unrighteous, any ungodly deed regardless of who does it (Romans 1:18). Without God’s wrath, Christians would not need to abide in Christ. But as it is, there is wrath, and because there is wrath, we need to abide in Christ all the more. We desperately need the life of Christ living in us to escape the wrath of God. As Paul says, “…having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Christ” (Romans 5:9).
3. God’s anger can incite people, including believers, to do foolish things to accomplish His plans. This little reference to God’s anger should shake up your theology. God’s anger against Israel incited David to count heads, to find out how many able men he had available. To God, numbering people represented idolatry, an opportunity for His people to trust in military strength rather than Him. He warned kings against doing this. David did it anyway. His action brought condemnation on Israel.
But what is really interesting is what caused him to number the people in the first place. In II Samuel 24:1, the author says the Lord’s anger incited David to number the people. In the account recorded in I Chronicles 21:1, Satan is held responsible for rising up against Israel and moving David to sin. Is this a contradiction? Let’s assume that both passages are true, and see what we can learn…
The first thing we should see is that Satan is used synonymously with God’s anger, and in this way, Satan is used by God to “move” or “incite” believers to do things, foolish things. We should never imagine Satan is equal with God, as if the two of them are in an eternal power struggle with the end result precariously in the balance. As much as Satan would love that, it is not true. Satan takes his commands from God. He is a messenger of wrath from God. He executes God’s discipline of sin. Paul understood this, and even expressed desire that a reprobate believer be “delivered over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh” (I Corinthians 5:5).
The second thing we should see is that even the “man after God’s own heart” is susceptible to being misled, to be stoked in his pride to decide to do something foolish. He has sin in his heart like the rest of us and that sin is temptable. Let me clarify that I am not saying God tempts anyone. James is pretty clear that God Himself is not tempted and He does not tempt anyone. But then James says, “…each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust…” (James 1:13-14). My point is–there is plenty of sin within each of us, and it doesn’t take much for Satan to stir it up, to get us to act on that sin.
The third thing we should see is that David’s foolish decision affected an entire nation. We credit or condemn men for their decisions and how those decision impact people, good or bad. But it is God who is at work in those men, leading them to make decisions that accomplish His work–guys like Pharoah (Romans 9:17), Ahab’s false prophets (II Chronicles 18:18-22), and Pontious Pilate (John 19:11). Poor choices by these guys led to thousands of lives lost. On the other hand, Pilate’s bad choice led to Jesus’ execution…and the salvation of all mankind. All these guys thought they were autonomously deciding things, acting on their own, speaking their mind. In reality, they were executing plans masterfully designed by God.
4. We are still culpable for sin…but thankfully, God is merciful. God’s anger incited David to sin, so David sinned, and later felt bad about the sin and confessed it. How can God hold David responsible, when His anger incited David in the first place?
This is where God’s over-arching objective and our day-to-day responsibility intermix. I am limited, finite, and corrupt. My heart is deceptive and desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9), corrupt in everything it inspires me to do, incapable of choosing good. God on the other hand is boundless, infinite, and holy. He is all about demonstrating His attributes–love, patience, grace, mercy, forgiveness, truth, and justice–to all creation. He uses sinful men to accomplish His work, and He is merciful to forgive men their sins. It’s a perfectly closed system.
So to argue with God and plead innocence is a bit comical. As Paul says,
“You will say to me, ‘…why does God find fault, for who resists His will?’…on the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have the right have a right over the clay…?” (Romans 9:19-21).
We are clay pots. God is the potter. He is designing me, shaping me, using me to accomplish His plan. And here’s a thought–even my sin, even my foolishness, is part of His plan.
David’s sin meant judgment for Israel. But God gave David the choice of how the judgment will be executed. As the story plays out, David chose God (II Samuel 24:14), and as a result, God’s mercy was put on display. As the angel of God executed judgment on the people, David was moved to cry out to God, and God heard him. He mercifully stopped Satan’s work of destruction. Thus God demonstrated both justice and mercy to His audience of heavenly witnesses.
5. We learn contentment only when we accept God’s absolute sovereignty over us. How we respond to II Samuel 24:1 says a lot about us. We can fight what God is doing, deny His absolute sovereignty. Or we can let God have His way.
I suggest that the secret of a full and rich life is being content with a sovereign God having His way with you. I used to believe that if I ordered my life correctly, if I lived humbly and respectfully, if I gave my time to ministry and church, and if I prayed and read the Bible on a regular basis, God would bless me, and I would experience peace and contentment. It was only after I did all those things, only to have God bring hard times into my life, that I started to see more clearly…that there is a deeper, far richer contentment I experience when I’m OK with what God is doing in my life…even if it’s hard.
A great thing about David was that he always seemed to be OK with what God was doing in his life. When confronted with his sin, he didn’t stiffen up, didn’t deflect blame, didn’t make excuses, didn’t get bitter. He admitted his sin (II Samuel 24:10). When Shimei cursed and threw stones at David in his flight from Absalom, David didn’t complain. He just said, “…if the Lord has told him, ‘curse David’, then who shall say, ‘why have you done so?'” (II Samuel 16:10). David was content with God’s sovereignty over him.
Like David, Paul knew the secret of contentment with God:
“I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:12-13)
Paul was in prison when he wrote Philippians. He found strength to be content through Christ. This is a secret we need to learn.
God gave us this story of David’s folly to show us He has a plan and is carrying it out. That plan demonstrates the paradox of God’s sovereignty and our culpability for sin. It involves judgment of sin, and mercy for those who cry out to Him. It is for the poor soul who needs to know there is a God who is in control, who is merciful, who is not surprised by our foolish choices that have impacted many. It is for the hungry soul longing for contentment.