Preached by Jason Abbott
Today we’re concluding our sermon series through the book of 2 Samuel. And to be honest, once you have read this morning’s text, you’ll probably think, Wow . . . that’s a strange way to end this book. You’ll probably have more questions than answers.
Yet, when you read a well-crafted account, which leaves you with questions and without answers, those questions might be unanswered to teach you something. They might reveal something about you. So keeping this in mind, let’s read the text and, then, begin grappling with its unanswered questions.
2 Samuel 24:1-4, 10-25
1 Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” 2 So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people.” 3 But Joab said to the king, “May the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see it, but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?” 4 But the king’s word prevailed against Joab and the commanders of the army. So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to number the people of Israel….
10 But David’s heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” 11 And when David arose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, 12 “Go and say to David, ‘Thus says the Lord, Three things I offer you. Choose one of them, that I may do it to you.’” 13 So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, “Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.” 14 Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.”
15 So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from the morning until the appointed time. And there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba 70,000 men. 16 And when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. 17 Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, “Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father’s house.”
18 And Gad came that day to David and said to him, “Go up, raise an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” 19 So David went up at Gad’s word, as the Lord commanded. 20 And when Araunah looked down, he saw the king and his servants coming on toward him. And Araunah went out and paid homage to the king with his face to the ground. 21 And Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” David said, “To buy the threshing floor from you, in order to build an altar to the Lord, that the plague may be averted from the people.” 22 Then Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take and offer up what seems good to him. Here are the oxen for the burnt offering and the threshing sledges and the yokes of the oxen for the wood. 23 All this, O king, Araunah gives to the king.” And Araunah said to the king, “May the Lord your God accept you.” 24 But the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. 25 And David built there an altar to the Lord and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the Lord responded to the plea for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel.
What did Israel do to make the Lord angry? Our narrator doesn’t tell us. What exactly was wrong with David taking a census here? The author doesn’t say. Why did the Lord punish Israel for David’s sin? This passage is silent about it. How could the Lord “incite” David to take a census and simultaneously hold him and Israel responsible for it? No justification is given in defense of God in the text. We just don’t get answers to these questions. And, if we’re being honest about it, this silence makes us very uncomfortable. We want answers.
This reminds me of an Old Testament book full of unanswered questions—the book of Job. In a nutshell, the book’s narrative follows its main character Job from great prosperity to great pain. And, in the midst of all Job’s tragic suffering, the questions loom: Why Job? Why is he suffering? What has he done to deserve it? Where is the justice of God?
What’s interesting, to me, is that none of these questions receives an answer. Yet, what is answered by the text is what not to do with unanswered questions—namely, to try and fill in the blanks. You see, during the course of the narrative, Job has an extended dialogue with three old friends—who turn out to be miserable when it comes to comforting those in the midst of tragedy. Rather than loving Job, they accuse him. Rather than simply weeping with him, they list out all his faults. In short, they take the unanswered questions surrounding Job’s pain and suffering, and they presume to fill in the blanks . . . they presume to know the answers.
Yet, in the end, they find themselves in trouble with God. So, he tells them, concerning all their arrogant answers in Job’s situation:
My anger burns against you…for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has (Job 42:7-8).
What’s the difference between how Job and his miserable comforters spoke about the Lord? How did Job speak correctly while his friends spoke incorrectly concerning God? The answer is: Job didn’t presume to know why he was suffering while they did. Job didn’t presume to fill in the blanks to the unanswered questions surrounding the Lord and his tragedy—while Job’s terribly obnoxious friends did. And that’s what got them into trouble with God.
Friends, I wonder if we’re not just a little bit like Job’s miserable comforters when the Bible doesn’t answer all the questions a given passage might raise for us. I wonder if we don’t tend to fill in blanks. I wonder if we don’t tend to go further than the inspired word goes. And, when we do that—I wonder if we’re not at risk of speaking wrongly about God.
Perhaps, way back in the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible, Moses provided a good way of approaching texts like today’s. There he explained for our benefit:
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Friends, this means there are questions, when it comes to the Lord our God, which will remain unanswered. There are secret things which belong to the Lord—like the secret sins of Israel or the motives David had in commanding this census or the justice in punishing Israel along with David for that census or the interplay between God’s sovereign will over David and, yet, David’s full responsibility—secret things, which will remain unrevealed; questions, which will go unanswered in this passage.
When I was a student, I was wily. I was the kind of student who would ask, in seemingly genuine ways, questions which would ultimately sidetrack the lesson. You know what I’m talking about. I’d ask questions designed to draw the teacher off on a tangent in order that we might avoid learning the entire, intended lesson and, therefore, not get a homework assignment.
Consequently, when I became a teacher, I was prepared to defend myself against the same tactics when used on me. If students asked sidetracking questions, I’d respond with something like: That’s an excellent question. I’d be glad to talk with you about it after class or even after school if you’d like. (They never: liked.) But, you understand why I deflected those questions . . . don’t you. I wanted students in my class to learn the intended lesson—because that was the lesson they needed if they were going to grow as students.
And here’s the point. If we come to this passage and attempt to get answers to lessons our teacher—the inspired narrator of this text—didn’t intend to teach us, we may likely miss the very point he does intend to teach us. We may miss lessons which we need in order to grow as believers. So, go ahead and ask big questions, ask hard questions—but not to the exclusion of the central lesson.
And now—after saying all that—we’re finally able to learn the main lesson of the text. What is our narrator primarily teaching us? Well, David clearly states it when—after being offered a choice between three punishments—he says:
I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man (v. 14).
This is the moment when you’re supposed to begin to stir and then break into open rebellion against me—when you’re to lob all the unanswered questions, like grenades, back at me. The Lord’s mercy is great?! The Lord’s mercy is great?! What about inciting David to take a census?! What about the 70,000 who died?! Was that justice?! Was that great mercy?! (These are honest questions.)
Yet, I can assure you our author intends to, throughout this text of Scripture, show God as merciful and as gracious. And the reason we have trouble seeing it is because we forget how utterly holy God is and—in light of his perfect holiness—how utterly sinful and worthy of judgment we are. Unless we begin to get in touch with these truths, unless we begin to read the Bible through the lens of this reality, we will never truly see God as merciful and gracious.
Remember Job going thru his suffering, not getting his questions answered? What was his response when he finally stands before the holiness of his Creator? He didn’t begin to lob accusatory questions! Instead, Job replied:
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, / but now my eye sees you; / therefore I despise myself, / and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:5-6).
Or think about the great prophet of God, Isaiah. When he catches a glimpse of the Lord’s glory, how does he react? What is his conviction about his Creator, and what’s his conviction about himself? This is what he confesses:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
. . . the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1-4).
Friends, the Scriptures sing in perfect harmony about the unbelievable mercy of God. We tend to dwell upon his judgments and wrath. But, from that day Adam and Eve walked alive out of the Garden of Eden, God has been showing us mercy; the Lord has been staying his wrath.
And here, with David and Israel, we catch a glimpse of his wrath restrained and his mercy extended. And we see a shadow of God’s merciful and gracious plan for his people. We see a shadow that points to Christ.
God holds his angel back from Jerusalem, and David sees this angel of doom upon the threshing floor of Araunah. When he sees him, David pleads with God:
I have sinned, and…done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father’s house (v. 17).
David says—Spare Israel, forgive Israel, and let your wrath fall upon me and my family. Let us die in their place. Take us as a substitute for these people. Yet, God has a different plan. Note that he had already, well before David’s plea, stopped his angel’s deadly work. The Lord had already determined to be merciful with his people. Therefore, he had David go and construct an altar, where the angel of destruction stood, and worship the Lord there with sacrifices.
Friends, those sacrifices didn’t and couldn’t stop or stay the wrath of God, but they signify the Sacrifice who could and would. David, like a good shepherd, says, Take me. And yet, as a sinner, he couldn’t atone for the sins of God’s people. Only someone greater than David could do it, only someone perfect and holy—only God in the flesh could. And he did. And the wrath of God was forever stayed for all who will trust in the Sacrifice of God, Jesus Christ.
One day God’s wrath will be visited upon sin and injustice (Colossians 3:6). But today is not that day. Today’s the day in which God offers us mercy and grace. Today is the day God’s promise of peace with him stands by the blood of Christ. Thus he asks you the most revealing question of all, Will you receive this peace?