Into the Hand of the Lord
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Bible Passage: 2 Samuel 24
We have finally come to the end of 2 Samuel and I’m anxious to get to it, so let’s begin:
1 Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”
The verse tells us that God is angry, but not why God is angry. It also tells us that God used David to initiate a military census, something that God had commanded them not to do.
In other words, God decided to punish Israel by leading David to do something David wasn’t allowed to do. And there is no helpful explanation. The story leans on us to trust God, even though it doesn’t seem fair.
It reminds me of the age-old question, “Why did God put the tree in the garden?” God knew that Adam and Eve were going to break the commandment. And the rule itself seems arbitrary to us. The Bible doesn’t really explain why God forbid them to eat from it. So, why did God put it there in the first place?
And I love the way Tim Keller answers that question. He writes:
I had a ten-year-old, my middle son, he was a very hard child to get to obey. And I would say to him, ‘Obey me. I’m your father, I’ve told you to do this, so just do it because I’ve told you to.’ And you know what he’d always say? ‘Dad, I’d be happy to obey if you could just make it reasonable. Just tell me why this is helpful for me, or the human race, or whatever.’
And I would say, ‘If you only obey me when I explain it to you, then you’re not obeying me, you’re just agreeing with me. I want you to obey because I’m forty-five and you’re ten. (Laughter). I know a little more about life than you do, and I don’t want to have to explain it to you because I couldn’t get into your ten-year-old brain.’
So, God says, ‘Don’t eat from the tree’, and no explanation. The point is, ‘I want you to obey because you love me. Just because I’m God and you’re not. I want you to do something, not because it profits you, not because you know the reason why, but just because I’m Lord and Saviour, and you’re not. Just do it because you love me for myself alone.’ And they didn’t.
In a similar way, God had told Israel not to perform a census. But God was angry with them for some reason, also not explained, and he incites David to do the thing he commanded them not to do. The census was somehow both the cause and the result of God’s anger. I know you’re confused and I’m with you. But let’s keep reading.
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?”
Joab knew this was a bad idea. He begs David to reconsider.
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.
They conduct the census and count the fighting men – 800,000 in Israel and 500,000 in Judah.
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.”
Just as Adam immediately recognized his sin in the garden, so does David. He feels the conviction immediately and asks God for forgiveness. How do you think God will respond?
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.”
God gives David three bad options: three years of famine, three months of enemies, or three days of pestilence. David responds by ruling out the second option and trusting God to decide between the other two options. Specifically, David says he is trusting in the great mercy of God.
Remember, mercy means getting less of a punishment than a person deserves. David trusts that God won’t let it be as bad as it should be.
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.”
This is the only time in the Old Testament when the angel of the Lord was used against God’s own people. In every other instance, the destroying angel was used only against Israel’s enemies. This is a unique and rare thing, but it reminds us that even God’s people deserve the worst of His punishment. This is not a safe God.
David was correct in trusting that God would show His people mercy, but God still killed 70,000 men in three days. That’s a lot of funerals at the same time for a small nation. In comparison, their population was about the same as the state of Mississippi. There are 300 towns in Mississippi. That’s over 200 funerals per town in one week.
The grief of the people would have been enormous, not to mention the economic impact of losing so many people so quickly.
Still, the concept of mercy forces us to accept that this is not as bad as it should have been. More of these men deserved to die. 70,000 was merciful. And if we keep reading, even this amount of mercy was predicated on the need for atonement.
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.”
Just as Adam represented all humanity by his sin, David knows that these people were dying because of his sin. He asks God to let the anger fall on him instead of the people. But there was another way. Let’s read to the end of the chapter.
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.
It is important to understand what has happened here and to recognize that this is the end of 2 Samuel on purpose. The writer wants us to read this story last as a summary of the book’s message.
David sinned. David knew he had sinned. David knew that his sin was causing pain and suffering to the people he represented. He knew that he deserved the full weight of God’s wrath. But God sent a prophet with an alternative solution. Atonement. David could satisfy the wrath of God through sacrifice.
But David didn’t have what He needed to make the proper sacrifice. He needed to purchase the ox and the wood and the materials to build an altar. The owner of the threshing floor tries to give them to the king for free, but David refuses. He says, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.”
David paid for the materials, built the altar, made the proper sacrifices, and God ended the plague.
This chapter is like a miniature version of the story of the entire Bible, and I think that’s why it comes last. We don’t know exactly when, during the reign of David, it took place. But the writer wants us to hear this story last.
A sinful man falls under the anger of a merciful God who provides a way out – an atonement. But there is one very significant difference when compared to the Gospel. This atonement cost David something.
In truth, it was a very small amount. Fifty shekels of silver was not much money, especially for a king. It was probably a fair price, but it didn’t set David back any.
By contrast, the atonement God provides for our sin is offered to us free of charge. And yet, also by contrast, it was not free for God. The cost to God for our atonement was immense.
David was right in his impulse that the atonement should be costly. But no amount of silver could ever be enough. No amount of blood from animals would ever be enough. The story points us to an atonement of immeasurable value… the blood of Jesus, the Son of God – but it cost us nothing.
2 Chronicles 3:1 tells us that the threshing floor of Araunah was located in the exact same spot where, a thousand years earlier, Abraham was prepared to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice when God provided the ram.
A thousand years later, the judgment of God would fall on David’s house, as David requested in verse 17. It would fall on Jesus Christ in the exact same location. This threshing floor, purchased by David, became the site of the temple. Jesus was crucified just outside the city – God’s lamb, provided for God’s people.
Abraham. David. Jesus. Same place. But Jesus offered what Abraham could not. He paid what David could not.
And the Gospel always comes to us in Scripture with the same two movements: serious judgment and radical mercy. The wrong must be made right. God is merciful, but He is also just. God is just. God is merciful. But please remember – God is not safe. God is not OK with our sin.
The cross shows us how serious God is about our sin. He must be pretty serious about it if dealing with it meant the death of His only Son. But in the same action, God shows us the depths of His mercy. You can’t buy it from Him. You can’t bargain with Him. He will only let you receive it with empty hands, because as David said, we have fallen into the hands of God not the hands of men.
I want to close with a story I haven’t told you in a few years about a man named David Ireland. David was suffering from a rare disease. It started out as numbness in his right hand, then began spreading throughout his entire body. In college he met a girl, they dated, fell in love, and with her knowing the extent of his disease and how it would eventually take over his body…she still agreed to marry him. They both knew he very well could die prematurely from this debilitating disease, but that didn’t stop them from getting married.
David and his wife, Joyce, soon were expecting their first child. About the time Joyce found out she was pregnant…David found out his disease was progressing more rapidly. Not sure he would live to see his baby’s birth, David began writing a book called Letters to An Unborn Child.
He wanted to have some part in the raising of his child even if he had died beforehand. In one letter he wrote this:
“Your mother is very special to me. Few men know what it’s like to receive appreciation for taking their wives out to dinner when it entails what it does for us.
It means that she has to dress me, shave me, brush my teeth, comb my hair; wheel me out of the house and down the steps. Open the garage and put me in the car. Twist me around so that I’m comfortable. Fold the wheelchair, put it in the car. Go around to the other side of the car. Start it up, back it out, get out of the car. Pull the garage door down, get back into the car, and drive off to the restaurant.
And then, it starts all over again:
She gets out of the car, unfolds the wheelchair. Opens the door, spins me around, stands me up, seats me in the wheelchair. Pushes the pedals out, closes and locks the car. Wheels me into the restaurant, then takes the pedals off the wheelchair so I won’t be uncomfortable. We sit down to have dinner and…she feeds me throughout the entire meal. And when it’s over she pays the ticket, pushes the wheelchair out to the car again and reverses the same routine.
And when it’s all over…finished…with real warmth she’ll say: ‘Honey, thank you for taking me out to dinner.’ I never know quite what to say.”
That’s the kind of love we experience in the Gospel. We contribute nothing to the process, but God loves us as if we did. And He committed to showing us this kind of love knowing exactly how difficult we would be and exactly how much it would cost Him.