I’m almost 1 month behind on my Bible in a year reading effort, and so in order to rectify this I have spent the last couple of hours ploughing through 1st Chronicles.
I almost thought I wouln’t make it, after the early set-back of chapters 1-9, an arduous genealogy of practically everyone who ever lived. Well, that’s an overstatement. It’s pretty bad. Go read it.
I quickly realised that the story in 1st Chronicles is almost an exact repetition of David’s story in the books of Samuel. I then thought to myself ‘Why oh why have I got to trawl through this again!’ I promise I enjoyed the story the first time. In fact I spent a whole semester last year studying that story. It was awesome, one of my favourite courses.
But in order to catch up with my reading commitments, I marched on, tripping over the names I couldn’t even pronounce in my head. I’m really glad I did, too.
Today, I made it all the way to 1st Chronicles 21. That might sound like an achievement, but frankly I sort of glossed over a fair amount of the story. Troop lists and numbers of victories and defeats are kind of hard to concentrate on. But this chapter arrested my attention.
In this chapter, David calls a census. This counting of the people is a sign of David’s pride. Presuming he will be free from worries and attacks, he counts all he has conquered and catalogues his victory, despite being told not to by his advisors:
“May the Lord add to his people a hundred times as many as they are! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord’s servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should it be a cause of guilt for Israel?” (1 Chronicles 21:3)
David pridefully and presumptuously acts without God’s instruction, listening instead to Satan (1 Chron 21:1). Satan is the enemy of God’s people, but despite King David, their ruler, being corrupted in this way, God did not abandon his people but disciplined them (1 Chron 21:7). Even though David was not tuned in to God, the Lord reached out to David through the people. And God’s message to David is one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in this story.
The Lord is not willing to allow Satan to reign over David’s heart, though we are told that he listened to Satan when he issued the census. God presents David an offer. Justice must be done, and God is concerned to rectify David’s arrogance and presumptuousness. Yet he still gives David a choice.
‘Choose what you will: either three years of famine, or three months of devastation by your foes while the sword of your enemies overtakes you, or else three days of the sword of the Lord, pestilence on the land, with the angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the territory of Israel.’ (1 Chronicles 21:11-12)
Some choice, right?
There is no ‘opt out’ of justice for David. God’s concern for his own plan and the good of his people is bigger than any one king of Israel. David’s sin and disobedience affected the whole country, and so God must act to restore all the people through an act of judgement.
But which act?
A long famine? Cut off the food supplies of the nation? Harm the economy, people’s livelihoods and bring great hardship and toil upon the land?
Or have the nation ravaged by the sword for three months? Will God cause the Philistines, or some other tribe, to have victory over them? To march across the land, murdering and burning everything in their path?
Or this pestilence? Three days for sickness and death to walk over the nation? A great plague to visit the land?
In each case, there is death and destruction. In each case, families will be destroyed, even whole villages and towns ravaged. Wives will lose their husbands, sons will lose their mothers and fathers will lose their daughters. How can a king choose which destruction will fall upon the land?
What a terrible burden to befall this leader! What a great cost his sin has demanded of him!
Yet this testing reveals the truth of his heart. An apple can look good to eat until you open it to see a worm got inside. The bridge looks steady until it breaks up underneath your feet. How the king leads his people in the light of his own wrongdoing shows what sort of a man is he.
In this place of grief, trial and hard decisions, where the sword of judgement pierces the flesh, we are given a glimpse of what pours out from this man.
“I am in great distress. Let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man.” (1 Chronicles 21:13)
Here, I see a portrait of faith in the light of sin. Or rather, faith in the shadow of sin. David’s belief in God trusted even in his judgement. Instead of natural or man-made calamity, David’s faith is such that he would sooner have God himself punish the people. In the days of antiquity, it would be near impossible for any one illness or army to assault a whole nation in three days. Even though Israel wasn’t a very mig country, it still takes weeks to get around the place!
So then, who else but God could act in such a way as to bring three days of disaster on a whole country?
And if this is the action God would prefer to perform on his people, what does that inform us about God?
His desire to be known. His desire to ensure his people’s faithfulness. Despite David’s weakness and sin, God wants his people to know the greatest good in being held securely in his hand.
I don’t know if David knew what God would do, but I doubt it. David’s faith was such that would desire God’s will to be done, regardless of the consequences and the cost. Satan planned to stand against Israel by tempting David to walk away from God, but David’s heart seems to have been so bound up with God that he would have faith even in the midst of sin, and would submit to God even in the face of the most extreme trials.
In this fascinating revelation of a man’s soul, we see David face-to-face with the consequences of his sin.
The angel of God, charged with carrying out God’s judgement, has marched across the land and struck down 70,000 people already. He stands on a treshing floor, a place where a farmer would beat the grain to separate the wheat from the chaff. This place of cleansing and separating is where David meets with God. This is where the undesirable parts are dealt with, are blown away and what is left if valuable grain. This great king, powerful ruler who decided to count all the things he has conquered, to boast in all his achievements, has had that pride beaten out of him.
“Was it not I who gave command to number the people? It is I who have sinned and done great evil. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand, O Lord my God, be against me and against my father’s house. But do not let the plague be on your people.” (1 Chronicles 21:17)
This is the heart of David, this struggle to put his pride to death and to embrace God as supremely worthy. David owns his sin, he will not let the nation be punished for his wrongdoing. David did wrong, yet in the confusion of this sin David seeks God. And here God finds him.
This threshing floor, this place of working out the unwanted parts and getting rid of the chaff is to become a place of worship. God commands David to make an altar here. After this, the angel who was to carry out God’s judgement leaves. God’s justice it satisfied when David submits to God again, lets go of his pride and places himself before God, with all his secrets exposed and all his sins to bare.
I loved the words of David when he said:
“No, but I will buy them for the full price. I will not take for the Lord what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (1 Chronicles 21:24)
David learns the price of intimacy with the Lord. There is a great cost to true worship, the painful humbling of the haughty human soul to acknowledge God as the highest authority and the highest good. God did not allow Satan to steal David’s heart, rather used Satan’s intention to bring David closer to himself.
David found grace at the feet of God when he declared the Lord to be the one whom he wanted to fall before, not humans. God met with him when all his pride was gone, and when he was scared for the fate of his people. God met him when the weight of his sin caught up with him.
Though the king was overcome by temptation, and God had to act in order to prevent his people from turning away from him, there was space in this for David to choose whether he would follow God or not. As the king, David was at the mercy of God’s judgement. But as a man of faith, he was prepared to kneel before his God, trusting in him. This change in David is the result of God’s plan being carried out through disaster and hardship, but at the end there was rest and praise.
Perhaps it was David who was being threshed by God, to remove the bits of him which were not desirable. Separating the chaff, letting it bow away. But for that, David had to be beaten on the treshing floor.
And there, in that place of transformation, is where worship is to be found.