In July of 2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are concluding a year-long adventure in listening to the stories of David as we try to make sense out of them for our own journeys. On July 9, we considered what some have called David’s greatest failure: his census of Israel. Our texts included II Samuel 24 as well as Philippians 4:1-13. Thoughts on counting, pride, and forgiveness in this week’s message.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click the player below:
What do you know about Alphonse “Scarface” Capone? That he was a gangster and the leader of the Chicago mob that was responsible for the “St. Valentines’ Day Massacre” in 1929? A bootlegger, murderous thug, and career criminal? Do you know the crime of which he was found guilty and sentenced to prison? Tax evasion.
I bet that a lot of you remember Jack Lambert, who at 6’4”, 220 lbs. was one of the fiercest men to ever wear the uniform of an NFL team. He was renowned for his ferocious hits on opposing ball carriers, but he was driven from the game he loved by an injury: turf toe.
I bring up these big men who were taken down by seemingly small opponents because we’ve come to a part of the David narrative with which many of us are unfamiliar. This is the twenty-second sermon I’ve preached about David in the last year, and if I were to ask you what was the one thing that threatened David’s reign and legacy the most, how would you answer? The adulterous, murderous episode that led to Bathsheba becoming his wife? His suspected collusion with the Philistines? The instructions he gave to Ahimelech, the high priest, that ended with the deaths of all the residents of the town of Nob? His failure as a father?
Nope. The closest David came to blowing it, big time, was when he issued an executive order mandating a census throughout Israel.
Seriously? A census? How does counting the population rise to a level of offense commensurate with the other tawdry episodes in David’s past? Well, this is no ordinary counting: it is a preliminary act for the institution of a military draft and a massive taxation. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: “This census is much like that of Caesar Augustus. It is not a benign act of counting but an act of bureaucratic terrorism…The purpose is to mobilize military power. David has yielded to the seduction of state power.” David’s greatest sin is not about the math… it’s about the pride that threatened to undo him in a way that nothing else had.
He’s nearing the end of his life. He’s survived several attempted coups and assassinations; he’s weathered a lot of storms, and, frankly, he’s starting to roll the credits. II Samuel 22 contains an amazingly beautiful song of praise to God. II Samuel 23 allows the monarch to recount the list of “David’s Mighty Men” – several dozen soldiers whose amazing exploits and feats of strength and bravery were simply astounding.
Perhaps the old monarch simply got caught up in the moment. As he considers all of his oldest and most trusted companions, it would be tempting for him to say, “You know, we were pretty darned tough. I mean, we did some serious business back in the day… But what about now? What else is there for me to do? Who else can I conquer? What if there are bigger things in store for me or for this nation?”
In short, David begins an exploration of nationalism and exceptionalism that nearly costs him – and his people – everything.
We’re told in the beginning of the passage that “The anger of the Lord burned against Israel…” Why? Well, it doesn’t say, but I have an idea. Do you remember the first commandment? “You shall have no other gods before me.” Do you remember the first sin in the Garden of Eden? The humans refusing to accept the authority of God. It is God who establishes, God who reigns, God who rules… and in our reading from II Samuel, as well as these prior incidents, the humans (David in this case) reject God’s primacy and put themselves on top.
It’s interesting to note that this same exact story is written down in I Chronicles 21 – with a significant difference. In the reading for today, we’re told that God incited David’s heart; in I Chronicles, the idea for the act is credited to Satan. In either case, the result is the same: David chose to order this census. Nobody made him do anything he didn’t already want to do. He calls up Joab, his loyal general, and tells him to get the thing up and running. And even Joab, the traditional strongman for King David, says, “Um, look, your majesty, are you sure about this? I don’t this this is your best idea ever. Maybe you want to sleep on it…”
David flat-out ignores his advisor and the census begins. It takes ten long months to come up with an answer; when the numbers finally come in, David realizes what he’s done. He gets the answer for which he’s been looking, and then he grasps the implications of the questions he’s asked… and he cries out for forgiveness. The David in verse 2 is strong, purposeful, resolute, and full of pride. The one who speaks in verses 10 and 14 is as broken as he’s ever been. David realizes the depth of his willful arrogance and rebellion. He sees his pride for what it is and falls on God’s mercy.
The extent of David’s repentance can be seen in the curious conversation that he has with the prophet when Gad brings him news of God’s judgment. The Lord offers David a choice: what kind of punishment does he want to receive? Three years of famine across the whole nation? Three months of intense attack from his enemies? Or three days of pestilence and plague on the nation?
When David is at his best, he fears God. When David is at his most faithful, he trusts God. Here, in this dark, dark hour, he cries out asking for God, not humans, to deal with him. He knows that if there is any mercy, any relief, any hope to be found, it will come from the hand of the Lord.
In the next three days, seventy thousand people die in Israel. To put that in perspective just a bit, that is more than the total number of US military deaths in the combined six decades of our involvement in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. David sees the weight of this carnage and cries out, “Enough! Look, God, if you want to kill someone, kill me. Leave these people out of it! I am the sinner here!”
The prophet then commands David to go and worship by building a worship site on a threshing floor belonging to a man named Aruanah. There are a few observations I’d make about this worship.
First, the king treats this farmer fairly. The David of verse 2 would have walked into town and declared “eminent domain” on this poor man’s property. He might have said something like, “I need this for the good of the nation. Step aside, citizen…” But the David who shows up in verse 24 pays a full and fair price for this land, knowing that he has the ability and the responsibility to do so
This comes, of course, from the David’s awareness that he, and all he has, belongs to God. David will not “thank” God with other people’s money.
And the last thing I’d like to point out about the location of this reconciliation is that it is on a threshing floor. You probably don’t have one of these at your house… or in your city, but it was a site of tremendous importance to this pre-industrial agrarian culture. The threshing floor was an elevated, hard, level surface where the crop would be placed and beaten or trod upon so that the edible grain would be separated from the worthless chaff. The threshing floor was the place in which that which gives life is separated from that which is useless. David puts himself in this place and says, “Lord, make me… make us pure and useful…”
This is the last story in the books of Samuel. The narrative which contains the selection of a young child to be the king, the defeat of a mighty giant, military campaigns, palace intrigue, significant defeat, and astounding victory… ends with the old monarch on his knees in a strange place, crying out for forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation. There’s more than enough smiting, fighting, sleeping around, and even the occasional happy episode thrown in. What’s the point? Why does the narrator of Israel’s history choose to end the book of Samuel with David’s prideful attempt to count his fighting men and implement a tax plan?
Well, for starters, I’d think an important lesson we can take away from this passage is the fact that it’s foolish to spend too much time and energy reading or believing your own press clippings. One of the worst things that David did was to insulate himself to the point where he was unable to see how his bureaucratic power grab was an affront to the Lord. When you and I rely too heavily on our own feelings, or on the perception that we’d like to cultivate in others, we are similarly unable to perceive the truth. When you are “up” and doing well, remember that you are in danger of falling. And when you are broken, do not forget that you are made in the image of God. You might not feel like a child of the Most High, but that doesn’t change your reality.
In a few moments, we’ll sing Forgiveness by Matthew West. Some of the lyrics we’ll proclaim are “Show me how to love the unlovable/ Show me how to reach the unreachable/ Help me now to do the impossible/ Forgiveness.”
It may be that you’re at a place in your life where the greatest challenge in your walk will be to look at other people as you sing that song. You mentally picture the one who has wounded you so deeply or regarded you so callously, and you pray for the grace to be humble and Christlike toward her or him. But it’s just as likely that you need to remember those lyrics the next time you look in a mirror. You’ll remember the thing you said to your child or your parent; the lies you told to avoid embarrassment; the way you compromised your integrity in order to feel “liked.” In those cases, then, perhaps the “unlovable” and the “unreachable” is not someone else… you may think it’s you. And you are, of course, wrong.
Ask the Lord to give you a good vision of yourself, and others, and God. Pray for a realistic view of what is, and what can be, and how you fit into it.
The Philippians passage that we read this morning contains perhaps one of the most frequently misquoted verses in the Bible, at least in the context of American Christianity. Whether we’re talking about winning the Super Bowl, finding a parking spot, or getting a date to the prom, millions of us find ourselves chanting “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” We use that verse as though it is some sort of mantra that guarantees our success, and makes Jesus our lucky charm.
Paul’s life was as complicated and erratic as David’s in its own way. He had grown up as a member of the educated elite, and he’d made a career as a renowned teacher and scholar. In his younger days, Paul was the one you hoped might be called in as a guest lecturer; he had all the right contacts and influence. Yet at the time of this writing, he’s been beaten and imprisoned. He’s stayed at the Hilton and in Medium Security… traveled first class and been shipwrecked… and here he shares the fact that the only meaning and purpose he’s ever found in his life comes through his ability to be content in the knowledge that he is never alone because of the work of God in Jesus Christ.
Being a person of faith doesn’t mean that you can get the job you want, or run a marathon without training, or pass your test without studying. That’s not the “all things” Paul is talking about in this passage. What he is saying is that through the grace of God, you and I can find the ability to be content, to know peace, to find an inward centeredness that is not dependent on our outward circumstances. We can do that through Christ who gives us strength.
My hope and prayer for you this morning is that today and each day you might join your brother David on the threshing floor of your life. That today, you might sit in the presence of God, resting on a firm and solid foundation, knowing that within your life right now are the elements necessary for significant fruit. Ask God to help you blow away the chaff and the things that distract you, and seek to find your center in Jesus Christ. Whether you are on the cusp of a significant opportunity or on the brink of an incredible challenge, look for the contentment and peace that can only come through Jesus Christ. If we can start the days like that, we will find, I trust, that we can get through anything in the power of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Interpretation Commentary on First and Second Samuel (John Knox Press, 1990), p. 352