The Wiseman said, “The curse causeless shall not come.” Many problems and negative outcomes we experience are often self-invited. Self is a powerful motivator, and when a leader is motivated by self-will, it is especially tragic, because the consequences will be suffered by many others within his sphere of authority.
King David was a man after God's own heart and the beloved Psalmist of Israel. While far from a perfect man, he loved God passionately and sought to glorify God in his words and actions. As beautiful a person as he was, however, on two occasions his sins were so grievous, they brought severe judgment upon his family and then upon his nation.
We are all familiar with his sin with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his noble soldiers. While relaxing on the palace rooftop, instead of leading the battle with his army, he saw her bathing on her nearby rooftop and sent for her. When she became pregnant, and he could no longer hide his adultery, he ordered his general Joab to put Uriah on the frontline of the battle where he would be killed. Then he married Bathsheba, and it seemed as though he had gotten away with his sins of adultery and murder (Ref. 2Samuel 11). But the prophet Moses said: “Be sure your sins will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).
God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David and to pronounce judgment on his house. The child they conceived died; his son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamara, and her brother Absalom avenged this crime by killing him. Later Absalom led a rebellion to steal the throne from his father David and was killed by Joab who sought to protect the throne. Some of the saddest words recorded in the Bible were spoken by David: “O Absalom, my son, Absalom, my son – would to God I had died for thee!”(1Sam.18:33).
David’s gross sins and their brutal consequences were the products of “the lust of the eyes” and “the lust of his flesh.” John told us, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (1John 2:16). David already had other beautiful wives, why did he need to steal another man’s? But when a person has not submitted his sexuality to God, the lust of the flesh corrupts the sexual appetite. James said: “Then when lust hath conceived, it brings forth sin, and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death” (James 1:15).
David repented with a truly contrite heart and broken spirit which is recorded in Psalm 51. He prayed: “O God, my sin is ever before me. Against thee, and thee only have I sinned” (Psalm 51:3-4). Obviously, he sinned against Uriah, and he sinned against Bathsheba to cause her to break her marriage vows, and he sinned against their baby that died. But David realized that most of all, he had sinned against God! God freely forgave him and restored his joy and intimacy with God. This serves as a great encouragement to any who have sinned against God, backslidden, and are plagued with guilt. All God requires is sincere repentance: “A broken spirit and a contrite heart He will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
The Deadly Sin of Self-Will
Whenever Satan can exploit a person’s self-will, he can do the most damage to the most people. Later, in a tragic episode in David's life, Satan used him to bring a curse upon the whole nation of Israel. David instructed his generals to number the armies of Israel, which displeased the Lord. The strong negative reaction of General Joab and his captains against taking a census indicate David’s motives were not righteous. It may be God didn't want the armies numbered, because He did not want David or the Army to think that it was by their own power they defeated their enemies. Or perhaps David was considering a conquest out of the will of God, and wanted to see if he had enough men to succeed. Whatever his reason for numbering the army, it was wrong.
The historical record is in 2Samuel 24, but to get the whole picture we must also read 1Chronicles 21, which is the priests’ commentary of the same events. (This is true of all the accounts of the four books of Samuel and Kings. These are the historical records while 1&2 Chronicles, written by the priests, give the spiritual commentary.)
General Joab pleaded with David not to order the census. This is unusual, because normally he would only be concerned with military issues. In spite of Joab’s strong resistance, the King's word prevailed against Joab and against the captains of the hosts. These were the commanders over the companies of the troops. Imagine the pressure being put on David—It wasn't just Joab protesting — but all the captains. But because he was the Commander-in-chief, his order prevailed. They had no choice but to reluctantly carry them out. Nine months and 20 days later they had numbered the armies from Dan in the North to Beersheba in the South and had arrived back at the city of Jerusalem. By then David's convicted heart smote him, and he said unto the Lord, “I have sinned greatly… I beseech thee, O Lord, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly” (2Sam.24:10).
Look how long he persisted in his pride and rebellion before his spiritual eyes were opened and he saw his own proud heart! Self is blind! By then, God's judgment would have to fall on Israel—not on David only—but Israel! Leaders in authority who are self-willed will bring detriment to those under them, whether it is a household, a church, a corporation, or a government.
His sin with Bathsheba had resulted in judgment coming upon the house of David, his family, but this judgment was measured out against the whole nation. David committed the sin, but as the leader of the nation, he caused the judgment to come upon all. Tragically, 70,000 people died.
The Priestly Commentary
In 1Chronicles we are given the spiritual, behind-the-scenes perspective of this event, which reveals the pitfalls and perils of self-will in leadership: “And Satan stood up against Israel and provoked David to number Israel” (v.1). Satan was able to exploit the pride in David's heart of boasting “how big” his army was. This is reminiscent of some preachers today who self-boast how big their crowds are. While adultery is a sin of the flesh, “the pride of life” is a sin of the spirit and the third chord in the ugly triad of lusts that have corrupted the world.
General Joab’s objection is also viewed in the spiritual light: “Why then doth my lord require this? Why would you be a cause of trespass to Israel?” (v.3). David's trespass was overstepping his boundaries and exerting his own will to do what was God's business, in numbering the armies.
As we saw in 2nd Samuel 24, when King David would not hearken to his military advisors, Joab reluctantly implemented the census. But we are told in 1Chronicles 21 that the action went so against his conscience, when he came to the last tribe of Benjamin and the priestly tribe of Levi, he did not count them! “For the king's word was abominable to Joab” (v.6). Joab had been forced to participate in this foolish census, but he could not keep it up. It violated his conscience and his better judgment.
“And God was displeased with this thing; therefore he smote Israel” (v.7). God gave David one of three choices of how judgment would be delivered: Three years of famine, or three months of being destroyed by their enemies, or three days of pestilence in the land by the sword of the Lord. How can you pick a judgment that will cause innocent people, whom you are called to protect, to suffer? David was so distraught that he could not choose and said: “I am in a great strait; let me fall now into the hand of the Lord; for very great are his mercies” (v.13).
The Lord sent pestilence and in just three days 70,000 people died. When the angel of the Lord came to Jerusalem to pour out the pestilence, God let David see him with his sword drawn. He and the elders who were with him, all in sackcloth, fell on their faces. David prayed: “God, is it not I who commanded the people to be numbered? Even I it is that have sinned and done evil indeed; but as for these sheep, what have they done? Let thy hand, I pray thee, O Lord my God, be on me, and on my father's house; but not on thy people, that they should be plagued” (v.17).
David spoke truth when he said, “I have sinned,” and the sheep, the people of God, suffered for it. Because of his sin of pride and self-will, he would not submit to the counsel of his generals and captains, and his sin caused the walls of protection around Israel to be removed, and thousands to die. Jerusalem was next on the schedule to receive the pestilence, but God in His mercy rescinded the order after David repented and offered a sacrifice on the threshing floor of Ornan (aka Arunah), according to the instructions of the Lord. The destruction stopped at this place once the sacrifice was offered.
The law required that whenever the men of Israel were numbered, an offering of a half-shekel per man over the age of 20, be given to the Lord as a temple offering (Ex.30:12-15). Therefore, David insisted on paying Ornan for the land, even though he offered to give it to him. David refused and pressed him to buy it from him for full price so the plague would be stopped: “Nay. But I will verily buy it for the full price: for I will not take that which is thine for the Lord, nor offer burnt offerings without cost” (v.24). He paid him 600 shekels of gold for the land and built there an altar unto the Lord. God answered from Heaven by allowing fire to fall upon the altar, and commanded the angel to put up his sword.
In time to come, His son, King Solomon the wise, wrote: “He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down and without walls” (Proverbs 25:28).