Wednesday, June 9, 2010

David, the repentant priest-king

I'm reading 1 Chronicles. King David looks really good until you get to chapter 21, then the narrative abruptly shifts gears.

Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. (v. 1)

You probably know the story. David goes on to conduct a census of the people after overriding the vehement objections of his right-hand man Joab. Being a loyal servant Joab carried out David's wish, but not without some civil disobedience. He refused to number the tribes of Levi and Benjamin ("for the king's command was abhorrent to Joab").

On the surface it's not obvious why God was displeased with David's act. The Mosaic law didn't prohibit a census, in fact Exodus 30:11-16 gives instructions for one. Some commentators see a clue in Joab's refusal to count Levi. Perhaps David had it in his mind to draft Levites into the army, which would have been a clear violation of the law. Others ascribe David's plan to pride and hubris. Maybe all the military success had gone to his head. Whatever the case the consequences were drastic. Through the prophet/seer Gad David is given a chance by the LORD to "pick his poison", either three years of famine, three months of military defeat, or three days of pestilence from the angel of the LORD. David chooses the latter with these remarkable words.

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. (v. 13)

It turned out to be severe mercy. The chronicler tells us that 70,000 men of Israel fell, and the angel's sword was poised Damocles-like over Jerusalem. In great repentance David becomes the righteous priest-king that God intended him to be. I'm struck that some of David's greatest moments come immediately after his greatest failures.

Then David and the elders,clothed in sackcloth, fell upon their faces. And David said to God, "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." (v. 16-17)

The LORD relents, the sword is put back into its sheath, and Jerusalem is spared. David builds an altar on the future site of Solomon's temple, and his offerings are answered with fire from heaven. Clearly this is a watershed moment in the history of David and the people of God.

When reading about the life of David it's good to stay alert to the ways in which he shines light on the Son of David, Jesus. In David's intercession for Jerusalem we can see a matrix of meanings that foreshadow Christ's priestly work. He would speak of his body as a temple, and on a hill outside Jerusalem would offer himself up as the sinless (unlike David), once-for-all atoning sacrifice for his people's sin, turning aside the judgment of God for all those who accept him as their King.

No comments: