It's Been Mercy All the Way
Passage: 2 Samuel 24:1–25
It's Been Mercy All the Way
Well, this is not how you would expect the book to end, is it? 2 Samuel 24 is a surprising conclusion to the life and reign of King David. There’s no parade or celebration of David’s reign. There’s no banquet or proclamation commemorating David’s rise to the throne. Instead, there’s a census that is apparently sinful and unleashes the wrath of God. Why not end with chapter 23, which recorded David’s last words? Why end here, with three days of plague that wipe out 70,000 soldiers? This is not how you would expect the book to end.
And yet, if we’ve learned anything from 1-2 Samuel is that’s God’s kingdom does not follow what’s expected. 2 Samuel 24 is the last in a long line of surprising chapters, isn’t it? This is, after all, the book where God used a once-barren woman to renew the spiritual life of Israel. Hannah was surprising. This is the book where the word of the Lord came to a young boy rather than the established priest. Samuel was surprising. And this is the book where an overlooked shepherd becomes the king. David is surprising. So, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that in this final chapter, a flawed but repentant king reminds us of the unfathomable mercy of God. And indeed that is the essential message of 2 Samuel 24, the fitting conclusion to the life of King David. Here at the end, we have one last striking reminder that the kingdom rests not on David and his power, but on the Lord who is merciful and gracious.
If you look now at the chapter, you’ll notice that the passage breaks down into three sections. Vv1-9 tells us about David’s sin, vv10-17 describe David’s confession, and then vv18-25 recount David’s worship. David’s sin, David’s confession, David’s worship – that’s the outline of the chapter. So, let’s consider each of those sections in more detail.
The Problem of David’s Sin
First, we have the Problem of David’s Sin. If you skip over v1, this opening section is really not difficult to follow. V2, David orders Joab to take a census of the men in Israel who are able to fight. V3, Joab protests that this is not a good idea, which is a major red flag. If Joab the scoundrel is uneasy about something, then you know it’s trouble. But v4, David insists, and since he’s the king, his voice wins out. Vv5-9 describe Joab and his commanders canvasing all of Israel, counting the number of men who can wield a sword in battle. So, apart from v1, it’s a straightforward section.
The problem, of course, is that you can’t skip over v1! Not only does v1 give the setting for David’s decision, but it more importantly explains the divine purpose at work in these things. Notice again the divine element in v1 – “Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” You’ll remember back in chapter 21 that God’s anger brought a famine upon Israel, because of Saul’s sinful treatment of the Gibeonites. Here in chapter 24, that divine anger is stirred up again, but this time, there’s a difference. This time, the text says God incited David to act.
It’s at this point we run into some hard questions. If David’s decision is sinful, which the rest of the chapter clearly reveals it to be – if David’s decision is sinful, then why is God inciting him to do this? Even more difficult, if God incited David to act, then why is David later punished for his action? These are hard questions, maybe among the hardest we’ve faced in the book. How’s that for the payoff of finishing 55 chapters of exposition? You get the hardest questions yet!
So, where should we look to find answers to these questions? We look to the Scriptures. It’s from the Bible itself that we find help in navigating these difficult questions. Specifically, Scripture offers both an explanation and a clarification of this situation in v1.
First off, there is an explanation. 1 Chronicles 21 recounts the same incident as 2 Samuel 24. The two passages are parallel. And in 1 Chronicles 21, we learn that Satan incited David to number the men of Israel. Now, you might be thinking, “Wait, you said this was an explanation! Mentioning Satan makes it worse! How does this help at all?” But it does help, if we will think deeply for a moment about the will or the decree of God. 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 are giving us complementary perspectives on the will of God.
In 2 Samuel, we see a display of God’s permissive will. Remember, according to the Bible, God is sovereign over all things, and therefore, all that happens must, in some way, be decreed or permitted by God. Psalm 115.3 – “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.” Isaiah 45.7 – “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.” Daniel 4.35 – “[God] does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” Proverbs 16.4 – “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.” According to the Bible, God sovereignly decrees or permits all that comes to pass. And 2 Samuel 24 is a display of that sovereign will, with God decreeing even the events of David’s census.
But at the same time, God’s sovereign will is carried out through means. And the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles shows us that in this situation, Satan was the instrument through which God’s will was carried out in the affairs of David’s life. You see, God is sovereign even over Satan. It’s two perspectives on one moment – God’s sovereign will, and Satan’s instrumental role.
Now, if that is hard to put together, then think for a moment about the life of Job. Job 2 actually uses the same word – incite – that we find here in 2 Samuel. Why did hardship strike Job’s life? Because God permitted it to happen. Job 2.6 – “And the LORD said to Satan, ‘Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.” But how did hardship strike Job’s life? Because Satan carried it out. Job 2.7 – “So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job.” A similar dynamic is happening here in David’s kingdom. God, in his sovereignty, permitted Satan to incite David to take this census, so that in the end, God’s purpose might come to pass.
Secondly, along with this explanation, Scripture also gives us a clarification. We can admit that v1 is hard to interpret. But when studying the Bible, we need to remember the foundational principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. So, whenever we come to a hard or unclear passage, we look to other, clearer passages to shed light on our interpretation. And that’s what we should do here. Is God unjust for punishing David when God himself decreed these things to happen? Is God to blame for the sin that David commits? No, not in the least. But how can we say that, when v1 seems to imply God is somehow responsible for these things. We can say that because of James 1.13 – “God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one.” We can say that because of 1 John 1.5 – “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” We can say that because of Deuteronomy 32.4 – God’s “work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.”
Those are very clear statements that God never does evil, that God is not the author of sin, and that God only does what is just and righteous. So, when we read v1 and the hard questions start to arise, we don’t have to shy away from them. Instead, we can look to other parts of the Bible and know, without any doubt, that God is not doing anything sinful or unjust or wicked.
Does this mean we can fully understand how God’s sovereign will works out in concert with David’s decision? No, we cannot fully solve that question. But perhaps that is the point, brothers and sisters. It very well could be that the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereignty is not meant to answer all our questions, but to call for our submission and our trust. This too is fundamental to understanding the Bible – we submit to the Scriptures, rather than insisting that the Scriptures submit to us.
In fact, that’s where I would challenge us today. Ask yourself – “Am I willing to embrace and submit to the sovereign Lord, even when I don’t understand every detail about his ways?” We understand by faith, so are we willing to trust God’s Word even as we seek understanding? Remember, when we approach God, we are dealing with the infinite, immortal, almighty One whose dwells in unapproachable light. We should expect an element of mystery to our dealings with him. We should expect that at times, we will reach the point where our mouths stop and we humbly acknowledge that he is God and we are not.
And that’s what I hope we hear this morning. By all means, we should ask our questions, but then we should be ready with humility to stand silently and worship this sovereign God.
The Hope of David’s Confession
Thankfully, David’s sin is not the final word in our passage. Beginning in v10, we see the Hope of David’s Confession. After the difficulty of v1, it’s good to find a series of encouraging events in this section. In fact, this entire section is brimming with hope – not only for David, but also for sinners like us who stand in need of mercy. Notice with me the progression in David’s response that leads us, finally, to a place of hope.
To begin with, notice that David experiences conviction. V10 says, “But David’s heart struck him after he had numbered the people.” We’re not told exactly why the census was sinful, but it likely had to do with David’s motives. Think about it. What is easier to trust – a numbered army, or an unseen God? The numbered army, of course. It’s always easier to walk by sight than it is to walk by faith. And for my part, I take it that is why David’s census was sinful – because it was rooted in unbelief, and perhaps even pride. Instead of trusting God to provide, the census allowed David to boast in the might of his army.
But here in v10, something breaks in David’s heart. Something pricks his conscience, and David recognizes his sin. That is an incredible sign of God’s grace in David’s life. David’s heart – his conscience – is convicted for what he has done. This probably wasn’t a pleasant experience, but it was good for David. Conviction, while sometimes unpleasant, is a good thing. We should regularly ask God to give us soft hearts toward his Word. We should consistently cultivate consciences that are tender toward the Spirit’s conviction. We should recognize that not every “bad feeling” is something to be avoided. Some things that feel “bad” in the moment are actually for our good. That’s what we see here with David. His heart struck him, which was surely not an enjoyable experience, but it was for his good. David experiences conviction.
But David doesn’t stop with conviction. This is very important. Following the experience of conviction, David then offers a clear confession. Again, look at v10, and catch the honest simplicity of David’s words – “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.’” What a great example this is of how to confess your sin! Notice there are no excuses, no rationalizations. David doesn’t say, “Well, yeah, I guess it was technically wrong, but if you knew what kind of week I had, you would understand where I was coming from.” None of that. What’s more, David doesn’t minimize his sin either, which would have been easy to do. It was only a census after all. The argument would not be hard to make! But that’s not how David responds. No, he confesses that he sinned greatly and that he did very foolishly.
Brothers and sisters, does this sound like your confession of sin? And let’s just acknowledge right now that we all have need to confess, ok? The church is not a sanctuary for perfect people but a hospital for recovering sinners. And notice I said recovering, not recovered. We all have something to confess because we’re all still in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ. So, does your confession sound like David’s here in v10? Are you honest, forthright, and direct? Or do you justify, rationalize, and minimize? If your confession is mingled with excuses, then it very well could indicate that you aren’t truly convicted for what you have done, that you aren’t honest in your desire to confess. Like David, our practice should be honest, forthright, and direct confession.
And yet, even as we think about confession, there is this voice whispering in the background, “This is crazy. Don’t confess. Hide. Ignore. Do anything expect admit you’ve sinned.” Have you ever heard that voice? I have. By itself, confession is crazy. But that’s why we’ve got to pay attention to the last step in David’s response. In fact, everything else is incomplete unless we see the last thing David does. He experiences conviction, he confesses his sin, and now, David casts himself on the mercy of God. After David’s initial prayer, the Lord sends the prophet Gad with a message, v13. David has three choices. There can be three years of famine, three months of military defeat, or three days of plague. Note that as the length of time goes down, the intensity of the punishment goes up. And so, having sinned against the Lord, David must now choose. Remember, as the king, David represents the people, so that’s why this royal failure will have national consequences. As goes the king, so goes the nation. David must choose.
Can you even imagine the agony? How can David possibly get through this? Notice where he turns, v14. For such an agonizing situation, this is a beautiful statement, v14 – “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.’” David’s distress is great, but by faith, David knows that God’s mercy is greater still. Do you see that connection? The only answer in times of great distress is to cast ourselves on the great mercy of God.
You see, David knows the character of God, and that’s what gives him hope at this point. Even in discipline, David knows God’s heart is for mercy. As the king wrestles with this agonizing decision, you can almost hear David reciting Exodus 34, where God declares his name to be “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious.” Yes, that’s who God is, and therefore, even as David faces discipline, he takes refuge in the mercy of God.
And in v16, we learn that David’s confidence in God’s mercy proves true. Look again at what happens. The angel of the Lord is pouring out God’s judgment on the nation, but as the angel prepares to strike Jerusalem, something incredible happens. Notice v16 – “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.’” Oh, how sweet it is to hear the Holy God say, “It is enough.” That’s a phrase that is full of mercy. The Lord’s heart is slow to anger. His desire is to be merciful to his people. You see, David was right to choose as he did. He was right to cast himself upon the mercy of God. Indeed, in times of repentance, it is only the mercy of God that provides hope.
Brothers and sisters, this remains the great hope of God’s people today. When we are convicted over our sin, we can, by faith, confess and cast ourselves on the Lord with hope because we know God is merciful. On it’s own, confession is crazy. On it’s own, repentance is difficult. To acknowledge our sin humbles us and reminds us of how wayward and fickle our hearts can be. What’s more, the call to repentance often costly, too costly, it seems, for us to keep going. It would be easy for sinners like us to grow hopeless in the face of our sin.
And yet, it’s at precisely this point that we remember v14 – “Let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great.” It’s at precisely this point we remember God’s declaration in v16 – “It is enough” – and we think of another declaration some 2,000 years later – “It is finished.” Do you see the hope, brothers and sisters? The heart of God is a heart of mercy for his people. If you are aware of your sin today, pressed down and burdened by what you have done, then hear again this good news – the Lord is merciful, so merciful in fact, that it would be better to fall into his hand than it would be to face your sin on our own. It’s that hope of mercy that sustains David’s confession, and I pray that hope of a merciful God would sustain us as well.
The Grace in David’s Worship
In the final section of the chapter, vv18-25, we find David continuing to deal with the Lord, but this time, there is a different emphasis. And what we should note here is the Grace in David’s Worship. To understand this final section, you’ve actually got to pick it up in v17. Notice how David’s focus shifts to the people, v17 – “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.’” You see, David intercedes on behalf of the people. He knows the people are like sheep – they need protection and care. And like any good shepherd, David puts himself in harm’s way for the sake of the sheep. David is willing to bear the punishment himself.
Before we move on, think of how fitting it is for David to be pictured here as a shepherd. What was David doing the first time we met him? He was tending his father’s sheep, 1 Samuel 16. What is David doing in this final chapter? Tending his sheep. You see, it’s a small but poignant reminder that what God’s people need is a Good Shepherd, even one who will stand in the breach between the sheep and the judgment of God. So, tuck that note away for just a moment because we’ll come back to it shortly.
For now, notice in v18 that God hears David’s prayer. David interceded on behalf of the people, and now God reveals what that intercession requires. The Lord instructs David to purchase the threshing floor where the angel of the LORD had been poised in judgment. Again, note the mercy. The place of judgment now becomes the place of worship. So, in vv20-24, that’s what David does. He negotiates with Araunah the Jebusite, and David buys the property. At first, Araunah offered to simply give it to David, but David would not accept the gift. In David’s eyes, if there is worship to be offered, then he will gladly bear the cost to see it happen. So, v24, David purchases the threshing floor.
Then comes the climactic moment in v25. Listen again to what Scripture says, and note the link between sacrifice and satisfaction – “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.” You see, earlier in v16, the mercy of God restrained God’s wrath. The Lord prevented the plague from spreading any further. But now in v25, the grace of God satisfies God’s wrath. The judgment is not merely restrained; it is taken away, dealt with, removed. Wrath has been satisfied.
And how did it happen? It happened through sacrifice. Please don’t miss this, brothers and sisters. Look closely at what happens here at the close of 2 Samuel. Led by the word of God, the anointed king offers a sacrifice for the people, and through the blood of that sacrifice, sin is atoned for, wrath is satisfied, and the people are saved. It’s salvation, you see, salvation through a substitutionary, atoning sacrifice.
And that’s where the story of David’s reign ends – with the shepherd-king offering a sacrifice to spare his people. It’s beautiful, honestly. The final picture we have of David is not of the king riding in a parade, but the king bowed low in worship, trusting that the blood of this sacrifice will turn away the wrath of God. The kingdom doesn’t rest on David, but on the Lord who is merciful and gracious.
And as we’ve noted throughout this series, King David, for all his significance, is a shadow of a much greater King to Come. In fact, that is why David’s life is so significant – not merely because of what David does, but because of how David’s life prepares us to see the One who is to come. In that sense, there is no better way to end the books of 1-2 Samuel. It is absolutely fitting that the conclusion to David’s history comes at an altar where blood is split to satisfy divine wrath. David’s life points us to the Lord Jesus Christ, and David’s altar prepares us for the cross.
- David shed the blood of an animal to pay for his own sins. Jesus shed his own sinless blood to pay for the sins of his people.
- David made atonement to spare God’s people from divine wrath in a plague. Jesus made atonement to spare God’s people from divine wrath in hell.
- David offered to take the punishment for the people, that they might live. Jesus did bear the punishment for his people, standing in their place, offering up his body, that they might live.
- David purchased this place where sacrifices would one day be offered in the temple. Jesus offered the final sacrifice that fulfilled the need for that temple and secured salvation forever.
- David did all of these things because he was sinful and needed to repent. Jesus did all of his work because we were sinful and could not save ourselves.
The history of God’s people has always been about our need for salvation and God’s willingness to provide that salvation through the work of a Redeemer. David’s part in that history has been to show us how that salvation will be accomplished – through a King who trusts in God’s promise and leads the people where they cannot lead themselves. Our part in that history is to rejoice in the knowledge that the Son of David has come, that he dealt with sin once and for all at the cross, that he rose from the dead on the third day, that he reigns right now over all things from heaven’s throne, and that he’s coming back very soon to bring his people forever into the kingdom of God. That’s the final word of 2 Samuel. It’s a declaration of the gospel of God’s grace, anticipated in David, realized in Jesus Christ, and proclaimed now for all who believe. Amen.
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