THIS WEEK’S STUDY: 1 Chronicles 18:1-22:1
MEMORY TEXT: “I am in a great strait: let me fall now into the hand of the LORD; for very great are his mercies: but let me not fall into the hand of man” (1 Chr. 21:13).
VIOLENT OBEDIENCE, VIOLENT SIN, AND THE MERCY OF THE LORD. Some of David’s violent acts were in obedience to God’s commands — a difficulty for gentle people to accept. But other acts of violence were sins against mankind and God. While learning his lesson that even forgiven sin carries a penalty, David still recognized God’s mercy and trusted his fate to the Lord.
OVERVIEW: STRUGGLING BACK TOWARD GOD’S IDEAL
I. MAN OF WAR, MAN OF GOD? 1 Chronicles 18 – 20
II. SATAN DID IT: 1 Chronicles 21:1 – 22:1
GOD GETS HIS HANDS DIRTY: Some stories in Scripture seem violent and offensive to us. To make matters worse, God is often right there in the middle of it, supporting wars of violence and meting out punishment on innocent people.
But the story of our lost world is not pretty. God could stay on His high and holy throne and keep His hands clean. But no, He comes down, touching His people with His love — vigorous and violent love, if that is the language they understand.
In our lesson this week we confront God’s involvement in David’s wars. We will ask why. Then we will seek a way to understand the contrast between the gentle, loving God — who asked us to turn the other cheek — and the vigorous, loving God — who blessed David in war.
That framework will help us understand another story in David’s life, his ill-advised census. We will learn important lessons about sin and forgiveness, but also how God nudges His people toward a fuller understanding of truth.
I. MAN OF WAR, MAN OF GOD? (1 Chr. 18 – 20)
Listening to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and then to the record of David’s wars and bloodshed in Chronicles presents several difficulties for the thoughtful reader of Scripture. Is God consistent? And if He participates in violence to the extent to which the Old Testament suggests, is He worthy of our worship? The answer to both questions is Yes — but we need to explore the matter further.
- How does the Christian reconcile the message of Matthew 5:38-48 with David’s vengeful response against the Ammonites (1 Chr. 19:1 – 20:3)?
David’s attitude toward his enemies contrasts sharply with Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Yet Jesus stood solidly within that Jewish tradition which remembered David as its greatest king and looked forward to a new “son of David” as the promised Messiah.
But Jesus forged an even tighter bond with the Old Testament, not only claiming David’s God as His own, but declaring Himself to be that “son of David,” and finally identifying Himself as the great “I Am” of the Old Testament (John 8:58-59; 10:31-39). Put bluntly, the One who commanded the kings of Israel to destroy their pagan enemies is the same One who commands His followers in Matthew 5: “Turn the other cheek.” “Go the second mile.” “Love your enemies.” “Pray for those who persecute you.” How did Jesus bring the two pictures together?
- Do the repeated statements in Matthew 5:21-37 — “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you” — suggest that a new and “better” way has replaced the old?
- In what way does Matthew 19:3-9 show how human behavior and culture affect the shape of God’s law?
Scripture teaches that God adapts His laws to human needs. Jeremiah 31:33-34, the famous “New Covenant” passage, promises a perfect world without sin. That is only possible when God has written his law on the heart. Then motives (the internal) as well as behavior (the external) reflect God’s will. But Jeremiah goes further, declaring that even “commands” are unnecessary in a perfect society. When a person knows the Lord, obedience becomes a sixth sense, flowing naturally from the heart.
“In heaven, service is not rendered in the spirit of legality. When Satan rebelled against the law of Jehovah, the thought that there was a law came to the angels almost as an awakening to something unthought of. In their ministry the angels are not as servants but as sons. There is perfect unity between them and their Creator. Obedience is to them no drudgery. Love for God makes their service a joy” (Thoughts from the Mount of Blessings, p. 109).
No rebellion or hostility, only an eagerness to love and serve — that is the ideal society. But how does God share a delicate, unwritten law of love in a bitter and angry world?
Matthew 19:8 tells us that He took the painful step and adapted His beautiful law of love to the ugly world of sin. Where there is perfect trust, marriage is forever. But when trust disappears, marriage fails. Divorce is God’s adaptation of His law of love to the scene of the disaster.
- In 1 Chronicles 18, note the role the Lord played in David’s warfare and the use made of the booty. Is this an example we should follow today?
- How might the principle of “adaptation of law” provide a way for understanding the relationship between Jesus’ ideal (no hatred; Matt. 5:21-22; 1 John 3:15), God’s command from Sinai (no killing; Ex. 20:13), and the Old Testament reality (God’s command to kill; 1 Sam. 15:1-3; God’s blessing on David’s killing; 1 Chr. 18:6, 13)?
Scripture suggests a “pyramid” of laws to illustrate progressive adaptation to the needs of a sinful world, an idea which Ellen White develops in Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 310: “The minds of the people, blinded and debased by slavery and heathenism, were not prepared to appreciate fully the far-reaching principles of God’s ten precepts. That the obligations of the decalogue might be more fully understood and enforced, additional precepts were given, illustrating and applying the principles of the ten commandments.”
The challenge for human beings comes as a result of sin. For as soon as God adapts His law to the conditions prevalent in a sinful world, conflicts arise. Even at the level of the two great commands, a person may have to choose between obeying a human being or God, a parent or the Creator of the universe. Moving down through the pyramid, God becomes ever more specific in dealing with wayward people, thus increasing the potential for “apparent” contradictions. But they are only “apparent”; for God is simply adapting his law to human needs. If we could see every situation from God’s perspective and from the perspective of those he is attempting to reach, the troubling “contradictions” would make perfectly good sense.
The One Great Principle (Gal. 5:14; Rom. 13:8-10)
The Two Great Principles (Matt. 22:37-40; 1 John 4:20-21)
LOVING GOD —– LOVING PEOPLE
The Ten Great Principles (Rom. 13:8-10)
FOUR COMMANDS TOWARD GOD —– SIX COMMANDS TOWARD PEOPLE
Further Applications of the Ten (cf. Matt. 19:8)
MANY LAWS TOWARD GOD —– MANY LAWS TOWARD PEOPLE
- Match the texts that follow with the different kinds of “killing” endorsed by the Mosaic codes: Exodus 21:15-17; Exodus 22:2-3; Numbers 35:9-28; Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 16; Deuteronomy 13:12-18:
Death Penalty for Religious Apostasy ___________________________Holy War Against Other Nations ________________________________
Civil Death Penalty __________________________________________
Killing in Self-defense ________________________________________
Private Blood Vengeance _____________________________________
- In view of the varied Old Testament commands to kill, what did “Thou shalt not kill” originally prohibit? Exodus 21:12-14; Exodus 22:2-3; Numbers 35:20-21.
- Both Matthew 5:21-23 and 1 John 3:15 teach that one who cherishes an evil attitude toward another is a murderer. What hints of that teaching appear in the Old Testament laws cited in the previous question?
The interest in motive reflected in the Old Testament legal codes indicates that the sixth command prohibited first degree murder, premeditated killing for private purposes.
Such an interpretation helps resolve the apparent contradiction between God’s commands to kill and his commands not to kill. Even God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, for example, need not be seen as a contradiction of the command, “Thou shalt not kill,” at least Abraham would not have seen it as a contradiction. At a time when the patriarch’s own family worshiped other gods (Josh 24:2), child sacrifice was seen as the highest gift to the gods (cf. Micah 6:6-8). Why should the greatest God of all exempt Abraham from such a sacrifice? As much as he loved the child of promise, Abraham’s loyalty to God came first. Given what Abraham “knew,” God’s command was not contradictory. Trudging up Mt. Moriah with his son Isaac, Abraham was being fully obedient to God’s law.
But then God intervened with a marvelous preview of the supreme revelation which would come through Jesus Christ. Staying the executioner’s hand with a mighty voice from heaven, God said, in effect. “Abraham, you have passed the test. I am pleased that you were willing to give the best to me. But now is the time for you to understand a great truth: I am the one who must provide the sacrifice. There it is behind you.”
- How does the Mount Moriah experience foreshadow an end to all death and killing? Genesis 22:7-8, 13-14.
It is sin that kills. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). All death is the result of sin. Even God’s commands to kill were caused by sin. But God seized the initiative to halt the deadly cycle. First, He provided an animal as a substitute for the human victim. Then, as the ultimate substitute, He Himself came in human flesh, in the person of his Son Jesus Christ, to pay the price and restore the world.
In effect, God told Abraham, “I am grateful for your deep loyalty to me. But you cannot offer your son. I must provide the sacrifice. There it is behind you. And one day, I Myself will offer the sacrifice that really counts.”
Human culture plays a key role in determining the shape of God’s relationship to human beings. Abraham had been influenced by the prevailing culture in his attitudes toward child sacrifice. God met him at his level, even commanding child sacrifice as a first step toward teaching him that it was not right. The practice continued in pagan cultures and even cropped up in Judah during the monarchy, though the wayward kings who practiced it were pointedly rebuked (2 Kings 16:3; 23:10).
Many of our difficulties with the Old Testament stem from an inclination to see God’s words and acts as absolute reflections of absolute goodness. But sin has terribly distorted our world. Now God must take great risks to get His message through.
This week’s lesson raises the issue of violence in connection with holy war. But other “violent” customs have left their mark on the Old Testament as well, most notably, the laws dealing with blood vengeance and devoted things or persons. Blood vengeance was the motivation behind the cities of refuge (see Numbers 35). The law of the devoted (Heb. = cherem, also known as the ban) is central to the story of Jericho and Achan (Joshua 6-7) as well as to the story of Saul and the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). In each instance, the violence in the Old Testament reveals first the depravity of humanity, and second, the willingness of God to adapt His laws to the fallen race. We do not see the ideal in its purity, but rather its application to human need. Since humans cannot mount the stairs of spiritual maturity with a single leap, God meets them where they are, sometimes even commanding to kill. But such commands are temporary. His goal is a kingdom where there is no death.
God wants to make it possible for all human beings to serve him, but he cannot force obedience. To force violent people to be gentle against their will or better judgment would not be consistent. But by being violent with violent people, God does take the first step in making it possible for them to choose Him and to grow in their understanding of him.
The cities of refuge, offering a modification of the laws of blood vengeance, illustrate how God steps into human culture, accepts a custom, but takes steps to moderate and transform it. Ellen White saw the cities of refuge system as a “merciful provision . . . rendered necessary by the ancient custom of private vengeance.” She notes that “the Lord did not see fit to abolish this custom at that time; but he made provision to insure the safety of those who should take life unintentionally” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 515).
The goodness of God lies not in the customs which He temporarily affirmed, but in His willingness to adapt His law of love so that His fallen creatures could take the first step toward that kingdom where love will reign forever.
- Even though David expected to be punished, what was his perception of God’s mercy? 1 Chronicles 21:13.
- How did David react to the realization that his sin had cost the lives of innocent people? 1 Chronicles 21:17. One of the tragedies of sin is that it touches the lives of innocent people. The greater the responsibility carried by the one who sins, the more serious will be the impact on others.
- What questions about God’s justice might be suggested by the story of David’s census in 1 Chronicles 21?
For modern readers, at least two perplexities arise: 1) Why was it wrong to number Israel? and, 2) Why should the Lord punish innocent people when it was David who sinned?
The inappropriateness of the census apparently was so obvious to the Chronicler that he saw no need to explain it. Even the crusty Joab, not generally known for his spiritual sensitivity, saw immediately that David was on dangerous ground.
“It was pride and ambition that prompted this action of the king. The numbering of the people would show the contrast between the weakness of the kingdom when David ascended the throne, and its strength and prosperity under his rule” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 747).
The other problem posed by the story, namely, a group suffering for the sins of an individual, was less a difficulty in biblical times than it is today. Even now, in many non-western lands, it is generally accepted that one wayward member of a corporate body can doom the whole.
Such stories as Achan’s greed (Josh. 6-7) and the revenge of the Gibeonites (2 Sam. 21), illustrate how the community paid the price for an individual’s sin. Atonement required touching the person or the family of the one who sinned. As in the case of blood vengeance, God recognized the thought patterns of the people He wished to reach in order that they might recognize Him as Judge of all the earth.
David himself began to sense the “unfairness” of corporate punishment (1 Chr. 21:17). In western cultures, however, a wide-spread individualism has swung the pendulum so far the other way that even Christians may forget the deadly impact of sin on the lives of innocent people.
- Reflect on the first verses of the two parallel accounts of the story (2 Sam. 24:1 and 1 Chr. 21:1), and determine which version makes the story clearer for you. Why?
This story provides one of the clearest biblical examples of what Adventists have called “present truth,” a new insight coming at a point when God’s people can accept it.
When the still young Adventist church discovered the importance of righteousness by faith in the 1880s, shifting the emphasis in the church’s preaching and teaching was difficult. In that setting, Ellen White exclaimed, “That which God gives His servants to speak today would not perhaps have been present truth twenty years ago, but it is God’s message for this time” (cited in A. V. Olson, Thirteen Crisis Years, p. 282 [1981 ed.]).
The story in 2 Samuel 24 reflects the “traditional” Old Testament perspective, namely, that God is directly responsible for good and evil. He presented Himself to His people in that way to keep them from worshiping Satan as an evil deity. In the surrounding pagan cultures many gods were worshiped, both good and evil. The evil deities were the dangerous ones and had to be placated with magic and incantations.
Israel, however, was commanded to worship only the one true God. He could not be manipulated; Israel wasn’t even supposed to try (Deut. 18:9-14). Their God was one they could trust.
By the time the book of Chronicles was written, however (the very last book of the Hebrew Bible), God was ready to reveal more of the great struggle between good and evil, knowledge once known, but then obscured because of sin.
The insight that it was actually “Satan” who enticed David, was “present truth.” By New Testament times, the issues were much clearer. Revelation 12:7-12 describes the climax of the war between Michael and Satan. But that part of the story could only become clear in the light of the cross.
Ask yourself: Have there been moments in my experience when God was able to bring fresh insight and spiritual growth through “present truth,” knowledge which I would not have been able to appreciate or receive at an earlier point in my life?
FOR FURTHER STUDY: Ellen White’s comments on the material covered in this week’s lesson are found in Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 713-749.
SUMMARY: God reaches down to our wicked world and condescends to work with His wayward people, even in their cruel ways. By participating in David’s violence, God takes the first steps in teaching His people about the law of love. David was a violent man, but one who also loved the Lord. He showed evidence of growth in his understanding of sin and salvation. And the Chronicler, telling the story to an even later generation, opens a window of understanding on the great struggle between Christ and Satan, a window through which the cross of Christ would one day cast its beams of glory.