Man’s Hand or God’s?
‘A kind and merciful Providence.’ To my knowledge I first encountered that phrase reading a biography of Robert E. Lee. A little quick research indicates that the phrase was often used in the 19th century. People thanked ‘a kind and merciful Providence’ in their last wills and testaments for what he had entrusted to them. They expressed trust in ‘a kind and merciful Providence’ in times of uncertainty.
Recently this phrase came to mind as I was thinking about an incident from the latter days of David’s reign that is recorded at the end of 2 Samuel and re-told in 1 Chronicles with a somewhat different emphasis. It’s important, when you read the historical books of the Old Testament, to remember that they are all ‘preaching histories.’ That is, they do more than report, analyze, and perhaps, draw lessons from what happened, as do ordinary historians. The prophets who wrote Biblical history give us the inspired account and analysis of what God was doing among his people as his plan of salvation unfolded, as well as what God wanted his people to learn and how he wanted them to respond.
The incident recorded in 2 Samuel 24 faces us with a number of facts which create for us questions that cannot be fully answered. For one thing, we learn that ‘the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.’ What had they done? We can guess, but we don’t know.
Another fact is that God ‘incited David against them’ by leading David to conduct a census of the nation’s fighting men. And, as it turns out, David’s conducting the census is also wrong. Here we are confronted with a mystery and a question. The mystery is that God carries out his wrath on Israel first by inciting their king to do a sinful thing (the census) and then by punishing the sinful thing their king did. The question is: Why was it wrong for David to order a census? That it was wrong we cannot doubt. Joab warned against doing it; David’s conscience convicted him it was wrong after he did it; God condemned and punished it. But, we cannot say with certainty just what was the sin in the census.
When we compare 1 Chronicles 21 we are confronted with a different (not contradictory) telling of the story. We begin not with God, but with Satan. Rather than God’s being wrathful toward Israel, Satan is against Israel. And, rather then God’s inciting David to conduct the census, Satan does.
Here we are confronted with one of the great mysteries – God and Satan. God is good; Satan is evil. God is angry with his people’s sin; Satan is against God’s people. Yet God, in a sense, incites Satan to incite David to sin. Satan is responsible for his own evil nature and deeds. Man is responsible for his sinful responses to Satan’s evil enticements. Yet God accomplishes his holy will, not just in spite of, but by the evil of Satan and the sin of man.
But, I must hurry along, to another thing in this incident that has stuck with me for many years now, and which brings us back to ‘the kind and merciful’ God. After David’s sin the LORD offered David a choice of chastisements: ‘Three things I offer you. Choose one of them that I may do it to you.’ Here were the choices: ‘Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your enemies while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide.’
How to choose? Three years of famine? That would mean a lengthy period of suffering for David’s people. Three months of being at the mercy of your enemies or three days of pestilence both had the advantage of getting it over in a relatively short rather than prolonged time, though both would be more intense than famine in the short term.
But then, how to choose between the two shorter ones? Pestilence can wipe out a lot of people in a short time (as it turns out 70,000). You can fight enemies, and who knows how successful you might be in defending yourself?
What does David choose? ‘I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but let us not fall into the hand of man.’ What controls David’s decision? He knows the LORD, and he knows man. And, given what he knows, he’ll rather have God dealing with him directly than for God to delegate the punishment to man. God, though he is all holy, though his chastisements can be severe, is nevertheless merciful. David knows that by theology and experience.
But man? Man, though universally sinful and needing mercy, can be so unmerciful. David had seen that in his enemies both foreign (Philistia, Ammon) and domestic (Saul, Absalom). You would think that, when a man has another man in his power, he would have some empathy, and, therefore, would be understanding and inclined toward showing mercy. In the case of mankind in general, a man might think, ‘What if he had me in his power rather than he in mine?’ A believer should think, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’
But the sad fact is that it is not usually so in the world, and it is not always so in the church. Would you rather that God send the bubonic plague or Hitler against your town? Would you rather have a food shortage caused by the lack of rain or because of a government’s choice to practice genocide through starvation? Man is capable of cold, calculating, malicious, albeit irrational evil against his fellow man. Man can think; man can hate; man can delight in the pain he inflicts.
Even we, who have received mercy, can be self-righteous, immoderate, and unrelenting in our dealings with fellow sinners. In dealing with each other, we should be guided as were the Old Testament priests: ‘He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this, he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins, just as he does for those of the people’ (Hebrews 5:2, 3). Alas, too often we are like the servant who, just having had his 6 billion dollar debt cancelled by his master, and then having encountered a fellow servant who owed him $12,000, grabbed him by the throat, demanded payment, and threw him in jail (Matthew 18:21-35).
David, who had put himself in the merciful hand of God, because he knew God, even in chastisement, is more merciful than man, pleaded with the LORD to show his people mercy. The LORD directed him to build an altar and there offer burnt offerings and peace offerings. At that, the angel of the LORD, sheathed the sword by which he had slain so many of the people.
An old friend of mine from seminary days and I have been quoting back and forth to each other for 35 years or so, ‘Let me not fall into the hand of man.’ Nothing in the intervening years has shown either of us reason not to say it. God is the one who in wrath remembers mercy. To fall into his hands, no matter how scary it may be, is to fall into the hands of mercy.
God his Son, to take our sins, suffered his wrath against our sins. Calvary is the altar to which we go, not to make sacrifice to obtain mercy, but to claim mercy obtained by his sacrifice. Though he was ‘holy, unstained, separated from sinners’, who needed to make no sacrifice for his own sins, he took our weak and mortal flesh and made a once-for-all, all-effective sacrifice. Now ‘exalted about the heavens’, he is the one Priest who is ‘able to understand our weaknesses,’ and from whom ‘we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,’ even, no especially, when we sin. Since ‘he always lives to make intercession’ for us, we cannot fail to find God merciful to us whenever we seek his mercy through Christ.
When it seems we are in the hands of unmerciful sinners, let us appeal to God to take us into his merciful hands. And, let us not forget our debt to mercy when our fellow sinners are in our hands. The merciful are blessed because they are the objects of God’s mercy whose character and actions reflect the merciful God.
William H Smith is Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Mississippi.
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