The Sure Mercies of David

2 Samuel

In the first lesson from 2 Samuel, we closed with this remark about the life of David: “Thus we have seen the first actions and gracious judgments of a man who was complex in his makeup. He already has shown cunning, courage, compassion, and a diverse range of emotions. He has shown his subjection to impulse and the ability to listen to reason and be corrected. To be chosen of God leads to a life of deep responsibility, deep conviction, deep repentance, and often intense sorrow. This calling shows in a brighter light the failings and sins of those who are called of God and are bold to speak for his truth, It also leads to the confidence that the Lord restores our soul and that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

In this final lesson, one finds all of these weaknesses, strengths, and virtues displayed. This final narrative, however, is set in the context of David’s “last words” and the great accomplishments of his mighty men.


I. The Last words of David (23:1-7)

A. The awareness of divine revelation (1-3a)

  1. Verse 1 shows a deep awareness of the exalted position to which God chose David. He is “the man who was raised on high,” the “anointed of the God of Jacob,” and the “sweet Psalmist of Israel.” In each of these he is a forerunner of Christ who is the final and fully-anointed one, the one who was raised on high far above all principality and power, and every name that is named both in this age and in the age to come.
  2. Verses 2-3a shows David’s awareness that he is writing by divine revelation. “The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me.” This is a straightforward assertion that David served as God’s mouthpiece. “His word was on my tongue;” ever the poet, David gives a parallelism to give emphasis to this awareness of his writing under inspiration. David continued the claim in the next two phrases.

B. The Blessings of a godly ruler (3b-4)

  1. David, by inspiration, points to two profound traits of a qualified ruler for the people of God
  • One who rules over men righteously is one who understands perfectly the law and character of God and performs all his judgments in accord with it.
  • One who rules in the fear of God is one who grasps the true holiness and infinite excellence of God. His every motive and resultant action is to give glory to God and bring him honor.
  1. In the form of lovely, refreshing images, David points to the benefits of having such a ruler.
  • It is like the brilliant refreshment of morning light after a dark night. Peter referred to our dependence on the written word of God as a “light that shines in a dark place,” until “the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).
  • Such a morning is unimpeded in its beauty by overhanging clouds but promises light throughout the day.
  • If rain does come, it only serves to give fresh growth of tender grass beneficial to both man and beast.

C. David’s awareness of his covenantal status (verse 5)

  1. David knows that his “house” is the one through whom such a ruler will come. “Truly is not my house so with God?”
  2. David understood the imperishable nature of the covenant established in chapter 7, verse 13. In that chapter, likewise, David prayed, “For you, O Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have made a revelation to your servant, saying, ‘I will build you a house;’ therefore, your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you. Now, O Lord God, you are God, and your words are truth, and you have promised this good thing to your servant. Now, therefore, may it please you to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue forever before you. For you O Lord God, have spoken; and with your blessing may the house of your servant be blessed forever.” (2 Samuel 7:27-29)
  3. This covenant is perfectly arranged and will be consummated by David’s descendant who will bring to pass all the blessings consequent upon the kind of ruler described above—righteous and fully engaged with the glory of God.
  4. Within the completion of this covenant David himself found his salvation and the fulfillment of his desire, his overwhelming affection for the Lord God of Israel.

D. The curse of relying on godless men and carnal power (verses 6, 7). Godless men only bring harm to those who consort with them. Only carnal weapons will do in such company for the Lord is not consulted by them and does not delight in them. Their end is destruction. “The way of the ungodly shall perish” Psalm 1:6b).


II. The works of God through the mighty men (verses 8-39). As opposed to trust in worthless men, David found his ultimate reliance on the providential provision of God as mediated through the mighty men who owned David’s cause and sought the protection and well-being of Israel, the people of messianic promise.

A. Differing gifts, same courage, same devotion. The text clearly gives a hierarchy of importance according to the feats of the men who are listed. Some did greater deeds than others and so were more highly celebrated. All of them, however, worked toward the same end and showed unflinching courage. E.g. verse 19 “He was the most honored of the thirty, therefore he became their commander; however, he did not attain to the three.”

B. Dependence on divine strength. See verse 10: “And the Lord brought about a great victory that day.” Verse 12: “The Lord brought about a great victory.”

C. Provoked gratitude and humility on the part of David. When three of the thirty chief men risked their lives to fetch for David water from a well in Bethlehem, he would not drink it but poured it out as a sacrifice of gratitude for the preservation of their lives (23:15-17).


III. David and the Census – Exactly when this event occurred is not indicated in the text. It is inserted seemingly as a closing example of David’s tendency to unwarranted and impulsive action, its devastating consequences, and his willingness to shoulder the blame and seek restoration through repentance and fitting atonement.

A. A perfect storm of divine sovereignty, divine judgment, and human sin (Verses 1 and 2). The people had displeased the Lord. David had become prideful. God used these both for discipline and in just anger delivered David over to his pride to perform a deed that would also involve the people in a promised plague (Exodus 30:12).

B. David gave an unlawful order. See Exodus 30:11-16. Though he had probably copied the law by hand, as mentioned in a previous lesson, he did not draw it to mind in reaching this decision. It was an impulse unchecked and ungoverned by the word of God.

  1. David ordered a census from Dan to Beersheba, apparently not from any pragmatic reason but only that “I may know the number of the people.” David had been given this kingship by God, the people had been preserved as a nation and given the land by God, and David had no point in the census other than an effort to bask in the glory of his power.
  2. He said nothing about the lawful manner of taking a census prescribed in Exodus 30 in which a ransom of a half-shekel was to be given for every man. The ransom was to be paid to remind the people that they existed only by the mercy of God. They existed in the light of a future ransom to be paid by the Son of God himself (Mark 10:45).
  3. Joab and the commanders were resistant to this request of the king and seemed instinctively to know that David had no good purpose but only acted on a whim of personal pleasure. “Why does my lord the king delight in this thing?”

C. The Census was completed. Joab and the commanders journeyed through Israel for over nine months executing the king’s orders. They reported the number of people and isolated the number of fighting men for a separate report. David had access to 1.3 million valiant men who would fight for the safety and independence of Israel.


IV. David is remorseful for his sins of disobedience and pride. It seems that as he heard the report of the numbers, he realized that every number represented an act of divine mercy and preservation and not any kind of competence on his part. He was robbing God of his glory in a subtle attempt to find reason to glory in his own power. In the heat of his pride, as in the heat of his lust on another occasion, he pushed aside the law of God for the sake of an immediate personal desire.

  1. His remorse was full in its acknowledgement of his sin. He set it forth as iniquity, a grievous violation of the just equity of God’s law, and as foolish, his prideful claim of glory to himself in the numbering of the people.
  2. The prophet Gad was sent by God to set before David matters of recompense for his sin. The price of ransom had not been paid, so God himself would exact it from the people of Israel. Three options were set before David.
  • Seven years of famine.
  • Three months of fleeing before their foes.
  • Three days of pestilence.
  1. David chose to “fall into the hand of the Lord.” He does not specifically say, “pestilence,” but this was interpreted by Gad as most directly the hand of God. Famine, as in the days of Jacob and his sons, would have driven the people to depend on another country for their food in massive proportions, perhaps Egypt or Syria, and would have resulted in future years of repayment and subservience. Fleeing before their foes would allow a foreign power to put to the sword the people of Israel. Each of these would have been providentially arranged, but would use the means of uncovenanted people as given a superior advantage over Israel. David chose to be immediately under the hand of God and for the duration to be well within sight of termination. Even with the hand of pestilence from God, David knew that “His mercies are great.”


V. God sends judgment.

A. The pestilence came and extended as far as the census had been taken, from Dan to Beersheba. Seventy-thousand people perished. God was exacting representatives from every tribe as his ransom price. They were his people, they had been taken from Egypt, preserved through multitudes of conflicts, alive only because of covenant mercies and now would be reminded by immediate judgment that, apart from a proper satisfaction paid to his holy justice for the granting of life, the verdict of death rested over each person. Only ransom would spare them.

B. So it is with us; The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin. He that has the Son has life, he that has not the Son does not have life. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. (1 John 1:9; 5:12; John 3:36).

C. The angels do precisely as God commands (cf Matthew 28:7; Luke 1:38). When the angel sent to inflict this pestilence reached Jerusalem, the Lord relented of the pestilence. He stopped at the floor of Araunah, a descendant of the Jebusites, over whose threshing floor the angel had been halted from his mission of death. In 2 Samuel 5:6-10, the Jebusites had challenged David when he sought the conquest of Jerusalem. They even mocked him and so they were “hated by David’s soul.” Now David comes to a Jebusite in search of a way to give sacrifice to God as a burnt offering and peace offering.

D. David saw the angel. He knew that all of this came from his sin, though the Lord already had a judgment against the people of Israel (verse 1). He knew that the Lord’s mercy in relenting must be recognized as a mercy particularly toward him, for he considered the people as his “sheep.” As a shepherd, David had put his life on the line for his sheep and now would do so again. “Please, let your hand be against me and against my father’s house.”


VI. David offers a sacrifice

A. Gad, David’s seer, told the king what he must do to show his sense of personal responsibility for the plague. He must offer a sacrifice on the threshing floor of Araunah. This must be the personal responsibility of David, a responsibility embraced freely and with his whole heart, not begrudgingly or with a sense of suspicion toward the justice of God.

B. Araunah perhaps did not realize that he was to be the next victim of the work of the angel, but, in light of his response to David, it is possible that he did. At least he realized that he was a person of mercy, for Joshua (Joshua 11:3; 12:8) had defeated them but had not completely annihilated them and David had not eliminated the Jebusites; now, if he is aware, he is a person of double-mercy for the angel has spared him also. Therefore, when he learns of the intent of David he offers to the king all that is needed for the sacrifice (22). If the Lord’s accepting of David (23) meant the final relenting of the plague, then Araunah was a willing and joyful participant in the sacrifice.

C. David, however, was not to shift the blame or share it with anyone, for he knew that his iniquity and pride had brought it on. The obedience or disobedience of the king had direct impact on the people. “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing” (24).

D. David offered sacrifices for the removal of guilt (a burnt offering, completely consumed) and the restoration of relationship (a peace offering). The Lord accepted them and the stop of the plague was secured.

E. The greater son of David, who had no guilt, nevertheless took on himself the entire weight of sin and wrath for his people. He died, the just for the unjust, that he might lead us to God. The sacrifice of David, nevertheless, was a type of his being a covenantal representative of God’s mercies: “Incline your ear, and come to me. Hear and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you—the sure mercies of David. Indeed, I have given him as a witness to the people, a leader and commander for the people” (Isaiah 55:3, 4).


Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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