Hard Text for harder occasions
May 23, 2011
I've been undercover for too long -- life having taken a sudden detour a couple of months ago when I decidedly recall saying "no" only to find that what I really meant was"yes". As most folk may know (at least those whose Facebook friends includes yours truly, -- everyone except Carl, that is), I leave for South Carolina in just under 48 hours from now. Yesterday was a hard day, Ligon making me preach three times (payback for putting him into a tight spot having told him over the worst lunch we've had -- and we've had lunch together every week for the past 12 years). Having decided to preach in the benediction that ends 2 Corinthians (13:14) in the morning services, I brought 2 Samuel to a close in the evening (nicely timed since I have been in 1 and 2 Samuel for over two years).
But who in their right mind ends twelve years of ministry with this chapter? The problems are legion:
i) The ethical problem of God urging David to conduct a census which turns out to be a very bad thing to do. Unless you take the softer translation of the NASV -- and Ligon yielded to the ESV several years ago along with the rest of conservative Christendom -- we have a problem whose solution requires distinctions worthy of Aquinas. Lest we think the problem is imaginary, 1 Chronicles says bluntly that Satan urged David, not God. The ancient Hebrews seemed unimpressed by the Augustinian-Thomositic-Reformed distinction of levels of causality (Westminster Confession 3:1, for example), and seemed content to assert that however you slice this cake, God is ultimately sovereign and nothing 9not even sin) lies outside of his decree.
2) Then there's Gad (the prophet). His word from the Lord offers the conscience-stricken David three choices as punishment: 3 years of famine, 3 years of war, or 3 days of plague. How about none of these? Can David have a different prophet with better choices? David chooses to fall into God's hands because the Lord is full of mercy (a text for hard times to be sure). Mercy there: God "relents" and calls back the angel of death just as he is approaching the city of Jerusalem. But by this time, 70,000 are dead! (This is my valedictory, and I'm telling folks that God kills 70,000 people. I want a different text). Where is the gospel in all of this.
Ah, in the altar that david builds on the threshing floor of Araunah, just shy of Jerusalem on which he offers burnt offerings and peace offerings. And God responds and the plague is stopped. His wrath is assuaged. God's wrath is propitiated by the sacrifice of blood. Of course, this is a picture of another whose blood was shed in a similar location, outside Jerusalem. My Jesus who shed his blood to propitiate the wrath of God that my sins deserve.
I wish you could have been there. A thousand people sat motionless -- in agreement with Scripture's hard text, that this is how it is. This is the truth that binds us together -- a sovereign God has made provision for our sins in the gospel. Their response was singularly expressive of how the gospel enables us to see the hard texts and affirm them.
It is hard to leave my dear friend Ligon. It is harder still to leave a congregation who so evidently love the gospel, even when it is clothed in the hardest armor imaginable (well, maybe not quite as hard as Judges 19 that Carl preached about yesterday). However dark these episodes in Judges and Samuel are (and they are), they pale in comparison to the darkness of Calvary. And as the light fades on the crucified Jesus, we hear a voice that says, "it is for me."