So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time, and seventy thousand men of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. When the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who destroyed the people, “It is enough! Now relax your hand!” And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking down the people, and said, “Behold, it is I who have sinned, and it is I who have done wrong; but these sheep, what have they done? Please let Your hand be against me and against my father’s house.” (2 Samuel 24:15-17 NASB)
The sheer number of theological problems in this chapter boggle the mind. The version in 1 Chronicles only smooths out a few of them. This account in Chronicles is actually more visually problematic. What I want to focus on in this view through the knothole is the character of God. Because, I find it comforting that God changes His mind. But it’s a problem too.
David is given a choice between three punishments, and opts for the shortest of the three. “It’s three days. What could happen?” How this ‘pestilence’ is sent through the land mimics the route taken for the census which brought it on in the first place. It goes the length of the land and winds up at Jerusalem. But I notice that an angel, a messenger, is doing this. So, is this ‘messenger’ a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’?
One of the details that get’s lost in translation in the Old Testament is that ‘evil’ in Hebrew is much more flexible in meaning than ‘evil’ in English. It’s more like the English word, ‘bad’; it’s more subjective. What is bad for one person may be beneficial for another. It’s context that supplies the ‘moral’ aspect of it, if any. So, keep in mind that this angel could be ‘evil’ in an ancient Hebrew sense, and not so much in a modern English sense. Even so, ‘evil’ isn’t used here, but I believe the idea of it is clearly implied. In fact, I think that may be the whole crux of the problem with this chapter.
Scholars debate about whether everything emanates from God, including ‘evil’; or whether God merely ‘permits’ a certain amount of evil for a time; or whether He is actively engaged in defeating evil, but hasn’t finished yet; and I’m sure there are several more ‘flavors’ within the debate. This chapter is hotly contested on both sides. For those who believe that all things, including evil, come from God, this chapter is often used to support their romp through the rest of Scripture.
For those who believe that God cannot be the source for evil, this chapter presents some serious hurdles. This chapter does not paint God in a very ‘just’ light; at least not from the perspective of modern Western thought. So, those holding a ‘high’ view of God have to wade through it, and try to make sense of His behavior. It’s not easy, even from a core language level, it’s not easy at all.
Where I go to attempt to understand this chapter is to, as much as possible, below my comfortable assumptions. From there I attempt to see this from the perspective of the event, then from the perspective of the editor who preserved it and his audience. And only then, into my current situation. Hopefully, I’m still below my assumptions.
The Situation of the Event
The original event was a pestilence in the reign of David which they understood to have been punishment for David’s census of the fighting men of Israel. In the mind of those retelling the event, God used one of His angelic beings to accomplish this, and this one seemed to actually be visible, in one account, holding a sword. From their belief, this being acted in obedience to the authority of the God of Israel.
The Situation of the Record
The editor who preserved this account, selected this account and kept it this way for his audience at the time. We’re not completely confident when that was, but possibly late in the days of Judah, possibly around the time of Josiah. In those days there was a resurgence of obedience and devotion to God, and Josiah saw himself as truly in the line of David’s heart for God, not just lineage. For these people, this passage represents the view that Israel’s God, over against the gods of other nations, executes punishment of His people, and controls these ‘bad’ elements they experience. In other words, it’s not that they ‘lost’ a battle, or that the other national gods defeated their God. The God of Israel was punishing them. They weren’t even at war at the time of the event.
The Situation of My Life
So where I see this intersecting my life is at the point of stuff happening I don’t like. Do I blame God and get all fussy with Him? Do I blame myself and get all fussy about my sin? Do I blame evil powers and get all fussy that God didn’t protect me? Or do I examine my life, confess what sin I find, look up to see what God is doing, and engage with my Master in prayer?
Honestly, I tend to behave as ‘fussy’. And that is primarily because I’m self-centered, which is probably the core of much of my sin. It seems to compound from there. I’m at risk of loosing my job right now, and I don’t see much of a way out. So, I’ve been fussing about it. But part of the cause of this problem is how I do the job, and part of the cause is that I’m not very well suited to this job. In a sense it became the job I told myself I would never do. Yet my Master has preserved this job and me in it for 9 years (and I can show you how I know that).
The Core Problem
Then, what good is my fussing? What good is my bemoaning my ill-suited occupation? What does it accomplish? If I can see clearly that God has sustained me in this job, then why would I fuss and moan? Isn’t the control of this still in the hands of my Master? Obviously the answer is yes, but you see this gets at a more central core issue. Do I truly believe that, or am I just spouting platitudes, stuff I know I should say and believe? The rub is that if I truly believe God is responsible for this job, what doubt at all? Why then would I think this is on me?
Okay, partly it’s because I don’t don’t want to go through a time of joblessness, that’s uncomfortable, and I don’t want to do just anything to make a buck. But even that leaves this question about my faith. Even so, after seeing God preserve this job and me in it, why would I then doubt He could or would have something else for me to do? I can rationalize it away that God wants me to keep the job but I suck at it, but when has that not been true? Either God is the One who provides for my occupation or He’s not. If He’s not, then who exactly am I worshiping? Because if the object of my worship isn’t powerful enough to provide me a job, then do I believe this one made all of creation? Do I believe that such a one can save?
See my problem? It’s time to get off the pot and back in the fight. It’s time to shut up and put up. It’s time to live out the faith I profess, and discover on the other side this God wider and grander than I ever imagined. And also discover a much smaller and less impressive me, a much smaller and less impressive me than the one I project anyway.
What’s your view through the knothole?