Friday, February 25, 2005

Rebuking David

I just finished reading about the life of David in the Bible, and I kind of wondered how David could commit such heinous crimes and get such a mild rebuke from God, but then have God absolutely blast him for something that seems totally innocent.

I will grant that David had a good side, but in a lot of ways David was a wretched man. He killed towns full of men, women and children and betrayed one of his most faithful followers, Uriah, having him murdered after committing adultery with his wife. David was a rotten father. He would have slaughtered a ranch full of people because of a rude reply had not Abigail made amends. And despite God's explicit warnings against idolatry, David let his wife Michal have idols hanging around the house. Even on his deathbed David busies himself telling his son to exact vengeance.

It seems that God would grab David by the throat and yell into his face that he was committing awful sins. While on one occasion (the Bathsheba affair) God did rebuke David, what about all the rest of his bloodshed?

Well, David does get rebuked, but it seems awfully mild and rather distant in time from when David committed his crimes. For instance, when David was running away from his son Absalom, Shimai curses him for shedding the blood of Saul's family, and for a while David thought maybe there was some merit to Shimai's criticism. Then, in 1 Chronicles 22:7-8, David tells his son Solomon that God wouldn't let him to build the temple because of all the blood he'd shed. But overall, I think it is fair to say that if you are looking for an in-your-face smackdown by God for the bloodshed David committed, it isn't there, and I find this odd in light of God's explicit command in the Ten Commandments not to murder.

So, on the one hand I notice the mildness of God's rebuke (if you can call it that) for some really heinous crimes, but on the other hand I see God's fierce anger for something that seems totally innocent - commissioning a census.

For some reason (some have suggested that it showed David wasn't trusting God) God was extremely angry about David taking a census. A census? What's wrong with a census? Jesus' parents took part in a census and there are countings of people all through the Old Testament. I'm not aware of any commands in the Bible against having a census. But for one reason or another, people - even David's ruthlessly practical army commander, Joab - felt David had committed a grievous sin by taking a census. And after he'd committed a census, even David himself felt guilty.

What's going on here?

Well, I think what is going on is actually something quite amazing. I think God was - temporarily - compromising.

Consider Jesus' reply to those who asked why the law of Moses permitted divorce. Jesus said Moses permitted divorce because men's hearts were hard. In other words, God temporarily lowered his standards to match hard human hearts.

I think also of the Apostle Paul's comment that if you believe something is a sin, for you it's a sin. And, presumably, the flip side is true: If you think something is okay, God won't punish you for doing it.

So when people in David's era believed some things were bad and other things were acceptable (regardless of whether they really were), God held them responsible according to their own standards.

Therefore, when David was being murderous but apparently didn't think he was doing anything very wrong, God's rebuke is mild; and when David and his contemporaries thought he was committing a horrible sin by conducting a census, God treats it as a horrible sin.

Anyway, what I'm seeing in all this is two things. First, this shows me how important it is to understand (and communicate to our children) what real right and wrong are. We don't want to wander off into David-like morality through ignorance. Second, I see that God truly does judge the heart. Regardless of how vile our actions, if they are done in ignorance of their true depravity, God does not rebuke us as vehemently as he rebukes actions that may be far less serious but are done in knowing defiance of God.

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