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THE NUMBERING OF THE PEOPLE.
ISRAEL was grown wanton and mutinous ; God pulls them down, first by the sword, then by famine, now by pestilence. O the wondrous, and yet just ways of the Almighty! Because Israel hath sinned, therefore David shall sin, that Israel may be punished; because God is angry with Israel, therefore David shall anger him more, and strike himself in Israel, and Israel through himself.
The spirit of God elsewhere ascribes this motion to Satan, which here it attributes to God; both had their hand in the work; God by permission, Satan by suggestion ; God as a judge, Satan as an enemy; God as in a just punishment for sin, Satan as in an act of sin; God in a wise ordination of it to good, Satan in a malicious intent of confusion. Thus at once God moved, and Satan moved; neither is it any excuse to Satan or David, that God moved; neither is it any blemish to God, that Satan moved; the ruler's sin is a punishment to a wicked people; though they had many sins of their own, whereon God might have grounded a judgment, yet, as before, he had punished them with dearth for Saul's sin, so now he will not punish them with plagues, but for David's sin. If God were not angry with a people, he would not give up their governors to such evils, as whereby he is provoked to vengeance; and if their governors be thus given up, the people cannot be safe. The body drowns not while the head is above the water, when that once sinks, death is near; justly therefore are we charge
we charged to make prayers and supplications, as for all, so especially for those that are in eminent authority: when we
pray for ourselves, we pray not always for them; but we cannot pray for them, and not pray for ourselves. The public weal is not comprised in the private, but the private in the public.
What then was David's sin? He will needs have Israel and Judah numbered. Surely there is no malignity in numbers; neither is it unfit for a prince to know his own strength ; this is not the first time that Israel had gone under a reckoning. The act offends not, but the misaffection; the same thing had been commendably done out of a princely providence, which now, through the curiosity, pride, misconfidence of the doer, proves heinously vicious. Those actions, which are in themselves indifferent, receive either their life or their bane, from the intentions of the agent. Moses numbereth the people with thanks, David with displeasure. Those sins, which carry the smoothest foreheads, and have the most honest appearances, may more provoke the wrath of God, than those that bear the most abomination in their faces. How many thousand wickednesses passed through the hands of Israel, which we men would rather have branded out for judgment, than this of David's! The righteous judge of the world censures sins, not by their ill looks, but by their foul hearts.
Who can but wonder to see Joab the saint, and David the trespasser ? No prophet could speak better than that man of blood ; “ The Lord thy God increase the people a hundred-fold more than they be, and that the eyes of my lord the king may see it; but why doth my lord the king desire this thing ?" There is no man so lewd as not to be sometimes in good moods, as not to dislike some evil : contrarily, no man on earth can be so holy, as not sometimes to overlash. It were pity that either Joab or David should be tried by every act. How commonly have we seen those men ready to give good advice to others, for the avoiding of some sins, who, in more
gross outrages, have not had grace to counsel their own hearts ! The same man, that had deserved death from David for his treacherous cruelty, dissuades David from an act that carried but a suspicion of evil ; it is not so much to be regarded, who it is that admonisheth us, as what he brings. Good counsel is never the worse for the foul carriage. There are some dishes that we may eat, even from sluttish hands.
The purpose of sin in a faithful man is odious, much more the resolution. Notwithstanding Joab's discreet admonition, David will hold on his course, and will know the number of the people, only that he may know it. Joab and the captains address themselves to the work. In things which are not in themselves evil, it is not for subjects to dispute, but to obey. That, which authority may sin in commanding, is done of the inferior, not with safety only, but with praise. Nine months and twenty days is this general muster in hand; at last the number is brought in Israel is found eight hundred thousand strong; Judah five hundred thousand; the ordinary companies, which served by course for the royal guard, four and twenty thousand each month, needed not to be reckoned; the addition of them, with their several captains, raises the sum of Israel to the rate of eleven hundred thousand. A power able to puff up a carnal heart; but how can a heart that is more than flesh trust to an arm of flesh? O holy David, whither hath a glorious vanity transported thee ? Thou which once didst sing so sweetly, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, for there is no help in him. His breath departeth, and he returneth to his earth, then his thoughts perish. Blessed is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God;" how canst thou now stoop to so unsafe and unworthy a confidence ?
As some stomachful horse that will not be stopt
in his career with the sharpest bit, but runs on headily, till he come to some wall or ditch, and there stands still and trembles; so did David: all the dissuasions of Joab could not restrain him from his intended course ; almost ten months doth he run on impetuously in a way of his own, rough and dangerous; at last his heart smites him ; the conscience of his offence, and the fear of judgment have fetched him upon his knees: “O Lord, I have sinned exceedingly in that I have done; therefore now, Lord, I beseech thee take away the trespass of thy servant, for I have done very foolishly.” It is possible for a sin not to bait only, but to sojourn in the holiest soul: but, though it sojourn there as a stranger, it shall not dwell there as an owner. The renewed heart, after some rovings of error, will once, ere over-long, return home to itself, and fall out with that ill guide wherewith it was misled, and with itself for being misled; and now it is resolved into tears, and breathes forth nothing but sighs, and confessions, and deprecations.
Here needed no Nathan, by a parabolical circumlocution, to fetch in David to a sight and acknowledgment of his sin : the heart of the penitent supplied the prophet; no other tongue could smite him so deep as his own thoughts : but though his reins chastised him in the night, yet his seer scourges him in the morning : “ Thus saith the Lord, I offer thee three things, choose thee which of them I shall do unto thee." But what shall we say to this? When upon the prophet's reproof, for an adultery cloked with murder, David did but say, "I have sinned," it was presently returned, “ God hath put away thy sin;" neither did any smart follow, but the death of a misbegotten infant; and now, when he voluntarily reproveth himself for but a needless muster, and sought for pardon unbidden with great humiliation, God sends him the three terrible scourges, famine, sword, or pestilence; that he may choose with which
of them he had rather to bleed, he shall have the favour of an election, not of a remission. God is more angered with a spiritual, and immediate affront offered to his majesty, in our pride and false confidence in earthly things, than with a fleshly crime, though heinously seconded.
It was a hard and woeful choice, of three years' famine added to three forepast; or of three months' flight from the sword of an enemy, or three days' pestilence: the Almighty, that hath fore-determined his judgment, refers it to David's will as fully as if it were utterly undetermined. God had resolved, yet David may choose : that infinite wisdom hath foreseen the very will of his creature ; which, while it freely inclines itself to what it had rather, unwittingly wills that which was fore-appointed in heaven.
We do well believe thee, O David, that thou wert in a wonderful strait; this very liberty is no other than fetters: thou needest not have famine, thou needest not have the sword, thou needest not have pestilence; one of them thou must have: there is misery in all, there is misery in any; thou and thy people can die but once; and once they must die, either by famine, war, or pestilence. O God, how vainly do we hope to pass over our sins with impunity, when all the favour that David and Israel can receive, is to choose their bane !
Yet behold, neither sins, nor threats, nor fears can bereave a true penitent of his faith : “let us fall now into the hands of the Lord, for his mercies are great." There can be no evil of punishment wherein God hath not a hand; there could be no famine, no sword, without him: but some evils are more immediate from a divine stroke ; such was that plague into which David is unwillingly willing to fall. He had his choice of days, months, years, in the same number; and though the shortness of time, prefixed to the threatened pestilence, might seem to offer some advantage for the leading of his election; yet