As soon as he did it, David regretted it. He ordered his general, Joab, to count the army. Big deal! 1 Chronicles says this was “evil in the sight of God.” It was repulsive to Joab. Chronicles says, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census.” Seriously, this is the best Satan could do? Counting people? For reasons that surpass our understanding, at first, yes. Immediately, David said, “I’ve sinned greatly by doing this. Take away the guilt of your servant.”
And God lowered the hammer. “You choose,” God’s prophet said to David, “your punishment. A three year famine. Three months of enemy victory. Three days of plague led by the angel of the LORD.” David chooses the plague. 70,000 Israelites die. Because David counted his army.
For many this may be one of those Old Testament texts that makes them chuckle or shake their heads. And chuckle at and shake their heads at people like us who believe it.
Of course, maybe you don’t remember that story. Maybe you’re wondering. “Seriously? Killing 70,000 over counting?”
Keep in mind David’s reaction. He knew, immediately, that he’d messed up. That he’d sinned. Again, you say, “Sinned?”
David talks about it in Psalm 30. “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’” David imagined the number, and then heard it: one million. What an army! Maybe he had in mind a military parade, like the ones communist governments revel in, a big propaganda show, a real display of national security. “No one can stop us! Our kingdom will last for a thousand years or more!” And on top of it, David had a promise, from God: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before you!” A million man army can do a lot to secure that promise.
Jesus talked about a man like this once too. He called him a fool. This man had wealth beyond measure, literally. He didn’t have enough barns to hold all his things. So, he built more barns. And he realized how much he had. And he said to himself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” To which God replied, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself!”
David, this rich fool, and we, mutilate the words of Psalm 118, “I will not die, but live!” We say them in all the wrong ways. We make all kinds of plans to extend our lives, to protect our lives, our things, our resources. We revel in life, we count our things, we find happiness in them, define ourselves by them. Only to find they’re nothing. Only to have God show us the pit, the grave, destruction. Only to have God turn his face from us.
We count our things and say, “The Lord favors us.” And when he does, we feel like a mountain. But then, David, laments his foolishness: “when you hid your face, I was dismayed.” Two images. The LORD stands as our rock, our fortress, our refuge. The LORD, not our things, not us. Then, that LORD who sticks closer than our shadow, can hide his face from us. David felt that way too: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
For David, for us, that’s the wrong question. Really the Father asks, “Why have you forsaken me?” David’s census did that. Our counting and getting does that. We live on our merits, our power, our whatever. Then God takes it. He takes it and hides. He’s not there. He leaves us as dust. Dust that says only death. Death that speaks God’s law and justice: dust to dust. It’s fair, because the wages of sin is death. I lived apart from God.
The disciples and those women who loved Jesus felt that way on that first Holy Saturday. Weeping and mourning, feeling the Lord’s wrath, perhaps anticipating our hymn, “O sorrow dread, God is dead!” Knowing that they failed, denied, disowned, betrayed. Jesus died because of their sins, because of our sins. Like David they stand at the pit, the depths, destruction. Locked away for fear that they’re next. Except God has a word: “Enough!” And they already knew. Jesus told them: “You will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.” On Thursday Jesus said, “Soon you won’t see me, but soon after you will see me!”
That’s the only appeal we have, to God’s faithfulness: “Resurrection, Lord!” It’s all Abram had as he trudged up the mount to sacrifice Isaac: “God can raise him from the dead. He must!” It’s all David had, the disciples had, we have: “Don’t kill me, Lord; even though I deserve it.” David’s hopeless choice to let the angel of the LORD let loose rested on it: “Let me fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is very great.”
Indeed. The LORD stopped the killing. He stopped the death. He saw the calamity and said, “Enough!” He told the angel of the LORD to stop killing Israelites. Just as he has done for sinners. The LORD swallowed up death in victory. Not with a million man army, but with a one-man army.
The one man who stood before confused Mary and asked her why she was crying. “I’m alive, as I promised!” The one man who stood before the apostles and spoke the word they needed: “Peace.” The one man who knows the pit, death, destruction, and the grave. The one imperishable who became perishable, the one immortal who became mortal, the one who was dead and is now alive again. Jesus, who says, “Enough!”
The only counting we need do ends at the number one: Jesus. God’s faithful one. God’s mercy in the flesh. God’s help given to us. The one who gives us back our “alleluias” because he takes our sins away upon himself. The one who gives us God’s gift: eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Now is Christ risen from the dead! That baptism we remember is no foolish ceremony but God intimately connecting us with him: dead, buried, reborn, resurrected! That body we eat and blood we drink, not a weeping over death, but God gifting us with life! His life now mine! God no longer hides his face from us, he shows his face to us as he lifts us up out of the grave and says, “Enough! I’m done with death! And in my Son Jesus, so are you!” Most blessedly, we can see his face. Like Simeon, our eyes see his salvation, the salvation he prepares for his people, the one’s he counts, his Church. And in Christ that’s you, risen indeed just as Christ is risen indeed! A psalm. A song. For the dedication of the temple. Of David. Psalm 30.