13 So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, “Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days' pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.” 14 Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” (2 Samuel 24:13-14)
An argument we hear frequently from skeptics is that the Bible is full of contradictions. My faith tradition holds to the doctrine that the Bible is God’s infallible, inerrant, inspired word. That within its pages is truth without any mixture of error. And we don’t entertain the possibility that there are contradictions in the Bible. And if we are being honest, passages such as today’s reading are a challenge to those of us who hold that doctrine.
So what if you have a friend that considers herself an atheist or agnostic. She reads the parallel stories of 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 and asks you about all the apparent contradictions between the two accounts. How should you respond?
The first part of 1 Peter 3:15 says, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy,” This may be the most important part of the verse, it it may also be the most overlooked. Are you settled in your own mind that the Bible is, as the Baptist Faith and Message says, “truth without any mixture of error?” If you are going to engage a skeptic in honest conversation, you need to be as convinced of the truth of the Bible as she is about the errors of the Bible.
B.H. Carroll, the founder of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, put it this way:
When I was a boy I thought I had found a thousand contradictions in the Bible… I do not see them now; they are not there. There are perhaps a half dozen in the Bible that I cannot explain satisfactorily to myself. … Since I have seen nine hundred and ninety-four out of the thousand coalesce and harmonize like two streams mingling, I am disposed to think that if I had more sense I could harmonize the other six.B.H. Carroll (1843-1914), The Inspiration of the Bible
Often, our friends that are serious about their agnosticism will come to the debate table armed with a list of passages that seem to prove their point. They may have been cherry-picked, taken out of context, translated incorrectly, or just plain misunderstood. But your friend is prepared to argue with you about them. Are you prepared to respond? 1 Peter 3:15 goes on to say, “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” So let’s survey the battlefield with the two passages in today’s reading. Here are some of the things our hypothetical (or maybe not hypothetical at all) friend might point out:
Who incited David?
Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” (2 Samuel 24:1)
Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1)
How many people were there?
9 And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to the king: in Israel there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000. (2 Samuel 24:9)
5 And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to David. In all Israel there were 1,100,000 men who drew the sword, and in Judah 470,000 who drew the sword. 6 But he did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, for the king's command was abhorrent to Joab. (1 Chronicles 21:5-6)
Whose threshing floor was it?
“but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,”
1 Peter 3:15 ESV
People outside the church are asking these questions. And if we pretend that they don’t even bother us, then I think we disrespect the honest skeptic. So I’d rather acknowledge the discrepancies, admit that I don’t know how to reconcile them, and trust that what I don’t understand is because of my own limitations, and not any limitations of God’s Word.
18 And Gad came that day to David and said to him, “Go up, raise an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” (2 Samuel 24:18) 18 Now the angel of the Lord had commanded Gad to say to David that David should go up and raise an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. (1 Chronicles 21:18)
How much did David pay for the threshing floor?
So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels[g] of silver. (2 Samuel 24:24)
25 So David paid Ornan 600 shekels[a] of gold by weight for the site. (1 Chronicles 21:25)
I am thankful that none of these discrepancies affect the point of the account. And the point is this: When God got to Jerusalem, He stayed His hand.
16 And when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” (2 Samuel 24:16)
15 And God sent the angel to Jerusalem to destroy it, but as he was about to destroy it, the Lord saw, and he relented from the calamity. And he said to the angel who was working destruction, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” (1 Chronicles 21:15-16)
This story is not about who owned the threshing floor, or how much David paid for it, or how many people lived in Israel, or even why David felt the need to count them. The point of the story is that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor does he keep His anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sin, nor repay us according to our iniquity (Psalm 103).
Whatever else I don’t understand or doesn’t add up, the two accounts are in absolute agreement about the mercy of God. And I praise Him for His longsuffering and compassion.