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Grown-Up Bible Stories

Angels in the Sky

One of history’s more interesting incidents involved a sin by one of its greatest kings. The incident isn’t so spectacular because King David did the wrong thing. David had already demonstrated the full range of human weaknesses despite his great devotion to God. Rather, the story grabs the attention because it lifts the curtain and gives a glimpse of the interaction between heaven and earth. It is one of those places in the Bible where the veil hiding the spiritual realm is eased back and we get a view of some of the forces at work in the unseen world.

The incident happened late in David’s life. A man who had trusted God against incredible odds, David apparently began to rely more on himself and less on God. David had once hesitated to plan his success until he would see what God would do with him. As a teenager, he’d voluntarily faced an oversized enemy soldier, not because of his own prowess, but because the man was defying God, and as a lover of God, David couldn’t handle it. As king, his major advisors had included prophets. He’d spent his whole life making political and military decisions based on his faith in God. He’d also risen to lead a mighty army and become a conquering hero. With time, his focus seems to have shifted away from what God could do for little David to what David the Great could do with mighty Israel.

As a result, David needed to know how mighty Israel actually was. He called for a census. Please keep in mind that just knowing how many people were out there for administrative purposes wasn’t wrong. God had directed the “numbering” of the nation in the past. What our English Bibles call the book of Numbers is the result of one such divinely commissioned census. David seems to have had something else in mind. Likely, he wanted to know how many people he could call up for war. It was an act based on the need to depend on David rather than on God. In other words, he was acting outside his famous faith, and that which is not of faith is sin.

Ironically, David’s lapse was evident to others. Even his cousin Joab, the corrupt army commander, protested. The move was wrong. It didn’t show adequate faith in God. But David was king. The order was carried out, and the people were counted.

To really understand the significance of this event, we need to look at the Bible’s suggestion of the underlying spiritual dynamics. It is stated both that God was angry with Israel and that Satan moved David to number the people. It seems that there was some kind of a cosmic interaction in which God chose to judge Israel by allowing the devil to wreak some of the mayhem he desired against the people of God. Somehow, the nation of Israel was under attack, and the enemy of faith had spearheaded the effort by targeting the leader.

Shortly after Joab came back with the report of his poorly conducted census, one of David’s spiritual advisors rebuked the king. Gad was one of the prophets David maintained close relations with. They would normally have been friends, but on this day, Gad rose to the best prophetic tradition. He stood in front of a king who could kill him and criticized that king in the name of God. Unlike prophets who had to face godless rulers, David’s prophet was safe. David didn’t demand his execution.

David, however, wasn’t safe. He had sinned. There was a punishment for that sin, and the erring king had to choose his punishment. “Choose,” said Gad between three punishments. Would he flee before his enemies in military disaster, would years of famine descend upon the nation, or would he accept a deadly three-day epidemic? “Answer me so I can answer Him who sent me.” (This quote and the following one are not directly from Scripture.)

David had the sense to be sorry for his sin. He also had the sense to know that God was more merciful than some of the neighboring kings with whom he’d traded sword blows over the years. “Let me fall into the hand of the LORD” was his choice.  

The prophet left, and the plague started. Thousands upon thousands of people across the land died as a result of the king’s sin. It may seem unfair, but keep two things in mind. First, sometimes God allows bad things to happen at a government level because of the widespread sins of the people. There are multiple examples of this in the Old Testament. Second, sin rarely hurts only the sinner. Anytime any of us does something wrong, someone else stands to suffer. It is obviously true of murder, but it is also true of everyday offenses like greed, lust, and disobedience. If you want to be safe, stay away from places where sin is happening.

In any event, disease was decimating the nation. It wasn’t just a matter of a germ. The Bible specifically states that the angel of the Lord was involved. It doesn’t fit our notion that God doesn’t cause suffering, but the fact is, that God not only allowed this epidemic, but also He dispatched an angel to cause it.

Yet, David had chosen his punishment wisely. He knew God’s mercies. The Lord wasn’t in love with seeing people die, and before the time limit was up, He made a means of reconciliation. In the strange interaction between the supernatural and natural worlds that characterizes this story, God started the road back to His favor by letting the king see what was really happening. David looked out, and literally saw the destroying angel hovering over the capital city. Upon Gad’s advice, the king chose to do the only thing he knew to appease the Power behind the angel. He set out to offer a sacrifice.

The angel had come to a threshing floor, a paved outdoor surface where a farmer beat his newly harvested grain from its husks. It was harvest time, and the threshing floor’s owner, Ornan, and his sons had been at work when the heavenly combatant showed up. They’d done the human thing and taken cover. Now, Ornan looked out from hiding and saw his king approaching. David was intent on making his sacrifice from just below the hovering angel.

Ornan was only too willing to cooperate. He offered the king his oxen and wooden farm implements as material for the sacrifice. He offered them free. He, also, saw the angel. He, too, cared about civic duty.

But the king wouldn’t accept the gift. Recognizing that sacrificing someone else’s property wasn’t much of a sacrifice, he insisted on purchasing the sacrifice, the fuel for the fire, and the threshing floor itself. Then, pleading with God to remember that it was the king who had sinned not the people, David offered his burnt offering on that hill overlooking Jerusalem.

He had thrown himself into the hands of a merciful God at the beginning of the plague. Now, he threw himself and his nation into those same merciful hands the second time, and the angel sheathed his sword. The plague stopped. The epidemic was over.

It is nearly 1,000 years later. Again, we have a group of farmers minding their own business. This time, they aren’t threshing grain in the afternoon sun. Instead, they’re guarding sheep in the night. Then, in an instant, the sky lights up, and they are confronted by an angel. Like Ornan before them, they are terrified. Here is an angel from God, a messenger who could just as easily be calling a sinful nation to judgment. Angels have often brandished the sword of the Lord. It isn’t a minor threat these shepherds face in the darkness outside of David’s ancestral home.

Yet, something is different. This time, the angel isn’t carrying a sword. No, he’s saying, “Fear not.” He isn’t announcing the beginning of a plague. He isn’t demanding an expensive sacrifice to make peace with an offended God. He’s announcing the birth of a Savior. Next, angels fill the sky to glorify God and declare His peace to the people of earth. There is a Savior, a deliverer from the plague of sin. He has just been born in the city of David. He is sinless and holy, the Son of God. His name is Jesus. It is a night of rejoicing!

It is a night for rejoicing indeed. In another way, it is strikingly similar to that day when a guilty king paid out money so he wouldn’t sacrifice that which cost him nothing. Sin is still the issue, and God’s judgment is still looming large over the nation and the world. The angels have appeared again because there is a need for sacrifice. Only, this time it’s different. God himself is going to make the sacrifice. David’s oxen weren’t big enough to fix the world’s sin problem. The thousands and hundreds of thousands of animals that have been offered over the years haven’t been and never will be a big enough offering to counterbalance the ugliness of sin and its penalty. Only God could provide that sacrifice.

And He won’t do it from that which cost him nothing. He has chosen to come into the world Himself. This new baby isn’t just a baby. He is the Son of God, God come down in a human body. He Himself is scheduled to hang on a cross overlooking Jerusalem, a sacrifice that will cost God everything. Yet once and for all, this Jesus will take care of the avenging angels.

It is Christmas time again. We don’t expect to see any angels coming to saturate us with the fear of God. Rather, we wait for Someone else to come in the sky. This time it won’t be just an angel but the Son of God Himself, coming with hope and glory for all who have taken his expensive sacrifice as their own free gift.

For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. (Romans 10:9)

This work is in the pubic domain and may be copied and distributed freely.


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