Formations 02.12.2023: An Imperfect King

1 Chronicles 21:1-14

In 1 Samuel, one of the first warning signs readers are given of King David’s eventual downfall is his sin with Bathsheba. That sordid episode featured prominently in the biblical writer’s case that righteousness leads to blessing, but sinful behavior leads to calamity. And when the sinner is the king, the calamity can bring down an entire nation.

By contrast, 1 Chronicles never brings up David’s sin with Bathsheba. The Chronicler never even mentions Bathsheba’s name. In many ways, in fact, the Chronicler whitewashes David’s faults to present him as God’s ideal king—an almost mythological figure for Judah to look up to as it rebuilds itself in the Persian period.

Even though the Chronicler presents such a rosy picture of David, he can still be honest about David’s shortcomings. When Satan tempts him to take a census, he quickly gives in. The census could have been for purposes of taxation, military conscription, or both. Whatever his motivation, we can imagine a leader eager to preserve and even expand his power. More money and a bigger army could do that quite nicely.

God “struck” Israel (v. 7), though we’re not told the specifics of what that means. The point is that David gets the message. His policy has led to divine judgment. And through Gad the seer, he is offered a terrible choice of punishments: famine, war, or pestilence.

Many things are left unsaid in this passage. Why does ordering a census provoke such divine wrath? Why does David choose the punishment that he does?

Of all the unanswered questions in today’s text, the most pressing may well have to do not with Israel’s leaders but our own. Can we acknowledge that our leaders—even the ones we like, even the ones we voted for—are flawed, sinful human beings? When we learn that they have failed us, do we accept it or do we rush to defend them, no matter what?

It probably pained the Chronicler greatly to admit that David “displeased” the Lord (v. 7). But he had no choice. His ultimate allegiance was not to any leader, even one who had grown larger than life through centuries of veneration.

Where does our allegiance lie? How do our words and actions reveal our priorities?


• Why does David’s sin result in hardship for the entire nation?
• When have you observed one person’s sin cause others to suffer?
• When has someone you admired fallen from their pedestal?
• What is our obligation to tell the truth even when it’s inconvenient or makes us uncomfortable?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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