What was David’s greatest sin? Many would say his adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband, Uriah. Obviously it was a heinous crime that carried disastrous results. But what if I was to tell you of another sin, which at least in terms of its toll on human life, brought even more tragic consequences? And what if I said it’s a sin frequently found in most of us?
When “cataloging” sin, don’t we typically categorize based on our own conduct? Doesn’t the view of our sins routinely differs from our view of the sins of others? My gossip isn’t as evil as their drunkenness. My prejudice isn’t as bad as their deception. And my expressions of pride surely aren’t as condemning as their adultery. The flaw of such reasoning is exposed by the example of David in the accounts of 2 Samuel 24 and I Chronicles 21.
In an atmosphere of success David is motivated to number the nation. He instructs Joab to go throughout Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, so that he might “know their number” (21:2). Because the figures tallied involve those who “drew the sword” (21:5), it appears David was attempting to determine the size of his fighting force. Though Joab is seldom portrayed as a model of spirituality, his perspective here is dead on: “Are they not all my lord’s servants? Why does my lord seek this thing? Why should he be a cause of guilt to Israel?” (21:3). But Joab is unable to deter him as the king “pulls rank” and the commanding officer acquiesces. The endeavor takes almost 10 months to complete (2 Sam. 24:8), though Joab intentionally omits the tribes of Levi and Benjamin because “the king’s command was abhorrent” to him (21:6).
As the account continues we find the most significant difference between Israel’s first two kings. What set David apart from Saul was not an absence of mistakes, but the stark contrast in their responses to those mistakes. Saul frequently sought to justify himself and blame others. David rightly placed the responsibility where it belonged. “David’s heart troubled him…David said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done…Please take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have acted very foolishly’” (I Sam. 24:10, emp. mine). No blame-shifting or self-justification; just a heartfelt anguish over his sin. But expressions of remorse do not always bring a nullification of consequences.
Through the prophet Gad a choice is given regarding the punishment: three years of famine, three months of flight before his enemies, or three days of God’s wrath in the form of a pestilence (21:12). The motive behind the king’s decision is a lesson in itself. David believed if you want to experience mercy, you’ll find it with God and not men (21:13). At the end of the three days there are 70,000 fresh graves in Israel and David is left to wrestle with the crushing effect of his sin on the lives of innocent Israelites. Think about it: More people died in Israel in three days than the U.S military lost in several years in Vietnam. And what was the cause of this enormous loss of human life? A king motivated by his own self-importance. Though some died as a result of David’s adultery, thousands died because of his pride!
Isn’t this a stern rebuke of our regular attempts to shrink the significance of any sin, particularly pride? Doesn’t this account shout, “Pride is a big deal!” God declares it’s an abomination that makes Him our opponent instead of an ally (Prov. 6:16, 16:5; James 4:6). In the Bible humility is always encouraged and pride is always condemned. And when we, too, are guilty, may our response mirror that of David—an honest recognition of his evil, a contrite confession of his guilt, and a deep sorrow over the result. Though packaged today with terms like “confidence”, “boldness” and “good self-esteem”, spiritually speaking it would be wise if we heeded the principle frequently recited during Jesus’ ministry: “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). Should we fail to embrace this simple counsel, we may discover pride to be our greatest sin as well.