Failure and Its Lessons — An Address by Herbert Gill

2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21


There can be little profit in the contemplation of failure, be it individual or collective, except as we see in it God’s superiority to everything and how He ever makes the wrath of the enemy to praise Him and restrains the remainder. Satan, after all, is only a servant and must move subject to the divine will. He may plot and plan to destroy the people of God, but he can only destroy the flesh, thus defeating his own ends, by leading the soul to distrust that on which alone he can act, and to confide in God where alone there is safety.

This was so in the case of Peter. Satan’s sifting did but lead him to distrust himself, and then it was the Lord could trust him with the care of His sheep and lambs.

David’s history, too, furnishes us with deep instruction. He failed in two ways:  individually, in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah, for which he suffered in his own household and also in relation to the people in the numbering of Israel, in which they suffered along with him.

David’s sin in numbering Israel makes manifest two things: the pride and self-will of one who had been raised up of God as a shepherd, and a certain state in the people to which God drew attention, a state of which the people may have been ignorant at the time, but which was apparent to Him whose eyes are as a flame of fire.

One would gather that it was a time of prosperity with David when he commanded Joab to number the people. David in weakness and dependence was brighter than in the day of prosperity. Going to meet Goliath, he connects all the power and glory of victory with Him whose battle he was fighting: “And all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hands,” and the same modest demeanour characterises him, when, hated and hunted by the man of flesh, he is being gradually promoted to the throne. But in prosperity he thinks of his own importance and connects the glory of Israel with himself. God can never support that. Joab’s word, “The Lord make his people an hundred times so many more as they be,” should have rebuked him. Alas! pride and self-will stupefy us.

But God evidently had a controversy with His people also. “And Satan stood up against Israel.” That was no new thing. In one form or another he proves himself the untiring enemy of God’s people. But, alas! “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel,” and He allowed Satan to get a foothold amongst them through one who had in times past been honoured of God as their saviour and deliverer. He to whom they had formerly looked for deliverance was no help now, but a tool in the hand of the enemy to precipitate judgment on the people. Even Joab — naturally shrewd and clever, but without spiritual judgment — could see the folly of such a move, and that David was on a lower platform than usual; but flesh cannot stand against the enemy, and David (really Satan in malicious hatred but allowed of God in blessing) carries his point, and for over nine months persists in a course of self-will which could only end disastrously. Such is man. At last, but not till the mischief is wrought, David’s eyes are open, and “David’s heart smote him.” “And David said unto the Lord, I have sinned greatly in that I have done … for I have done very foolishly.” He awakens to a sense of his sin and its solemn consequences, and he is given his choice of three forms of chastisement. Although he who knew and truly loved God, with beautiful confidence, commits himself to the One whom alone He could trust, saying, “Let us fall now into the hand of the Lord, for his mercies are great,” he cannot escape the government of God. Pestilence breaks out, and “there died of the people from Dan even to Beer-sheba seventy thousand men.” It was no small reduction in numbers, for the whole of the congregation must feel it, but in judgment God remembers mercy, and the angel’s hand is stayed when stretched out upon Jerusalem. The Lord says, “It is enough.”

But in sorrow David again shines brightly. The desolation wrought amongst the sheep through his sin touches him to the quick, and as a true servant and shepherd, he throws himself into the breach, making the failure all his own. “I have sinned, and I have done wickedly: but these sheep, what have they done? let thine hand, I pray thee, be against me, and against my father’s house.” He had sunk and falsified his shepherd character at the outset, everything having to bend to his desire to be honoured, but the discipline of God has emptied him out, and he rises to his proper level, for a true shepherd will suffer to the laying down of his life for the good of the sheep.

It is ever true, “He that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” David goes down to the very bottom, and from thence he begins to rise. Under the direction of Gad, the seer, David builds an altar unto the Lord in the threshing floor of Ornan, the Jebusite, purchasing the spot for 600 shekels of gold by weight. There he offered burnt offerings and peace offerings, and called upon the Lord, and He answered him by fire, proof of His acceptance — and the plague was stayed. All is grace.

David was undoubtedly a gainer through this exercise. He acquired a deeper knowledge of the grace of God and a fuller intelligence as to His ways. He is afraid to return to Gibeon, where the tabernacle was — that which was connected with the legal system in connection with which there had been such signal failure — but he sacrifices on the threshing floor of Ornan, the Jebusite. That would seem to imply that he is to be maintained in the enjoyment of relationship with God in connection with that which is new, for God uses this incident as a means of indicating that He was about to take up a new position. That very spot is chosen for the site of the temple (1 Chronicles 22; 2 Chronicles 3: 1), where communication was to be maintained with Jehovah, where He was to place His name, and whence His glory was to shine out. It was a new move in the ways of God, and the final resting place for the ark, towards which God had ever been moving since He had a redeemed people, comes into view most distinctly. David, too, the man of conflict, is soon to give place to Solomon, the man of rest.

So in the history of the church; amid all the sorrows that have befallen the people of God, may we not see that God has ever been leading on toward His great objective point, and our wisdom is to move with Him. The day of glory, of which the temple speaks to us, has not yet burst forth; the moment when the blessed testimony of God will be no longer journeying (2 Chronicles 5: 9) has not yet arrived; but they are drawing near. Are we in movement towards them, so that they are consciously nearer to us? Are they becoming greater realities to our souls, so as to deliver us from the glory of the present scene and the sphere of man’s activities? If the stirring up of our nests tends to that end, may we not see in that which tries and humbles us the good hand of our God? “His mercies are great.” In love He rebukes and disciplines. We may have to bow under chastisement, but there is blessing in His heart behind it all. He would lead us to distrust ourselves and draw closer to Him. He would bring us more into sympathy with Himself as to His testimony. Every fresh move of the Spirit will surely bring before us with greater distinctness that system of blessing, soon to be displayed in glory and even now, for faith (as the two pillars before the temple; “Jachin,” — he shall establish — and “Boaz,” in him is strength, would indicate), is established in Him who is the power of God. If we have eyes to see and hearts to appreciate it, God would awaken in us a deeper interest in that which, founded on a risen Christ, is outside of the enemy’s power. Instead of being depressed, God would encourage us. He is the God of all encouragement. (1 Samuel 30: 6; 2 Corinthians 1: 3, 4.) In no other way shall we be able to rise to our privileges of walking in company with God and His Christ. It will not be for long that this privilege will continue. Every fresh move brings us nearer God’s rest. Soon the staves will be drawn out of the ark. He who has ever been leading His people will find a resting place. Exercise and conflict will be at an end. The true Solomon will fill the universe with His glory, and we shall rest in the company of Him who –

“Fills all that scene where God alone

In His own rest is fully known.”






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