And David said to Ornan, “Give me the site of the threshing floor that I may build on it an altar to the LORD — give it to me at its full price — that the plague may be averted from the people.” Then Ornan said to David, “Take it, and let my lord the king do what seems good to him. See, I give the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing sledges for the wood and the wheat for a grain offering; I give it all.” But King David said to Ornan, “No, but I will buy them for the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” So David paid Ornan 600 shekels of gold by weight for the site. And David built there an altar to the LORD and presented burnt offerings and peace offerings and called on the LORD, and the LORD answered him with fire from heaven upon the altar of burnt offering. 1 Chronicles 21.22-26.
The context of this morning’s reading is David’s decision, in about 975 BC, to take a census of Israel. We are told that the prompting came from Satan and that David’s commander-in-chief, Joab, advised David that it was an act that would “bring guilt on Israel” (1 Chronicles 21.1-3); but David went ahead regardless.
A census was not, of course, sinful in itself. After all, God himself had directed a census to be taken on other occasions (Numbers 1, 26). But David’s motivation for taking a census was sinful. He seems to have done it so as to assure himself of his own military might, for the only people counted were men “who drew the sword” (1 Chronicles 21.5). In other words, his census was indicative of the fact that he was no longer wholly trusting in God but was beginning instead to trust in human resources. The consequence was that God allowed a plague to deprive him of 70,000 of those fighting men (1 Chronicles 21.14); and the judgment on David only ceased when he acknowledged his sin and repented of it: “And David said to God, ‘Was it not I who gave command to number the people? It is I who have sinned and done great evil. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand, O LORD my God, be against me and against my father’s house. But do not let the plague be on your people'” (1Chronicles 21.17).
But God does now require that David shows his repentance by building an altar to the Lord; and the site God specifies is a significant one. It is the threshing floor of Ornan which is on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. On that site, Solomon will later build the temple (2 Chronicles 3.1) but it is was also on or near that site that, a thousand years earlier, Abraham had been ready to sacrifice his only son Isaac in obedience to the Lord (Genesis 22.2). Ornan wants to give the whole area to David, along with the wood, the wheat and the oxen for the offering, but David knows that that will not do. As with Abraham before him, the sacrifice must be at a cost to him personally if it is to be of any value to God.
It reminds me that one day, a thousand years later, on the same spot that David is now building his altar of sacrifice, people will be making their “sacrifices” by putting money in the temple treasury pots and Jesus (the Lord who has come to his temple) will see among them a widow who has offered two small copper coins. “Truly, I tell you,” he will say, “this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21-3-4).
This altar on the threshing floor of Ornan that links Abraham and Isaac with David and his 600 shekels of gold and with the widow and her two copper coins, reminds me this morning that what the Lord is looking for from me too is sacrifice that costs me something. Not just a giving of what I will never miss; but a giving of time, money, and energy that I feel I cannot really afford. What the Lord wants from me is in fact a love-offering of my very self. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12.1).
Perhaps when he truly gets that, he will answer me too with fire from heaven!