One key to understanding perplexing Bible stories is to recognize that the Lord assumes his people will treasure his word greatly. He relates to his people as though they will remember and apply the Scriptures that came in history before them.
Sometimes the Bible just goes ahead and refers us immediately to the preceding Scriptures to help us in its interpretation. When we read that “in his days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho. He laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub” in I Kings 16:34, we are not left to guess at the reason for this tragedy. We read at the end of the verse that this happened “according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke by Joshua the son of Nun.” This takes us back to Joshua’s prophetic oath hundreds of years previously, where he promised this would happen to the one who dared rebuild this city. “Joshua laid an oath on them at that time, saying, ‘Cursed before the Lord be the man who rises up and rebuilds this city, Jericho. At the cost of his firstborn shall he lay its foundation, and at the cost of his youngest son shall he set up its gates’” (Joshua 6:26). There is an underlying assumption that this word, recorded in Holy Scripture for the people, will be remembered.
At other times the explanation is not immediate, but found in the surrounding context of the story. For instance, when Uzzah is struck suddenly by the Lord for touching the ark as it slipped off the oxcart transporting it back home from Philistia, the immediate text does not tell us exactly why the Lord’s anger burned so (II Samuel 6; I Chronicles 13). Yet when we see later that the ark was brought successfully to Jerusalem by the Levites properly carrying it with poles as the law of God instructed them to do (I Chronicles 15:15; Exodus 25:14), we see the Lord was not acting capriciously but in accordance with His nature and word.
Then in other places of Scripture no explanation is given immediately or later, but the reason is pretty obvious. When we see Solomon’s heart turn away from God into idol worship in I Kings 11, most of us know it was precipitated by the events record in I Kings 10, which recounts his multiplication of horses, gold, and wives. Most of us have also heard that these three acts were expressly forbidden to the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-17.
When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.
So Solomon’s downfall is fairly easily explained.
Might not then this be the key to places in Scripture where the Lord acts in mysterious ways and no seeming explanation is given?
Consider the census David took, recorded in II Samuel 24 and I Chronicles 21. The Lord was so angry at him for taking this census that He offered him three choices of judgment, with a three-day plague being what David chose. Often we hear that God was angry at David because of his pride in relying on his army’s size, not listening to Joab’s counsel, or for other reasons. Certainly there is some validity in these things. Yet could it be there is an assumption by God that David should know better from the Law of God itself? After all, the king of Israel was to make a personal copy of the Law upon his inauguration and read it often (Deuteronomy 17:18-20). We also know that David professed the Law to be his meditation and love (see Psalm 19). So what do we find in the Law about census taking? Note what Exodus 30:11-12 says:
The LORD also spoke to Moses, saying, ‘When you take a census of the sons of Israel to number them, then each one of them shall give a ransom for himself to the LORD, when you number them, so that there will be no plague among them when you number them.’
The Reformation Study Bible references this text and, if you think about it, this verse helps explain why God responded as he did. David’s desire was to number Israel in order to see the power of his army rather than numbering them for the purpose of making sure this ransom or atonement money was given. This money was to be collected for the service of the tabernacle and later temple, and by its very name was to remind Israel that a price needed to be paid for their atonement. God was angered by David’s act because he was demonstrating more concern about the consolidation of his army than he was with seeing Israel’s need to be redeemed. He was using the census to see their military power rather than their spiritual poverty.
The way the plague was stopped seems to support this. As the remainder of these two chapters referenced above explain, after 70,000 die, God commanded David to erect an altar on the threshing floor of Araunah that became the location of the temple. When David offered sacrifices there, the Lord was moved by prayer and checked the plague. Mercy ensued when the king of God’s people saw their need for substitutionary redemption.
So when you are puzzled by Bible perplexities, think and study backwards on what has come before your text. The Lord assumes you will remember how important his prior word is, and in many cases the answers will be found there.
Then also remember this. This lesson may also help you with your own life’s perplexities. Perhaps you cannot figure out why confusing circumstances and hard providence have come your way. Could it be you have forgotten former lessons that the Lord assumes you should know by now? If so, remember what he taught David. You need to return to your only Redeemer and his substitutionary atonement.
If you are one of his children, he does assume you know that.