Numbering Israel


Louise Knight Wheatley


Those who seek help in Christian Science will find the 21st chapter of I Chronicles of deep interest; in fact, its opening statement is enough to arrest the attention of any but the most superficial Bible student. "And Satan . . . provoked David to number Israel." If we understand "Satan" to mean merely a wrong thought, the question naturally arises, Why was it a wrong thought? Moses had numbered Israel at God's command; why, then, in this case, was it Satan that tempted or "provoked" David to do likewise? As the narrative unfolds, however, we perceive the difference,—that it lies in the motive back of the act. Moses, in time of peace, numbered Israel as a mere matter of statistical record, while it is clear that David, in time of war, intended to find out just what he had to depend upon in the shape of chariots and horsemen. And we read that because he did this God was "displeased" and "smote Israel," and that David was obliged to admit that he had done "very foolishly." Repentance, however, is not in itself enough to exempt mortals from the results of their own folly; and while Christian Science does not teach that God is ever "displeased," in the sense in which some theologians would construe the term, nor that He who is Love ever "smote" in anger any of His children, yet it does teach in terms most unmistakable that sin brings its own punishment; and upon this basis David had to pay the penalty. He was given his choice between famine, defeat in battle, or three days of pestilence; and, choosing the latter, "there fell of Israel seventy thousand men."

Unconsciously we enter a mental protest at what seems like a punishment so terrible as to be out of all proportion to the mistake, but, upon reflection, do we find the mistake so small as it at first appears? Just what was David doing? Was not he (and most likely his people) looking to "chariots and horsemen" for his resources, when he should have known that his real resources — his only ones — were not in material things at all, but in the limitless realm of Mind? Was he not looking to matter for his source of supply, when "Soul has infinite resources with which to bless mankind" (Science and Health, p. 60)? If he had stopped to realize that his strength lay, not in "things temporal," but in that conscious unity with God which gives man dominion over all the earth, it would never have occurred to him to number Israel. It does not occur to any one to number the amount of figures he has at his command when starting to solve a problem in mathematics. He does not say, for instance, "I must be careful not to use the figure five too many times, for fear it might give out. Perhaps I had better begin by counting all the fives, so I will know just how many I have to depend upon." No one would think of doing anything so absurd, for the veriest schoolboy knows that there is no limit to the supply which the basic law of mathematics affords. He knows that every one can have all the figures he needs; that he cannot deprive any other pupil of a single figure, nor can any other deprive him.

Nor does it ever occur to the boy to look upon the one in the next seat in the light of a competitor, because he happens to be working at the same sum at the same time. Is there not enough for everybody? There certainly was enough for everybody until the Adam-dream crept in, with its belief of life, substance, and intelligence in matter; but as soon as matter came to be regarded as substance, the first thought of "thine" and "mine" arose, and Cain and Abel lost their sense of brotherhood to become competitors. Of course the schoolboy does not reason this all out, as we are doing, and would only stare blankly at us if we told him that the reason his "five" is inexhaustible is because it stands not for a thing at all, but for a mathematical idea. Nevertheless he proves his faith in it by continuing to use it, with never a fear that it can give out. Why? Because no one has ever taught him to think that it can. And, in the same way, were it not for a false system of education, as old as the serpent's first lie in the garden of Eden, we would have the same simple, unquestioning faith in divine Principle that the boy has in the basis of mathematics. What wonder that Jesus rebuked the educated thought of his times by setting a little child in the midst of the disciples, when they were disputing as to who should be greatest, and saying, "Except ye . . . become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven"!

Sooner or later, David's lesson must be learned by all of us; one by one material objects will fail us, as they did him, until our understanding of their absolutely unreliable and unstable nature is complete; or, as our Leader expresses it, until the lesson is "sufficient to exalt" (Science and Health, p. 266). No one who has experienced it can ever forget the day on which he began to learn this lesson, — when he first stopped reckoning as to how and why and when and where his supply was to come, and began to see that divine intelligence would attend to that for him! The sun is always shining — somewhere — and ready to do its part, but perhaps the reason that the light did not come streaming in very clearly, for a while, upon our problem, was because we ourselves were blocking up the window. Suppose we move away from the window where we have stood so long, gazing rather forlornly down upon our chariots and horsemen, and turn our thoughts for a while upon that which Jesus tells us to seek first, — "the kingdom of God, and his righteousness." Suppose we honestly examine ourselves to learn how much we possess of the only things of which He takes cognizance, how much we are reflecting of Life, Truth, and Love.

Are we gentle? Are we kind? Do we love anybody enough? Do we love some people at all? (Do we even try very hard to love them?) Are we more charitable than we used to be? And more patient? Slower to judge? Less critical? Less "easily provoked"? Do those in trouble turn to us for relief from physical and mental "disease," and if not, do we ever ask ourselves why? Do we forgive more readily than we used to do? (And, in forgiving, do we remember also to forget?) Are we so busy looking for some great thing to do for God, that we fail to see the little thing which, in the mean time, we might do for our neighbor? Are we cultivating the rare gift of telling people things they do not want to hear, with a tact so delicate that they are glad they heard them; or do we ride, roughshod, over sensitive humanity, in the misguided notion that honesty means bluntness, and then wonder why nobody likes us? Are we satisfied just to talk our religion, or is our daily life so radiantly serene that its gentle influence falls upon those about us like a benediction, winning others to Christian Science by the sweetly irresistible argument of a beautiful example? In short, are we constantly laying up treasures in heaven, — the pure gold, tried in the fire, — of unselfishness, purity, faith, obedience, gratitude, fidelity, brotherly kindness, compassion? And if not, is not our pitiable state of self-righteous satisfaction equal to that of the church at Laodicea, to whom St. John wrote, "Thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked."

Artists tell us that a picture seen at too close range loses its "values;" and in a similar way, we who live in the midst of this busy, money-getting and money-worshiping twentieth century find it not always easy to view things in their right perspective. A dollar looks so big, especially when some other one has it! But the Christian Scientist, struggling bravely with his financial problem, cannot afford to be blinded by the mesmeric glitter of that bit of silver into believing it to be the real substance, after all. Dollars may dazzle, may entice, may deceive, "if it were possible, even the elect;" but he is most wise — and most near the end of his demonstration — who lifts his clear, steady gaze above them, and forgetting them altogether for the moment, remembers only that not money, but "more love is the great need of mankind" (Miscellaneous Writings, p. 107).


[Published in January, 1909, in The Christian Science Journal.]