35 David Accursed for Numbering
Accursed for Numbering
2 Samuel 24
In this chapter of our book, we study another dark incident in David’s life. It is about a census David took of the men of Israel, and it tells us about the second of the two judgments (a pestilence) upon Israel which are recorded in the last few chapters of 2 Samuel (the first judgment, a famine, was examined in our previous chapter). While our text starts out darkly, it does end up brighter. Also the last part of our text informs us how the land was obtained where Solomon built the Temple.
The time when this incident occurred, like the time of the famine, is uncertain. Most scholars favor a late date in David’s reign—a view with which we concur. But the most we can say for certain is that the incident occurred at a time when Israel was at peace during David’s time as king. We make this conclusion from the fact that Joab, David’s military chief, was able to be gone from Jerusalem for over nine months (v. 8) to oversee this census. This would not be possible if Israel was threatened in any way by enemy nations at the time. While this time of peace favors the census being taken in the last years of David’s reign, it does not exclude other times of peace during his reign.
To further study this numbering incident in David’s life, we will consider the command for the numbering (vv. 1–9), the consequences for the numbering (vv. 10–16), and the consecration after the numbering (vv. 17–29).
A. THE COMMAND FOR THE NUMBERING
“The king said to Joab the captain of the host . . . Go now through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan even to Beersheba, and number ye the people, that I may know the number of the people” (v. 2). To examine this command, we note the people in the command, the prompting of the command, the protesting of the command, and the performing of the command.
1. The People in the Command
This command did not concern numbering all the people in Israel but only those who would comprise the military in case of war. This was also the character of the two censuses Moses took of Israel as recorded in the book of Numbers. Support is threefold in our text that David’s census here was a military census.
First, the definition of the word “number” supports a military census. The first Hebrew word translated “number” in verse 2 is, according to R. P. Smith, a word that is used for a military census. He says it “is distinctly the war-word . . . It proves that the census was taken for military reasons.”
Second, the description of the people being numbered supports a military census. When the totals are reported from the census, they are described as “valiant men that drew the sword” (v. 9) which also emphasizes this was a military census.
Third, the director of the census supports a military census. David employed Joab, his military chief, to oversee the census. “The employment of Joab goes far to prove that what David wanted was an examination of the military resources of his kingdom” (R. P. Smith).
2. The Prompting of the Command
There were a number of factors which prompted this command. They can be summed up in a threefold way: the anger of God, the animosity of Satan, and the arrogance of David.
The anger of the Lord. “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah” (v. 1). Anytime one reads of God’s anger, he needs to pay earnest attention. We hear much about the love and grace of God, and ought to; but we need also to hear about the anger of God. Learning about God’s anger will help us to appreciate and understand better the love and grace of God. In this verse we note the reason for God’s anger, the repetition of God’s anger, and the retribution from God’s anger.
First, the reason for God’s anger. Why would God be angry with Israel? Anyone who reads the Bible, even if only casually, should not have difficulty answering that question. The Israelites were habitually rebellious to God’s way. They ignored His precepts and would not walk according to His commands. They went after other gods and practiced putrid morals. Their behavior was this way from the very beginning. In Egypt, in the wilderness, during the period of the Judges, and on into the times of the kings, Israel was forever sinning against God. Israel is not alone in making God angry. The entire human race does the same thing. Holiness is what makes God happy, but sin is what makes Him angry. The next time you think lightly of some sin, remember the sin you think lightly of makes God angry and the anger of God is a very serious matter! Woe be those who are the subject of God’s anger.
Second, the repetition of God’s anger. Our text said God was angry with Israel “again.” The repetition of God’s wrath reveals the repetition of man’s wickedness. As we noted above, Israel sinned repeatedly. This is illustrated well in statements made about Israel in the book of Judges. Repeatedly we read in the book of Judges that Israel “did evil in the sight of the Lord” (Judges 2:11). Four times in Judges, when it says they did evil in the sight of God, it says they did evil “again” (Judges 3:12, 4:1, 10:6, 13:1). Because of their repeated evil, we not surprisingly read repeatedly in the book of Judges about the anger of the Lord being “hot against Israel” (2 Samuel 2:14, 2:20, 3:8, 6:39, and 10:7). When the times of the kings came along, this situation did not change, for Israel continued to rebel against God, and so we read in our text, “again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.”
Those who foolishly complain that God does not love them enough need to look in the mirror and see their own sinfulness and be more concerned about the fact that they are continually making God angry because of their sin. Our continual sinning justifies the statement in Scripture which says, “God is angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:11). Wise men know that mankind’s conduct gives God a lot more reasons to be angry with men than to love men. In fact, when you duly consider how sinful mankind is, it is harder to understand why God would love us than why He would be angry with us. It is harder to understand why God would say, “I loved Jacob” (Malachi 1:2) than it is to understand why God would say, “I hated Esau” (Malachi 1:3).
Third, the retribution from God’s anger. Because God’s anger was “kindled against Israel” (v. 1), our text said “he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah” (Ibid.). When God is angry, judgment will fall. The means of judgment will vary, but the fact of judgment will not. Here the means of judgment was to have David number the people which would be an evil thing to do and, therefore, would bring judgment upon Israel. Right away some will wonder why did not God judge Israel for the sins He was angry about instead of causing them to sin more so He could judge them for those additional sins? The answer is found in the book of Romans. The last part of Romans 1 tells us that when men rebel against God again and again, God will give them up to more sin so their judgment will be more severe. This truth is summed up in Romans 2:5 which says, “Thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” Israel had rebelled repeatedly (“again”) and so God gives them up to more sin to make their judgment worse when He eventually brings the judgment upon them. If you insist on a path of sin, God will give you up to your sinful desires in order to increase the severity of your judgment. It is a terrible situation to be in, and the knowledge of this truth ought to cause every thinking soul to keep a very short account with God regarding their sins.
The animosity of Satan. In the parallel account in Chronicles of this numbering of Israel by David, we are told that “Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked [instigated, excited, stirred up] David to number Israel, (1 Chronicles 21:1). This text does not contradict our text in 1 Samuel. Rather, it supplements it by showing how God “moved David” (v. 1) to number the people. God is in control of all things. Here He simply permitted Satan to do what Satan always wants to do to mankind—get them to sin. God is not guilty of encouraging anyone to sin, but He brings judgment upon men by permitting men to go their evil way and to follow Satan when they continually reject God.
Satan’s actions here regarding David remind us that Satan never promotes righteousness. His plan is only and always to encourage men to sin. This is why Paul tells us, “Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). Never can we take off the armor in this life, for Satan is ever ready to attack us.
The arrogance of David. David’s pride also prompted the numbering of the Israelite men. That pride prompted this numbering is evident in two ways. It is seen in David’s statement and it is seen in Joab’s statement. David’s statement said he wanted to take the census “that I may know the number of the people” (v. 2). He wanted to know the number in order to feed his ego as to his great army—a problem all rulers have. Joab’s statement condemned David for his “delight in this thing [the numbering]” (v. 3). “Delight” really reveals and emphasizes the pride problem as a motivating factor for the census. Pride is always a great promoter of sin. The comment we can make about all proud men is that “The proud . . . do err from thy commandments” (Psalm 119:21). David certainly did in this numbering of the Israelites.
3. The Protesting of the Command
“And Joab said unto the king, Now the Lord thy God add unto the people, how many soever they be, an hundredfold, and that the eyes of my lord the king may see it; but why doth my lord the king delight in this thing?” (v. 3). To examine this protest by Joab, we note the rareness of the protest, the rebuke in the protest, the restraint from the protest, the reinforcement of the protest, and the rejection of the protest.
The rareness of the protest. We are very surprised to read of Joab protesting this evil deed. We have become accustomed to Joab doing just the opposite. Usually he opposed right and proposed and did wrong. Even when David wanted Uriah killed, Joab did not protest. But Joab protests here. His protest about taking the census reveals that Joab knew right from wrong; but when his personal interests were involved, right and wrong did not enter into his thinking. He only thought of his own personal gain and what would aid it the most. Here, however, there is no personal gain involved. Hence, he cries out against the deed. Joab is like many folk. They know right from wrong, but their main interest is themselves and so what is right and what is wrong is not of much concern to them. They will only protest evil if it does not interfere with their personal interests. We need, however, to not only know right and wrong but also to do right instead of wrong in every situation.
The rebuke in the protest. Joab’s protest carried a strong rebuke to David. The rebuke spoke of the profitlessness of the census, the peril of the census, and the pride of the census.
First, the profitlessness of the census. “Now the Lord thy God add unto the people, how many soever they be, an hundredfold, and that the eyes of my lord the king may see it” (v. 3). God had promised to multiply Israel’s seed, and David did not need to take a census to see if God was keeping His Word. A comment in a Chronicles text fits here. It says, “David took not the number of them from twenty years old and under; because the Lord had said he would increase Israel like the stars of the heaven” (1 Chronicles 27:23). Counting the people, unless under God’s order, reflected doubt in God’s promises and was, therefore, profitless. Unbelief profits us nothing (John 6:63), it is faith that profits us (Hebrews 4:2).
Second, the peril of the census. “Why will he [David] be a cause of trespass to Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:3). The census taking was sin (“trespass”), and this was a peril to Israel, for sin brings the judgment of God (“trespass” is also used in this verse as a reference to punishment—this is a literary practice sometimes employed in Scripture which uses the word for the deed as an equivalent for the implied consequences). Joab saw this one correctly; for when David went ahead with the census, it brought death to some seventy thousand Israelites (v. 15). The census brought a great loss to the kingdom. It hurt Israel worse than their wars. Sin really hurts us. We will see more about this truth regarding the census later on in this chapter.
Third, the pride of the census. “Why doth my lord the king delight in this thing?” (v. 3). Joab saw David’s pride. He knew why David wanted to know how many men were in his army. As we noted earlier, David would delight in knowing the great number of his military. It is the pride of every nation to boast of the great number of men in their armies. David’s conquering of other nations had gone to his head here. He wanted to glory in his great army. This glorying took away from God’s honor. It de-emphasized the fact that it was God that was giving Israel their great victories over their enemies.
The restraint from the protest. This protest was a merciful restraint to David’s sin. It was a barricade over which David would have to crawl in order to do evil. It was a hindrance to David’s evil ways. How gracious of God to make it difficult for us to sin. He puts up many barricades on our path to hinder our doing evil. Let not man accuse God of being harsh in judgment, for God has done much to hinder our sinning. When we sin, we have had to climb over some substantial barricades to do evil. This adds greatly to our guilt.
Joab is to be commended here for hindering David to do evil. It is an example all of us should follow. Too often we do not protest evil. Our presence does little if anything to discourage others from sinning. But we ought to be a protest and hindrance to evil wherever we are. Our presence ought to put a check on people’s evil ways. It ought to increase the difficulties of others to do evil.
The reinforcement of the protest. Joab had help in protesting David’s command to number the Israelites. We discover in verse 4 that “the captains of the host” also stood with Joab in protesting the command to take the census. Generally the popular position is to do evil. But here David was in the minority in wanting to do evil. His chief military man (Joab) plus “the captains of the host” opposed David. It seems today that everyone is advocating evil. But the truth of the matter is, there are many people and many things which cry out against evil. The devil likes to suppress this information about evil, of course. His work is seen in the wicked news media which conceals information about the cause of AIDS and other evils which information would discourage homosexualism and other sins. The facts are for righteousness, not evil. The support for truth is on every hand, though most people choose to ignore it. “Doth not wisdom cry, and understanding put forth her voice? She standeth in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths. She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors” (Proverbs 8:1–3). Likewise Christ “showed Himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3). All of this reinforcement of the truth makes our sinning inexcusable.
The rejection of the protest. “Notwithstanding the king’s word prevailed” (v. 4). What stubbornness on the part of David. In spite of the number opposing his evil and in spite of the good argument and rebuke of his evil, David still went ahead and ordered the census. He would not heed anyone or anything about the sin of numbering the people. When one gets that way, he is sure to make a mess of things as did David. Sin can make us so unreasonable and rebellious. When sin gets a grip upon our soul, we become unresponsive to sound thinking and reasoning. We heed no warning but blindly go on our way to defilement and destruction.
4. The Performing of the Command
“And Joab and the captains of the host went out from the presence of the king, to number the people of Israel” (v. 4). We note four aspects of the performing of David’s command by Joab and the other officers to number the men of Israel. They are the transgressor’s influence, the territory covered, the time involved, and the totals reported.
The transgressor’s influence. One does not sin alone. The transgressor always influences others to transgress. David’s insistence on sinning resulted in Joab and the captains of the hosts also being involved in the sin of numbering the people. When one ponders the evil character of Joab, he has to take into account that David was responsible for influencing Joab to be part of some great evil in Israel. David got Joab involved in the murder of Uriah; now he gets him involved in the numbering of Israel. Joab had tried to stop David from sinning in this situation. But David was just the opposite, for he tried—and successfully—to get Joab to sin. What kind of influence are we upon those around us. Do we hinder people from sinning, or are we like David here who caused others to sin?
The territory covered. “And they passed over Jordan, and pitched in Aroer, on the right side of the city that lieth in the midst of the river of Gad, and toward Jazer. Then they came to Gilead, and to the land of Tahtimhodshi, and they came to Dan-jaan, and about to Zidon, And came to the strong hold of Tyre, and to all the cities of the Hivites, and of the Canaanites; and they went out to the south of Judah, even to Beersheba” (vv. 5–7). Joab and his officers traveled “through all the land” (v. 8) in a counterclockwise path. They started out on the east of the land of Israel then went north and west then south and back up to Jerusalem. Joab and the captains of the host did a lot of traveling here, but not once were they on the right path. They traveled many miles on the wrong path because what they were doing was contrary to God’s will. It is not how many miles you travel in life that counts but on which path you travel. It is not how many years you live that counts but how you live those years. It is not how popular, powerful, or prosperous you are that counts but how submissive you are to the will of God.
The time involved. “They came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days” (v. 8). With our modern means of census taking, Joab could have counted the people much faster than he did. But Joab and his crew did not have our modern advantages; therefore, much time was consumed in this census taking. And it was all wasted time, too; for what they were doing was sin. They wasted nine months and twenty days. Scripture exhorts us about “redeeming the time” (Colossians 4:5). But you cannot do much redeeming of time when you spend your time doing what God does not want you to do. Joab and his officers represent a multitude of people in every age who spend much of their time in forbidden activity. How shameful and tragic to waste one’s life on sinful pursuits.
The totals reported. “And Joab gave up the sum of the number of the people unto the king; and there were in Israel eight hundred thousand valiant men that drew the sword; and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand men” (v. 9). The totals of the census as recorded in the Scripture are incomplete, incongruous, and increased.
First, they were incomplete. “But Levi and Benjamin counted he not among them; for the king’s word was abominable to Joab . . . [he] began to number, but he finished not, because there fell wrath for it against Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:6; 27:24). After counting most of the tribes, Joab could not stomach any more of the census taking, for it was “abominable” to him. Joab felt like some of us do today with all the count craze going on in our churches. One gets fed up with the numbers’ game and longs for churches to put the emphasis on the Word of God rather than on the attendance scoreboard. Some churches seem to have services primarily to see how large a crowd they can get. If these number-crazy churches were as concerned about spiritual growth as they are about numerical growth, they would experience a revival overnight.
Second, they were incongruous. Two accounts are given in Scripture of the totals of this census, but the accounts are incongruous with one another. The record in our text gives the total as 1,300,000 with 800,000 being from Israel and 500,000 being from Judah. The record in the Chronicles account gives the total as 1,470,000 (1 Chronicles 21:5) with 1,100,000 from Israel and 470,000 from Judah. The incongruity of the numbers can be mostly blamed on the fact that the two accounts do not include all the same groups of soldiers (as an example, the 288,000 which waited on the king and were rotated in service at 24,000 per month [see 1 Chronicles 27] does not seem to be included in the 2 Samuel account). Robert Jamieson has a lengthy explanation (too lengthy to quote here) in the Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown commentary that gives a good solution to the incongruity problem by noting various special groups and how they would affect the totals so that the totals would be equal. Also the incongruity problem is not unrelated to the fact that David did not even record the totals. Because “there fell wrath for it [the numbering] against Israel; neither was the number put in the account of the chronicles of king David” (1 Chronicles 27:24). Judgment upon sin killed David’s interest in these totals. As we noted earlier, sin does not satisfy.
Third, they were increased. These totals indicated that Israel’s army had increased much since they were counted prior to entering Canaan. The total of 1,300,000 in our 2 Samuel text was over twice what they were in that last census taken by Moses recorded in the book of Numbers. The count here would be even higher if the Benjamites and Levites were counted, which Joab did not count because David’s orders were abominable to Joab (1 Chronicles 21:6). The totals evidenced that God had mightily blessed Israel over the years. But David’s numbering of Israel cost Israel some of that blessing, as we will see shortly. Disobedience always diminishes blessings.
B. THE CONSEQUENCES FOR THE NUMBERING
Joab warned David of the perilous consequences, but David had to learn the hard way. The consequences involved a troubled conscience (for David) and a tragic pestilence (for David’s subjects). The tragic pestilence was the most prominent and disastrous consequence for Israel, but the troubled conscience must not be overlooked. It is a burdensome consequence of all sin.
1. A Troubled Conscience
“And David’s heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the Lord, I have sinned greatly in that I have done; and now, I beseech thee, O Lord, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly” (v. 10). To examine the troubled conscience of David, we note the agony from the troubled conscience, the acknowledgement by the troubled conscience, and the appeal by the troubled conscience.
The agony from the troubled conscience. “David’s heart smote him after that he had numbered the people.” Sin brought the agony of guilt to David. We note the moment of the agony and the magnitude of the agony of David’s troubled conscience.
First, the moment of the agony. The agony of guilt came at the time (“after . . . he had numbered the people”) when David expected to experience pleasure from the numbering. This is the way sin works. Just when you expect to reap reward from sin, you reap retribution instead. Just when you expect to receive gain from sin, you instead receive grief instead. Sin always cheats you. It promises so many nice things; but at the time you expect to obtain the promise, you get problems instead.
Second, the magnitude of the agony. The smiting by a troubled conscience can be very great in terms of pain. There is much less pain in being smitten physically than in being smitten by guilt. When the heart smites, you will really hurt; and the pain will not go away quickly. No doctor can give you pain medication for this pain. A troubled conscience can take all the joy out of life. The only way to keep your conscience from being a real pain is to walk in God’s path faithfully.
The acknowledgement by the troubled conscience. “I have sinned greatly . . . I have done very foolishly.” David’s troubled conscience caused him to acknowledge his sinfulness. He did the same thing right after he was convicted of his sin with Bathsheba. At that time he said, “I acknowledge my transgressions” (Psalm 51:3). The troubled conscience has a lot better perception of right and wrong than the rebellious spirit. When David’s heart smote him, he saw clearly the sinfulness of his deeds. He saw clearly how foolish he had been. While the troubled conscience was very painful, yet “It is cause for real thanksgiving when we find that we have hearts which smite us for wrong doing” (Pink). When the heart smites us, we need to confess. It was to David’s great loss that his heart did not smite him sooner, but better to be smitten later than never. Those who go through life with a hardened heart that never smites them for their sin will end up in hell where there is no release.
The appeal by the troubled conscience. “I beseech thee, O Lord, take way the iniquity of thy servant.” The troubled conscience saw the great need of having sin removed from one’s life. David went to the right place to have his sins removed. Only God can cleanse us from our sin, and that is done by the blood of Jesus Christ, for “the blood of Jesus Christ . . . cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). It is a great day for man when he wants to be separated from his sins. Too many men want to wallow in their sin rather than be separated from it. But sin in the life brings sorrow to the life. It is only when sin is removed that we find real joy and peace and life.
2. A Tragic Pestilence
“So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel” (v. 15). To examine this the most prominent consequence for numbering the people, we note the selection of the pestilence, the slaughter from the pestilence, the support for the pestilence, and the stopping of the pestilence.
The selection of the pestilence. “The word of the Lord came unto the prophet Gad, David’s seer saying, Go and say unto David, Thus saith the Lord, I offer thee three things, choose thee one of them, that I may do it unto thee . . . Shall seven years of famine come unto thee in thy land? or wilt thou flee three months before thine enemies, while they pursue thee? or that there be three days’ pestilence in thy land?” (vv. 11–13). David got to choose the form of punishment. We note the preference in the punishment, the prophet of the punishment, and the place of the punishment.
First, the preference in the punishment. David was told to choose from three different punishments—a famine, fleeing, or fever. All three of these judgments would result in many deaths in Israel. David preferred the fever judgment, the shortest in duration of the three, because he preferred to “fall now into the hand of the Lord; for his mercies are great” (v. 14). David made a wise choice, for it is always wisdom to appeal to the mercy of God. If you want help from God, appeal to His mercy not to your merit or anything else.
Second, the prophet of the punishment. “The word of the Lord came unto the prophet Gad, David’s seer” (v. 11) to inform David about Divine judgment. The prophet Gad was a faithful prophet of God who first came to David when David was hiding from Saul (1 Samuel 22:5). David had made Gad one of his seers (seer is another word for prophet), and Gad had been faithful in his ministry. Here he is given a difficult assignment from God. It is to go to David with a message of judgment. God’s preachers are often given messages that condemn sin. These messages test the preacher to see if he will be faithful to proclaim the truth even if it is not palatable to the listener and even if it could jeopardize his job or his friendships. Both Nathan, another prophet close to David, and Gad had the difficult assignment of confronting David about sin and judgment; but both were faithful and spoke the truth. We need more men like that in the pulpits of our land. Too many men in the pulpits are compromisers who preach what the people want to hear. Such messages do not help the people but only hurt the people.
Third, the place of the punishment. This punishment of the pestilence from God upon David’s kingdom was chastisement for David and instructs us that even though we have acknowledged our sins and repented of them, God still chastens us, As we have noted in previous chapters, chastisement will still have a prominent place in our lives even after we have repented of our sins. David had acknowledged his sin in a very humble fashion (v. 10), but God still chastened him with this pestilence. “Those who truly repent of their sins, and have them pardoned, are yet often made to smart for them in this world” (Henry). Being chastened after repenting is not the kind of action many sinners want, however. We see this sometimes in church. Someone will fall into sin and then ask the church for forgiveness. If the church, after they have forgiven the fallen, still insists on some form of discipline, the one who fell into sin will complain that the church did not truly forgive them. But the truth of the matter is, the one who complains is the one who is not acting in truth. They did not truly repent. The sinner who truly repents will not argue about chastisement, for they know they deserve it and will profit by it. Chastisement is to help one loath his sin so he will not repeat his sin. Chastisement is not an unloving or unforgiving act, for helping a person to stay away from sin is a very loving and forgiving act indeed.
The slaughter from the pestilence. “The Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed; and there died of the people from Dan even to Beersheba seventy thousand men” (v. 15). From this text about the slaughter from the pestilence, we learn of the source of the slaughter, the size of the slaughter, and the schooling from the slaughter.
First, the source of slaughter. Scripture says it was “the Lord” who “sent the pestilence upon Israel.” The quick way the destructive pestilence came upon the Israelites also evidenced it was from God. “The pestilence burst upon the people in this instance with supernatural strength and violence, that it might be seen at once to be a direct judgment from God” (Keil). How easy it is for God to strike down mankind. What fools men are to turn against God, reject His ways, blaspheme His holy name, and push Him out of their lives. How often it is with sinful man that just about the time he thinks he has tamed great diseases, God in judgment upon man’s continual sinning sends a new disease which is often more powerful than those man has tamed. Sin plagues society with many terrible diseases. Today we are cursed with AIDS because of the sin of homosexualism.
Second, the size of the slaughter. “Seventy thousand men” perished in the slaughter from this pestilence. It is the most destructive of any plague recorded in Scripture which came upon Israel. In comparison, only 14,700 died in the plague that came after the rebellion of Korah in the wilderness (Numbers 16:49), and in the plague which came upon the Israelites because of their immorality with the Midianite women at Baal-peor, only 24,000 died (Numbers 25:9). The great number of deaths from this pestilence doubtless reflected the fact that this slaughter was coming upon the Israelites for more than just the numbering sin as we noted in verse one and will note more about shortly. The great number of people slain here ought to give all thinking men a holy fear of sin. Only “fools make a mock at sin” (Proverbs 14:9).
Third, the schooling from the slaughter. The slaughter from this pestilence instructs us about the end results of sin. What David had “delight” (v. 3) in turned out to bring the opposite of delight, namely, misery. What he thought would bring life brought death instead. This is the character of sin; its consequences are just the opposite of what it promises when it solicits you. When it promises joy, it will bring sorrow. When it promises gain, it will bring loss. When it promises promotion, it will bring demotion.
The support for the pestilence. Some have difficulty understanding why the numbering should merit such severe judgment (either the famine, war, or pestilence). They even argue that numbering the army seems wise and necessary at times. But there are at least three good reasons which will justify the severity of this judgment we read about in our text. They are the denunciation of the numbering, the disobedience in the numbering, and the design in the numbering.
First, the denunciation of the numbering. No matter how justified the deed of numbering the people may seem to us, the fact is it was plainly condemned three times in Scripture by those who were very close to the deed. It was condemned by God (vv. 12, 15). It was condemned by some of Israel’s military officials (2 Samuel 24:3, 4; 1 Chronicles 21:3). And it was condemned by David himself who confessed that in numbering the people, he had “sinned greatly . . . [and] done very foolishly” (v. 10). With this weighty threefold condemnation of the sin, we need to stop arguing against the wrongness of the deed and instead search Scripture to see why it was so strongly condemned. We will do just that in our next paragraph.
Second, the disobedience in the numbering. Though the numbering may look innocent to many folk, it certainly was not an innocent deed. There are at least four acts of disobedience involved in the numbering. (1) It was disobedient in the matter of arrogance. We have already noted earlier in this chapter that pride was a major factor in this numbering. “Pride goeth before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18) and “Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 16:5) tell us that pride alone would justify this great judgment upon Israel. Pride is such a wretched sin, but today men seldom condemn pride. The great emphasis on self-esteem evidences that we do not view pride as a sin at all. But advocating self-esteem is advocating what is an abomination to God! (2) It was disobedient in the matter of the atonement money. David did not take any atonement money from the people as instructed by God to do when taking a census. God had stated in the law that, “When thou takest the sum [census] of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them . . . thou shalt take the atonement money of the children of Israel” (Exodus 30:12,16). Not taking the atonement money was like leaving out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in your message. Without the Gospel, there is no escape from Divine wrath. Note that not taking the atonement money would in itself bring a “plague” (or pestilence as in David’s case) on the people. (3) It was disobedient in the matter of authorization. David did not take the census as a result of the command of God. Previously when a census had been taken (Numbers 1:2, 3; 26:1,2), God had always ordered it. (4) It was disobedient in the matter of the agents to oversee the census. When a census had been taken previously, the priests were in charge (Ibid.). Here David put Joab, a military, man in charge.
Third, the design in the numbering. At the beginning of this chapter we noted that God was “angry” with Israel for their past sins and because of that He allowed David to number the people to add to the judgment that was due them for their previous sins—those sins which made God “angry” (v. 1). Therefore, the great judgment that came after the numbering was for the other sins, too. This more than justifies the severity of the judgment; in fact, Israel deserved more judgment than they received. We learn this from the fact that God’s mercy spared Israel from getting all the judgment they deserved (we will see more about this next). So the judgment was not too severe, it was in fact tempered by God’s grace.
The stopping of the pestilence. “When the angel stretched out his hand upon Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed the people, It is enough; stay now thine hand. And the angel of the Lord was by the threshingplace of Araunah the Jebusite” (v. 16). Two features of this stopping of the pestilence are especially prominent. They are the mercy in the stopping and the mount where it stopped.
First, the mercy in the stopping. It is the character of God to be merciful. We noted above that David based his choice of punishment upon the mercy of God. His choice was vindicated, for God’s mercy was very evident in stopping the pestilence. Especially was it evident in the time of the stopping and in the town spared in the stopping. The text implies that the time of the stopping was before the three days was complete. The phrase, “from the morning even to the time appointed”‑in verse 15 appears to favor the full three days, but Hebrew scholars tell us that this “meaning of the expression, which is found only here, is very doubtful” (F. C. Cook). Many favor interpreting the phrase as meaning from the morning of the day it started until the afternoon of the same day, which means it would have lasted only part of one day. Great was God’s mercy to stop the pestilence so soon. The town spared in the stopping was Jerusalem (v. 16). Of all the cities of Israel, the afflicting of Jerusalem with the pestilence would have had the worst consequences upon the land of Israel. But God’s mercy spared Israel and David of those consequences by sparing Jerusalem. How merciful of God to spare Jerusalem. Even in a time of great punishment upon God’s people, they can always observe mercy somewhere. It could always be worse, but God’s mercy sees to it that it is not.
Second, the mount where it stopped. God said to the angel, “It is enough: stay now thine hand. And the angel of the Lord was by the threshingplace of Araunah [translated Ornan in the Chronicles text] the Jebusite” (v. 16). This threshingplace where the angel of God stopped and parked when God ordered the destruction of the pestilence to stop is located just north of David’s Jerusalem (later it became part of Jerusalem when Jerusalem expanded). It is called Mount Moriah (2 Chronicles 3:1). This mount is a most significant piece of real estate in Israel. Three important things make it a very important piece of real estate. First, at the mount occurred the offering of Isaac by Abraham (Genesis 22:2). Second, at the mount occurred the stopping of the pestilence as we have learned in our text for this chapter. “The destroying angel hovered over Mount Moriah and, like Abraham on the same spot a thousand years before, was brandishing his sword for the work of destruction” (Blaikie). Third, at the mount occurred the building of the Temple. “Solomon began to build the house of the Lord at Jerusalem in mount Moriah, where the Lord appeared unto David his father, in the place that David had prepared in the threshingfloor of Ornan [translated Araunah in 2 Samuel] the Jebusite” (2 Chronicles 3:1). In each of these three situations, the mercy of God was prominent. It was prominent in the sparing of Isaac, in the stopping of the pestilence, and in the sacrifices at the Temple which speak of the mercy of God in providing man a way to have his sins removed and thus escape Divine judgment. Any place where the mercy of God is prominent is a prominent place.
C. THE CONSECRATION AFTER THE NUMBERING
The last part of the account of the numbering incident shows us David’s revived consecration to the Lord after the numbering of the men and the judgment the numbering brought. Whereas the first part of this account of the numbering of Israel shows David acting poorly, the last part shows him acting prudently. He was rebelling in the first part but repenting in the last part. He was arrogant in the first part but abased in the last part. He was sinful in the first part but saintly in the last part. We will note two main features involved in David’s consecration at the end of this numbering incident. They are the acknowledgement of sin and the altar of sacrifice.
1. The Acknowledgement of Sin
“And David spake unto the Lord when he saw the angel that smote the people, and said, Lo, 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” (v. 17). Here is David’s second acknowledgement of his sin in this incident of numbering the people. The first acknowledgement of sin came when his troubled conscience smote his heart. This acknowledgement comes after the pestilence stopped. This acknowledgement was a great confession and a most sincere confession of his sin. David was not saying nice sounding words but having no heart in what he said. Rather, David’s heart was earnest about this confession. We see the sincerity of the confession in four ways—in the inspiration for the confession, in the denunciation in the confession, in the exoneration in the confession, and in imploration in the confession.
The inspiration for the confession. “David spake unto the Lord when he saw the angel that smote the people” (v. 17). God opened David’s eyes to see the supernatural here. The angel God sent to bring the pestilence had stopped at the threshingfloor of Araunah which was just outside of Jerusalem. Visibly seeing the angel stopped from destroying Jerusalem was so inspirational to David that he again confessed his sin of numbering the people. “True penitents, the more they perceive of God’s sparing, pardoning mercy, the more humbled they are for sin and the more resolved against it” (Henry). Those who truly repent of their sins are those who best recognize the great value of mercy. For them, the blessings of God drive them to their knees in humble confession of their unworthiness.
The denunciation in the confession. “Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly” (v. 17). David did not water down his guilt when confessing his sin. Neither did he try to excuse it. Those who try to excuse their sin or who try to diminish the seriousness of it are those who are not truly repentant. The true repentant sees the great despicableness of his sin. He will never say such things as, “It wasn’t all that bad,” or “Under the circumstances I ought to be excused.” In David’s earlier confession, he also described his sin accurately. He said, “I have sinned greatly . . . I have done very foolishly” (v. 10). We hear many today who make a half-hearted acknowledgement of their guilt. Their confessions are with tongue in cheek; for they try earnestly to diminish the greatness of their sin and to excuse as much of it as they can. These folk also twist Scripture to justify some of their evil. But the true repentant does none of these things. He is forthright and honest in his confession.
The exoneration in the confession. “But these sheep, what have they done?” (v. 17). The great slaughter from the pestilence really burdened David. He could only see himself as the one to blame for the pestilence and, therefore, he exonerated all the others (“sheep”). They, however, were indeed guilty of sin; for that is why God was “again” (v. 1) angry with them. But the true repentant does not play down his own guilt by saying others are worse or others are to blame. The true repentant sees his own sin as being so great that he views others better than himself. The true repentant is more severe on his own sins than he is on the sins of others.
The imploration in the confession. “Let thine hand, I pray thee, be against me, and against my father’s house” (v. 17). Here is another noble aspect of David’s confession. He did not argue about the judgment of God which came upon him for his sin. Rather, he went so far as to plead that he ought to take the judgment that is meant for other people, for he felt he was the cause of the problem. We noted earlier in this chapter that those who complain about any church discipline or other penalty for their sin are not truly repentant. David was just the opposite, for he was truly repenting of his sin. Those who truly repent of their sin realize that their sin merits great judgment. They have seen the sinfulness of their sin and, therefore, the judgment that their sin should receive; and so they will not argue with God that the judgment is too hard. The evidence that Cain did not repent of his bloody sin of murdering Abel is that he complained about his punishment. He said, “My punishment is greater than I can bear” (Genesis 4:13). What a hypocritical complaint, however; for he was still alive—Abel was not. He said nothing about Abel’s experience being too hard.
2. The Altar of Sacrifice
The second thing that shows David’s revived consecration to God is the altar of sacrifice which he constructed to offer the sacrifices after the pestilence stopped. We note the command for the altar, the cost of the altar, and the conflagration on the altar.
The command for the altar. “And Gad came that day to David, and said unto him, Go up, rear an altar unto the Lord in the threshingfloor of Araunah the Jebusite” (v. 18). This command from Gad for David to build an altar instructs us in worship. It tells us of the motivation and the means of worship.
First, the motivation of worship. The altar was to be built at the place (Araunah’s threshingfloor) where the mercy of God was demonstrated. Thus God’s mercy is to be a motivation for worship. When one has been spared great judgment as David was when God stopped the pestilence and spared Jerusalem, it should inspire worship of God. Likewise, when one has been saved and spared the Divine judgment of hell, it ought to inspire one to worship. Those who say they are saved but are lax about worship are either liars or terrible ingrates.
Second, the means of worship. David worshiped by means of the altar upon which animals were sacrificed and their blood shed and where the fiery judgment of God came upon them. All of this represents Jesus Christ Who shed His blood and experienced the fiery judgment of God on our behalf when He was crucified. Thus we are told from this that to worship God, we must come by the means of Jesus Christ. Worship that leaves out Jesus Christ and His saving work on Calvary is bogus worship.
The cost of the altar. “I will surely buy it of thee at a price; neither will I offer burnt offerings unto the Lord my God of that which doth cost me nothing. So David brought the threshingfloor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver” (v. 24). David did as the prophet Gad told him and went to Araunah’s place to build an altar and offer a sacrifice unto God. When he got to Araunah’s place, Araunah was very cordial and offered free everything David would need to make the sacrifice (vv. 20–23). This involved the oxen and threshing instruments being used to thresh at the threshingfloor where Araunah was threshing when the pestilence was stopped by God. Though Araunah was a very generous man, David would not accept these items necessary for the sacrifice until he paid for them.
David’s attitude here about paying the cost for the sacrifice is really noble. It is an illustration of great devotion to the Lord which is needed by God’s people today. David would not have a cheap religion, but many in our churches today want a cheap religion. They can spend lavishly on themselves but will give miserly to the work of the Lord. However, how inconsistent would it have been for David to be cheap in worshiping a God Who had in mercy just spared Jerusalem from a terrible pestilence, and likewise how inconsistent for the redeemed to be cheap in worshiping a Savior Who sacrificed far greater than anyone else to save their soul. Furthermore, how unsatisfying to worship cheaply. Many are not satisfied with their spiritual life or with their church. Often the reason for this is that they will not pay the price for a good spiritual experience and for a good church. Cheap products do not satisfy. They do not perform well. This is true spiritually as well as materially.
The conflagration on the altar. “The Lord . . . answered him [David] from heaven by fire upon the altar of burnt offering” (1 Chronicles 21:26). Always for the Israelites, the sign of acceptance was when God caused fire from heaven to fall upon the sacrifice to consume it. When Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel regarding who was God—Baal or Jehovah—the issue was to be decided by which of the two would answer by fire upon their respective altars. Of course, Jehovah was the only One to answer by fire. David’s sacrifice here was also accepted by Jehovah-God, for the “Lord” (Jehovah) sent fire from heaven down upon the altar and consumed the sacrifice. This conflagration upon the altar made permanent the ending of the pestilence; for after the fire came upon the altar, “the Lord commanded the angel; and he put up his sword again into the sheath thereof” (1 Chronicles 21:27) and after David had “offered burnt offerings and peace offerings . . . the Lord was intreated for the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel” (v. 25).
The fire consuming the sacrifice is a picture of the judgment of God coming upon the sacrifice, Jesus Christ, instead of coming upon the guilty sinner. Any stopping of Divine judgment from coming upon man will in one way or another be related to Jesus Christ, for He is the only way mankind can escape the fiery judgment of God.