And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.
The Lord was angry with Israel. We don’t know just when this, was or what occasioned it; but it was evidently toward the end of the reign of David, And when we give it thought, it is not really surprising. The circumstances surrounding the rebellion of Absalom had done much to expose the weaknesses, not only of those personally involved, but of the whole nation. They had been so ready and willing to throw in their support to a young and attractive rebel without consideration of the fact that he was a transgressor of the fifth commandment, and that he was by no means the anointed of the Lord. They were not just rejecting their king: they were rejecting their God.
We are not told what the cause of this all was, but it is not hard to deduce: Israel under David had attained unto prosperity, and prosperity is always a particularly difficult thing to be able to take from a spiritual point of view. All through the judges it had been borne out. In times of prosperity the people most readily fell into sin, and only the sorrow of judgment would bring them back to repentance. The same thing had, in fact, happened to David personally. In the hardship of his youth he had scorned to walk in the sins into which he readily fell in the prosperity of his later life. And so it had happened with the people too. Having tasted the pleasure of earthly plenty, they were concerned more for their own well-being than with the service of their God. And the Lord was angered by them.
We read at this point in II Samuel 24, “And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.” If we turn to the parallel passage in I Chronicles 21 we read, “And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.” The two are not contradictory. They only bring out different aspects of God’s way of dealing with His people.
Satan, of course, is the enemy and opponent of God and of His people. His whole goal is to disrupt and destroy God’s purpose of grace with His chosen. But Satan in all of his wiles is still subject to God and His infinite, sovereign power. In His wisdom and greatness, God is able to take even Satan at his worst and use him for the accomplishment of his own purpose. In this instance it was undoubtedly to bring outs the secret sins of David and of Israel and to purge them through the means of judgment.
That about which all of this developed was the matter of the numbering of the people. Again we do not know the details, but it would seem that someone appeared to influence David to make a numbering of his nation and so determine the total size of his potential fighting force.
It was not really such a strange thing that David decided to do. After all, every major fighting power customarily knew and boasted in the number of men that it could field. Moreover, there was good historical precedent to point him in this direction. Had not Moses himself numbered the people of God two different times by very command from God? Why shouldn’t he do the same?
Nevertheless, there was behind this a very subtle difference that reflected upon the moral value of what David was doing. It was Joab that detected this immediately. Although Joab in his blunt and forward manner was often offensive and sometimes in error, there was a basic honesty in the man which David had always appreciated and trusted. Moreover, Joab knew his king and master well, having seen David in all his strength and also in his weaknesses. No sooner had David called him and commanded, “Go now through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan even unto Beersheba, and number ye the people, that I may know the number of the people,” than Joab detected that something was wrong. This thing arose from David’s baser nature and not from his best. It was of carnal pride and not spiritual strength. It was a sin akin to that which Hezekiah would someday commit when he would in that same city take in the messengers of the Babylonians to show them all of his wealth and all of his strength. Such are sins which unbelievers can never understand; but the righteous do. It was a contradiction of David’s own words in Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD Our God.”
Joab saw this, and, being the man that he was, he would not be silent. Directly he responded to David’s command, “The LORD make his people an hundred times so many more as they be: but, my lord the king, are they not all my lord’s servants? why then doth my lord require this thing? why will he be a cause of trespass to Israel?”
As it was, however, Joab no longer maintained the influence over David which he had had before the death of Absalom. Although he had maintained his position as head of the army by sheer force of character, he was not able to gain the ear of the king as in former years. David merely ignored his protest and reiterated the command.
For nine months and twenty days Joab and his servants circulated throughout the land of Israel and Judah counting every man they could find capable of participating in battle. It was a disgusting occupation to him, to the point where he did not even finish it but stopped before he had included the Levites or the tribe of Benjamin. (It is perhaps for this reason that we have a difference between the totals as given in Samuel and in Chronicles: the one might contain his actual count and the other an over all estimate.) In the end, however, he did give to the king a list of figures telling him of his strength.
But to the king it brought very little of the satisfaction which he had expected. Instead it was just the opposite. Once again there closed in upon his soul the dark shadow of despondency and guilt. We do not know how long it was in developing, but gradually David came to realize that Joab had been right and that he had committed a great sin against his Lord and God.
At last, David could endure it no longer. We have no indication that anything but his own feelings of guilt brought him to this point of repentance; but when he went to the Lord he went with all of his heart. In sorrow he cried out, “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.”
It would seem unlikely though that, even at this, David did not realize the real seriousness of that which he had done. Behind his action there was a motivation, an attitude of heart shared by the whole nation which was utterly abhorrent to the Lord their God. This was brought out in His answer to David’s prayer.
The Lord came to Gad, the prophet with whom David commonly consulted at that time, and said, “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.”
So Gad appeared before David, and these were the choices that he gave: “Shall seven years of famine come unto thee in the land? or wilt thou flee three months before thine enemies, while they pursue thee? or that there be three days’ pestilence in the land? now advise, and see what answer I shall return to him that sent me.”
Suddenly it struck home to David. That which he had done had not been just a personal thing with personal responsibility. It involved the whole nation. His action had been performed in his capacity as king and for it the whole nation would have to suffer the results. It is something that every leader must learn always to bear in consideration. One is never as free and independent in life as we like to tell ourselves when our hearts are set intently on the ways of sin.
One can only imagine how grievously David struggled with the problem, and the seriousness with which he bore it can be seen from the answer which he finally gave, “I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the LORD; for his mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man.” It was an answer filled with spiritual discernment, and in the end it would prove to be the wisest also.
Had David been a hard and wicked man, that which he had chosen would not have been so difficult. He had chosen the three days of pestilence, too short a time for any of his enemies to take advantage of him, and it appears that the pestilence did not even touch his own body or even particularly his own family. It was the people it devastated. From one end of the land to the other people came sick and began to die in vast numbers. Thousands upon thousands were immediately stricken, Soon the reports began to come into the palace from all corners, telling of the sickness, the pain, the death, the sorrow and the anguish. And each report was to David as that of a death in his own family. He was the shepherd who loved his sheep; and to hear of their suffering because of his sin was even worse than if he had been the one to perish. Slowly, so slowly, the moments and hours passed by, filled with the anguished cry of suffering, and each was as an age to the great king who had brought this upon his people. But all he could do was to huddle with his elders in sackcloth and ashes while crying to the Lord for mercy.
Neither was David’s hope misdirected. At that very moment when it seemed the whole nation would perish before the pestilence was finished, there appeared an angel, hovering over Jerusalem and holding, as it were, the pestilence in abeyance. It was not removed; but it was kept from destroying as it seemed it would.
It was then that David saw his opportunity, He turned to God in prayer and cried out, “Is it not I that commanded the people to be numbered? even I it is that have sinned and done evil indeed; but as for these sheep, what have they done? let thine hand, I pray thee, O LORD my God, be on me, and on my father’s house; but not on thy people, that they should be plagued.” It was a beautiful prayer, anticipating in truth the prayer with which the final Son of David would commit himself to pay for the sins of all Israel.
But the time for the fulfillment of God’s purpose was not ready. It would have to wait until the fulness of time. Meanwhile, however, it could be set forth in anticipation through type and through shadow.
In answer to David’s prayer God sent the prophet Gad to him again with this commandment, “Go up, rear an altar unto the LORD in the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” It was at the altar only that God’s mercy could be perfectly accomplished.