Today we conclude our study of 2 Samuel. Chapter 24 contains one of those challenging passages that is difficult to understand. There is a parallel in 1 Chronicles 21, which has some significant differences from the account here. I will refer to those differences at appropriate places.
In verse one the word “again” refers to the three years’ famine recorded back in chapter 21. You will recall that Lord was angry at Israel then, because of Saul’s decision to kill the Gibeonites. In that case, the Lord held the nation as a whole responsible for the sin of the king. In this case, according to what we see here in 2 Samuel, the Lord “moved” (NKJV) or “incited” (RSV, NRSV) David to number the people, which as we read on, was a sinful decision on David’s part.
This raises a couple of problems. First, taking a census doesn’t seem to be a sin. And second, even if it were a sin, David’s responsibility seems diluted if the Lord incited him to do it. And that brings us to the first major difference between this account and the one in 1 Chronicles. 1 Chron. 21:1 doesn’t say that the Lord instigated David do it. On the contrary, it says that Satan incited him to count the people.
Let’s deal with the second issue first. In light of the larger biblical revelation, we know that God never tempts anyone (James 1:13). He permits Satan to tempt us, and he uses the temptations of Satan to test us. The most famous example of the latter was the temptation of Jesus himself in the wilderness. At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, because temptations were going to come to Jesus in any case; and God wanted Jesus to deal with that test immediately.
So I would interpret verse one of our passage in light of the overall revelation and the 1 Chronicles parallel. Satan was the one who led David to sin, not the Lord. However, the Lord permitted him to do it. Therefore the temptation was the permissive will of God rather than his intentional will. That is, God permitted it to happen; he did not make it happen. And that was a distinction the author 2 Samuel didn’t make.
Now then, let’s turn to the sin involved. As suggested earlier, taking a census is not in itself sinful. So scholars have sought other reasons for the Lord’s dissatisfaction. For example, it has been speculated that David failed to collect half shekels for the sanctuary, as the Lord had instructed Moses to do back in Ex. 30:11-12. Those verses read, “The Lord spoke to Moses: ‘When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the Lord, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered.’” And then the Lord went on to give the amount of the ransom, namely, half a shekel. But scholars are generally agreed that the situation in Exodus was entirely different from that here in 2 Samuel; and that failure to collect that ransom money was not David’s sin.
Others have speculated that David carried out the census with the purpose in mind of imposing taxes on each town and village. But there is no indication of that in the text.
Still another suggestion advanced is that David’s intention with the census was to enroll the entire country in military service because he wanted to take over the entire near eastern world. Again there is no way to prove such a theory.
So most scholars believe that, whatever David’s unnamed intention was, his sin was a sin of pride. That is, for some unknown reason David wanted to exalt himself by counting the people. And as we shall see, the result was that the Lord reduced the number of the people. We will never know, in this life anyway, exactly what David’s sinful motive was. It just is not revealed.
All right, let’s move on to verses 3-9. Whatever David’s motive was, it was evident to Joab, who protested taking the census. He saw that the census would not be advantageous to David’s government, but might cause problems among the people. So Joab advised David not to do it (v. 3). But David rejected the advice. So Joab and his commanders began the census (v. 4).
Their route is given in broad outline. It may be that the cities mentioned were places from which they counted the people in the surrounding areas. At any rate, they began on the eastern side of the Jordan River at a place called Aroer, which was located in the southeastern part of the country east of the Dead Sea. Then they headed north to a city named Jazer, which also was situated on the eastern side of the Jordan, but about a quarter of the distance between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee northward (v. 5). From there, they moved to Gilead, though the precise city is uncertain because the Hebrew is obscure (v. 6).
Next they moved to Dan, which was directly north of the Sea of Galilee (v. 6). From there they could count many of the northern families. Then they went to the Mediterranean coast to Sidon and Tyre, which formerly had been the major cities of the Phoenicians and which, at the height of David’s reign, were the extreme northern part of David’s kingdom (vv. 6-7).
From there they headed south to the cities of the Hivites and Canaanites. Those were areas west of the Jordan and north of Jerusalem, where many of the original people of the land still lived among the Hebrews, people who had not been exterminated during the conquest as God had ordered (v. 7).
Lastly they went into the south, to the Negeb of Judah at Beersheba. That was the deep south on the western side of the Dead Sea. As you can see they made a huge upside down U and covered the entire country. It took the military nearly ten months to complete that part of the census and return to Jerusalem. I say “that part of the census,” because the parallel in 1 Chron. 21:6 tells us that the census “did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, for the king’s command was abhorrent to Joab.”
This suggests that Joab, because he thought the count was not appropriate, may have spent more time taking the census than was necessary. Of course the Levites, as the priests, would have been exempt from a census that was ascertaining the number of men who could bear arms. But Joab still had not counted the Benjamites, the tribe who lived nearest to Jerusalem.
The numbers reported here in 2 Samuel were 800 thousand in Israel, and 500 thousand in Judah, which made a total of 1.3 million men,. Once again there is a difference in 1 Chronicles. There the number given for Israel was 1.1 million and for Judah 470 thousand, which totals 1.57 million men. As you well know by now, the recording of numbers is a big problem in the Old Testament.
In verses 10-14 David somehow came to realize that he had sinned, but it was too late to avoid consequences. David repented of his sin and asked for forgiveness (v. 10). But the next day, the court prophet, Gad, came to him with a message from God (v.11). The Lord offered David three options: (1) three years of famine (1 Chronicles says seven), (2) flee before human enemies three months, or (3) three days’ pestilence in the land (vv. 12-13).
David didn’t want to fall into the hands of human enemies, so he decided to throw himself and the nation on the mercy of the Lord. And we see the results in verses 15-17. Although the pestilence took a terrible toll, with 70,000 people dying, the Lord stayed the hand of the destroying angel before the pestilence reached Jerusalem. That is, he was merciful.
The angel was visible, and David saw it. So did Araunah (1 Chron. 21:20). The parallel in 1 Chronicles also gives a more detailed account of what David saw. When he saw the angel , he prayed that the Lord would punish him personally, and his family, instead of punishing the people further. But apparently the Lord already had stopped the deaths.
In verses 18-25 we learn that David had seen the angel at the threshing floor of Araunah The prophet Gad brought David a message from God that David was to build an altar to the Lord on that threshing floor (v. 18). So David went to Araunah and bought the threshing floor and everything he needed to make an altar and a sacrifice (vv. 19-24).
Once again we find differences between the two accounts. In Chronicles, the name of the man from whom David bought the floor, etc. is Ornan instead of Araunah. And the numbers differ. The amount David paid for everything is 50 shekels of silver. But in 1 Chronicles, the amount mentioned is 600 shekels of gold. The latter is more reasonable for what he bought. Abraham paid 400 shekels of silver for a burial plot in a much earlier time when land may have been cheaper.
David made the proper offerings and prayed, and the plague in Israel ceased. The parallel in 1 Chron. has an additional interesting historical note. That account goes on to say that David decided that day to build a house, a temple, for the Lord on that spot (1 Chron. 22:1). Thus we learn how the site for the Jerusalem temple chosen.
As we turn to application, I would ask you, first, to ponder whether or not David chose correctly when he chose the plague rather than one of the other options. Sometimes we are faced with difficult decisions, where every option seems to be evil. This is especially true of leaders. Have you ever faced such a decision?
Notice second that David solved the plague problem by turning to God in prayer and by making the proper sacrifices. Many times our only hope in a given situation is prayer and trust in the God who made and loves us.