Copyright © 2008, American Journal of Biblical Theology
www.biblicaltheology.com Scripture quotes from KJV
The book of 2 Samuel closes with an account of a brief plague that God sent upon the people of Israel as a judgment for their disobedience, a reminder to them that He is God. Israel, unlike the true Christian Church today, lacked the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and lives of all of its people. The consequences of such rootless religion are evident throughout the history of the nation, as its people, often led by Spirit-filled leadership, lacked the power to maintain a lifestyle of consistent obedience to God. The people would often promise to obey God, but would turn away from Him, only to be turned back by one defining event after another. The cycle of promise, disobedience, and repentance is unbroken as the story unfolds. God's unfailing mercy is evident in His continual restoration of the people. The repentance of the people is instructive to us as we seek to realize God's mercy and grace in our own lives.
This same account is included in 1 Chronicles 21:1-27, and there are a few variations in the account as they are presented from different perspectives.
And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah. 2For the king said to Joab the captain of the host, which was with him, 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.
King David was experiencing a time of peace when the census was taken. In times when life was difficult, the people were drawn to seek God for help. However, at times of peace and prosperity it is natural to forget about our need for God, as was apparently the case in Israel at the end of the book of 2 Samuel. The people, including the King, took pride in their accomplishments and in their now-seeming invincibility. Though the sin that angered the LORD against Israel is not specified here, the context of the scripture implies that it is that of a pride and self-sufficiency that ignored God.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the taking of a census. God had commanded Israel to take censuses in Num. 1:2-46 and 26:1-51. Gideon was to count his army as God commanded him to reduce its size. However, we see in this instance the census was not directed by God, but rather by David so that he could increase the size of his fighting armies and take pride in their strength. Some word study of "census" and "number the people" reveals that Joab was not being commanded to simply count all of the people. Had he done that, and included all people, his totals would have been in the millions. His mission was to count only the fighting men, and furthermore rather than simply count them, he is to enroll them. With this understood, we see that David commanded his leaders to travel throughout the land and build him a great army, one that could withstand any attack. All men who were able to fight were conscripted into David's army. Again, this was done at a time of peace, a time when such an army would serve little useful purpose other than to frighten David's enemies.
David commanded that this military draft program would be inclusive of all Israel. When Israel needed an army to defend itself against neighbors, word went out from the King, calling the people to arms. Those who chose to follow the King numbered his army. David was not satisfied any longer with a volunteer army. It was now his desire to institute a draft program that would reach every corner of the nations of Israel and Judah. Rather than wait for God to call the people together to protect the land, David would use the method of other Kings who forced their people into battle ... and this in a time of peace!
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?
Joab was the captain, or commander, of all of David's armies, and was well-acquainted with the way the army had been formed in the past. Joab reminds David that it was always God who added to the army, whether it be a lot or a few, so that it would be an army of the LORD, not an army of David. Joab could not bring himself to understand why David would institute a draft, and by so doing, take upon himself the task that was always within the venue of God's authority and purpose. Why would David do this? We are beginning to see demonstrated in this act some of the pride and ambition that is deeply seated in the heart of David; that self-will that was also evident in his son Absalom.
Like all people who seek to follow God's will, David fought a battle with his own sin. We see in David a confidence that is as gregarious as any man, a confidence that draws strength and direction from a desire to honor God and to lead His people in a manner that pleases Him. However, that same skill or talent that God gave David that engendered this confidence would sometimes empower David's self-promotion and pride. Likewise, it is easy for Christians to forget that the source of their skills, talents, and interests is God, and these are gifts given to us by God to be used for His purpose, not just our own. When our skills and talents are exercised, we have a choice to use them to boast in our own ability, or use them to demonstrate the love and grace of God.
Notwithstanding the kingís word prevailed against Joab, and against the captains of the host. And Joab and the captains of the host went out from the presence of the king, to number the people of Israel.
This circumstance placed Joab in a moral dilemma. He had to choose between honoring the King by committing an act that was not ordained by God, or revolt against the King in an attempt to prevent this ungodly act. Our sin always has consequences. Sometimes our disobedience can cause others to sin if, like in the relationship between Joab and David, we have authority over another. I once had a very well-paying job, and I considered many of the tasks that I was required to complete to be unethical. Following a period of conflict and stress I notified my boss that I was quitting the job. Called a "fool" by my employer for leaving a job with such financial promise, I told him that "I am not a fool. I know where God would have me be, and I'm going there." Joab did not have such an option. He could either organize and conduct the draft or rebel against the King, and act for which he would surely die.
So, Joab honored the King and did as he was commanded. Who carries the deepest responsibility for the sin that Joab is about to commit? Certainly, all are responsible for the sin they commit. However, David, as Joab's superior holds an authority that includes the responsibility for leadership that comes with it. David is guilty of coercing Joab into this act. One might be reminded of James' imperative that, "Not all should become teachers, for theirs is the greater judgment." (James 3:1.)
So, should a Christian obey an un-godly command that is given by a superior authority? We see here that Joab did. There is no easy solution for the dilemma experienced by a Christian who is commanded by an ungodly boss. However, we are reminded in Paul's letter to the Romans (Rom. 13) that we are to respect and honor authority that God has placed over us. If that authority honors God, the subordinate will be placed in this dilemma. However, before a command is disobeyed, the subordinate should employ prayer and wisdom, recognizing that the authority carries the responsibility for the act.
The conduct of the census, or draft, was no simple matter. Joab used the chain of army commanders to accomplish this task. Now the sinful act of God was being shared by all of the military commanders in order to complete it. David had involved all of the leadership in Israel in his folly.
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: 6Then they came to Gilead, and to the land of Tahtimhodshi; and they came to Danjaan, and about to Zidon, 7And 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. 8So when they had gone through all the land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days.
We can see from these verses that the numbering of the people, or the conduct of the draft, was an immense project that spanned the entire nation of Israel (and Judah) from Dan to Beersheba, from the very southernmost point to the very northernmost, and from the easternmost points to the westernmost. Furthermore, the process took over nine and one-half months. During this time of peace, when the army could have gone home to care for their families and lands, its members were on the road fulfilling David's desire for a large, conscripted army.
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.
By the time the draft was completed, Joab had raised up an army of well over a million fighting men. Such an army is astounding in its size and strength. With it, David would be able to completely destroy any assailing nation. With it, any nation would be foolish to raise a sword against Israel. We see no other indication in scripture of any other army that would even approach 1.3 million. What would David do with such a huge army in a time of peace? Certainly, he could intimidate his neighbors. Those around him would fear David, and always wonder when David would cross the borders and destroy them out of greed, or out of retribution for past conflicts.
However, the astounding numbers would catch David's attention, and bring him back to reality.
And Davidís 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.
What was David's response when he fully realized what he had done? When David realized that he had taken upon himself the task of raising a mighty army, one that was overwhelming in its size, and that he had done so against God's purposes for him, for his army, and for his nation, he cried out to the LORD for forgiveness. We know that God is faithful to forgive the sin of one who is truly repentant, and David would quickly find forgiveness for his act. However, the consequences of his sin could not be erased. David could not bring Bathsheba's husband back to life any more than he could return her to her innocence. David could not undo the turmoil he had raised in the hundreds of thousands of families who had just experienced the conscription of all of their able-bodied male members.
David recognized his sin as foolishness. His act, though done in the clear view of the Omnipotent and Omnipresent God, seemed to him to be done only in his own authority and for his own purposes. Likewise, when we commit sin, we often think that God is not involved. However, God witnesses every sinful act, and will hold us accountable for them. When our sin affects others, the damage cannot be simply undone. To act in a way that ignores God is, as David testifies, foolish. I recall an incident that took place when my son was young. He entered my office and was astounded when I told him that he had just stolen cookies from the jar in the kitchen. How could I know this? He thought his father had a wisdom far greater than that which he could understand. However, the chocolate on his face was a good hint. Likewise, we might think that we are hiding our sin from God. However, such a position is complete foolishness.
What would be the consequences of David's sin? God would give David a choice, an opportunity few people might ever realize.
For when David was up in the morning, the word of the LORD came unto the prophet Gad, Davidís seer, saying, 12Go 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. 13So Gad came to David, and told him, and said unto him, 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 daysí pestilence in thy land? now advise, and see what answer I shall return to him that sent me.
Through the prophet, Gad, the message came to David that God would let him choose his own punishment. Three choices were given. The first was to experience three years of famine in the land. What would be the consequences of such an act? As in most Old Testament writing, the number three is significant. Three is used to represent completeness. Three years of famine implies that the famine will be long enough to complete its task. Such a famine would destroy Israel. Millions would either die or leave the land to find food. David's kingdom would come to an end.
[Note where the KJV refers to seven years of famine while other translations and the Chronicles account often refer to three years. This discrepancy is not due to errors in script or translation, but rather is indicative of the flexible manner that Hebrew language uses to refer to periods of time. The ancient Hebrews were more concerned with purpose than period, quite the opposite of today's culture. The remainder of this discussion will take the more common and poetic approach to the acceptance of three years.]
The second choice involved the deposition of David from the throne. David would leave Jerusalem, and stripped of the protection of his city and his army he would be vulnerable to his enemies, quite the opposite from the position he was attempting to attain for himself through the census. David would be on the run, much like he was from Saul, except instead of having one enemy, David would find himself with nowhere to rest. The third choice was to suffer a great illness in the land that would last for three days.
How would David make such a choice? How would we choose between three such difficult scenarios?
And David said unto Gad, 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.
David proclaims to Gad that he is in a dilemma. He faces a decision where there are no good choices. Sin always has consequences, and acting in sin often leaves us in the same position, with no easy way out. We have witnessed, and many have experienced the extremely difficult choices faced by people addicted to drugs and alcohol. His choices all affect the nation of Israel, and through all of them many people will die. How many will lose their lives in a three-year famine? How many will die if Israel loses its King for three months? How many will die in three days of pestilence. David's response was to place himself in the hands of God rather than in the hands of man. If he had chosen famine, he would have dictated the death of many in Israel while he was well-fed. If he had chosen war, he would have had to mobilize the army he had conscripted in sin in order to protect his own self. The final choice was the shortest, lasting three days and was the only choice that did not exempt himself from its judgment. David chose pestilence.
So 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.
The consequence of David's sin and decision were devastating. The nature of the illness that was sent is not identified. However, its impact covered the same area that David used to conscript his army. Furthermore, when the context and use of the word for "people" is considered, those who died were those men who were conscripted. Again, the numbers are significant. The scriptures report the death of 70,000 men. Seven refers to completion. When multiplied by 10, reference is made to a scale of full completion. One thousand was the largest number commonly considered by ancient Hebrews, making the number of men killed a very large and significant value.
The pestilence started the very next morning. The consequence of David's sin was swift and hard, and continued until the "time appointed." Again, the Hebrew language too vague to satisfy clock-watching 21st century culture. Three days can be any time greater than 24 hours as long as a part of three days are involved. Since the pestilence started in the morning, it would have continued through that day, the second day, and a portion of the third. Some translations replace "time appointed" with mid-day or noon. The pestilence had coursed through the entire region of Israel and was approaching Jerusalem, about to enter Judah.
And 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 threshing place of Araunah the Jebusite.
The pestilence that spread through the land is described as done at the hand of an angel of the LORD. We saw a similar demonstration of God's messenger of death as the last plague that struck the Egyptians prior to the Exodus of Israel. The LORD had determined that there was not a need to spread the pestilence into and past Jerusalem and the angel of death stopped close to the gates of Jerusalem in a threshing field owned by Araunah the Jebusite.
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 fatherís house.
Was David the only guilty person in Israel? Certainly he was guilty of the sin of pride and self-aggrandizement that led to his building up of the army, but his disregard of God was shared by all of the people. God's punishment of Israel went beyond David's sin when that sin was also shared by the rest of Israel. David's act was simply a catalyst to place God's judgment in motion. David asked that God's judgment fall only on his own house because of the innocence of his people. However, from David's perspective, his bent for power and the violence that comes with an army and war already had placed a judgment upon his own house. He never experienced peace within his own house, but rather saw the death of his first-born, the rape of Tamar his niece by his son Absalom who was later killed following his violent takeover of the throne. There was little judgment left for David's house.
Yet, the LORD knew that his judgment upon Israel was sufficient. David's penitence was sincere, and the people were ready to look to God again.
Why is it that it often takes a calamity in the lives of believers before they will turn back to God? Would life not be much more blessed if we looked to God continually, and by so doing appropriate for ourselves the blessings that come with His wisdom, strength, and guidance? The alternative is suffering from the consequences of our sin, the sin of others, and the judgments of God. This should be an easy choice.
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. 19And David, according to the saying of Gad, went up as the LORD commanded. 20And Araunah looked, and saw the king and his servants coming on toward him: and Araunah went out, and bowed himself before the king on his face upon the ground. 21And Araunah said, Wherefore is my lord the king come to his servant? And David said, To buy the threshingfloor of thee, to build an altar unto the LORD, that the plague may be stayed from the people. 22And Araunah said unto David, Let my lord the king take and offer up what seemeth good unto him: behold, here be oxen for burnt sacrifice, and threshing instruments and other instruments of the oxen for wood. 23All these things did Araunah, as a king, give unto the king. And Araunah said unto the king, The LORD thy God accept thee. 24And the king said unto Araunah, Nay; but 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 bought the threshingfloor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. 25And David built there an altar unto the LORD, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the LORD was entreated for the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel.
Another property of man's repentance is his propensity to quickly forget. So that David and the people would not forget the three-day plague and its cause, God told David, again through Gad, to build an altar at the place that the angel of death stopped in his march to Jerusalem. With the pestilence stopped, David was not about to disobey God again, so he went without delay to the threshing floor or Araunah the Jebusite with the intent of purchasing it from the Jebusite and building there an altar of remembrance.
What happened when David arrived at Araunah's property? The Jebusite's response was to be expected. Why would David, the mighty king of Israel, known for his violence and ruthlessness in battle, come to Arounah's threshing floor. Arounah knew that had he done anything against the thrown he would die. So, his question was not one of curiosity, but one of desperation. David expressed his desire to obtain the property from Arounah and whether or not Arounah could afford to give the property to David, it was offered to him as a gift. Certainly Arounah knew that David could simply take the land if he wished, and his offer for purchase was unusual. However, as David expressed, it was he who wished this altar to be a gift to God from him, and no gift worthy of God could be made without sacrifice.
When we have transgressed against the Lord and repented, God's forgiveness is certainly worthy of our thankfulness, our praise, and our giving back to Him that which He deserves. We often forget that without sacrifice, a gift has no value. God demands that our praise of him and our gifts to him would not be cheaply obtained. A gift that requires no sacrifice is no gift at all. So David purchased for fifty shekels of silver, the threshing floor of Arounah the Jebusite and built there an altar. Other references indicate that David actually gave Arounah many times more (as much as 12 times) for the land around the threshing floor. It was on this land that the LORD stayed Abraham's hand from plunging the knife into Isaac. It would be on this land, later called the hill of Moriah, that David's son, Solomon would build the temple, on the land where the LORD stayed the angel of death from plunging the knife of death into all Judea.
We see in this last chapter an illustration of the cycle of sin, consequences, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption that repeated so frequently in the nation of Israel. The commitment of sin comes with clear and devastating consequences. However, if we are faithful to confess that sin and turn from it (repent), God is faithful to forgive that sin and restore us into His fellowship. Such grace deserves our thankfulness and praise, demonstrated through true sacrifice. Only then can we fully realize the peace and joy that God has prepared for us.
Anderson, A.A. (1989) 2 Samuel, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 11. Dallas, TX: Word Books. Pages 279 - 287.
Dunston, Bob (2002), Repentance, Explore the Bible: Adult Leader Guide, Summer 2002. Nashville, TN: Lifeway Church Resources. Pages 137 - 145.
Youngblood, Ronald F. (1992). 2 Samuel, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. Pages 1094 - 1104.