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DAVID'S SIN OF NUMBERING THE PEOPLE AND GOD'S PUNISHMENT BY PESTILENCE
"Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, `Go, number Israel and Judah.'" (2 Samuel 24:1).
The time of the events mentioned here was evidently near the end of David's reign. The great problem of the chapter appears in this very first verse, where it is stated that, "God incited David against Israel by commanding him to number Israel and Judah." If God had indeed commanded David to number Israel, it could not have been a sin for him to have done so.
The true solution of what some view as a difficulty lies in 1 Chronicles 21:1, where it is flatly declared that, "Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to number Israel." Significantly, the statement in Chronicles was written at practically the same time, historically, as were the Books of Samuel; and therefore we reject categorically the notion of critical scholars who claim that the account in 1 Chronicles 21:1 represents, "A subsequent advance of religious thought," in Israel, erroneously supposing that, "In this passage we have an illustration of the imperfect recognition of the moral nature of Yahweh." "The language here leaves no doubt of the author's theory that God incites men to do that for which he afterward punishes them." Such viewpoints are not merely erroneous, they are also founded in ignorance and misunderstanding.
No! God does not move men to do certain things and then punish them for it. That principle is made clear in the Exodus example of God's hardening Pharaoh's heart. That was done by the Lord only at a time subsequent to the ten-fold Biblical statement that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. God always allows the triumph of man's own free will; and, in doing so, what God thus allows is very properly said by the sacred writers to have been done by the Lord.
That is exactly the situation here. David was determined to number Israel, knowing full well that it was a sin for him to do so for the purposes which he had in mind. The temptation had come from Satan himself (as stated in Chronicles), and in all probability via the mouth of some of David's associates or advisers. David went forward with that determination despite solemn warnings from Joab. God is here said to have done it in the sense that, knowing David's willful heart, he allowed it.
Several Biblical examples show the same situation. When Judas Iscariot already had fully determined to betray the Lord, the Lord said, "What thou doest, do quickly"! (John 13:27). Thus, God commanded Judas to betray Christ! Also when Balaam, who was sinfully making his way to the court of Balak for the purpose of cursing Israel, was enabled to see the angel with the drawn sword, he would have turned back; but God spoke through the angel, saying, "Go with the men"! (Numbers 22:35) Thus it is not incorrect to say that God commanded Balaam to go to Balak's court where he was assigned the task of cursing Israel. Exactly the same situation is visible here in the statement that God commanded David to number Israel.
Caird wrote of the opinions of some modern critical commentators who find here a theological view of God, "Which was later outgrown," pointing out that, "It was not really outgrown; because it recurs in the Biblical account of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart."
Not only that, exactly the same principle is still operative during the Christian dispensation. Paul pointed out that people who do not love the truth but have pleasure in unrighteousness are actually incited by God to believe a falsehood that they might be condemned (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12). "Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned, etc."
We are certain, therefore, that something exactly like this lies behind what is written here in this first verse.
The sinful error of Biblical critics who slander the character of God himself, basing their allegations upon a single, isolated text, is primarily the result of a false method of interpretation. There is no isolated text that should be interpreted without consideration of the light that falls upon it from other Biblical declarations. Satan certainly justified his appeal for Christ to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, if only the text Satan quoted had been considered; but Jesus reminded him of what was also written (Matthew 4:7). The whole counsel of God is never available in some isolated text, a fact made perfectly dear in Isaiah 28:10,13.
Over and beyond all that we have written above, this first verse here is written in the shadow of the ancient Oriental conviction which, "Acknowledges the great truth that all actions, both good and bad, are of God. `Shall there be evil in a city and Jehovah hath not done it (Amos 3:16)'?" What is meant is that nothing on earth ever happens, whether good or bad, which is not covered under the blanket of God's permissive will. It is in that understanding that 2 Samuel 24:1, above, must be interpreted.
"The anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel" (2 Samuel 24:1). It is considered uncertain by many as to why God was angry with Israel; but Keil and Payne both accepted the view that the anger of the Lord was probably due to the twin rebellions of Israel against David under the leadership of Absalom and of Sheba.
"Again" (2 Samuel 24:1). A number of scholars apply this as a reference to the famine mentioned in 2 Samuel 21 but this is very uncertain. There were almost countless times when God was angry with Israel.
"Go, number Israel and Judah" (2 Samuel 24:1). The mystery here is, "Just why was that a sin"? "What harm was there in it? Moses numbered the people twice. Should not the shepherd know the number of the sheep? What evil did David do when he numbered the people? It is certain that it was a sin, a very great sin, but wherein lay the evil of it is not exactly clear."
A number of writers have offered reasons why the action was sinful, which reasons may or may not be correct. That David did so with an inglorious intention of boasting, that he had in mind the military extension of his kingdom, or that he intended to use the information for the purpose of levying heavier taxes, or for a more vigorous prosecution of his forced labor projects - all of these reasons have been advanced by able scholars. Evidently some, or all, of these reasons were applicable.
That his numbering the people was indeed sinful appears in the fact that even Joab knew it was wrong; and without any further instruction whatever from the Lord, David himself admitted that he had sinned grievously in doing so (2 Samuel 24:10).
AFTER PROTESTING; JOAB TAKES THE ILLEGAL CENSUS OF ISRAEL
"So the king said to Joab and the commanders of the army, who were with him, "Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people." But Joab said to the king, "May the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see it; but why does my lord the king delight in this thing"? But the king's word prevailed against Joab and the commanders of the army. So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to number the people of Israel. They crossed the Jordan, and began from Aroer, and from the city that is in the middle of the valley, toward Gad and on to Jazer. Then they came to Gilead, and to Kadesh in the land of the Hittites; and they came to Dan, and from Dan they went around to Sidon, and came to the fortress of Tyre and to all the cities of the Hivites and Canaanites; and they went out to the Negev of Judah at Beersheba. So when they had gone through all the land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to the king: in Israel there were eight hundred thousand valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand."
The place names mentioned here are by no means a complete list of the places enumerated but are mentioned merely to indicate the obedience of the king's orders to enumerate the people from "Dan to Beersheba," the idiomatic way of saying, "from one end of the nation to the other."
"Why does my lord the king delight in this thing?" (2 Samuel 24:3). Joab's protest was as vigorous as could have been expected; and it was backed up by all of the army commanders who accompanied Joab into David's presence (2 Samuel 24:4). Although detailed reasons for this opposition to David's numbering the people are not given, it is clear enough that all Israel seriously objected to it. Tatum wrote that, "The people did not want to be enlisted for further military duty"; and that opinion is supported by the fact that Joab did not count all the people, but only, "the valiant men who drew the sword," (2 Samuel 24:9).
"They began from Aroer, and from the city that is in the midst of the valley" (2 Samuel 24:5). "These same places are mentioned in Deuteronomy 2:36 as forming the southern boundary of the territory taken by Israel from Sihon."
Although Joab and his men went practically all over Israel, they did not fully obey David's orders. "He did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, for the king's command was abhorrent to Joab" (1 Chronicles 21:6). The fact of its not being mentioned here does not contradict the truth that, in all probability, this preliminary move toward mustering an army of more than a million men by David must have encountered widespread opposition and dissatisfaction in Israel. It appears possible that such an unpopular move by David might have helped to open his eyes regarding his sin in the numbering of the people.
"Eight hundred thousand ... five hundred thousand" (2 Samuel 24:9) Chronicles gives different numbers here; but as DeHoff noted, "There is less to be gained from discussing the numbers given in the historical books of the O.T. than any other part of the Bible." Many of the discrepancies are doubtless due to two things (1) the imperfect manner of the Hebrew system of writing numbers, and (2) imperfections in the manuscripts that have come down through history to us.
It is of interest that the term "Israel" in 2 Samuel 24:1a and 2 Samuel 24:2 refers to the whole nation, whereas the same word in 2 Samuel 24:1b and 2 Samuel 24:9 distinguishes between the northern Israel and Judah.
DAVID ACKNOWLEDGED HIS SIN AND IS PUNISHED
"But David's heart smote him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the Lord, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, I pray thee, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly." And when David arose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David's seer, saying, "Go and say to David, 'Thus says the Lord, three things I offer you; choose one of them that I may do it to you.'" So Gad came to David and told him,, `Shall three years of famine come to you in the land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days pestilence in the land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.' Then David said to God, `I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of men.'"
Keil's analysis of this whole situation is as follows:
"Because David was about to boast proudly and to glory in the number of the people, God determined to punish him by reducing their number by famine, war or pestilence. At the same time the people themselves had sinned grievously against God and their king, through two rebellions headed by Absalom and Sheba." Thus it was not immoral on God's part that he punished both the sinful king and the sinful people. They both fully deserved it.
As Willis observed, "The intensity and severity of the three proposed punishments grew proportionately as their duration diminished."
THE GREAT PESTILENCE CAME; AND DAVID PRAYED TO GOD
"So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning till the appointed time; and there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba seventy thousand men. And when the angel stretched forth his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord repented of the evil, and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, "It is enough; now stay your hand." And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was smiting the people, and said, `Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let thy hand, 50pray thee, be against me and against my father's house.'"
"Till the appointed time" (2 Samuel 24:15). This is ambiguous, for it could refer either to the end of the three days or to something else. Due to the fact that the death-angel was in the act of continuing the slaughter, and to certain characteristics of the text, Willis wrote that, "This was the first of the three days." Cook referred it to the "Time of the evening sacrifice, at 3 o'clock p.m., when the people assembled for prayer." The same author pointed out that, "The death of seventy thousand men, as reported here, was the most destructive plague recorded as having fallen upon Israel, there having been the death of only 14,700 following the rebellion of Korah, and only 24,000 after the disaster at Baal-Peor."
"Even in this pestilence was seen the mercy of God; and an altar was built at the place where the destroying angel stayed his hand. That place, the threshing floor of Araunah, located just north of David's capital, was the place where God's presence was remembered, in all its terror and mercy; and there, very appropriately, Solomon's Temple was soon erected."
DAVID'S PURCHASE OF THE SITE FOR SOLOMON'S TEMPLE
"And Gad came that day to David and said to him, "Go up, rear an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. So David went up at Gad's word, as the Lord commanded. And when Araunah looked down, he saw the king and his servants coming on toward him; and Araunah went forth, and did obeisance to the king with his face to the ground. And Araunah said, "Why has my lord the king come to his servant?" David said, "To buy the threshing floor of you, in order to build an altar to the Lord, that the plague may be averted from the people." Then Araunah said to David, "Let my Lord the king take and offer up what seems good to him; here are the oxen for the burnt offering, and the threshing sledges and the yokes of the oxen for the wood. All this, O king, Araunah gives to the king." And Araunah said to the king, "The Lord your God accept you." But the king said to Araunah, "No, but I will buy it of you for a price; I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing." So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. And David built there an altar to the Lord, and offered burnt-offerings and peace-offerings. So the Lord heeded supplications for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel."
"2 Samuel 24:24 states that David bought the threshing floor for fifty shekels of silver; but 1 Chronicles 21:25 states that he gave six hundred shekels of gold for the site. No satisfactory explanation of these different prices has been given."
Very well, this writer will give a thoroughly satisfactory explanation of the alleged discrepancy. Here only the threshing floor was bought; in 1 Chronicles 21:25, it was THE SITE. The site was many times larger than a threshing floor. It is quite foolish to believe that anything as immense as the Temple of Solomon and adjacent structures could have been built on a threshing floor. And if that is not satisfactory enough, it is by no means unreasonable that the fifty shekels of silver was the earnest payment and the six hundred shekels of gold was the total price.
This writer had the privilege of buying a Madison Avenue corner for the Manhattan Church of Christ for $25,000.00 (earnest money), but the total price (including the interest) was over ten times that amount. The $20,000 transferred the possession of the corner to the church, and, therefore, it is correct to say that they acquired it for that amount.
Supporting this explanation is the fact of Araunah's being an aristocrat (as determined by the meaning of his Jebusite name). He doubtless had a rather large estate, not merely a threshing floor; and he would have hardly agreed to give his whole estate for fifty shekels of silver; but when David, perhaps even at that time, contemplating the building of the Temple there, purchased more land from Araunah, the price naturally escalated.
"I will not offer burnt-offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing" (2 Samuel 24:24). What a remarkable insight there is in this to the nature of true worship.
"All too many people wish to give as little as they can to God. They are willing for others to pay for the cost of the meeting house and the program of the Church. A true Christian will not allow others to pay for his share of the support of the work of the Lord, but finds joy in making a sacrifice to the full extent of his ability."
Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 24". "Coffman Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25