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THE NUMBERING OF ISRAEL.
2 Samuel 24:1-25
THOUGH David’s life was now drawing to its close, neither his sins nor his chastisements were yet exhausted. One of his chief offences was committed when he was old and grey-headed. There can be little doubt that what is recorded in this chapter took place toward the close of his life; the word "again" at the beginning indicates that it was later in time than the event which gave rise to the last expression of God’s displeasure to the nation. Surely there can be little ground for the doctrine of perfectionism, otherwise David, whose religion was so earnest and so deep, would have been nearer it now than this chapter shows that he was.
The offence consisted in taking a census of the people. At first it is difficult to see what there was in this that was so sinful; yet highly sinful it was in the judgment of God, in the judgment of Joab, and at last in the judgment of David too; it will be necessary, therefore, to examine the subject very carefully if we would understand clearly what constituted the great sin of David.
The origin of the proceeding was remarkable. It may be said to have had a double, or rather a triple, origin: God, David, and Satan, or, as some propose to render in place of Satan, "an enemy."
In Samuel we read that "the Lord’s anger was again kindled against Israel." The nation required a chastisement. It needed a smart stroke of the rod to make it pause and think how it was offending God. We do not require to know very specially what it was that displeased God in a nation that had been so ready to side with Absalom and drive God’s anointed from the throne. They were far from steadfast in their allegiance to God, easily drawn from the path of duty; and all that it is important for us to know is simply that at this particular time they were farther astray than usual, and more in need of chastisement. The cup of sin had filled up so far that God behooved to interpose.
For this end "the Lord moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah." The action of God in the matter, like His action in sinful matters generally, was that He permitted it to take place. He allowed David’s sinful feeling to come as a factor into His scheme with a view to the chastising of the people. We have seen many times in this history how God is represented as doing things and saying things which He does not do nor say directly, but which He takes up into His plan, with a view to the working out of some great end in the future. But in Chronicles it is said that Satan stood up against Israel and provoked David to number Israel. According to some commentators, the Hebrew word is not to be translated "Satan," because it has no article, but "an adversary," as in parallel passages: "The Lord stirred up an adversary unto Solomon, Hadad the Edomite" (1 Kings 11:14); "God stirred up another adversary to Israel, Razon, the son of Eliadib" (1 Kings 11:23). Perhaps it was someone in the garb of a friend, but with the spirit of an enemy, that moved David in this matter. If we suppose Satan to have been the active mover, then Bishop Hall’s words will indicate the relation between the three parties: "Both God and Satan had then a hand in the work - God by permission, Satan by suggestion; God as a Judge, Satan as an enemy; God as in a just punishment for sin, Satan as in an act of sin; God in a wise ordination of it for good, Satan in a malicious intent of confusion. Thus at once God moved and Satan moved, neither is it any excuse to Satan or to David that God moved, neither is it any blemish to God that Satan moved. The ruler’s sin is a punishment to a wicked people; if God were not angry with a people, He would not give up their governors to evils that provoke His vengeance; justly are we charged to make prayers and supplications as for all men, so especially for rulers."
But what constituted David’s great offence in numbering the people? Every civilized State is now accustomed to number its people periodically, and for many good purposes it is a most useful step. Josephus represents that David omitted to levy the atonement money which was to be raised, according to Exodus 30:12, etc., from all who were numbered, but surely, if this had been his offence, it would have been easy for Joab, when he remonstrated, to remind him of it, instead of trying to dissuade him from the scheme altogether. The more common view of the transaction has been that it was objectionable, not in itself, but in the spirit by which it was dictated. That spirit seems to have been a self-glorifying spirit. It seems to have been like the spirit which led Hezekiah to show his treasures to the ambassadors of the king of Babylon. Perhaps it was designed to show, that in the number of his forces David was quite a match for the great empires on the banks of the Nile and the Euphrates. If their fighting men could be counted by the hundred thousand or the thousand thousand, so could his. In the fighting resources of his kingdom, he was able to hold his head as high as any of them. Surely such a spirit was the very opposite of what was becoming in such a king as David. Was this not measuring the strength of a spiritual power with the measure of a carnal? Did it not leave God most sinfully out of reckoning? Nay, did it not substitute a carnal for a spiritual defense? Was it not in the very teeth of the Psalm, ’’There is no king saved by the multitude of an host; a mighty man is not delivered by much strength. An horse is a vain thing for safety; neither shall he deliver any by his great strength. Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon them that fear Him, upon them that hope in His mercy, to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine"?
That David’s project was very deeply seated in his heart is evident from the fact that he was unmoved by the remonstrance of Joab. In ordinary circumstances it must have startled him to find that even he was strongly opposed to his project. It is indeed strange that Joab should have had scruples where David had none. We have been accustomed to find Joab so seldom in the right that it is hard to believe that he was in the right now. But perhaps we do Joab injustice. He was a man that could be profoundly stirred when his own interests were at stake, or his passions roused, and that seemed equally regardless of God and man in what he did on such occasions. But otherwise Joab commonly acted with prudence and moderation. He consulted for the good of the nation. He was not habitually reckless or habitually cruel, and he seems to have had a certain amount of regard to the will of God and the theocratic constitution of the kingdom, for he was loyal to David from the very beginning, up to the contest between Solomon and Adonijah. It is evident that Joab felt strongly that in the step which he proposed to take David would be acting a part unworthy of himself and of the constitution of the kingdom, and by displeasing God would expose himself to evils far beyond any advantage he might hope to gain by ascertaining the number of the people.
For once - and this time, unhappily - David was too strong for the son of Zeruiah. The enumerators of the people were dispatched, no doubt with great regularity, to take the census. The boundaries named were not beyond the territory as divided by Joshua among the Israelites, save that Tyre and Zidon were included; not that they had been annexed by David, but probably because there was an understanding that in all his military arrangements they were to be associated with him. Nine months and twenty days were occupied in the business. At the end of it, it was ascertained that the fighting men of Israel were eight hundred thousand, and those of Judah five hundred thousand; or, if we take the figures in Chronicles, eleven hundred thousand of Israel and four hundred and seventy thousand of Judah. The discrepancy is not easily accounted for; but probably in Chronicles in the number for Israel certain bodies of troops were included which were not included in Samuel, and vice versa in the case of Judah.
Just as in the case of his sin in the matter of Uriah, David was long of coming to a sense of it. How his view came to change we are not told, but when the change did occur, it seems, as in the other case, to have come with extraordinary force. "David’s heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the Lord, I have sinned greatly in that which I have done; and now, I beseech Thee, O Lord, take away the iniquity of Thy servant, for I have done very foolishly." Once alive to his sin, his humiliation is very profound. His confession is frank, hearty, complete. He shows no proud desire to remain on good terms with himself, seeks nothing to break his fall or to make his humiliation less before Joab and before the people. He says, "I will confess my transgression to the Lord;" and his plea is one with which he is familiar from of old - "For Thy name’s sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity, for it is great." He is never greater than when acknowledging his sin.
Next comes the chastisement. The moment for sending it is very seasonable. It did not come while his conscience was yet slumbering, but after he had come to feel his sin. His confessions and relentings were proofs that he was now fit for chastisement; the chastisement, as in the other case, was solemnly announced by a prophet; and, as in the other case too, it fell on one of the tenderest spots of his heart. Then the first blow fell on his infant child; now it falls upon his sheep. His affections were divided between his children and his people, and in both cases the blow must have been very severe. It was, as far as we can judge after a night of very profound humiliation that the prophet Gad was sent to him. Gad had first come to him when he was hiding from Saul, and had therefore been his friend all his kingly life. Sad that so old and so good a friend should be the bearer to the aged king of a bitter message! Seven years of famine (in 1 Chronicles 21:12, three years), three months of unsuccessful war, or three days of pestilence, - the choice lies between these three. All of them were well fitted to rebuke that pride in human resources which had been the occasion of his sin. Well might he say, ’’I am in a great strait." Oh the bitterness of the harvest when you sow to the flesh! Between these three horrors even God’s anointed king has to choose. What a delusion it is that God will not be very careful in the case of the wicked to inflict the due retribution of sin! "If these things were done in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?"
David chose the three days of pestilence. It was the shortest, no doubt, but what recommended it, especially above the three months of unsuccessful war, was that it would come more directly from the hand of God. "Let me fall now into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are great, and let me not fall into the hand of man." What a frightful time it must have been! Seventy thousand died of the plague. From Dan to Beersheba nothing would be heard but a bitter cry, like that of the Egyptians when the angel slew the first-born. What days and nights of agony these must have been to David! How slowly would they drag on! What cries in the morning, "Would God it were evening!" and in the evening, "Would God it were morning!"
The pestilence, wherever it originated, seems to have advanced from every side like a besieging army, till it was ready to close upon Jerusalem. 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. It was a spot that had already been memorable for one display of Divine forbearance, and now it became the scene of another. Like the hand of Abraham when ready to plunge the knife into the bosom of his son, the hand of the angel was stayed when about to fall on Jerusalem. For Abraham a ram had been provided to offer in the room of Isaac; and now David is commanded to offer a burnt-offering in acknowledgment of his guilt and of his need of expiation. Thus the Lord stayed His rough wind in the day of His east wind. In sparing Jerusalem, on the very eve of destruction, He caused His mercy to rejoice over judgment.
No one but must admire the spirit of David when the angel appeared on Mount Moriah. Owning frankly his own great sin, and especially his sin as a shepherd, he bared his own bosom to the sword, and entreated God to let the punishment fall on him and on his father’s house. Why should the sheep suffer for the sin of the shepherd? The plea was more beautiful than correct. The sheep had been certainly not less guilty than the shepherd, though in a different way. We have seen how the anger of the Lord had been kindled against Israel when David was induced to go and number the people. And as both had been guilty, so both had been punished. The sheep had been punished in their own bodies, the shepherd in the tenderest feelings of his heart. It is a rare sight to find a man prepared to take on himself more than his own share of the blame. It was not so in paradise, when the man threw the blame on the woman and the woman on the serpent. We see that, with all his faults, David had another spirit from that of the vulgar world. After all, there is much of the Divine nature in this poor, blundering, sinning child of clay.
On the day when the angel appeared over Jerusalem, Gad was sent back to David with a more auspicious message. He is required to build an altar to the Lord on the spot where the angel stood. This was the fitting counterpart to Abraham’s act when, in place of Isaac, he offered the ram which Jehovah-jireh had provided for the sacrifice. The circumstances connected with the rearing of the altar and the offering of the burnt-offering were very peculiar, and seem to have borne a deep typical meaning. The place where the angel’s arm was arrested was by the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite. It was there that David was commanded to rear his altar and offer his burnt-offering. When Araunah saw the king approaching, he bowed before him and respectfully asked the purpose of his visit. It was to buy the threshing-floor and build an altar, that the plague might be stayed. But if the threshing-floor was needed for that purpose, Araunah would give it freely; and offer it as a free gift he did; with royal munificence, along with the oxen for a burnt-offering and their implements also as wood for the sacrifice. David, acknowledging his goodness, would not be outdone in generosity, and insisted on making payment. The floor was bought, the altar was built, the sacrifice was offered, and the plague was stayed. As we read in Chronicles, fire from heaven attested God’s acceptance of the offering. ’’And David said. This is the house of the Lord God, and this is the altar of the burnt-offering for Israel." That is to say, the threshing-floor was appointed to be the site of the temple which Solomon was to build; and the spot where David had hastily reared his altar was to be the place where, for hundreds of years, day after day, morning and evening, the blood of the burnt-offering was to flow, and the fumes of incense to ascend before God.
No doubt it was to save time in so pressing an emergency that Araunah gave for sacrifice the oxen with which he was working, and the implements connected with his labour. But in the purpose of God, a great truth lay under these symbolical arrangements. The oxen that had been labouring for man were sacrificed for man; both their life and their death were given for man, just as afterwards the Lord Jesus Christ, after living and labouring for the good of many, at last gave His life a ransom. The wood of the altar on which they suffered was part of it at all events, borne on their own necks, "the threshing instruments and other instruments of the oxen," just as Isaac had borne the wood and as Jesus was to bear the cross on which, respectively, they were stretched. The sacrifice was a sacrifice of blood, for only blood could remove the guilt that had to be pardoned. The analogy is clear enough. Isaac had escaped; the ram suffered in his room. Jerusalem escaped now; the oxen were sacrificed in its room. Sinners of mankind were to escape; the Lamb of God was to die, the just for the unjust, to bring them to God.
There were other circumstances, however, not without significance, connected with the purchase of the temple site. The man to whom the ground had belonged, and whose oxen had been slain as the burnt- offering, was a Jebusite; and from the way in which he designated David’s Lord, "the Lord thy God," it is not certain whether he was even a proselyte. Some think that he had formerly been king of Jerusalem, or rather of the stronghold of Zion, but that when Zion was taken he had been permitted to retire to Mount Moriah, which was separated from Zion only by a deep ravine. Josephus calls him a great friend of David’s. He could not have shown a more friendly spirit of a more princely liberality. The striking way in which the heart of this Jebusite was moved to cooperate with King David in preparing for the temple was fitted to remind David of the missionary character which the temple was to sustain. "My house shall be called an house of prayer for all nations." In the words of the sixty-eighth Psalm, "Because of thy temple at Jerusalem shall kings bring presents unto thee." As Araunah’s oxen had been accepted, so the time would come when " the sons of the stranger that join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him and to love the name of the Lord, even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon Mine altar." What a wonderful thing is sanctified affliction! While its root lies in the very corruption of our nature, its fruit consists of the best blessings of Heaven. The root of David’s affliction was carnal pride; but under God’s sanctifying grace, it was followed by the erection of a temple associated with heavenly blessing, not to one nation only, but to all. When affliction, duly sanctified, is thus capable of bringing such blessings, it makes the fact all the more lamentable that affliction is so often unsanctified. It is vain to imagine that everything of the nature of affliction is sure to turn to good. It can turn to good on one condition only - when your heart is humbled under the rod, and in the same humble, chastened spirit as David you say, and feel as well as say, "I have sinned."
One other lesson we gather from this chapter of David’s history. When he declined to accept the generous offer of Araunah, it was on the ground that he would not serve the Lord with that which cost him nothing. The thought needs only to be put in words to commend itself to every conscience. God’s service is neither a form nor a sham; it is a great reality. "If we desire to show our honour for Him, it must be in a way suited to the occasion. The poorest mechanic that would offer a gift to his sovereign tries to make it the product of his best labour, the fruit of his highest skill. To pluck a weed from the roadside and present it to one’s sovereign would be no better than an insult. Yet how often is God served with that which costs men nothing! Men that will lavish hundreds and thousands to gratify their own fancy, - what miserable driblets they often give to the cause of God! The smallest of coins is good enough for His treasury. And as for other forms of serving God, what a tendency there is in our time to make everything easy and pleasant, - to forget the very meaning of self-denial! It is high time that that word of David were brought forth and put before every conscience, and made to rebuke ever so many professed worshippers of God, whose rule of worship is to serve God with what does cost them nothing. The very heathen reprove you. Little though there has been to stimulate their love, their sacrifices are often most costly - far from sacrifices that have cost them nothing. Oh, let us who call ourselves Christians beware lest we be found the meanest, paltriest, shabbiest of worshippers! Let souls that have been blessed as Christians have devise liberal things. Let your question and the answer be: "What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows unto the Lord, now in the presence of His people."
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 24". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26