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David Numbers Israel (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21:1-27) December 12

The parallel accounts of David's census give some seemingly contradictory details which, when properly understood, shed additional light on this regrettable incident in David's life. While 1 Chronicles 21:1 says that it was Satan who moved David to take the census, 2 Samuel 24:1 attributes this to God, as a result of His anger toward Israel for some unstated reason. No doubt God allowed Satan to act, as He did with Job, for His own purposes. But why would God be upset at anyone taking a census, when He ordered them several times Himself in the past (e.g., in Numbers 1 and 26)?

Apparently there was an attitude problem here that even Joab was able to see. Perhaps David and the rest of the people were glorying unduly in their own physical might and power, as seems to be implied by 2 Samuel 24:3. In context, the previous chapter, 2 Samuel 23, dealt with the deeds of David's mighty men, while 2 Chronicles 20 discussed wars and great deeds that had been accomplished. As we've seen, by the time of the census, God was clearly already angry with the Israelites for some reason—and the possibility that they had become swollen with pride and were beginning to put their trust in their own greatness (rather than giving glory to and trusting in God) seems to fit. Or maybe David was considering some unauthorized military expansion campaign, since all of those counted by David's chief general were "valiant men who drew the sword" (2 Samuel 24:9). The NIV says Joab and the army commanders went out "to enroll the fighting men of Israel" (verse 4). One of the proposed punishments would have allowed David to go through with any such plans, but he would have spent three months losing his battles.

Joab and the army officers start by crossing the Jordan, counting the eastern tribes as they journey north, then coming back south among the western tribes, and taking nearly 10 months to do it (verses 5-8). The discrepancies in the counts may be attributable to a variety of reasons, including differences in age versus readiness to fight, counting or excluding those already in the standing army, and the fact that 1 Chronicles specifically excludes Levi and Benjamin (perhaps from Judah's total) while 2 Samuel does not.

Following the census, David finally realizes his error, but as is usually the case with our own sins, the consequences were still something he would have to face. In this case, through the prophet Gad, God offers him a choice of consequences, all of which would affect the entire nation. This may seem unfair, but remember the whole incident was prompted because "the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel." Israel as a nation was already guilty of something, and God is dealing here with David and the nation simultaneously according to His own divine purposes in a manner that seems to have been designed to humble all concerned.

One of the differences in the two accounts is in the number of years of the proposed famine. While Chronicles says three, Samuel gives seven. One possibility is that four years of famine had already taken place, and the Chronicles account was offering three more, for a total of seven. In any case, David does not choose that option—or the option of warfare. David's decision is implied by his confidence that God will be far more merciful than man—meaning he evidently chooses the plague. He trusts that God may be willing to not make it overly severe, or that He will perhaps cut the punishment short, which is indeed what seems to happen (2 Samuel 24:16).

As the plague is halted at Jerusalem, David pleads for mercy with God, stating that he should really be the one to suffer from the plague, and not the people. It is interesting to note that David wrote quite eloquently about sickness in some of his psalms, especially in Psalms 41, 38, 39 and 6. While many of these passages could be figurative of sin, most seem to imply a literal, dread disease that David may have had at some time in his life. It is entirely possible that he may have contracted this plague himself and that these psalms constitute prayers for deliverance from the disease, as well as the sin that brought it about.

The angel stops at the threshing floor of Ornan (or Araunah), a Jebusite, located on the top of Mount Moriah (2 Chronicles 3:1), and gives a command through Gad for David to erect an altar there (1 Chronicles 21:18). David asks to purchase the site to build the altar and offer burnt offerings. Ornan offers to give David the site, and the animals for the offerings, but David states that he would not "offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God with that which costs me nothing." It is a valuable principle for all of us that our offerings to God of service or money require a certain amount of sacrifice from us, or they are not really sacrificial offerings.

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