Sunday School lesson for August 25, 2002
David’s Census (24:1-9)
Here, near the end of David’s career as king, we find the one known as the “man after God’s own heart” in yet another moment of sin against Yahweh. Once more, we are told—“Again”—the Lord grew angry at Israel and His wrath “burned against” His covenant children. Simultaneously, David was “incited” by the Lord to “go and count Israel and Judah.” According to the parallel record in 1 Chronicles 21:1 “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” Perhaps the best way to understand this is to see that both accounts represent the truth of what happened from two distinct perspectives. On one hand, this was the work of Satan, tempting and deceiving the king. On the other hand, it was part of the mysterious operation of God’s secret, sovereign will much in the same way that Job (Job 1:1ff) and, centuries later, Judas (Luke 22:3; Acts 2:23), as well as the apostle Paul (2 Cor. 12:7) experienced first hand. While there are components of this account that remain deeply shrouded in divine mystery—for instance, we do not know why the Lord was angry with Israel—we may safely assume that Yahweh was “going to use David’s sin as the vehicle of His wrath upon Israel” [Davis, 261]. Indeed, the Lord will do this very thing without being the author of evil or tempting His people to sin (James 1:13).
Special note: Appeals to what is popularly called the “permissive” will of God are of little value in understanding such admittedly difficult passages. In the end, God must will or decide to permit the act to occur, and this fact brings one back full circle to the original dilemma. We conclude with Dale Davis that, “we cannot use Satan to avoid God” . Consider also the helpful comments of Dale Bergen:
In order to bring judgment against Israel, the Lord “incited David” to “take a census of Israel and Judah.” The writer’s attribution of the action to the Lord is not contradictory to 1 Chr. 21:1; it reflects his understanding that Yahweh is Lord of the universe, exercising dominion over all powers and authorities whether in heaven or on earth (cf. Ps. 97:9; Eph. 1:20). . . . The Bible teaches that God empowers even destructive beings—whether superhuman (cf. 1 Kgs. 22:19-23; 2 Thess. 2:11) or human (cf. Judg. 1:14; Hab. 1:6; Acts 4:28)—in limited ways to bring judgment and, ultimately, redemption. In the present case the Lord used both superhuman and human beings to enforce the moral order so as to bring judgment on Israel .
Since David fervently desired to know exactly how many soldiers he had under his command, he ordered “Joab” and his staff of “commanders” to travel throughout the kingdom from top to bottom—“from Dan to Beersheba”—in order to “enroll he fighting men.” Despite the serious questions and protests of Joab, David sent the men out on their mission.
This section provides the details of Joab’s travels in obedience to the command of the king. Following a lengthy period of enrollment—“nine months and twenty days”—Joab and his men returned with the information David desired (v. 8). All totaled, there were “eight hundred thousand” men in Israel and “five hundred thousand” in Judah who “could handle a sword” (v. 9).
David’s Confession (24:10-14)
Having determined the military strength of his nation, David fell under the convicting hand of the Lord and became “conscience-stricken.” Whatever his motive was in determining the precise number of fighting men under his charge, David knew that his actions had displeased the Lord. In carrying out the census in such a manner David clearly violated the will of Yahweh. With a profound awareness that he had “sinned greatly” and had “done a very foolish thing”—a phrase denoting a “morally deficient activity” [Bergen, 477]—David immediately fell before Yahweh in confession of his “guilt.” It is significant that, unlike the period following his sin with Bathsheba, David had an immediate awareness that he had done wrong, thus displaying a tenderness of conscience typical of those who know and love the Lord [Baldwin, 296].
The next day, even before the king had awakened, Yahweh sent His word to a “prophet” named “Gad.” This man apparently served as a “seer,” or “a kind of chaplain to the king” [Baldwin, 296]. The Lord instructed Gad to go immediately to David with word of the consequences of his sin. Interestingly, however, Yahweh would offer “three options” from which David would pick—“Choose one of them for me to carry out against you” (v. 12).
As a consequence of his sin against the Lord, David was commanded to pick between a three year “famine,” a three-month flight from his “enemies,” or “three days of a plague in your land.” Though the prophet advised David to “think it over” before deciding, the king quickly gave his answer—“Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great." Dale Bergen explains that David knew from his experience that
The Lord would be more merciful than any of his enemies, and [he] preferred the wounds of a friend (cf. Ps. 141:5; Prov. 27:6)—especially a divine one—to those of an enemy. David knew from both the Torah (cf. Exod. 34:6) and personal experience that the Lord’s “mercies are numerous.” After all, he had deserved to die for sins committed against Uriah and Bathsheba; yet the Lord had mercifully commuted his death sentence. Thus David chose a form of punishment that did not require a human intermediary, one that was incidentally the shortest .
The Plague (24:15-17)
In keeping with David’s choice, Yahweh “sent a plague on Israel” that very morning. When it was all over, “seventy thousand” Israelites were dead. The widespread coverage of the plague—“from Dan to Beersheba”—and the intensity and duration of its effects—“until the end of the time designated”—evidenced its character as a divinely ordained act of judgment.
The agent of the plague is identified as “the angel of the Lord” who had “stretched out his hand” against the nation. The precise identity of this angel is the subject of perpetual debate among Old Testament authorities. Some understand him to be a special angel who uniquely represented Yahweh’s presence among men. Youngblood, for example, understands that this angel is a “special messenger from the court of heaven who bears all the credentials of the King of Heaven and can therefore speak and act on His behalf” . Others see this angel as a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ Himself. At any rate, this passage is the only Old Testament instance of the angel “bringing an act of judgment against the covenant people” [Bergen, 478, n #63].
While verse 16 displays the reality and intensity of God’s wrath, it also presents a picture of the divine mercy upon which David so confidently depended. Note that at the precise moment the angel was to “destroy Jerusalem,” the Lord Himself became “grieved” and commanded the angel to “Withdraw your hand.” This proved that David’s faith was not misplaced. Though the people certainly deserved whatever measure of destruction God saw fit to inflict upon them, He never once forgot the covenant promises or permitted His unfailing love to be overshadowed by Israel’s sins.
In verse 17, while the angel was “striking down the people,” David displayed amazing maturity and unselfishness in the midst of the outpouring of God’s wrath. He passionately appealed to God once again, declaring that, as king of Israel, he alone had “sinned and done wrong.” His reference to the people of Israel as “sheep” and his searching inquiry—“what have they done?”—clearly revealed his awareness of direct responsibility for the spiritual condition of the covenant nation. Thus, he called upon the Lord to remove His hand of judgment from the people and to allow it to “fall upon me and my family.”
The Altar (24:18-25)
Once more, the prophet Gad approached David with instructions from the Lord—“Go up and build an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah,” a site located just outside the city of Jerusalem (v. 18). Bergen reminds us that earlier in Israel’s history the Lord had ordered Jacob, “the founder of the nation of Israel,” to build a similar altar (Gen. 35:1). Now he orders David, “the founder of the nation of Israel’s worship center at Jerusalem, to do the same” . Having heard the divine word, David immediately “went up, as the Lord had commanded through Gad” (v. 19).
Upon his arrival at the threshing floor, a discussion ensued between Araunah and the king. Curious as to why David would pay such a visit, Araunah questioned David directly—“Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” The answer was that David desired to purchase the site as an appropriate location for a sacrificial altar where atonement for the sins of the people could be made. Such action, David hoped, would lead to the withdrawal of the plague from among the Israelites (v. 21). In response, Araunah offered to give David whatever he needed to make his offering before the Lord (v. 23) including “oxen for the burnt offering,” “threshing sledges,” and “ox yokes for the wood” (v. 22).
Yet, David refused to take freely of Araunah’s goods and insisted on paying for everything. His motive for the purchase of the floor and other items was his deep love for God and his desire to provide a true sacrifice before Him, not “burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” With the payment of “fifty shekels of silver,” David secured the “threshing floor and the oxen.” Bergen explains the significance of this action:
In purchasing the land from Araunah and then utilizing it for sacrifice to the Lord, David was apparently following the Torah guidelines regarding the dedication of land to the Lord (cf. Lev. 27:20-21). When he did this, the land became permanently holy and was set-aside in perpetuity for priestly use, a situation completely consistent with the site’s subsequent use for the temple of the Lord .
Next, David constructed the altar and presented both “sacrifice” and “fellowship offerings” to Yahweh (Interestingly, this is the exact site where Abraham had offered Isaac and where David’s own son Solomon would eventually build Israel’s glorious temple). In response to this act of worship and faith, the Lord answered David’s prayer and “the plague on Israel was stopped.” Though seventy thousand people had tragically died in the plague, the entire nation “had been given a salutary reminder of spiritual realities: true prosperity was to be found in dependence upon their faithful covenant Lord, and on Him alone” [Baldwin, 298].
One: Pride, arrogance, self-sufficiency: Do you think that any of these sins factored in David’s decision to have the fighting men numbered? Ultimately, what was so sinful about ascertaining how big David’s army was? What would be a New Testament example of a similar sin?
Two: The components of genuine repentance: According to verses 10-14, what are some of the marks of authentic repentance? What is it that distinguishes true repentance from that which is only a surface sense of guilt?
Three: The blessings and perils of spiritual leadership: What principle(s) may be extracted from David’s willingness to suffer for his people in verse 17?
Four: Sacrifice and forgiveness of sin: What is the connection between David’s sacrificial offering and the removal of the plague? How does this episode foreshadow the cross of Christ?