“Let your hand be against me…but not against Your people.” 1 Chron. 21:17
Read 2 Samuel 24, 1 Chronicles 21
It’s a sad fact of the Christian walk that many of our greatest sins are not committed early in our walk, when we are immature in the faith, but later in life, when we should know better. We can become complacent or over-confident. But we are told in 1 Cor. 10:12 “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall.”
We see David, larger than life in the pages of Scripture, boldly facing a giant when he was only a teen, leading soldiers during his years in the wilderness, and finally becoming not only a righteous king of Israel, but a man after God’s own heart.
David is known for his great moral failure in regard to Bathsheba. That is a sad story and most understand the lessons from that event quite well. But although the causes of that sin could be lust, coveting, abuse of power, and neglect of duty, it also led to other sins like adultery, murder and lying.
In this stage of David’s life, he is nearing the end of his reign. The incident with Bathsheba is long past, Solomon is a grown man, and David’s kingdom is well established. At this point, they have rest from their enemies.
Yet, instead of thankfulness and praise to God, we see both pride and insecurity. David orders a census of the people in his realm. Was he puffed up with hubris, forgetting that the LORD had taken him from shepherding sheep to shepherding His people? Did David think that the kingdom was his because of anything great in himself?
Or was David insecure, fearing that his army wasn’t large enough? Did he forget that God did not need armies to win battles, but that He was able to save “with many, or with few”? Did he need to hear the numbers to assure himself that they would be able to withstand any attacks? He spoke of trusting the LORD, but now he trusted in the arm of man.
We don’t know David’s true motives in this case, but we do know that behind it all, God was judging His people. We see this in verse one of 2 Sam. 24
“Again the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’”
The reason is not given, but it must have been some kind of sin. The fact that it says, ‘again’ tells us there had been an earlier incident. Most believe this to be Uzzah’s sin in touching the ark, recorded in 2 Sam. 6:6-12. It related to the improper respect for the law of God in handling the things of God. Something similar may have been the case here. In the law of Moses, there is a regulation regarding taking a census. It is found in Exodus 30:12 which says,
“When you take the census of the children of Israel for their number, then every man shall give a ransom for himself to the LORD, when you number them, that there may be no plague among them when you number them.”
The amount is specified in the next few verses. As far as we know, this wasn’t done, so it could be the reason. This would again remind them that they needed to remember they were dealing with a holy God.
We know from Scripture that God is the First Cause of the judgment upon His people.
Yet, 1 Chronicles 21:1 says Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel. Which was it? God, Satan, or David? All three, but in this order. God, the Sovereign of the universe is the First Cause, allowing events for His good purposes; Satan, once allowed by God, incites David by putting the thought in David’s mind; and David, as a free moral agent, does what he wants by ordering a census.
What next? David calls a meeting of his generals, tells them what he wants, and silences their protests. They can’t understand why he feels it is necessary to order this make-work project. Even his nephew, General Joab, protests. He seems to understand the wicked intent behind the order, and refuses to count the Levites or Benjamites in the total; possibly because the Levites were excluded from military service and the temple was in Gibeon, with the tribe of Benjamin. The main reason for Joab’s half-hearted obedience was his general disdain towards any of David’s orders with which he disagreed.
David ordered them to count all the men over the age of twenty. This was the age at which they would be eligible for military service.
Was he hoping to conscript more soldiers if he deemed there were not enough, or to increase taxes based on the population? Was David planning an offensive to take even more land than Yahweh had allotted them? We don’t know, but we know that whatever his motives, God was not pleased.
Ten months later, the census is completed and the numbers reported to David. Immediately, his conscience is pricked and he recognizes the wickedness of what he has done. He sees it even before a prophet is dispatched to announce God’s assessment of the situation. He repents, yet judgment still falls.
The prophet Gad is sent by God to address the king the next day. Surprising, and yet, not. This was how God communicated with the patriarchs. David must have known the news would not be good. He must have feared the approach of the prophet, as if he was bringing condemnation, just as the prophet Nathan had. Gad didn’t even explain the problem, but went straight to the punishment.
“Thus says the LORD, ‘I offer you three things; choose one of them for yourself, that I may do it to you.’”
Gulp. Would it be worse to choose your own punishment than to merely take whatever the LORD would send?
“Will three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before you are defeated by your foes, with the sword of your enemies overtaking you? Or will there be three days’ plague in your land? Now consider and see what answer I should take back to Him who sent me.”
Consider the terrible options brought by the prophet; famine, enemies, or plague. These three things have been the usual punishments for disobedience for their nation from the beginning. What an impossible choice! Any of those would result in so much death, again the result of David’s actions. How many would die as the result of his decisions?
“I am in great distress,” David says to Gad. “Please let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for His mercies are great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man.”
So, that would mean David chose the first or last option. He must’ve been so overwhelmingly distressed at the thought of fleeing from his enemies again, after the years in the wilderness, running from Saul, and more recently, on the run from his own son, Absalom. Some commentators speculate that there was possibly some measure of selfishness in David’s choice, since the prophet said with the second option he would fall by the sword. (1 Chron. 21:12) Perhaps this old warrior-king liked the idea of dying in his bed after all.
Are those thoughts too harsh? Hadn’t David learned that the LORD’s mercies were indeed great, as he saw when He forgave his many sins?
The choice was made by God. The plague began that night.
The sound of anguish and loud wailing would have been heard behind almost every door. At first, people wouldn’t understand what was happening, or why. People would suddenly get sick and die. They didn’t know how many would die in this divine judgment. Even if their family members were fine on the first day, would it be a comfort, once they learned it would last three days? They were at the mercy of the LORD, as David had said.
It must have seemed so mystical; the way the LORD was working. They had witnessed God’s supernatural power over events in the life of David so many times, but in his favor. Yet now, to be witnessing God’s judgment, of this magnitude, on His own people… and they knew it would happen just as the prophet said. There would be a plague throughout the whole land. And it would last as long as God decreed. Thankfully, not a moment longer.
A plague. Like the judgments on ancient Egypt in the day of Moses, God was revealing His mighty arm. He would do as He wished in the affairs of men. He was a discerner of men’s hearts. He knew what was in David’s heart; what motivated him to number the people.
Yet they could be equally sure the plague would not extend beyond Israel’s borders, because this time Israel was the object of God’s wrath, just as the Israelites were spared when the LORD judged Egypt. This was a very specific plague; Israel only, three days only.
But why must the people suffer for the king’s folly? When he took Bathsheba and murdered Uriah, God didn’t strike the people. Why now? It must not have seemed fair. In his sin with Bathsheba, which was heinous, and affected many people, he was forgiven. Yet now, in this seemingly harmless incident, the judgment is severe. What’s the difference?
We don’t know for sure, but possibly because the incident with Bathsheba was a private sin, it resulted in private consequences, mostly within the king’s own family. But this was a public sin, therefore the consequences were public. If the king was motivated by pride in the number of his people, as if the strength of Israel was the result of his leadership, rather than the blessing of God, then, perhaps the LORD was taking away from their number to show him that He alone is the cause of blessing or cursing, mercy or judgment.
But what’s so wrong about a census? It’s been done many times without this type of response.
Often the sins we think are small, are more offensive to God because he knows our motives. Or it could have been because of the manner in which it was done, which we mentioned earlier.
But why can’t God just forgive David, if he repents, like before?
He did repent. He recognized his sin. His conscience was bothered. This was before he even knew the prophet would come to him. Perhaps there are times when we are repentant, and God forgives us, yet the consequences still come. David was forgiven for his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah, yet there were still grave consequences. Other soldiers died along with Uriah. Families were bereaved. Who can understand the judgments of God?
Couldn’t he just offer some kind of sacrifice, like the one for wilful sin, and hope that God would relent?
Doubtful. When the prophet announced the judgment, it didn’t come with options to avoid it. This time, the sacrifice would be the lives of his people. How many that would be, they didn’t know.
Imagine yourself in the midst of this divine judgment. You’d wonder if every family would lose someone, like in the plague in Egypt, with the death of the firstborn? Would the judgment be that comprehensive?
These were probably the longest, most dreadful three days of David’s life. He knew he couldn’t stop the judgment of God. He must have feared moment by moment that a messenger would arrive with terrible news about someone in his family.
This was no localized event. News would arrive of thousands of dead throughout all Israel, from Dan in the north, to Beersheba in the south, all beginning on the same day. Yet the greatest number of deaths seemed to be in Jerusalem, itself, the city that bore Yahweh’s name. When it was all over, seventy thousand men of Israel died. If it’s the case that only men died, again it would remind David of his desire to know how many men of fighting age where in the land. It’s also interesting that 1 Chon. 21:14 says not just that they died, but that these men ‘fell’, so the idea is that of falling in battle. The LORD was fighting, not for His people, but against them.
Their only consolation would be that the prophet said the plague would last only three days. Only three days!
All business would been suspended, as it often is in a national crisis. The whole country would be in a panic, probably hoping to flee from the plague; but they were kept in Israel, caring for the dead or dying. David and all the elders of Israel were clothed in the sackcloth of mourning.
On the evening of that third day, David goes up onto the rooftop, this time not as a restless king looking for a distraction, but as a distressed man at the mercy of God. Even from this height, the cries of mourning could be heard in the streets below. David looks out over Jerusalem, the city he loves and his heart must have ached.
1 Chron. 21:16 We don’t know how this angel appeared but it may have been as if the clouds had formed into the shape of a man; with his sword drawn and outstretched over Jerusalem. The elders of Israel seemed to see it as well, and fell on their faces.
David fell to his face and cried out, “I am the one who has done evil indeed,” he confessed. “Was it not I who commanded the people to be numbered? But these sheep,” he stretched his arm out over the city in entreaty to God, interceding for his people, “what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, O LORD my God, be against me and my father’s house, but not against your people.”
How different this evening walk on a rooftop was from that evening long ago! To be witness to such a prayer! Although the people could rightly be angry at David that this punishment had come upon them, could they imagine that if they were in David’s position, they’d wish curses on their own family in the place of others? David had already seen so much suffering in his own family as a result of his actions, and now he was willing to take on even more, to spare his people. He was truly a shepherd of the people.
Usually, in sacrifice, it was the life of an innocent animal in place of a guilty person; but now David, the guilty man, offered himself in place of his innocent sheep.
As if in a conversation with God, Himself, the prophet Gad arrived behind them on the roof. As was his usual direct approach, the prophet went straight to the message.
In response to David’s prayer, the prophet told him, “The LORD has relented of the disaster and has restrained the hand of the destroying angel. Now go up, erect an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor of Ornan, the Jebusite.”
It’s odd that the LORD directed David to a new place of worship, rather than the tabernacle in Gibeon, which was only six miles away from Jerusalem. But David did not question the command. Instead he hurried to observe the word of the LORD, perhaps thinking to spare even one more person if he obeyed quickly. Zadok, the priest and several other guards would have followed David as he entered his chariot and went in the direction of the vision he had seen in the sky over Jerusalem. As some citizens of Jerusalem saw the royal chariot pass by, he may have heard them exclaim, “The king! The king has come down to see our suffering!”
David must have turned away in anguish. Many would not yet know he was the cause of the plague. When they learned of it, they could well curse him instead.
When they arrived at the property of Ornan, the Jebusite, which was near Mount Moriah, the man would have looked up to see the king and his servants approaching. David wasted no time in going directly to the man. Ornan bowed before the king with his face to the ground.
“Are you Ornan, the Jebusite?” David asked.
The man nodded. “Why has my lord, the king, come to his servant?” Ornan must have asked, with trembling in his voice. The man must have feared for his life since the king came to him in person and asked for him by name.
“Grant that I might buy the threshing floor from you at full price, that I might build an altar to the LORD, that the plague may be withdrawn from the people.”
Ornan lifts his head, relief and surprise in his eyes, then he stands. “Let my lord the king take and offer up whatever seems good to him.” He motions to a yoke of oxen nearby. “Look, here are oxen for burnt sacrifice, and threshing implements and the yokes of the oxen for wood. All these, O king, Ornan has given to the king,” then he adds with a bow, “May the LORD your God accept you.”
David must have paused at Ornan’s last comment.
“No, but I will surely buy it from you for full price; for I will not take what is yours for the LORD, nor will I offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God with that which costs me nothing.”
Isn’t that beautiful? He understood that true worship was costly. This time he would not abuse his power and take what did not belong to him.
David counted out a generous sum and paid Ornan, so it then became royal property. Their haggling was reminiscent of the purchase of Sarah’s burial site by Abraham, done in front of witnesses, to make it legal.
David then set about building the altar himself, brushing away the help offered by his servants. As the king place each rock, one by one, on the growing altar, we wonder if David remembered how he wanted his people counted?
When it was built, David offered burnt offerings; in acknowledgement of the righteous judgment of God, and peace offerings; in recognition of the mercy of God. This was accomplished through Zadok, the priest, whom he had brought with him.
When the oxen had been laid on the altar, David fell to his knees and called out to God. We don’t know what he prayed, but we know his prayer was heard. A moment passes. David instructs Zadok to proceed with lighting the burnt offering, but there is no need, as fire came from heaven, directly onto the altar. The guards standing nearby may have fallen backwards, some would have cried out in fear. What was happening?
David would have recognized what had happened, and it caused him to fall on his face. They would have felt the heat from the fire. When they looked up, the sacrifice had been completely consumed.
The LORD was pleased to answer David’s prayer and accept the sacrifice by fire. If the plague was a supernatural occurrence, this was more so.
As David inhaled the scent of the burnt offering, he must have marvelled that God had accepted the offering. Just as all of God’s judgments were just, so great was His mercy toward His people. Once His sword was sheathed, there would be no further deaths from this plague.
David was truly humbled by this event, perhaps even more so than after his sin with Bathsheba. In many ways, he had abused his power; taking another man’s wife, ordering this census because of his pride, not following God’s commands in how it should be done.
Now, he realized he was not greater than this poor farmer, whose land he purchased. He did not just come and demand the land and all he needed. He bought it for a generous price, and built the altar with his own hands, rather than merely ordering his servants to do it. He finally saw that true worship was costly, as his disobedience had been costly.
In spite of the horrible events of those three days, it must have been hard to feel any bitterness toward David. God’s anger had been spent. The avenging angel had sheathed its sword, near the same place where Abraham’s hand was stayed from killing Isaac, so long ago. It was over.
Some of the Scarlet Threads we find are revealed as contrasts, like the blood of Abel crying out for justice, versus the blood of Christ crying out for forgiveness. How is Christ pictured in this event? He is the One Who intercedes for His sheep and offers to take their punishment. In David’s case, it was the guilty for the innocent; in Christ’s case it is the innocent for the guilty. Jesus stands between the just wrath of God and His people. He absorbs it in Himself as the sacrifice, and even now He intercedes for us based on what He has already accomplished.
“Let your hand be against me…but not against Your people.” 1 Chron. 21:17
His sacrifice was complete and accepted. We know this because God the Father put His stamp of approval on it by raising Jesus from the dead. Romans 4:25 says Jesus… “who was delivered up (to die) because of our offenses, and raised because of our justification.” His resurrection proved that the sacrifice was acceptable to God. Otherwise He would have stayed dead. It corroborated everything Jesus ever said and did.
It’s also interesting to note that even though there was already a set place of worship, in Gibeah, six miles northeast of Jerusalem, God directs David to a new place. He then prophesied that it would be the site of the soon-to-be-built temple. (2 Chron. 22:1)
This place is in the shadow of Mount Moriah, the place where Abraham almost sacrificed his son. It remained the place where David continued to go to worship, 1 Chron. 21:30 says, because of fear. It became the site that Solomon built his temple, (2 Chron. 3:1) and the same area where Christ was sacrificed a thousand years later.
Prayer: “Oh gracious, merciful LORD. This narrative shows us how You are involved in the affairs of men, and overrule them because You are Sovereign. When we read of things like a plague being sent by Your hand to punish Your people, we tremble. Yet with You there is mercy. We also see that You are holy and we could not stand in Your presence, let alone approach You if not for the finished work of Christ on our behalf. He intercedes for us, even now, and we thank You. If we are hidden in Christ, we are safe from Your righteous judgments. Thank You for accepting His sacrifice.”
Questions: How is your take on this narrative different from what you thought previously? Did you ever feel the plague was somehow an over-reaction to the census? Did you ever see Christ in this story before? Did you know about the change in location of worship? Do you ever feel you have to ‘defend’ God to unbelievers who would use this story to demonstrate how He appears harsh and uncaring? Did you notice that David never once complained about the judgment of God? He only ever claimed He was merciful and appealed to Him to transfer His judgment to Himself. Do you agree with the statement that many sins are committed when believers are more mature, than when they are less mature in the faith? Why do you think that is?