The Census and the Sacrifice, II Samuel 24

There are two accounts in the Bible of this occasion.  The first is II Samuel 24 and the other is I Chronicles 21, which adds some details and clarifies some parts of the story.  But we’re going to look at the II Samuel 24 account.  It’s an account involving a big sin in the later years of David’s life.

It is interesting that in the verse right before this account (II Samuel 23:39) it mentions Uriah the Hittite.  If you’ve read what has come before in II Samuel, when you read “Uriah the Hittite” you cannot help but think of David’s sin against that man recorded back in chapter 11.  Uriah the Hittite was a mighty and loyal soldier in David’s elite force and the husband of Bathsheba.  II Samuel 11 tells us that one day when David’s forces were away at war and, for some reason, he was at home in Jerusalem at his palace, bored, he caught sight from his roof top of Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, bathing down below.  He gave in to his lust, sent for her, and spent the night with her.  A month or two later Bathsheba sent word to him that she was pregnant.  In an effort to make Uriah appear to be the father, he immediately sent for Uriah to come back from the battlefield, pretending to have just summoned him for a progress report on the battle, but really intending that he go home and spend a night with his wife.  But Uriah’s conscience would not allow him to go sleep at his house with his wife when all of his comrades were sleeping out in the open field.  Even when David got him drunk the next night, he still would not go home to his wife.  So David wrote a letter to the commanding officer on the battle field, instructing him to place Uriah in the front line where the fighting was the fiercest and then withdraw all support from him so that he would be killed by the enemy.  And David folded up that letter and sealed it and placed it in Uriah’s hands and sent him back to the battle.  The commanding officer did as David instructed and Uriah was killed.  David gave Bathsheba just a little while to mourn for her husband and then took her as a wife.  So God sent Nathan the prophet to David with a message to open his eyes to show how evil it was, what he had done and about the consequences God was going to bring against him for what  he’d done.  But David did not make excuses for himself.  He accepted Nathan’s rebuke, hung his head, and just confessed to his sinfulness.  In the sincerity of repentance he prayed according to Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me.  Do not cast me away from Your presence And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation And sustain me with a willing spirit.”  And incredibly, Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has taken away your sin; you shall not die.  “There will be consequences; some bad things are going to happen as a result of what you’ve done.  But God has forgiven you; you still have His friendship.”  What abundant grace God has!

But I’m not sure that was the worst thing David ever did.  What he does here in II Samuel 24 is maybe just as bad if not worse.  The text may even suggest to us that in David’s mind what he did here was even worse than his sin against Uriah the Hittite.  When David confessed his sin against Uriah in chapter 12 he said simply, “I have sinned against the LORD” (12:13).  But when he confesses this sin in chapter 24 he will not just say, “I have sinned,”  he will say, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done”  (24:10).  And yet when he confesses his sin in sincere repentance, incredibly God forgives him again.  David is one of those men in the Bible, like Saul of Tarsus (I Timothy 1:13-16) and others, that God has used to demonstrate to the rest of us His amazing patience and grace and willingness to forgive, to show that none of us have messed up so bad in our lives that we can’t have His forgiveness and friendship.

But there’s more to be seen in this story than just a demonstration of God’s amazing grace.

Let’s read first here…

David’s sin on this occasion (verses 1-9)

Now again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”  [The parallel account in I Chronicles 21:1 explains further, “Satan moved David to number Israel.”  Satan was God’s agent in moving David to do this.] 2 The king said to Joab the commander of the army who was with him, “Go about now through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and register the people, that I may know the number of the people.”  3 But Joab said to the king, “Now 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; but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?”  4 Nevertheless, the king’s word prevailed against Joab and against the commanders of the army.  So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to register the people of Israel.  5 They crossed the Jordan and camped in Aroer, on the right side of the city that is in the middle of the valley of Gad and toward Jazer.  6 Then they came to Gilead and to the land of Tahtim-hodshi, and they came to Dan-jaan and around to Sidon, 7 and came to the fortress of Tyre and to all the cities of the Hivites and of the Canaanites, and they went out to the south of Judah, to Beersheba.  8 So when they had gone about through the whole land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days.  9 And Joab gave the number of the registration of the people to the king; and there were in Israel eight hundred thousand valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand men.

You might say, “Okay, what’s the big deal?  He wanted to know how many men he had in his kingdom.  What’s so bad about that?”  We sort of take a census here every Sunday and post the number up over here.  What is so wrong about this census of the men of Israel?

Well, place a marker here in II Samuel 24 and turn back to Exodus 30:11.  “The Lord also spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “When you take a census of the sons of Israel to number them, then each one of them shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord, when you number them, so that there will be no plague among them when you number them [We’re about to read in II Samuel 24 about a plague that resulted from numbering the sons of Israel.].  13 This is what everyone who is numbered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as a contribution to the Lord .  14 Everyone who is numbered, from twenty years old and over, shall give the contribution to the Lord.  15 The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than the half shekel, when you give the contribution to the Lord to make atonement for yourselves.  16 You shall take the atonement money from the sons of Israel and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the sons of Israel before the Lord, to make atonement for yourselves.”  God was soon about to command Moses to take a census of all the men of Israel who were fit.  We read about that in the book of Numbers.  And there were good reasons for that census.  A primary purpose was so that they could see how much land each tribe was to be allotted when they conquered the land of Canaan (Numbers 26:52-54).  It was so they could divide up the land fairly.  And another purpose was to set a precedence and establish a memorial regarding what must happen when you take a census.  Notice again Exodus 30:16, “You shall take the atonement money from the sons of Israel and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the sons of Israel before the LORD, to make atonement for yourselves.”  Moses was to take the atonement money from the census and it was to go toward materials for the tabernacle (Exodus 38:25ff), and be a memorial to the sons of Israel to make atonement for themselves.  In other words, I think God intended future generations (in talking about who paid for the tabernacle, where did this come from?) to inquire and find out that a big chunk of the money came from the men of Israel, when paying a ransom price for themselves when they were being counted in a census, and that would remind them that if they were ever counted in a census that they too would need to make atonement for themselves.  This passage is a warning about taking censuses of the people of Israel.  A plague will come on the people when there’s a census of them, unless atonement is made, unless those counted each pay a ransom for their lives of a half shekel.  Interesting, huh?  It appears that when they are settled in the land of Canaan and the land is already divided up and God is not commanding a census to be taken, there is something less than righteous about calling for a census of the sons of Israel.  There is some evil about that for which atonement must be made.

But why?  What would be wrong with a census of Israel that would make atonement for it necessary?  Well, think about the possible motivations that a king of Israel might have to call for a census of the men in his kingdom.  I can think of three possible motivations, and none of them are noble.

  1. One possible motivation is to see how big of an army you can muster, how much manpower you have, because you think that the size of your army is a major factor in your ability to win battles.  And maybe you’re thinking about going to war with another nation to expand your kingdom.  But you know that Israel was to know that numbers don’t win battles.  The LORD their God determines who wins and loses in battles regardless of numbers, and that God could take Gideon and 300 and defeat 135,000 Midianites.  You don’t rely on numbers, you rely on God.  And also, Israel was to just follow God’s guidance when it came to warfare, just fight those that God told them to fight.  So for a king of Israel to want a census to see how big of an army he had and whether he should go fight somebody or not, would exhibit a lack of trust in God.
  2. Another possible reason a census might be taken is for taxation purposes, if a king wanted to impose a tax on the people and know how much he should have coming in from the various areas of the kingdom.  But a king in Israel had no right to impose taxes beyond the contribution system that God commanded in the Law of Moses.
  3. Another possible motivation for a census might be to just sort of flatter one’s self, to puff up one’s pride.  A king may want to know how many men he is over so that he can bask in his own glory and to be able to brag about the number of his men and have it recorded in history how many he ruled over.

We’re not told why David wanted this census, if it was to just stroke his ego or if David was greedy for more territory and had ambitions to expand his kingdom beyond the land God had allotted them and wanted to see what kind of army he could muster to do it.  Whatever his reasons, they were not noble; they were selfish.  And this census wasted a lot of resources and a lot of people’s time.  It took his military commanders almost 10 months to complete this census.  And the worst part about it was that he put the lives of the people of Israel at risk.  David should have known Exodus 30.  Kings in Israel were supposed to know their Bibles (Deuteronomy 17:18-20).  And I think David had read Exodus 30 before.  In the Psalms David often speaks of his love for God’s word (Psalms 19:7-11).  I think he’d probably read Exodus 30 multiple times.  Did he forget it’s warning about taking a census of Israel, or did he not take it seriously?  And it appears that the rest of the nation was also either not reading or not taking seriously God’s word, because there’s no indication that anybody did what that Scripture told them to do in a national census.  What happens here is like what happened in the days of the prophet Hosea, when God said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”  We need to know our Bibles, know God’s instructions, and take them seriously.

Notice again why this happens.  Verse 1 says “the anger of the LORD burned against Israel“.  David is not the only guilty one in this story.  The hearts and lives of the Israelites were not right before God, they were not listening to Him, and God intended to discipline them.  And so it says God moved David to call for this census.  I Chronicles 21:1 says Satan moved David to do this.  But it’s not in the sense that David was forced to.  It’s not that David had no choice in the matter.  Rather God knew David’s heart and at this point in David’s life there was a problem in his heart, pride or selfish ambition.  And God knew that given the right circumstances and influences and opportunity, David would do this evil thing.  And if David did, that would provide God an occasion to discipline His people that He was displeased with and also bring the pride and selfish ambition in David’s heart to the surface so that he could see it and repent of it.  So to accomplish those good purposes of disciplining His people and David and making them better, God permitted Satan to bring about the circumstances and influences that tempted David to do this.

Well, let’s read about…

The consequence for this sin (verses 10-15)

“Now David’s heart troubled him after he had numbered the people.  So David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done.  But now, O Lord, please take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.”  11 When David arose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, 12 “Go and speak to David, ‘Thus the Lord says, “I am offering you three things; choose for yourself one of them, which I will do to you.”‘“  13 So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, “Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land?  Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you?  Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land?  Now consider and see what answer I shall return to Him who sent me.”  14 Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress.  Let us now fall into the hand of the Lord for His mercies are great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man.”  15 So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time, and seventy thousand men of the people from Dan to Beersheba died.”

So the night after the census was complete and the numbers reported, David came to his “census”.  He was conscience stricken and overwhelmed with guilt.  Probably didn’t sleep much that night.  He confessed to the Lord his great sin and the foolishness of his actions.

But God always keeps His word, whether He promises to bless or He promises to punish.  And God had said, Exodus 30:12, “When you take a census of the sons of Israel to number them, then each one of them shall give a ransom of himself to the LORD… so that there will be no plague among them when you number them.

So in the morning the prophet Gad came to David with a message of his three options for punishment.  Maybe like your mother used to do, “Do you want to be grounded for a week, sit in the corner for an hour, or the wooden spoon?”  Why did God give David three options?  Maybe to demonstrate that He is self-controlled in His discipline.  He doesn’t give just knee jerk reactions to sin.  And perhaps to also say that He could do a lot worse than He will.  He’ll just do 1 of 3 things.  In considering his options David figures God’s mercies are much greater than man’s, and so he would rather the punishment be dealt more directly by God Himself than through the agency of men.  So he’s saying “Just not option 2; just don’t let us fall into the hands of our enemies.”

So the LORD sent some sort of pestilence on Israel.  Can you imagine an Israelite town, ordinary day, people are moving about, buying, selling, visiting, working, and then all of the sudden various men all over town, shopkeepers, some customers, construction workers, fathers, husbands, sons, just various men all over town, stagger and collapse, and friends or loved ones rush to their sides and kneel beside them and they’re burning with fever and breathing heavily and maybe just within minutes of being dead?  And the entire town is filled with the sounds of crying and wailing.  Right after it happens in that town, then it happens in the next town and then in the next and the next.  70,000 die throughout the land.  So much for the census.  Can you imagine how David felt knowing that his foolish actions resulted in this?

God showed David that the numbers can be dwindled down to nothing very quickly if He so desires.  God controls the numbers.  Numbers don’t win battles.  And numbers underneath you are no reason to think more highly of yourself.  God is in control of the numbers.  And God also taught this nation and us who read of it that He is a holy God, and a God who holds our lives in His hands, and a God who will always keep His word, and a God who will not be taken lightly as though we don’t need to listen to Him, a God whose word must be heard and obeyed.

Then the Lord used this occasion to illustrate and teach something remarkable.  Let’s read about…

The ending of the plague (verses 16-25)

“When the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who destroyed the people, “It is enough!  Now relax your hand!”  And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.  17 Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking down the people, and said, “Behold, it is I who have sinned, and it is I who have done wrong; but these sheep, what have they done?  Please let Your hand be against me and against my father’s house.”  18 So Gad came to David that day and said to him, “Go up, erect an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.”  19 David went up according to the word of Gad, just as the Lord had commanded.  20 Araunah looked down and saw the king and his servants crossing over toward him; and Araunah went out and bowed his face to the ground before the king.  21 Then Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?”  And David said, “To buy the threshing floor from you, in order to build an altar to the Lord, that the plague may be held back from the people.”  22 Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take and offer up what is good in his sight.  Look, the oxen for the burnt offering, the threshing sledges and the yokes of the oxen for the wood.  23 “Everything, O king, Araunah gives to the king.”  And Araunah said to the king, “May the Lord your God accept you.”  24 However, the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will surely buy it from you for a price, for 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.  25 David built there an altar to the Lord and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings.  Thus the Lord was moved by prayer for the land, and the plague was held back from Israel.”

Threshing floors were normally outdoors on elevated places where the breeze could blow away the chaff and the dust.  This threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite was not an arbitrary random location for God to choose as the place where He had the destroying angel halt and let David offer to take the punishment of the people on himself, and then, instead of having to take the punishment himself, be allowed to build an altar and offer substitutionary sacrifices.  God had reasons choosing this particular location.

Let me read to you a verse in II Chronicles about this spot.  II Chronicles 3:1, “Then Solomon began to build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah [Where have you read that before, “Moriah”?], where the LORD had appeared to his father David, at the place that David had prepared on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite [Ornan is another name for Araunah].”

In the days of Abraham this particular area of Jerusalem was called “Moriah”.  And you remember one day God said to Abraham, “Abraham!”  And he said, “Here I am.”  And God said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”  Abraham decided to do as God said, though he didn’t understand it.  And it took him 3 days from where he was to travel to the land of Moriah, and so for 3 days in Abraham’s mind Isaac was dead.  When they got to the land of Moriah, God said to Abraham, “That hill over there, that’s the one.  Offer him on top of that hill.”  This good father had his only beloved son carry the wood on which he would die up to the place where he would die.  They built the altar and Abraham bound his son and laid him on the altar and raised the knife to kill him and then God stopped him, so in a sense, Abraham received his son back to life after 3 days.  Then Abraham raised his eyes and there was a ram with its head caught in thorns, a substitutionary sacrifice provided by God.  And Abraham offered that sacrifice in place of his son.  And Abraham named the place, “YHVH-jireh,” the LORD will provide.

In the days of David that same hill, or at least one close to it, was the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.  And when the Lord was slaying His people and the destroying angel came to this spot, God told him to stop right there.  And there David saw the angel.  And there David the king offered himself in place of the people; the shepherd offered to lay down his life for the sheep.  But God wouldn’t let David take their place.  But He sent a message to David telling him to build an altar on this threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite and offer sacrifice.  And God graciously accepted the sacrifices here and, as the I Chronicles account words it, the destroying angel put his sword back in its sheath.

Later at that same spot Solomon built the temple, and for many centuries atonement for sin was made there.  It was the place where God accepted substitutionary sacrifice and people obtained forgiveness of their sins.

God was illustrating and foreshadowing and fore picturing the climactic event when His wrath toward His people would actually be satisfied and man’s salvation really purchased.  There on one of those hills of Moriah God did, as Abraham said that He would, He provided, He offered His only beloved Son.  There the king and shepherd laid down His life for the sheep… that no matter what we’ve done, even stolen another man’s wife or something foolish that resulted in the death of 70,000, we might be free from our sins and have eternal life.

Does that not make you love your Maker and desire to worship and honor Him?  If you don’t love Him for just giving you life and all things, don’t you love Him because He paid, at His own great cost, for your salvation?

We learn something from David here about how to really worship and honor God. 

David knew that in order for our gifts and offerings to really be honoring to God they must cost us something.  So David would not accept Araunah’s offer to just give him the threshing floor and the oxen and wood and everything for the sacrifices.  David wanted to pay full price for it all (I Chronicles 21:24), because if he just accepted it as a gift from Araunah and then gave it to God he would only be re-gifting God.  Have you ever been re-gifted?  Have you ever found out that what somebody gave you for your birthday was actually something that they got from somebody else last Christmas and it didn’t fit them or they already had one or they didn’t really like it, and apparently they wanted to get by as cheaply and conveniently as they could in getting you a gift, so they just re-gifted it to you?  How do you feel about that?  That gift doesn’t mean much to you, does it?  Not near as much as if they spent their mental energy to think about what you might like and then spent their time and hard earned money to get it for you.  Offerings and services we do for God, our Christianity, I think mean very little to God if we’re just trying to get by as conveniently and cheaply as we can.

We live in a day of convenient cheap Christianity.  According to a recent Gallup poll, 75% of Americans identify themselves as Christian.  Three fourths of Americans would claim to be a Christian.  But according to another recent Gallup poll, only 37% even attend a church on a weekly or near-weekly basis.  And you know attending church for many is pretty convenient, pick the time that works best with your schedule, Saturday night, the early Sunday morning service or late Sunday morning service or Sunday evening, there’s good music, free coffee, a lighthearted funny sermonette and you can get out of there in less than an hour.  And sadly for many that easy hour and maybe a bit of the leftovers from last week’s money are about the extent of their gift and service to God.  For the God who loves us and gave us life and all things and His Son, how lame to only give Him what is cheap and convenient!

Hebrews 13:15-16, “Through Christ let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of the lips that give thanks to His name.  And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”  Let us continually be talking to God and not just always saying “Help me, help me” and “Give me, give me,” but have lots of “Thank You, thank You, thank You’s”.  And let us not just spend our time and energy and money on ourselves, but on the needs of other people, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.  May we honor God truly for His amazing grace and willingness to forgive us no matter what we’ve done.  May we not try to get by conveniently or cheaply with the God who is so good to us.

– James Williams

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