We finish up 2 Samuel with these last two chapters. David leaves us with some final words about God’s eternal covenant promise to him, and the rest of the chapter is a description of some of David’s mighty men. As in the rest of the ancient world, war seems to have been a constant state of things.
Chapter 24 is very strange, as the Bible often proves to be. It begins with this:
Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”
It doesn’t say why God’s anger burned, but we can assume it has something to do with their unfaithfulness, going after other gods, what have you. But why a census? David seems to think this is a command to count the army and not all Israel, and when he tells Joab to do it, he pleads with David not to and asks why he would do such a thing. Obviously, Joab knows why this is wrong, but why is it? And why would God command David to do something that is going to make God more angry?
According the commentaries, this episode is also referred to 1 Chronicles 21, and it begins thus:
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.
Some commentators say the Hebrew is rightly rendered Satan, others say it is not, but only “a one,” or “a someone” incites David to do this. Whatever the case, it was not God who commanded David to do something against his will and purposes. The idea of counting implies that God’s people would be putting their trust in something other than Him, i.e. in their own power and strength. We find these words in Psalm 33, which doesn’t say it’s written by David, but is in between two that say they are:
12 Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
the people he chose for his inheritance.
13 From heaven the Lord looks down
and sees all mankind;
14 from his dwelling place he watches
all who live on earth—
15 he who forms the hearts of all,
who considers everything they do.
16 No king is saved by the size of his army;
no warrior escapes by his great strength.
17 A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
despite all its great strength it cannot save.
18 But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him,
on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
19 to deliver them from death
and keep them alive in famine.
You wonder whether he wrote this, as it seems likely he may have, before or after this event of counting his fighting men. There is obviously some dynamic going on here with David succumbing to some sort of temptation to put his faith in the size of his army.
Immediately David realizes the greatness of his sin and repents, but the Lord is going to exact his punishment. Yet another instance of events that make no sense to modern people. Why can’t God just blow it off. He’s done it before, hasn’t he? Not really. After David’s sin with Bathsheba, God says he will not die, but God’s judgment leads to suffering in David’s house. I think the best way to look at this is as God as King, as well as God as holy judge. The king’s honor must be defended, and a holy God must punish sin. The punishment is great because 70,000 people die in a plague until David offer’s a sacrifice and it stops. Just makes you grateful we live after the death and resurrection of Christ.
Which points out just how awesome and incomprehensible the holiness of God is. We moderns tend to see God as a little more powerful than us. He is not wholly other, transcendent and beyond our comprehension. We judge him by our human standards, not wanting him to judge us by his holy standards. The wages of sin is death because God is life; he is the animating principle of all existence. If this relatively trivial incident caused the death by God’s judgment of 70,000 people, imagine the judgment and wrath of God visited on Christ in the crucifixion for the sins of the entire world! We have absolutely no clue.