Much in these chapters is covered in more detail in 2 Samuel. We read again of David sinning against the Lord and counting his fighting men in chapter 21, over a million, one of those stories we moderns have a real problem with as I commented on previously. Yet, sin it is and as we know the wages of sin is death. All Christendom knows of David’s sin of adultery and killing a man to try to get away with it, but almost no one mentions David counting his fighting men as an example of David’s sin. In many ways it is much worse, for because of his pride and arrogance and refusing to listen to men of God around him, over 70,000 men died!
He had obviously let his success get to his head, as if his victories and wealth were from him and not God’s blessing. In 2 Samuel 24 it says that this counting took almost 10 months, so David had plenty of time to listen to counsel or his own conscious, but he refused. One interesting connection between the two accounts is what inspired David to do this beyond his own pride and arrogance. In 2 Samuel 24:1 it says:
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.”
In 1 Chronicles 21:1 it says:
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.
So in one the anger of the Lord causes it, in the other it is Satan (this is the first time in the OT that Satan is referred to). Since this is written post exile, something about Israel’s time in Babylon developed this concept of a personal epitome of demonic evil. We who believe in a living, Sovereign God who is Lord of history see it as being revealed by God himself as part of his progressive revelation.
This is similar to Job, where Satan goes before the Lord and accuses him, and God grants him permission, but here the Lord is the one initiates, and gets Satan to do the dirty work. Satan does nothing on his own outside of God’s providence.
David’s response to all this when it is brought to his attention is to immediately confess that he has “sinned greatly,” and beg for his guilt to be taken away. As a Hebrew who is perfectly versed in the sacrificial system, David knows that there is a price that must be paid for sin’s guilt. The Lord gives him three choices: a famine for three years, to fall into the hand of his enemies, or three days of plague. David chooses the latter because he trusts that the Lord’s “mercy is very great.” And indeed he was, but it’s a strange read for those who see sin against a holy God who is a burning fire as a trivial matter:
14 So the Lord sent a plague on Israel, and seventy thousand men of Israel fell dead. 15 And God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem. But as the angel was doing so, the Lord saw it and relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was destroying the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of the Lord was then standing at the threshing floor of Araunahthe Jebusite.
16 David looked up and saw the angel of the Lord standing between heaven and earth, with a drawn sword in his hand extended over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell facedown.
17 David said to God, “Was it not I who ordered the fighting men to be counted? I, the shepherd, have sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Lord my God, let your hand fall on me and my family, but do not let this plague remain on your people.”
God’s justice is a terrible thing, but far from being something completely foreign to us, like the cynic or skeptic thinks it is, it really makes total sense. The moral law is a reflection of his being, and when it is broken a price must be paid. That is why we get a ticket when we are caught speeding, or thieves are thrown in jail, etc. We all understand justice intuitively; what we can’t stand is the standard of God’s holiness, that this episode in David’s life and the loss of 70,000 men is actually just by God’s standards. It is! And God did not have to relent, but he did. That’s what makes Christ’s sacrifice so incomprehensible; the infinite, perfectly pure standards of God’s holiness were perfectly met in his life and death. God’s wrath is completely satisfied, our guilt completely washed away, the price fully paid. What more can we say but, Praise the Lord!