Summary: David appears to have been both directed by God and enticed by Satan to conduct a census. A census was begun, David was smitten in his conscience, and the nation was severely punished. What's our take-away from this story?
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THE CENSUS PLAGUE
Although I won’t read the passages in their entirety, you might find it useful to refer to the stories as we go along.
I. The story begins this way:
2 Samuel 24:1 Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”
1 Chronicles 21:1 Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.
God was angry with Israel. The cause is not stated. Why? We don’t need to know.
However that lies, David was instructed by God and incited by Satan to take a census of Israel and Judah.
So a census was taken.
In the account in 2 Samuel, Israel had 800,000 swordsmen, and Judah had 500,000.
By the account in Chronicles, there were 1,100,000 in Israel and 470,000 in Judah who drew the sword.
I’m not worried about the discrepancy in the numbers. 1 Chron 27:24 says:
Joab the son of Zeruiah began to count, but did not finish. Yet wrath came upon Israel for this, and the number was not entered in the chronicles of King David.
Since Israel and Judah were accounted separately, the two reports can easily be the numbers at different stages in the progress of the counts.
In the account in Chronicles, Joab - who didn’t want to take the census in the first place – didn’t count the people in Levi’s and Benjamin’s tribes (1 Chronicles 21:6).
1 Chron 27:23 tells us David didn’t count those aged 20 and under.
It’s going to be a contaminated census.
The account in Samuel tells us David was convicted by his own heart that he had sinned, and he begged God to take away his sin.
The Chronicles account says God was displeased and struck Israel – we’re not told how at this point, or if it’s just a brief reference of what is to come later in the story.
David was given a choice of punishment (note that the punishment would fall on Israel, not just David):
• 3 years of famine
• 3 months of fleeing before enemies (meaning they have the upper hand on the battlefield)
• 3 days of pestilence
Pestilence is practically an obsolete word, meaning what today we might call a fatal infectious disease.
Which of these three do you like best, David?
None of them! They’re all terrible!
How much damage could God do with 3 days of a fatal disease?
The same as he could do in 3000 years.
But David – knowing there was no good choice – chose 3 days of pestilence, administered by the angel of the Lord (an expression that usually refers to Christ).
When the pestilence came to a certain place in Jerusalem, David pleaded:
“Was it not I who gave command to number the people? It is I who have sinned and done great evil. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand, O Lord my God, be against me and against my father's house. But do not let the plague be on your people.” (1 Chron 21:17)
The place was the threshing floor of Araunah, or Ornan.
The angel of the Lord told David to build an altar on the threshing floor.
When David sought to purchase the site on which to build the altar, Ornan tried to donate the site and the oxen and the yoke for the sacrifice.
But David would not have it.
I will not take for the Lord what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.
So David built an altar on site of Ornan’s threshing floor offered burnt offerings and peace offerings.
The Lord answered with fire from heaven, signifying acceptance of the sacrifice.
And there, the plague stopped.
Read 1 Chronicles 22:1
Then David said, “Here shall be the house of the Lord God and here the altar of burnt offering for Israel.”
II. What are we intended to take away from the story?
• That it’s wrong for a country to take a census? No – other factors in the story overtake the simple fact that a census was taken. There's no prohibition against censuses.