If you asked many Christians what sin was David’s most reprehensible sin, they would point to his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband to cover up the fact that he had made her pregnant. However, the LORD seemed to think otherwise. If consequences mean anything, we know that 70,000 men in Israel died because David took a census of the people. This aroused the anger of the LORD. 2 Samuel 24.1 states, “He moved David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” The text makes it seem like the LORD moved David to do something that would arouse the LORD’s anger. The companion passage in 1 Chronicles 21.1 says, “Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel.”
This seems like a contradiction. However, 1 Samuel 24.1 may refer to the LORD testing David and 1 Chronicles 21.1 may refer to Satan tempting him. Another alternative reading would conclude that the NKJV translators should not have capitalized the pronoun in 1 Samuel 24.1 and the pronoun is referring to Satan. But this latter interpretation doesn’t mention Satan in the near context. I think either option is fine. The one reading that is strictly abominable is to make God’s Word contradict itself.
What sin does David commit in taking a census of the people? The context of the passage seems to indicate that he was placing to much confidence in his ability to amass an army. It seems to me that pride is the cause of this reprehensible action from God’s perspective. There are three key lessons we might garner from this episode: 1) We must understand that God will punish sin; 2) Further, the good news is that God also pardons sin; 3) However, the consequence of all sin is death.
God Punishes Sin
The LORD says, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the LORD. For he shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when good comes, but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land which is not inhabited” (Jeremiah 17.5-6). Since David’s confidence rested in his ability to marshal an army and not in YHWH, he is susceptible to punishment. He was given a choice of punishments: 1) seven years of famine for the whole nation; 2) three months of losing battles against military foes; or 3) three days of plague sweeping across the whole nation.
David simply leaves it in God’s hands. Therefore, God punishes sin by sending an angel to slay people in judgment. By the time the angel is finished, 70,000 die. God brought great and horrific punishment for the sin of David.
God Pardons Sin
David faced great grief and sorrow because of his sin and the consequences meted out. He and the people were humbled. 1 Chronicles 21.16 states that “David lifted his eyes and saw the angel of the LORD standing between earth and heaven, having in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem. So David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell on their faces.” David’s prayer to God is poignant: “Was it not I who commanded the people to be numbered? I am the one who has sinned and done evil indeed; but these sheep, 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 that they should be plagued” (1 Chronicles 21.17).
It seems obvious that David is broken over this sin. Punishment is leading to pardon. God commands the angel to halt the judgment against the people. He also commands that David build an altar right at the point where the judgment ceased. The sacrifice made points to the great sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. God has punished our sin in Christ’s death. Jesus Christ arose from the dead so that we might have pardon and eternal peace.
Sin Always Brings Death
Yet the consequence of sin is always death. If you delude yourself into thinking that your sin does not effect your family, friends, and those brothers and sisters you claim to love at church, you’ll never see your need to come to God’s throne of grace through the blood of His Son. God still tests us. Satan still tempts us. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.