So, here we are at the last chapter of 2 Samuel and this story about the plague which the Lord sent on his people and the offerings David brought to the Lord to pay for their sins and to make peace with him.
Verses 1 to 10
But there are a few things which puzzle us. For instance, the chapter begins by telling us that again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel. The word ‘again’ might refer back to the events of chapter 21 when the Lord sent a famine on the land because of Saul’s sin. So, that was one occasion when the Lord’s anger burned against them, And here in chapter 24 we have another occasion when his anger burned against them. But why was the Lord angry with them on this occasion? What had they done to provoke his burning anger? It’s a puzzle, because the text doesn’t tell us. But since the Lord has revealed himself to be merciful and gracious and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and willing to forgive all who confess their sins, we have to assume that whatever the people had done, they hadn’t confessed their sin or turned from it in repentance. And therefore they had provoked his anger not only because of their sin, whatever it was, but also because they had not confessed it to him.
And then we’re told that because his anger burned against them, the Lord incited David against them. Now there’s a puzzle here too, because this story is repeated in 1 Chronicles 21. But according to 1 Chronicles 21, Satan was the one who incited David against the people. So, was it the Lord or was it Satan who incited David? It’s a puzzle. But the best answer is that it was both, because we believe the Lord is the Sovereign Ruler who controls all his creatures, including the Devil, and all their actions, including the Devil’s actions. The Lord is able to use what Satan does for his own good and holy purposes. And so, while Satan wanted to bring harm to David and Israel, God was working out his own good and holy purposes.
And so, according to verse 2, the Lord incited David against the people, saying ‘Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.’ And there’s another puzzle here. What harm is there in taking a census of the people? According to verse 3, Joab, who was David’s commander-in-chief, was against the idea. He said:
why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?
Joab has never been the most moral or upright person in David’s army, and yet even he thinks there’s something terribly wrong with taking a census. Nevertheless, David insisted and, according to verses 5 to 9, they went through the land, counting all the fighting men. And then Joab returned to David with the final figure. And look at verse 9: David was conscience-stricken. And he said to the Lord:
I have sinned greatly in what I have done.
And he begged the Lord to take away his guilt, because he had done a very foolish thing. So, what’s wrong with taking a census? How had David sinned? Again, we don’t know, because the text doesn’t tell us and nowhere in the Old Testament Scriptures are God’s people forbidden from taking a census. In fact, in the book of Numbers, the Lord commanded — on two occasions no less — that a census should be taken to count all the men who could serve in the army. So, what’s wrong with taking a census? The commentators have a go at guessing. Some refer to Exodus 30, where the Lord told Moses that, when a census is taken, each person who is counted must pay a ransom for his life so that a plague will not come on them. So, perhaps David’s sin was not so much that he took a census of the people, but that he didn’t take it properly, because he didn’t require the people to pay the ransom price. However, it’s not clear whether the instruction in Exodus 30 was a lasting ordinance for every generation or a one off arrangement for the people in the days of Moses. And in any case, David is faulted not for the way he took the census, but for wanting to take a census. So, others have suggested taking a census of his fighting men displayed a lack of faith in the Lord. Instead of trusting in the Lord, he trusted in the size of his army, which was wrong. Others suggest that taking a census of his fighting men meant that he had plans to extend his kingdom beyond the Promised Land. But the Lord’s Anointed King was not to take over the world, but to live in the Promised Land. Those are some of the suggestions, and they have been others. But we really don’t know why it was sinful for David to take the census at that time. All the text tells us is that, after taking the census, David knew that he has sinned and he begged the Lord to take his guilt away, which is what we must all do every day, because every day we sin against the Lord in thought and word and deed and by falling short of keeping his commandments. And so, every day we should do as David did and confess our sins and shortcomings and pray for God’s forgiveness.
So, there are things in this passage which puzzle us, but at least it’s clear that the Lord was angry with Israel.
Verses 11 to 15
According to verse 11, the word of the Lord came to Gad the prophet. And the Lord commanded Gad to go to David to say to him that the Lord was giving him three options for how he was going to punish Israel for its sin; and it was up to David to choose which one of the three should fall on them. So, choose between three years of famine, three months of fleeing from your enemies, or three days of plague. So, the Lord was determined to punish Israel for its sin. And it was up to David to choose their punishment. So think it over, Gad tells him in verse 13. Think it over carefully and decide what Gad should tell the Lord.
And we have David’s reply in verse 14, where he makes clear that he was in deep distress. And we can understand why, can’t we? David was Israel’s king and he cared for the people as a shepherd cares for his sheep. He wanted good for them and not evil. But now the Lord was asking him to decide what punishment should be inflicted on them. And in the end he says:
Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.
I think he’s saying that he can’t decide and he wants to leave the decision in the hands of the Lord, who is merciful.
Incidentally I was reading a book this week where the author alludes to this verse that it’s better to fall into the hands of the Lord than into those of people, because his mercy is great. And the author went on to say that when God condemns, he at the same time offers his forgiving love in Christ; but when people condemn people, they frequently cast them out and make them the object of scorn. When God condemns, he speaks of sin and guilt that, although great and heavy, can be removed; but when people condemn people, they say it can never be removed. People put other people down, whereas the Lord is always willing to lift up the humble and contrite. Isn’t that your experience? Other people will condemn you, but the Lord, who condemns, also promises forgiveness, because of Christ our Saviour who gave up his life for sinners and who paid for our sins with his life.
And that’s where this chapter is headed. But we’re not there yet, because first the Lord afflicts the people for their sin. So, David can’t decide which of the three options to choose. He says he’ll leave it to the Lord, who is merciful. And according to verse 15, the Lord decided to send a plague on the people for three days. And 70,000 people died.
Verses 16 to 25
The order of what happens next is a little puzzling. According to verse 16, when the angel of the Lord — who was afflicting the people — stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem with the plague, the Lord was grieved because of the calamity; and he said to the angel:
Enough! Withdraw your hand.
And we’re told that the angel of the Lord was at the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite.
So, David was right. The Lord is merciful. Though the Israelites had done wrong and deserved to be condemned by God, the Lord — who is gracious and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love — relented. And before the three days were over, he stopped the plague.
And then we have verse 17, which seems slightly out of place. According to verse 17, when David saw the angel of the Lord who was striking down the people, he said to the Lord:
I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall upon me and my family.
As I say, it seems slightly out of place. You’d think that what we read in verse 17 should come first. So, David saw the angel of the Lord and prayed to the Lord. And the Lord heard him and had mercy on the people and commanded the angel to stop.
And then we have the next section, which tells us how David built an altar at the the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite and offered sacrifices to the Lord. So, according to verse 18, Gad the prophet went and told David to build the altar on the threshing-floor. And David did what the Lord had commanded him through the prophet Gad. When Araunah saw David coming, he went out and bowed before David and asked why David had come. David replied that he had come to buy the threshing-floor so that he could build there an altar to the Lord so that the plague on the people may be stopped.
Do you see that in verse 21? But the plague has already stopped. So, that’s why I’m saying the order of events is a little puzzling. One commentator suggests that the Lord pressed pause in verse 16, but David wanted him not only to press pause, but to press stop. So, the plague had been paused for a while, but it was going to start again unless David built the altar. I’m not so sure that’s the solution to this puzzle. But we’ll get to that.
For now, David said to Araunah that he wants to buy the threshing-floor in order to build there an altar to the Lord. ‘There’s no need to pay me’, Araunah is saying in verse 22. ‘Take whatever you want. I’ll give you the threshing-floor and I’ll give you whatever animals and wood you need for the sacrifices. I’ll give it all to you, O king.’
But David refused Araunah’s offer. He insisted on paying for the threshing-floor and everything else. He said:
I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.
One of the principles laid down in the Old Testament law for sacrificing a burnt offering to the Lord is that the offering had to be costly. You can read about burnt offerings in Leviticus 1, where it tells us that the worshipper could only offer a male animal from the herd which was without defect. So, they couldn’t bring a wild animal which cost them nothing, but an animal which they owned. And you couldn’t offer an animal which was lame or diseased and good for nothing. It had to be an animal which was perfect and free from blemish. So, the offering had to be costly.
And in Leviticus 1 the Lord instructed his people to bring him a burnt offering to make atonement for their sins. That means, they were able to pay for their sins — for all that they had done wrong — by offering up to God this costly and blemish-free animal. The worshipper was a sinner who deserved to die, because the wages of sin is death. But the Lord, who is merciful, was prepared to accept the death of the animal in place of the worshipper. The animal was put to death, and the worshipper was pardoned and not condemned. The Lord would smell the pleasing-aroma from the sacrifice which was burned on the altar and he would turn from his anger.
The Israelites deserved to die, because they had done wrong. We don’t know what they had done wrong, but they had done something to provoke God’s burning anger. And therefore they deserved to die. But David sacrificed these burnt offerings to the Lord and the Lord turned from his fierce anger.
And you’ll see from verse 25 that David not only sacrificed burnt offerings, but he also sacrificed fellowship offerings. You can read about fellowship offerings in Leviticus 3. They’re also called peace offerings, because they were offered to the Lord to celebrate the fact that there was now peace with God. There was peace with God, because God had pardoned his people. Instead of condemning them, he forgave them. Their fellowship or their relationship with God was restored and they once again had peace with God.
And so, David sacrificed burnt offerings to pay for the sins of the people. And David sacrificed peace offerings to celebrate that they now had peace with God. And we read at the end of the chapter, that the Lord answered prayer on behalf of the land, and the plague on Israel was stopped. The plague was stopped, because peace had been restored between God and his sinful people. And peace had been restored, because David had brought sacrifices to the Lord to pay for their sins.
Order of Events
As I’ve said, the order of events here is a little puzzling. So, how does it all fit together? From time to time in 1 and 2 Samuel our narrator has given us a brief report about something that has happened. And then he goes on to give us more detail. So, in one or two verses he tells us what happened. Then, he’ll take another few verses to tell us what happened in more detail. And I think that’s what’s happening here. The Lord sent the plague on Israel. However, when the angel of the Lord reached Jerusalem, the Lord told him to stop. Why did the Lord tell him to stop? Because David had built an altar to the Lord and had sacrificed burnt offerings and peace offerings to the Lord. And the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma of the burnt offering and turned from his fierce anger and he therefore brought the plague to an end. The Lord was prepared to accept David’s offering in place of the people, so that instead of condemning the people to death, he pardoned them.
Whether that’s the right order or not, doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t really matter, because the main point of this chapter is the same whatever the order of events. The fact is that the Israelites had sinned. And God was angry with them and was ready to punish them. But God is merciful and he was willing to accept David’s offerings so that the people were spared and not killed; pardoned and not condemned.
And notice of course what David said in verse 17 where he asked the Lord to let his hand fall upon David and his family. In other words, David was saying to God: ‘Spare the people and let me and my family die in their place.’ But David could not pay for the sins of the people with his life, because David himself was a sinner, who needed forgiveness from God. David was a sinner. That’s clear from everything we’ve read about him in 1 and 2 Samuel. Although he was a far better king than Saul ever was, and though we’ve seen him wanting to obey God at many times, nevertheless we’ve also seen the things he did wrong and the ways he fell short of doing God’s will. David was a sinner like everyone else. He therefore couldn’t pay for the sins of his people with his life, because he too was a sinner who needed forgiveness. He wasn’t morally clean, because he was covered in moral blemishes.
So, David couldn’t offer himself. But instead and in obedience to the Lord, he offered to the Lord blemish-free animals. He gave the Lord burnt offerings to pay for the sins of the people so that God would turn from his fierce anger and peace would be restored between them.
So, right at the end of this book, we have God’s Anointed King who is offering a sacrifice to the Lord to pay for the sins of his people. And that’s a picture for us of the good news of the gospel, because what do we have in the gospel? We have God’s True Anointed King, Jesus Christ, offering a sacrifice to the Lord to pay for the sins of his people.
But the Lord Jesus did not offer animal sacrifices to the Lord, because the blood of bulls and goats can’t really take away our guilt. All those sacrifices which the people offered to God in Old Testament days were really only a reminder to the people that there were sinners who needed a Saviour. So, every time they offered up an animal sacrifice to the Lord, they remembered that they were sinners who needed a Saviour. And those who believed in God’s mercy believed that one day God would send a Saviour into the world who would offer to God a perfect sacrifice for sins which would take away their guilt once and for all and forever.
And the Saviour has come, because the Saviour is Jesus Christ, God’s True Anointed King. And unlike David who was a sinner himself, and needed a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ was without sin. He never did anything wrong. And so, he was able to offer himself to God as the perfect, blemish-free sacrifice to pay for your sins in full and to give you peace with God so long as you trust in him as the only Saviour.
Like the Israelites, you’re a sinner. Every day you disobey the Lord in thought and word and deed. And the Bible is clear that the wages of sin is death. That’s what you deserve for your disobedience. And there’s nothing you can offer to God or do for God to make up for what you have done wrong. But the good news is that God’s Anointed King, Jesus Christ the Lord, offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins when he died on the cross. He took the blame for what you have done wrong. He paid for your sins with his life. He shed his blood to cleanse you. And if you trust in him as the only Saviour, then you are pardoned by God and you have peace with God forever.
Perhaps you haven’t yet trusted in him. If that’s the case, you need to watch out, because the Devil wants to keep you from trusting in Christ. And so, the Devil will do what he can today to distract you so that you won’t think about these things once you’ve left the building today. Or if you think about them, he’ll try to convince you that this is nonsense and none of it really matters. So, he’ll try to distract you or he’ll try to convince you not to believe it. Don’t let him succeed, because God has come to you today in the preaching of his word to say to you that now is the time to believe the good news and now is the time to trust in Christ the King for salvation. Ask God to pardon you for the sake of Christ the King and ask him to come into your life and to change you, so that you’ll no longer live for yourself, but for Christ the King.
And if you’re already a believer, then think about all the Israelites who died in that plague because they were sinners. That’s what you deserve. You deserve to die under the wrath of God and you deserve to be condemned forever for all the ways you have disobeyed the God who made you. That’s what you deserve, because you’re a sinner like them. But you can rejoice and give thanks to God for Jesus Christ who gave up his life to save you from the burning anger and wrath and judgment of God. So, rejoice and give thanks to God.
And then, out of gratitude for all that he has done, go out of this place and live for your life for him more and more so that by the things you do and say you’ll display to those around you how much you love the Lord Jesus who died to save you.