2 Samuel 24 records David’s sin of numbering the people. David’s act of numbering the people was a grievous sin. The awful consequences of his sin certainly underscore how grievous a sin it was. David’s sin was grievous because at bottom it was the sin than which there is none greater for the child of God: the sin of ingratitude. David was not thankful and was not living thankfully before God. He was not living thankfully before God for his salvation. And not living thankfully for his salvation, he was not living thankfully regarding earthly, material things.
This is the warning that this incident serves to drive home to us. It is a warning against ingratitude, and it is a call to live before God thankfully. It is a call to old and young alike to live a life of thankful devotion to God.
David clearly sinned at this time. David later made confession of his sin. Months later, as Joab returned from numbering the people, we read in 2 Samuel 24:10, “And David’s heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the Lord, I have sinned greatly in that I have done, and now, I beseech thee, O Lord, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.” When the angel of death approached Jerusalem, we read in 2 Samuel 24:17, “And David spake unto the Lord when he saw the angel that smote the people, and said, Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly: but these sheep, what have they done? let thine hand, I pray thee, be against me, and against my father’s house.”
What was David’s sin?
David’s sin was not that he numbered the people. That is, it was not sin in itself that David conducted a census of the people. That is what it means that David numbered the people. He sent Joab, the captain of his army, throughout the tribes of Israel conducting a census, and determining how many fighting men were available to fight in his army. That was not wrong in itself. We know that on at least two previous occasions the Lord himself had directed Moses to number the people. One of those times was shortly before the children of Israel came into the land of Canaan. It is from that event that the fourth book of the Old Testament derives its name: Numbers. It was not sin in itself that David numbered the people.
Neither was the real seriousness of David’s sin that he numbered the people without being commanded by God to number the people, as some suppose. David’s sin, according to them, was the sin of presumption. Now it is true that David had no express command from God: “Number the people.” And apart from such a command, David never should have numbered the people. But there is more here than presumption on David’s part.
David’s main sin in numbering the people was pride of heart. It was not that he numbered the people, but it was why he numbered the people. There was nothing wrong in itself that David numbered the people; what was wrong was his reason, his motive for numbering the people. Clearly David was motivated by pride.
1 Chronicles 21 contains a parallel account of David’s sin of numbering the people. The context in 1 Chronicles helps us to understand that pride was the root of David’s sin. The several chapters before 1 Chronicles 21 record the mighty victories of David. Through the captains of his hosts, under David’s leadership, all his enemies were subdued. The kingdom of Israel was established in his hand. Flushed with success, David fell into the sin of pride. He must have said within himself: “I am David, the great king. Israel is the great empire that I have established by my ingenuity and by my might.” In that connection it is significant that David did not and could not give Joab a good answer to his question in 2 Samuel 24:3b, “Why doth my Lord the king delight in this thing?” In fact, he did not answer him at all.
We ought to note several things about David’s sin.
First, we ought to notice God’s sovereignty over David in his sin. The first verse of 2 Samuel 24 informs us that the Lord moved David to number the people. God is absolutely sovereign. God is sovereign over sin, even the sins of his people. God moved David to number the people. Neither is this contradicted by the notice in 1 Chronicles 21 that Satan stood up and provoked David to number the people. Satan too is subject to the sovereign power of God. All that he does, he does in submission to the rule of our sovereign heavenly Father. This is an important part of the instruction of this history and this belongs to the comfort of God’s people in every age.
Second, the account makes plain that David’s sin was the sin of Israel, of the people in general. It was not only David who was living in pride, but it was the nation generally. Nor did Israel only sin in David, its king and head. True as that is, it is also true that Israel participated in David’s sin. That is indicated by what we read in 2 Samuel 24:1 that “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.” The Lord’s anger was kindled Israel first, not against David. Because the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, he moved David to number the people. That all Israel was guilty of sin at this time is also indicated by the fact that God’s judgment fell upon the whole nation.
Third, it is worth noticing that David was adamant in insisting on numbering the people. The fact that he obstinately rejected the counsel of his servants indicates the extent to which his sin gripped him. He didn’t just fall into this sin, but this sin had a grip on him.
We learn several things from David’s fall here. First, we learn that there are two equally dangerous threats against the believer personally and against the church. One is the threat from without, the threat of the enemies who hate God, the cause of God, and the people of God. David had battled those enemies. But they do not constitute the only threat against which God’s people must be on their guard.
Another threat, equally dangerous, is the threat from within. This is the threat that arises out of the sinful nature of the saints themselves, and particularly the sin of pride. We suppose ourselves to be important, we suppose our accomplishments to be great, and we suppose God’s cause to be dependent on us. This is a real danger!
Second, it is sobering to take note of the fact that David committed this sin as an older, mature believer. David fell into this sin towards the end of his life, towards the close of his earthly pilgrimage. This is the last chapter of 2 Samuel. The first part of 1 Kings 1 records David’s death. That is sobering! That ought to give us reason to pause! Youth has its sins, especially the passions of youth. David knew something of that too, but old age also has its temptations, and perhaps it is especially old age that is imperiled by the sin of pride.
David’s sin was the sin of pride. But David’s pride was rooted in unthankfulness. David was not living out of thankfulness. He was not living out of the consciousness that what he was and what he had, he was and had from God. And he was not living out of the consciousness that although God had exalted him and given him abundance, he deserved none of it. He was not living out of a sense of his utter unworthiness. He was not living out of grace.
And how about you and how about me? Who can deny that we live in days of unparalleled prosperity? I know that some of our families are struggling as a result of the downturn in the economy. But all things considered, we live in prosperous times. We enjoy peace in our land, and although we have legitimate concerns in this regard, we still enjoy the protection of the state. Most of our working men are able to find work, by means of which they are able to supply the needs of their families, contribute to the causes of the kingdom, and have some left over to support the poor. We live in nice homes that provide much more than merely a roof over our heads and protection from the elements. We are able to establish and maintain our Christian schools. We are able freely to gather on the Lord’s day for the public worship of God.
Do we live thankfully? Do we really live out of the sense of our utter unworthiness? Do we really live out of grace? Are we conscious of the dangers of prosperity, the dangers of success, the dangers of abundance of earthly things? Are we swallowed up by these things? And are we putting our trust in these things rather than in God, the giver of all things?
God’s judgment over David and over Israel was severe. God judged David even though David repented of his sin. He did repent, as verse 10 indicates: “And David’s heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the Lord, I have sinned greatly in that I have done: and now, I beseech thee, O Lord, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.” And again in verse 17, “Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly.”
David’s repentance was genuine. It was repentance that showed itself in true sorrow and in open, heartfelt confession. It was repentance that pleaded with God for forgiveness.
That repentance was worked by God. God moved David to number the people. And God smote also smote David’s heart.
God judged David even though David repented. Still, David had to bear the consequences of his sin: what you sow, you reap. Through the judgment of God, David must be corrected. The judgment of God will serve the good purpose of teaching David the seriousness of his sin, and will serve as a constant reminder to David to flee from this sin in the future.
God’s judgment was a pestilence that wasted the countryside of Israel. Through the prophet Gad, God gave David three choices: “Go and say unto David, Thus saith the Lord, I offer thee three things; choose thee one of them, that I may do it unto thee. So Gad came to David, and told him, and said unto him, Shall seven years of famine come unto thee in thy land? or wilt thou flee three months before thine enemies, while they pursue thee? or that there be three days’ pestilence in thy land? now advise, and see what answer I shall return to him that sent me”(2 Sam. 24:12–13. David’s response (v. 14) was that he cast himself into the hands of God: “And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the Lord; for his mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man.” What David had not been doing, he now did. He cast himself upon the Lord, to live consciously out of the hand of the Lord.
God’s judgment was severe. A pestilence, a plague of some sort killed in one day seventy thousand of David’s chosen men: “So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed: and there died of the people from Dan even to Beersheba seventy thousand men”(v. 15). That was a severe judgment, but a fitting judgment. David had boasted in his heart of the greatness of his kingdom. In one fell swoop God reduced David’s kingdom, taking away seventy thousand chosen men.
This judgment must serve as a warning to us. God judges the proud. God judges the unthankful. He judges them often in this life already, as he judged Israel and David. And if they go on not heeding the judgments of God, he judges them in the life to come.
But as always, so also at this time, in judgment God remembers mercy. That mercy of God on David and Israel is plain. It is plain, first, from the sending of the judgment. God does not allow David to go on in his sin, but by his judgment over the sin, he brings David to repentance. That is mercy!
This mercy of God in his judgment over David and Israel is plain from the opening verse of 2 Samuel 24: “And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.” LORD in all capital letters in the Authorized Version is “Jehovah” in the Hebrew. That is the covenant name of God, who is always faithful in the covenant. In his faithfulness he always preserves his covenant people. God’s anger here is not the destructive anger of the Lord against the reprobate wicked that consumes and destroys them. It is the anger of the God of the everlasting covenant, which always manifests itself as chastisement and always aims at his people’s correction.
The mercy of God in his judgment is also seen in the fact that Israel was not consumed by the judgment of God. To be sure, seventy thousand men were smitten. But Israel was not utterly destroyed, as they deserved. Therein is the revelation of God’s mercy.
That mercy of God is in his Son, Jesus Christ. That was typified in the whole incident of the sacrifice made by David on the threshingfloor of Araunah the Jebusite, 2 Samuel 24:16ff. I will not explain this in detail, but please read this passage. What is significant is that later, on this very spot, David’s son Solomon built the temple. At the heart of all of the worship of the temple were the sacrifices, which pointed ahead to the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
This is the reason that God’s people must be a thankful people. This is the reason that we are a thankful people. In Jesus Christ we have the sacrifice of our sins. In Jesus Christ we have our salvation and the salvation of our children. And that is the very thing that teaches us that what we are and what we have, we are and we have by grace and by grace along.
This is the text of Prof. Cammenga’s speech at the young people’s 2012 Thanksgiving Mass Meeting.