Numbering the People
Mistake and Punishment
“And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number the people” (1 Chronicles 21:1).
What was King David’s grave sin that caused great pain to many people? What first comes to mind is the story of Bathsheba and how David caused her husband, Uriah, to be killed in battle so he could take Bathsheba as his own. But David committed another great sin which resulted in the death of 70,000 men. 70,000! The account has to do with one special piece of real estate located in Jerusalem.
This dramatic and gripping story provides an even greater insight into the true heart of David and teaches many important lessons, not only for Christians, but one day, for all people. These lessons include the need to be fully repentant and watchful when falling short of God’s just standards. It includes the need for man to trust God in times of conflict and trial.
Numbering the People
The account of numbering the people is found in 1 Chronicles 21 with a parallel account in 2 Samuel 24. During David’s reign, many battles were fought with the surrounding nations. At one point, David ordered that a census of fighting men be taken. This was against the counsel of Joab, the captain of his army, who expressed faith in God’s power to deliver them from their enemies. David’s action displeased God, who then sent a death angel throughout the borders of Israel slaying 70,000 men (2 Samuel 24:15). When the angel arrived at Jerusalem to continue his work, God stayed his hand, and said, “It is enough” (2 Samuel 24:16).
One intriguing aspect of this is that the angel stopped the killing at the threshing floor of Ornan, the Jebusite. David was instructed to build an altar on a threshing floor, and the burnt offerings he made stayed the hand of the death angel. Eventually, Solomon’s Temple would be built on this very spot. Today, it is known as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
1 Chronicles 21:1-3 states that it was Satan (literally an enemy) who suggested to David that the people be numbered. Satan knows people well enough to know their weaknesses. In this case God allowed Satan to tempt David through David’s concern that Israel was not militarily strong enough to fight his enemies. It is also possible that Satan worked on David’s pride in the strength of his army. Whichever tactic was used, it shows David’s lack of complete trust in God.
Israel had been through a series of battles with the Ammonites and the Philistines (1 Chronicles 20). Perhaps Satan was responding to Israel’s victories when he made the suggestion of numbering the fighting men of Israel. He could not destroy Israel in battle, so he resorted to a tactic that he has used in other instances: he would try to corrupt them. In doing so, God’s wrath would be kindled and God himself would kill them. The instance with Balaam in Numbers 31:16 is an example.
In both accounts God responded in a predictable way, by killing Israelites. Satan used God’s standard of righteousness to accomplish his own purposes. He now used David’s pride, or David’s fear, to drive a wedge between God and David (and Israel).
Why was Numbering the People a Sin?
By attempting to number the people, David was not relying on God’s promise to “increase Israel like to the stars of the heavens” (1 Chronicles 27:23). There was no acceptable purpose for the count nor was there a specific command from God. David did not first ascertain the will of God; so we can conclude that David’s motivation was sinful.
Joab was the captain of David’s army, but he was also his nephew — the son of Zeruiah, King David’s sister. Joab’s example is beneficial. We need to speak up when those around us are clearly heading down the wrong path, even if they do not listen to scriptural advice. We should all be like Joab here, challenging those around us to depend on God instead of giving into fear or pride (See Proverbs 27:6).
Because King David insisted that the census be taken, Joab traveled throughout Israel to count the people. He returned to Jerusalem and gave David the numbers, omitting the tribes of Benjamin and Levi.
Benjamin and Levi Not Counted
It is understandable that the priestly tribe of Levi would not be counted for a military or political census, but why not the tribe of Benjamin?
The explanation is provided by 1 Chronicles 21:6: “But Levi and Benjamin were not counted among them; for the king’s word was abominable to Joab” (RVIC). Joab was so against the counting that he simply did not finish the task requested.
David eventually realized he did wrong and in 1 Chronicles 21:8 he said, “I have sinned greatly, in that I have done this thing: but now, put away, I beseech thee, the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly” (RVIC). Unfortunately, it took David almost ten months to realize that his actions had been sinful.
God allowed David to choose his own punishment from three options with three different time frames, as delivered by the prophet Gad:
(1) Three (1) years of famine.
(2) Three months of fleeing from his enemies.
(3) Three days of pestilence from God, “the angel of Jehovah destroying throughout all the borders of Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:12, RVIC).
As an indication of his true heart condition, David chose the third option, stating that he would rather fall into the hand of Jehovah, who would be more merciful than his enemies, who would have triumphed in the misfortunes of Israel. It is telling to note that he chose the one option that would not provide any protection to himself as king.
The Lessons from David
What lessons can be gleaned from David’s response to his sin and the resulting punishment?
(1) He very humbly confessed his sin.
(2) He prayed earnestly for God’s pardon.
(3) Even though the punishment did not affect his personal health, he did not stand by quietly and wait for the scourge to end. He said, “Let thy hand be on me and on my father’s house.” He asks if he alone could suffer and he has concern for his people, “These sheep, what have they done?” (2 Samuel 24:17). __________
(4) He took responsibility for his actions.
(5) He cast himself on the mercy of God. He did not resist punishment or try to justify his actions. He possessed the heart of Job, who once said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15).
(1) The Chronicles account says three years but the Samuel version says seven. Bro. Russell suggests in Reprint 4200 that the Hebrew characters for “7” and “3” resemble each other and one must be in error. The Septuagint says “three.”
Consequence to Israel
“Now again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel” (2 Samuel 24:1 NASB). At first glance, it might seem unsettling that the nation had to suffer because of one man. This is reminiscent of mankind’s fall because of one man, Adam. But God had earlier warned the people of the undesirable effects of being ruled by a king (1 Samuel 8:10-13).
However, a clue is found in 2 Samuel 24:1, where it says that God’s anger was “again” against Israel. Perhaps “again” is a reference to 2 Samuel 21:1 when a three-year famine occurred “on account of Saul and his bloodstained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death” (NIV). The people were not innocent and constantly lost sight of God’s leadings. This included the rebellion of Absalom (2 Samuel 15) and the rebellion of Sheba, the son of Bichri (2 Samuel 20). We have to assume that although the specific sins of the people are not expressed, there was no doubt just cause in God’s punishment.
The Threshing Floor
A threshing floor is a symbol of judgment and testing (for example see Hosea 9:2 and Jeremiah 51:33). But the threshing floor is also a place from which offerings to God could be made. An offering to God is to be made from the threshing floor in Numbers 15:20 and 18:27. The Church is described as a threshing floor in Isaiah 21:10.
This links the threshing floor to a place of making offerings to God, which fits in well with this specific property of Ornan. David would now purchase it for a place of sacrifice and worship — the very spot on Mount Moriah where God led Abraham to offer Isaac (Genesis 22:2). Soon, the great Temple of Solomon would be built on this very location (2 Chronicles 3:3). Centuries later, Jesus would also teach here!
In the Samuel account (chapter 24), the owner of the threshing floor is named Araunah.
He is identified as a Jebusite, an ethnic group living in Jerusalem at that time. The Chronicles account calls him Ornan. “Ornan was prob- ably his Hebrew name, Araunah his Jebusite or Canaanitish, name” (Jamieson, Faussett & Brown).
David lifted up his eyes and saw the angel of God “standing between earth and heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem” (1 Chronicles 21:16, RVIC). This plague caused David intense anguish (2 Samuel 24:17). Ornan and his four sons also saw the angel and the sons hid. But David and the elders were in sackcloth, already beginning to make amends and show complete repen- tance. David pleaded with God that only he should be punished for his deed and not the people.
Through the prophet Gad, God directed that David should build an altar on Ornan’s threshing floor. David obeyed and told Ornan that he must buy the threshing floor. Ornan’s generous response was that David could take it all without cost, the instruments for wood, oxen for burnt offerings and the wheat for meal of- ferings. But David insisted that he had to pur- chase it for full price. He was not going to offer a burnt offering without cost to himself.
This reminds us that the ransom sacrifice of Jesus was complete, precious, and costly. That sacrifice would ultimately end death to the en- tire world of sinners. Sin always has greater, unintended consequences — a ripple effect. David’s decision to number the people resulted
in death and sorrow for countless families, and it meant cutting off genealogies that might have come to be. With such profound consequences to Israel, it is not surprising that atonement and forgiveness would take place at the very spot where the first human picture of the ransom took place with Abraham and Isaac.
David built an altar there and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings, calling upon Je- hovah. God answered by fire upon the altar of burnt offering (1 Chronicles 21:26).
Scripturally, burnt offerings refer to the ran- som. For example, the morning and evening burnt offerings were sacrificed at 9:00 AM and 3:00 PM. This corresponds to the hours Jesus was on the cross. When an individual Is- raelite brought a burnt offering, it was a picture of someone’s recognition and appreciation of the ransom. A burnt offering was always laid directly on wood, a picture of the cross. When someone offered a peace offering, it was always laid on top of the already-burning burnt offer- ing. This pictures the fact that the basis of any peace with God is the ransom. This was God’s prescribed course for David in order for David to re-establish his relationship with God.
“So David gave to Ornan for the place six hundred shekels of gold by weight” (1 Chron- icles 21:25) Perhaps this price represents atonement for the 6000 years of sin and death.
God commanded the angel to stop the kill- ing. Jerusalem was saved because of God’s mercy! But mercy required a sacrifice, then and now.
The Temple Location
At that time, sacrifices were all made in the Tabernacle, which was at Gibeon, about eight miles northwest of Jerusalem. But in 1 Chroni- cles 22:1 David announced, “This is the house of the LORD God.” He then began to make preparations for the Temple that his son Solo- mon would eventually build.
Thus, this amazing account comes to an end, providing a history of how the Temple site was chosen. It has been a sacred place for many generations, even to this day. Perhaps in the kingdom it will be a dedicated place of learning and reflection. Many believe that the temple will be re-built on this very site. This experience also gives us a greater appreciation for David as he climbed back from his sins and heart-wrenching mistakes that caused severe consequences to those around him. It teaches us that we need to continually be on guard to examine our deep-down motivations and be quick to sincerely ask for forgiveness when those motives are questionable. We need our consciences to be sensitive to gentle suggestions from our brethren, who might be able to more clearly see a circumstance than we can. We learn that atonement for sin does not avoid the consequences of sin. We saw Jerusalem being saved and look forward to the day when this beloved city will become the center of God’s glorious kingdom. “Out of Zion shall go forth the Law and the word of the LORD from Jeru- salem” (Isaiah 2:3).
We can also assume that this experience will help David be a better Ancient Worthy. He may someday counsel the resurrected leaders of the world as they learn to overcome blind ambition and self-reliance. They will need to see the importance of relying upon Jehovah and His highest of standards.
Finally, and most of all, this lesson teaches us to put our complete trust in God and not count on our own abilities and resources. Let us be able to say in our heart of all hearts, “His grace is sufficient for me.”