I Chronicles 21

The Word Made Fresh

1Then Satan rose up against Israel and persuaded David to count the Israelites. David ordered Joab and the army generals to go from Beer-Sheba to Dan and count the people, “Then bring me a report so I will know how many there are.” 3Joab protested, “May the LORD’s people be multiplied a hundred times. Aren’t they all servants of the king? Why should the king require such a thing and make Israel guilty?” 4But the king insisted, and Joab went through the whole of Israel, then returned to Jerusalem. 5He told David there were one million one hundred thousand men able to serve in the army, and in Judah another four hundred seventy thousand. He did not include Levi and Benjamin in the census because he disliked the king’s order.

7God was not pleased and struck Israel with punishment. 8Then David said to God, “I have committed a terrible wrong by doing this. Please forgive your servant, for I have sinned.”

9The LORD spoke to David’s advisor, Gad. 10“Tell David to choose one of these three punishments.” 11Gad went to David and told him, “The LORD says to choose 12either three years of famine, or three months of harassment from your enemies, or three days of punishment from the LORD with the LORD’s angel going throughout Israel. Tell me what answer you want me to take to the LORD.”

13David replied, “I am terribly sorry, but let me be punished by the hand of the LORD because I know the LORD is merciful. Don’t let me be punished by men.”

14Then the LORD sent a plague on Israel and seventy thousand people died. 15God also sent an angel to decimate Jerusalem, but just as the angel was about to strike, God relented and said to the angel, “That is enough; stand down.” The angel was standing beside the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. 16David looked up and saw the LORD’s angel hovering between heaven and earth with a sword in his hand stretched over Jerusalem. Then David and the city elders clothed themselves in sackcloth and fell face down. 17David said to God, “I’m the one who ordered a census of the people. I’m the one to blame, for I have committed a great sin. But these people are like innocent sheep. What have they done to deserve punishment? Lord my God, please punish me and my father’s family, but do not punish your people!”

18The LORD’s angel ordered Gad to inform David that he should build an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor that belonged to Ornan the Jebusite. 19Then David followed Gad’s instructions which came to him in the LORD’s name. 20Ornan was threshing his grain when he turned and saw the angel. His four sons who were helping him ran and hid, but Ornan continued threshing his wheat. 21When he saw David approaching he met him and bowed face down before him. 22 David said, “Give me thee plot of land with the threshing floor so that I may build on it an altar to the LORD. I will pay its full value, and the plague will be turned away from the people.”

23Ornan replied, “Take it, and do what you think is best. Look, I’ll give the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing sleds for the wood, and I’ll give the wheat for the grain offering. It’s all yours.”

24King David said, “No. I will pay the full price. I will not give the LORD what belongs to you or make offerings that cost me nothing.” 25He paid Ornan fifteen pounds of gold for the plot. 26He built an altar to the LORD there and presented burnt offerings and peace offerings. He prayed to the LORD, and the LORD answered him by sending fire from the heavens to ignite the altar offerings. 27Then the LORD ordered the angel to withdraw, and he sheathed his sword.

28When David saw that the LORD had answered his prayer at Ornan’s threshing floor, he offered his sacrifices there. 29The tent of the LORD and the altar were at the hilltop shrine at Gibeon, 30but David dared not go there to make his plea to the LORD because the sword of the LORD’s angel was over Ornan’s threshing floor.


1-6: This paragraph parallels 2 Samuel 24:1-9. The census figures are not identical, reflecting differences in source materials. The 2 Samuel account gives more detail about how Joab goes about the task: how he delegates much of it to his commanders, how long it takes and where they travel. The present account adds that Joab does not count the Levites or the tribe of Benjamin, a detail not in 2 Samuel.

The biggest difference between the two accounts is that in 2 Samuel the LORD is angry with Israel and punishes them by having David count them. Here in 1 Chronicles 21:1 Satan (which means “Adversary”), appearing for the first time in the Bible, incites David to order a census. Satan will not show up again until we get to the book of Job where Satan has a big role to play, and then he will appear briefly in the book of the prophet Zechariah. The New Testament contains most of the Bible’s references to Satan.

No explanation is given for why taking a census is such a terrible thing: go back and take a look at Numbers chapter 1 where God tells Moses to take a census of the tribes.

7-13: The chronicler’s account is a bit different from that found in 2 Samuel 24:10-14. There, God’s punishment begins with David’s confession of sin. Here, God’s punishment begins before David confesses. From that point the two accounts agree: through the seer Gad, David is given three choices. David chooses to “fall into the hands of the LORD,” which actually fits the first and third choices.
14-17: God then chooses the shorter of those two and sends the “pestilence,” the exact nature of which is not described, but it is a terrible calamity in which 70,000 people die all over the country in the course of the three days. When the angel reaches Jerusalem, God relents. David sees the angel standing by the threshing floor of one Ornan the Jebusite (the Jebusites are the tribe that originally inhabited Jerusalem), and begs God to spare the city. David is joined by “the elders,” all clothed in sackcloth, a detail not included in the earlier account (2 Samuel 24:15-17, in which the Jebusite’s name is Araunah). David is made to appear more pious in 1 Chronicles.

18-27: Gad, instructed by the angel (a detail not included in 2 Samuel 24:18-25), tells David to erect an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor. When David goes there Ornan sees the angel, and his four sons hide (a detail not in 2 Samuel). David arranges to buy the property in a conversation that is a bit more involved than the one in 2 Samuel, and pays 600 shekels of gold for it (15 pounds!) – quite a bit more than the 50 shekels of silver reported in the 2 Samuel account, again presenting David in a superior light. David builds the altar and God sends fire from heaven to consume the offering – another detail lacking in the 2 Samuel account. The angel, who has apparently been waiting patiently to see that things are properly done, finally sheathes his sword.

28-30: The chapter ends with a curious note. Although the covenant chest is now in Jerusalem (15:25-28), the sanctuary and altar of burnt offerings which had been with Moses in the wilderness are still on the hilltop at Gibeon – the sanctuary mentioned here is the tent Moses had made to house the covenant chest. It will still be there in the time of Solomon (2 Chronicles 1:5), and 1 Chronicles 6:32 tells us that priests are assigned to minister at the site in Gibeon until Solomon completes the temple in Jerusalem. But apparently the tent itself is never relocated. These concluding verses explain David’s having sacrificed on the altar at the threshing floor of Ornan instead of going to Gibeon; David is afraid to leave the angel hovering over Jerusalem.


Satan suddenly appears in chapter 21 as God’s antithesis and connives to drive a divisive wedge between God and David. Satan will appear now and then in the Bible as the personification of evil – the force that seeks to drive us away from God.