The Word Made Fresh
1There was a time when the LORD was angry with Israel because David thought the LORD wanted him to count the people of Israel and Judah. 2The king told Joab and his officers, “Go through the tribal territories of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and count the people. I want to know how many there are.”
3Joab said, “May the LORD increase your people a hundred times, and may you live to see it, but why does my lord the king want to do this?”
4But the king insisted, and Joab left with his officers to take a census of Israel. 5They crossed the Jordan and counted beginning at Aroer and the city in the middle of the valley on toward Gad and Jazer. 6They traveled to Gilead, then to Kadesh in Tahtim-Todshi, then through Dan-Jaan, and from there to Sidon. 7They went to the fortress at Tyre and all the towns and cities of the Hivites and Canaanites, then out to the Negeb at Beersheba. 8For nine months and twenty days they traveled through the land, and then returned to Jerusalem. 9Joab reported to the king that there were eight hundred thousand men of fighting age in Israel, and five hundred thousand in Judah.
10But afterwards David was ashamed for having counted the people, and said to the LORD, “I have sinned. I beg you, LORD, to take away my guilt. It was foolish of me to do such a thing.” 11The next morning the word of the LORD came to the prophet Gad, David’s chaplain: 12“Say this to David: The LORD says, ‘I will let you choose your punishment from these three things.'”
13Gad went to David and told him the LORD had given him a choice: three years of famine across the land; three months of David running from his enemies; or three days of plague across the land. “Choose one,” he said, “and I will take your answer to the One who sent me.”
14David said, “I am so very sorry. But I know the LORD is merciful, so let me fall into the LORD’s hands and not into human hands.”
15Then the LORD sent a plague through Israel from that very morning and for the three days following. Seventy thousand people died from Dan to Beersheba. 16When the angel reached Jerusalem and began to afflict the people there, the LORD relented and told the angel, “That is enough.” The angel was standing by the threshing floor that belonged to Araunah the Jebusite.
17When David saw that the angel was afflicting the people, he said to the LORD, “I am the one who sinned. I am the one who did wrong. These people are like helpless sheep. What have they done to deserve this? I am the one who deserves to be punished; me and my father’s house, not these people.”
18That same day Gad came to David and told him, “Go build an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” 19David did what Gad told him to do, for it was at the LORD’s command.
20Araunah saw the king coming toward him with his entourage and ran out to fall face down on the ground before the king. 21He said, “What has brought my lord the king to his servant?”
David replied, “I am here to purchase your threshing floor to build an altar to the LORD so that the plague will turn away from the people.”
22Araunah said, “Let the king take whatever is needed. Here are oxen for a burnt offering. You can use the wood from the threshing sleds and the oxen yokes. 23It is yours, O king. Araunah gives them to you.” And then he said, “May the LORD your God hear your prayers.”
24David replied, “I won’t make offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing. I insist on paying a fair price for them.” Then David purchased the threshing floor and oxen for fifty silver coins. 25He built an altar there and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings to the LORD, and the LORD answered his prayers for the land and removed the plague from Israel.
1-9: David summons Joab and orders him to conduct a census of the “people.” The royal scribe who compiled these records adds a note that God put the idea into David’s mind because God was angry with Israel, but we are not told why God was angry with Israel and we aren’t sure whether “Israel” here means the northern tribes only or the whole country. In any case, Joab protests, but David stands firm — something he has seldom done where Joab is concerned. The census takes nine months and twenty days, the better part of a year. When they are done, we discover the probable reason David ordered the census: only the men available for military service were counted — 800,000 in Israel and 500,000 in Judah.
10-14: We meet another character, the prophet Gad. Actually, we met him back in the days when David was running from Saul (I Samuel 22:5), so he has been with David all these years but hasn’t been mentioned again until now. David is sorry he took the census (the act of counting only military-aged young men probably alarmed the whole country) and prays for forgiveness. Gad receives a word from God that David can choose one of three penances: three years of famine, three months of hiding, or three days of pestilence. We are not told why God thinks David should be punished, since God is supposed to have put the idea of the census in David’s mind from the start. The answer is probably that the LORD wasn’t responsible in the first place and the text should indicate that the census was David’s idea. It may be simply that there were records of a census, and records of a terrible plague immediately following, and later scribes whose records were used for this narrative filled in the rest of the story. David tells Gad he would rather fall into the hands of God than into human hands. That leaves two of the three choices, famine or pestilence, but David doesn’t choose between these two.
15-17: God, however, does, and sends 3 days of pestilence in the form of an unidentified plague that kills 70,000 throughout the nation. God spares Jerusalem, however, and the “angel” that brings the plague is stopped at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. (The Jebusites were the original occupants of Jerusalem when it was known as Jebus.) David sees the carnage and prays for God to spare the people.
18-23: The prophet Gad comes again and tells David to build an altar at the place where the plague has stopped. David dickers with Araunah to buy the threshing floor to avert the plague.
24-25: David pays him 50 silver coins for the threshing floor and the oxen, builds an altar and offers burnt offerings and the plague stops. David, more than any other king of Israel, often assumes the authority to perform sacred duties usually reserved for the priests.
The last few chapters of 2 Samuel are not chronologically placed, but rather seem to be a sort of wrapping up of events that the scribes have at their disposal but were not sure where to place them. “David’s last words,” for example (chapter 23:1-7) are not David’s last words. His rule will continue to 1 Kings 2:10. So, here we have the account of a plague that ravaged the country briefly. Where during David’s reign this occurs is not known, but it sums up David’s life succinctly as a struggle between ego (wanting to know how large an army can be conscripted in Israel and Judah) and faith (begging God for forgiveness and building an altar to make sacrificial offerings). It is a struggle we all face.
So ends the book of 2 Samuel. The story line will continue into 1 Kings where we will read of the wealth and woes of the Davidic dynasty and God’s continuing attempts to mold the descendants of Abraham.