Notes for teaching on 2 Samuel 24, which is featured in Explore the Bible, Summer 2018, Session 13.
The people are punished for David’s sin. David intercedes for the people.
The passage is applicable today because invites us to think about themes of confession, intercession, and worship.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
24:1 Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”
This is a troubling passage. God is angry with Israel (we don’t know why), and in his anger God incites David to take a census that will bring ruin on Israel. What we have here is God inciting the very action for which he will eventually judge the people. John Goldingay helps us better understand God’s action when he explains:
Speaking of God’s inciting David to do it doesn’t imply God somehow forced him. The language parallels talk of God’s hardening people’s hearts or stiffening their resolve. The experience parallels occasions when someone suggests an idea to us and we accept it freely but with hindsight recognize it was a bad idea.
Even so, it is hard to fathom God suggesting a “bad idea” to the king of his people, especially when we consider what is at stake. The scripture simply describes this exchange rather than explaining it, which leaves us befuddled and wanting more.
2 So the king said to Joab and the army commanders with him, “Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enroll the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are.”
3 But Joab replied to the king, “May the Lord your God multiply the troops a hundred times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?”
4 The king’s word, however, overruled Joab and the army commanders; so they left the presence of the king to enroll the fighting men of Israel.
Having been incited toward the census, David gives the order. Though we don’t know their reasoning, it seems that Joab and the other military commanders knew that this was a bad idea. Joab goes so far as to respectfully challenge David’s order, thereby creating a moment when the story could have gone differently. David’s authority outweighs the objections, however, and the commanders end up doing as he said.
5 After crossing the Jordan, they camped near Aroer, south of the town in the gorge, and then went through Gad and on to Jazer. 6 They went to Gilead and the region of Tahtim Hodshi, and on to Dan Jaan and around toward Sidon. 7 Then they went toward the fortress of Tyre and all the towns of the Hivites and Canaanites. Finally, they went on to Beersheba in the Negev of Judah.
8 After they had gone through the entire land, they came back to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days.
9 Joab reported the number of the fighting men to the king: In Israel there were eight hundred thousand able-bodied men who could handle a sword, and in Judah five hundred thousand.
The census is a months-long project that may or may not have had a military function. As ETB, 136, notes, everything comes down to how we translate “troops” or “fighting men” as the NIV puts it. The word can refer either to the military specifically or to the people in general. Adding to the confusion is the actual practice of taking a census in Israel. Numbers 1 and 26 both record censuses taken by Moses. Both focus on the number of men over 20 years old, with the first adding that these men should be able to serve in the military. Military-eligible men, it seems, were the primary factor in such a count. This in mind, the current census proceeds in much the same way as its predecessors. Though it counts “able-bodied men who could handle a sword,” the other censuses, which weren’t specifically military in nature, did much the same. In the end, I would argue that the census had multiple functions with one of them being military in nature. (In this, I agree with ETB, 134.)
10 David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.”
David knows that what he has done is wrong the moment it is finished. This is not unlike when Christians today justify something that they know is wrong and then feel terrible after engaging in it. David immediately confesses and asks for mercy once he realizes his error.
Unfortunately for us, the text is silent on exactly why taking the census was a sin. ETB, 135, is both helpful and unhelpful on this front. The idea that David understands the census information’s potential for abuse upon receiving it is attractive. Looking back to Exodus 30 to argue that the Israelites failed to take up the half-shekel census tax is unnecessary, though, as 2 Sam 24 makes no mention of it.
Brueggemann is also inclined to think of the census in terms of state power. For him, the census is a dividing point between that traditional structuring of Israel and the state-structuring of Israel. He argues that Joab then becomes the voice for the traditional structure that David the king overrides.
Goldingay offers the following as a possible reason for Joab’s and the commanders’ discomfort with the census: “Perhaps they share the unease about counting that is felt in other traditional societies. Counting is unlucky, and people or animals that are counted may die, partly because it can be an expression of or an encouragement to pride.” If this is the case, pride may indeed have been David’s downfall in the census (contrary to ETB, 136-137). Goldingay also notes that if the census was indeed chiefly a military matter that David has begun to rely on his own strength and resources rather than trusting in God.
Ultimately, we are left to conjecture, as the text remains silent on the problems inherent in the census.
11 Before David got up the next morning, the word of the Lord had come to Gad the prophet, David’s seer: 12 “Go and tell David, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you.’ ”
13 So Gad went to David and said to him, “Shall there come on you three years of famine in your land? Or three months of fleeing from your enemies while they pursue you? Or three days of plague in your land? Now then, think it over and decide how I should answer the one who sent me.”
14 David said to Gad, “I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into human hands.”
15 So the Lord sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. 16 When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of the Lord was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.
Via a message from the prophet Gad, David finds himself in the difficult situation of choosing the punishment for his people. Rather than giving himself over to human foes for three years, he instead opts to put himself in God’s hands in hopes of receiving mercy. God sends a plague that kills thousands upon thousands of people. In the end, God does show mercy by sparing Jerusalem.
17 When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the Lord, “I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall on me and my family.”
18 On that day Gad went to David and said to him, “Go up and build an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” 19 So David went up, as the Lord had commanded through Gad. 20 When Araunah looked and saw the king and his officials coming toward him, he went out and bowed down before the king with his face to the ground.
21 Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?”
“To buy your threshing floor,” David answered, “so I can build an altar to the Lord, that the plague on the people may be stopped.”
22 Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take whatever he wishes and offer it up. Here are oxen for the burnt offering, and here are threshing sledges and ox yokes for the wood. 23 Your Majesty, Araunah gives all this to the king.” Araunah also said to him, “May the Lord your God accept you.”
24 But the king replied to Araunah, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”
So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen and paid fifty shekels q of silver for them. 25 David built an altar to the Lord there and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. Then the Lord answered his prayer in behalf of the land, and the plague on Israel was stopped.
The timeline of the story gets a little bit confusing at this point. John Goldingay is helpful in explaining:
At first we get the impression that the altar was built on Araunah’s land to commemorate the fact that this was where the supernatural aide was when the epidemic stopped, but the way the story unfolds suggests rather that building the altar and offering the sacrifices while the aide stood there was what led to the cessation of the epidemic. So the account of God’s limiting the effects of the epidemic (v. 16a) summarizes the results of the story that then unfolds (vv. 16b–25).
In this light, verses 17-25 detail the events that led to God’s mercy. This timeline helps us understand how David’s action and God’s action are connected. Things move as follows:
- God sends the plague.
- David sees the extent of the plague and intercedes for the people by offering himself and his family in their place.
- God does not do as David asks. He does, however, send Gad to command David to build an altar.
- David does as instructed and offers sacrifices.
- God honors David’s earlier intercession by stopping the plague.
- This would line up with the moment when God tells the angel not to attack Jerusalem.
As these events play out, we get a glimpse into David’s respect for God. Rather than presenting offerings that cost him nothing, David is sure to put his own skin in the game. This, I think, gives an important insight into worship. So often today, we are interested in our tastes and what we get out of it. Though the considerations have their place, worship that is about us and that costs us nothing does not measure up to David’s example in this chapter.
Further Thoughts on the Text
In my mind, the primary difficulty of this text comes in verse 1, where God is the one who “incites” the census. This seems to make God himself responsible for the punishment he eventually doles out on the people. Here are my own thoughts on this problem with the caveat that neither Brueggeman nor Goldingay take this viewpoint.
I think that it is worth noting that in this story David stands between the people and God. The text begins by telling us that God is angry with the people, but he does not move straight to punish them for whatever has caused this anger. Instead, he deals with David, whose actions, it seems, determine everything that follows. If we take Goldingay’s note that God’s incitement of David did not amount to his forcing David to take the census, there is at least a chance that the story could end up differently. Indeed, Joab creates a moment when the direction of the story could change when he raises his objection. If these thoughts are valid, we have God allowing David to stand between himself and Israel, thereby choosing to either belay his anger or act upon it depending on David’s actions. This becomes a moment when everything hinges on the faithfulness of the leader. Assuming that David knew the folly of taking a census (which I do in light of Joab’s objection and David’s later regret), David is a real player in the story even if God has weighted things in one direction.
Though the connection is by no means perfect, this story of David, viewed in the above light, reminds me of Jesus, who stood between God and the people and who was also tested when the Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Much rested on Jesus’ faithfulness in a moment when it seemed that things were weighted against him.
The temptation in teaching this passage is to focus on the things we don’t know. These include:
- Why was God angry?
- Why did God incite David?
- Why was the census sinful?
While these are interesting questions that are fodder for discussion, it is perhaps better to focus on the parts of the story that we do know. These include:
- A leader’s faithfulness matters (whether in a church, government, or family unit).
- The consequences of a person’s sin(s) often extend beyond the sinner him/herself.
- Having the right people around us (like Joab) can serve as a check on our mistakes.
- We should listen to the people in our lives.
- God is merciful.
- God hears our intercessions.
- Being quick to confession is a good thing.
- Worship that costs us nothing should give us pause.
Focusing our attention on these themes allows us to leave the study with helpful application rather than abstract musings on what we don’t know.
A Possible Teaching Plan
- Why do you think David was called a man after God’s own heart?
- What can we learn from David’s walk with God?
Explain: Explain that today will be our last day with David and that we will once again see his relationship with God on display.
Read: 2 Sam 24:1-4, 8-10
- What do these verses tell us about God’s place in this scenario?
- What do you think it means for God to “incite” David to take the census?
- Was taking the census a good or bad idea?
- Do you think that David knew that taking the census was sinful before he started?
- What did David get right and what did he get wrong in this passage?
- Do you think that it was easy for David to admit that he was wrong?
- What can we learn from David in this part of the story?
Read: 2 Sam 24:11-16
- How do you think David felt when he was told he had to choose the punishment for his people?
- Is it fair that the people should suffer for David’s sin? Do we ever see people suffering for the sins of leaders today?
- What can we learn from David’s decision to place himself in God’s hands?
- What do we learn about God when he stops the destruction of Jerusalem?
Intercession and Offerings
Explain: Explain that 24:17-25 tell of the events that led to God stopping the destruction of Jerusalem in v. 16.
Read: 2 Sam 24:17-25
- What is David’s first reaction when he sees the suffering of the people?
- What place does intercession play in the lives of believers today?
- How did God answer David’s intercession?
- What can we learn from David about worship in this passage?
- What do you think our main focus is in worship today? Does our worship measure up to David’s in this chapter?
Walter Brueggemann’s 1 and 2 Samuel in the Interpretation commentary series
John Goldingay’s 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone
Explore the Bible curriculum
 Goldingay, J. (2011). 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (pp. 180–181). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
 Goldingay, J. (2011). 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (p. 180). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
 Goldingay, J. (2011). 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (p. 184). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.