David Numbers the People: The Three Choices
Relevant passages: I Chronicles 21, II Samuel 24
When I was a young boy, it would seem I had a predisposition for mischief. It’s true—but it’s not my fault. It seems that trouble would simply find me, and it would do so at the most inconvenient of times. It was as innocent as exploring the theory of cause and effect on my mother’s Fossil watch inside the magical, porcelain bowl of swirling water (we never saw that watch again), or maybe Newton’s law of gravity as I threw rocks from our driveway into the air just to see what would happen. I will tell you what happened—it came down. Fast. And it landed on the windshield of my father’s car conveniently parked in the driveway (what was it doing there anyway?). I remember running several times around our house in a panic, unsure of what to do exactly. It then dawned on me that I had to come clean. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I had been previously instructed not to throw stones in the driveway. Even now, I still forget that part of the story. Well there I was, standing before my father trying to explain Newton’s law of gravity and the scientific experiment I was conducting—ok, not really, but I really did come clean. In that moment, I was calmly offered three choices for my correction. Now I cannot remember what the other two choices were, but I can clearly remember desiring to get the correction out of the way as quickly as possible, so naturally I chose the option that left my backside tender for a few hours…
This example of correction, which neither I nor my backside will ever forget, was inspired from an account recorded in I Chronicles 21 and II Samuel 24 where David takes a census of the people in his kingdom. We could examine Satan’s provocation, David’s motivation, Joab’s objection, and a great many other points worthy of attention and pregnant with practical truths for us to learn. I desire, however, only to look at the three choices God gave to David in order that we may see a lovely picture of what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for us on the cross.
Let us briefly examine some verses for context:
I Chronicles 21:1-2- “And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel. And David said to Joab and to the rulers of the people, Go, number Israel from Beersheba even to Dan; and bring the number of them to me, that I may know it.”
David is interested in the number of people in his kingdom. This might seem innocent enough, but mark that it was provoked by Satan. Wherever Satan is involved, there is bound to be disobedience to the Word of God, pride, and a host of other sins with the ultimate intention to “kill, steal and destroy” (I Peter 5:8). Whenever I read this passage, I conjure an image of Scrooge McDuck counting his vast treasure as he needlessly stacks his mountain of gold coins.
Joab, David’s right hand man and captain of his army proceeds to number a portion of the people after a futile attempt at resisting the king’s command.
I Chronicles 21:7-8- “And God was displeased with this thing; therefore he smote Israel. And David said unto God, I have sinned greatly, because I have done this thing: but now, I beseech thee, do away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.”
You see, it was the responsibility of every king to write a personal copy of the book of the law in order that he would “turn not aside from the commandment to the right hand, or to the left ” (Deut. 17:18-19).
A quick examination of the law reveals:
Exodus 30:11-12- “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the LORD, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them.”
The command here is that whenever the people were numbered, a ransom (literally atonement) was to be taken from them as an offering to the Lord. Half of a shekel was the amount. Our passage gives no indication that this command was obeyed. Take a lesson from this to realize that God takes disobedience very seriously. But this command was given more than 400 years ago, surely it must have an expiration date, right? Not so—not for David, and not for us. God expects that we treat His Word today with the same respect and holding the same authority as it did during the time when it was etched in stone.
I Chronicles 21:11-12- “So Gad came to David, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Choose thee. Either three years’ famine; or three months to be destroyed before thy foes, while that the sword of thine enemies overtaketh thee; or else three days the sword of the LORD, even the pestilence, in the land, and the angel of the LORD destroying throughout all the coasts of Israel. Now therefore advise thyself what word I shall bring again to him that sent me.”
And now, we come to my favorite part of the story. It is not my favorite because judgment must be carried out and innocent people are dying, it is my favorite because of the choice David made.
- Three years of famine
- Three months of fleeing before enemies
- Three days of pestilence (disease)
Which would you choose? How would you even begin to make that kind of decision? I know what I would choose. Remember my story? I chose the correction that would be over with the fastest, but unlike David, my rationale was purely selfish. Let us see David’s choice:
I Chronicles 21:13-14- “And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let me fall now into the hand of the LORD; for very great are his mercies: but let me not fall into the hand of man. So the LORD sent pestilence upon Israel: and there fell of Israel seventy thousand men.”
Seventy-thousand men dead. Think about that for a moment, that is a football stadium FULL of people dead on account of this error in order to illustrate to us the seriousness of sin and disobedience in the eyes of God. Why do you suppose David chose as he did? Certainly, it is better to fall into the hands of the Lord than those of men, but I would suggest there is more. Let us examine each choice individually and I believe we will catch a glimpse of the heart of this shepherd:
- Three years of famine– To choose 3 years of famine would affect only the poorest of the people. Those who were rich could buy off of neighboring lands and thus survive the famine.
- Three months of enemy attack– To choose 3 months of being destroyed by enemies would affect mainly the soldiers. The common people would be spared.
In either of these 2 judgments, David and his family would be spared the danger, the hunger, and the risk of death.
- Three days of pestilence- To choose 3 days pestilence at the hand of the Lord would be to allow a punishment that would affect ALL of God’s people equally, including David and his family. David would allow himself to be exposed to the punishment the same as any other Israelite—if his people were going to suffer, he was to suffer with them. Thus is the heart of a true shepherd, and even in this failure we see manifested the fine qualities of David’s heart.
David was a shepherd chosen to be king from among the sheepfold, and he always had a heart for his sheep. Now as king, his heart breaks over the lives lost on account of his error. We read:
I Chron. 21:15-17- “And God sent an angel unto Jerusalem to destroy it: and as he was destroying, the LORD beheld, and he repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed, It is enough, stay now thine hand. And the angel of the LORD stood by the threshingfloor of Ornan the Jebusite. And David lifted up his eyes, and saw the angel of the LORD stand between the earth and the heaven, having a drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders of Israel, who were clothed in sackcloth, fell upon their faces. And David said unto God, Is it not I that commanded the people to be numbered? even I it is that have sinned and done evil indeed; but as for these sheep, what have they done? let thine hand, I pray thee, O LORD my God, be on me, and on my father’s house; but not on thy people, that they should be plagued.”
David cries out in sheer agony over the cost of his sin, the lives lost. His sheep, hewn down by the thousands, punished for the foolish pride of his heart, and disobedience. “Is it not I, Lord,” he cries. “I am the guilty one!” Only a short while ago he, in pride, required the number of his mighty force, and now, he must count the number of bodies as they pile up by the thousands. “Let your hand be upon me and my house.” Thus is the beautiful heart of the shepherd.
There is another Shepherd, of which we could now speak. He did not sin the way David sinned. In fact, He never sinned (2 Corinthians 5:21, I Peter 2:22). He identified Himself as the good Shepherd. He said, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Not only is He the good Shepherd, but He is also called “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). By now you know I speak of the Lord Jesus Christ. As David chose the punishment that would leave himself and his family exposed and vulnerable, so Christ exposed Himself to the unmitigated wrath of God, the full force of God’s fury as He took upon Himself the judgment of every sin, for every man, for all eternity. The Shepherd truly became the lamb and as David cried “let your hand be upon me and my house,” so Christ cried out on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
We have considered the failure of David which resulted in the death of 70,000, but we have also seen the heart of the shepherd king who would long to bear the burden of his own sin in order to spare his sheep. We have also seen how this example foreshadows the Good Shepherd, Who, for no sin of His own, bear in His own body the penalty for sin in order to procure forgiveness of sin, purchase eternal pardon, and provide eternal life having restored us to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls (I Peter 2:25). Praise be to God and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Truly our hearts echo the words of this beautiful hymn:
O Christ, what burdens bowed Thy head! Our load was laid on Thee;
Thou stoodest in the sinner’s stead, Didst bear all ill for me.
A Victim led, Thy blood was shed; Now there’s no load for me.
Jehovah lifted up His rod; O Christ, it fell on Thee!
Thou wast sore stricken of Thy God; There’s not one stroke for me.
Thy tears, Thy blood, beneath it flowed; Thy bruising healeth me.