From Sin to Mount Moriah
God’s purposes are not thwarted by our sin. God used Jacob’s stubbornness to raise up the 12 tribes of Israel. He used Israel’s failure under the theocracy in the time of the judges to bring in the monarchy under David. And He even used David’s tragic and ill-fated army census to accomplish His goals.
The circumstances of David’s numbering of his army and God’s resultant punishment are somewhat murky. The fact that there are two accounts of this incident (2 Sam. 24; 1 Chr. 21) actually complicates the matter because of differences in the details. Nevertheless, the account is an important part of the Davidic saga as it relates to God’s faithfulness despite David’s sin, as well as the consequences for Israel.
Though the impetus to number the army is attributed to both God’s anger (2 Sam. 24:1) and Satan (1 Chr. 21:1), the result was that David decided to determine how many people and fighting men he had. The question is, “Why was this a sin?”
Under Moses, an army census had been taken at God’s command, so the sin cannot be the idea of a census itself (Num. 1; 26). The answer is that this census was not the result of God’s command but of David’s pride.
Perhaps David wanted something to boast about. The theology seems to be that, while recognizing God’s goodness is commendable (cf. 2 Sam. 5:12), David’s action here seems to indicate a desire to glory over Israel as though he had been responsible for the nation’s blessings. In any event, after the census, David himself realized he had done wrong: “And David’s heart condemned him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the Lᴏʀᴅ, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O Lᴏʀᴅ, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly’” (24:10).
Famine, Flight, or Sword
That the Lord answered David’s prayer can only be attributed to His promise in the Davidic Covenant, where He assured David He would never remove His loving-kindness from him (7:15; 1 Chr. 17:13–14).
The Lord then sent the prophet Gad to David with His judgment on the matter. David could choose his punishment: seven years of famine (1 Chronicles 21:12 and the Septuagint say “three years”) or three months of fleeing his enemies or three days of pestilence from the Lord (2 Sam. 24:11–13). David chose option three because he trusted in God’s mercy to him and his people: “And David said to Gad, ‘I am in great distress. Please let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for His mercies are great; but do not let me fall into the hand of man’” (v. 14). As a result of the plague, 70,000 people died in Israel.
As in the case of David and Bathsheba, one is struck by God’s faithfulness to David despite his sin. Yet God disciplined Israel as a result of it. It is interesting that the judgment here affected the very area of David’s pride: the number of people in the kingdom. But as David intuited, God’s mercy to Israel would be the key.
When the angel of the Lord came to Jerusalem to strike the city, the Lord was moved to be merciful on seeing the effect of the calamity; and He commanded the angel to pause. When David saw the angel with his sword over Jerusalem, he repented further and asked God to punish him, rather than the people. In response, the Lord told David through Gad to build an altar on the threshing floor of Araunah (or Ornan) the Jebusite in Jerusalem. David went to Araunah, bought the site and the oxen, built an altar, and sacrificed the oxen in burnt and peace offerings to the Lord. God accepted his sacrifice, and the plague was halted (vv. 18–24; 1 Chr. 21:18–27).
The story, however, does not end there. When Solomon later prepared to build Israel’s first Temple, the spot he chose was the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite on Mount Moriah, which David had purchased for his altar (2 Chr. 3:1–2). We surmise, then, that the “rock” Araunah used as his threshing floor is the same place where Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac (cf. Gen. 22:2, 14; 2 Chr. 3:1); where Solomon built his Temple; and where Zerubbabel built the second Temple, later known as Herod’s Temple. Today the centerpiece of this area, known as the Temple Mount, is the Muslim Dome of the Rock.
Again God used tragedy to further His purposes for Israel, turning sin and death into an opportunity for atonement.
Victory of Grace
The apostle Paul wrote that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God (Rom. 8:28). In the preceding verses, Paul recounted our sufferings and weaknesses. He was not saying that God is the author of sin or that sin and its effects are good. But what he did say is that God can take the consequences of sin and death and make something good out of them.
The prime example is the victory of the grace of God in Jesus Christ over the consequences of Adam’s sin and its disastrous effect on the human race (Rom. 5). In David’s case, God was faithful despite David’s foolish decision and the resultant consequences.
We see in these examples the relationship and tension between God’s gracious promises of unconditional love and His high standard that demands His children be holy, just as He is holy (Lev. 19:2; cf. Mt. 5:48).
But we also see that God’s purposes are not thwarted by our sin. God used David’s sin to establish Solomon on the throne, and He used Solomon to build the Temple on the spot where David atoned for numbering the people. Today God is using Israel’s national rejection of its Messiah to reconcile the world—Jewish people and Gentiles—to Himself before He restores Israel as a Kingdom.
This knowledge should encourage us in our relationship with God, as well as give us hope for the future. Despite our weaknesses, if God is for us, who can be against us (Rom. 8:31)? Our hope for the future is not in man but in God, who is always faithful to keep His promises.