“Again the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and He incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah’” (2 Sam. 24:1). A few questions may come to our minds as we read this opening verse, but let’s start at the beginning, “Again the anger of Yahweh…” (v. 24a). Now some read these words and think, God is capricious or unpredictable. But a simple look at the Scriptures shows us that God’s anger is never unjustified, or to say it positively, the anger of the Lord is always, yes always, just. In 2 Samuel 21 we read about the three year famine in the days of David. Famines are not mere happenchance occurrences, nothing is left to chance in God’s universe for He governs all things. We see this in 2 Samuel 21, after David seeks the face of Yahweh, Yahweh said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death” (v. 1b).
David had reversed the consequences of Saul’s sin (i.e. famine), but the payment was seven sons (including grandsons) of Saul (2 Sam. 21:5-6, 10). In 2 Samuel 24, it was David’s sin that brought the plague upon the children of Israel, but unlike Saul, David confessed and took steps to stop the plague. We see in this census, and its consequences particularly, that David’s sins impacts more than himself. The closing verse of 2 Samuel 23 reminds us of David’s sinful taking of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah, “Uriah the Hittite: thirty-seven in all” (v. 39). What happens to the sheep, when the shepherd sins? Remember David was called to, as Abner pointed out, be “shepherd of [Yahweh’s] people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel” (2 Sam. 5:2b). When the shepherd of Israel sins, whether Saul or David, the sheep suffer.
But, you may be wondering, what is so sinful about a census? Doesn’t God call on Israel to take a census at different times? Indeed, He does (Numbers 1:1-3). But God’s actions are never sinful, for He cannot act against His own nature and character. God is holy, righteous, and good altogether. “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5b). We know David’s census is senseless, for even Joab warned him against it (v. 3). And Joab, while he is a strong fighter, hasn’t displayed the strongest of consciences to this point. Some suggest an atonement price wasn’t paid (see Exodus 30:11-16), but God’s anger against Israel comes prior to the census being taken, so this cannot be it. One author makes the case that the people of Israel are being punished for their faithlessness to the covenant when they rejected the anointed king, David, and followed Absalom and/or Sheba (2 Sam. 15; 20). This is certainly more probable than the first choice, but the text doesn’t specify like it did for Saul’s sin (2 Sam. 21:1). This may simultaneously be the toughest, and most revealing, part of this text.
We like explanations. When we receive a new board game that we haven’t played before, we look for the explanation (aka the rule book). This is particularly the case when we are reading Scripture, we want things laid out for us with clear explanations. We appreciate the times the disciples asked Jesus about what a particular parable meant (see Mark 4:1-20), because we oftentimes need those explanations too. But not all parables have explanations, rather we are told, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9). This appears to be taking place here.
When we read the opening verse of 2 Samuel 24 and are not given a specific reason for why Yahweh’s anger is kindled against Israel we are uncomfortable a bit, but our discomfort reveals that we don’t trust God to do what is just. Somehow we feel we are owed an explanation, but is such a thing required? If our ears have been tuned throughout 2 Samuel, let alone Genesis to 1 Samuel before it, we would understand that even if/when an explanation is absent, the judge of the earth will always, yes always, do what is just. We can trust God! God is faithful and keeps steadfast love, even when His people or His anointed do not.
When David spoke in v. 17, “Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father’s house” he was acting like a king looking to take the penalty upon himself. But David looked to take the penalty upon himself for his own sin. But Jesus, “committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:22-25). Hallelujah, what a Savior!