Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This chapter contains the account of David’s sin in numbering the people, and the punishment in consequence. The same narrative is found in 1 Chronicles 21, but with such considerable variations as to show that neither can have been taken from the other, but both must have been drawn from the original documents, which were probably very full, quite independently of each other.
No definite note of time is given. The word again in 2Samuel 24:1 clearly refers to 2 Samuel 21, and so places this after the three years’ famine for the Gibeomtes. The fact that Joab was engaged in the work nearly ten months (2Samuel 24:8) shows that it must have been a time of profound peace. The story in Chronicles is immediately followed by the account of David’s final preparations for the building of the Temple. All these considerations concur in placing it near the close of his reign.
The question of the nature of David’s sin in this act has been much discussed. The mere taking of a census in itself could not have been wrong, since it was provided for in the Law (Exodus 30:12) and had been repeatedly carried out by Moses (Numbers 1, 26). Nor is it likely that it was for the reason given by Josephus, that David neglected to secure for the sanctuary, as required, a half shekel from each one numbered (Exodus 30:13), since there is no mention of this, and David was at this very time concentrating the whole wealth of the kingdom for the future sanctuary. Yet the sinfulness of the act is distinctly set forth in the narrative (2Samuel 24:1) and in the punishment inflicted (2Samuel 24:15-16), is recognised by David himself (2Samuel 24:10; 2Samuel 24:17), and even forcibly impressed itself upon a person so little scrupulous as Joab (2Samuel 24:3). It must, then, plainly be sought in the motive of David. The whole connection shows that it was a military census, and it was made, not through the priests and Levites, but through Joab and “the captains of the host.” It would appear that prosperity and power, the natural generators of pride, had momentarily affected even David’s humble dependence upon God, and led him to wish to organise his kingdom more perfectly as a worldly power among the nations of the earth. A first step in this direction must of course be the placing of his military forces upon a systematic footing. This same desire to turn aside Israel from being a simple theocracy, to become a great earthly power, was the constant sin of the nation. It had led at the first to the request for a king, and Solomon was so thoroughly possessed with it, and so ordered all his policy in view of it, as to draw down, at his death, the judgment of the breaking up of the unity of the nation; and it is not surprising that, after all his conquests, David, in a moment of weakness, should have given way to something of the same spirit. It was thus an act most absolutely at variance with that general character which made him “a man after God’s own heart.”
And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.(1) Kindled against Israel.—This was not in consequence of the numbering of the people, but in consequence of that which ultimately led to that act. We are not told why the anger of the Lord was kindled, but doubtless because He saw both in king and people that rising spirit of earthly pride and reliance on earthly strength which led to the sin.
He moved.—The pronoun here stands for “the Lord,” yet in 1Chronicles 21:1, the temptation is attributed to Satan, and Satan is clearly meant of the devil, and not simply of “an adversary.” This is a striking instance of attributing directly to God whatever comes about under His permission. And yet it is more than that. God has established immutable spiritual as well as material laws, or rather those laws themselves are but the expression of His unchanging will. Whatever comes about under the operation of those laws is said to be His doing. Now David’s numbering the people was the natural consequence of the condition of worldliness and pride into which he had allowed himself to fall. God then moved him, because He had from the first so ordered the laws of the spirit that such a sinful act should be the natural outcome of such a sinful state. Of other interpretations: that which makes the verb impersonal—“one moved”—is hardly tenable grammatically; and that which makes the nominative a sort of compound word—“the wrath of the Lord” (as in some of the ancient versions)—leads to substantially the same explanation as that given above.
The word “number” in this verse is a different one from that used in the rest of the chapter, and means simply to count, while the other conveys the idea of a military muster.
And Joab said unto the king, Now the LORD thy God add unto the people, how many soever they be, an hundredfold, and that the eyes of my lord the king may see it: but why doth my lord the king delight in this thing?(3) Why doth my lord?—Even in the eyes of the unscrupulous Joab David’s act was abominable. Joab never gives evidence of being influenced by religious motives, but his natural shrewdness sufficed to show him that David’s act was at variance with the fundamental principle of the national existence. Chronicles adds to Joab’s words, “Why will he be a cause of trespass to Israel?” The strong objection of Joab shows that there was something obviously wrong in the action of David.
And against the captains.—Joab’s objections were sustained by his subordinate officers, and David carried through his sinful act by sheer force of self-will.
And they passed over Jordan, and pitched in Aroer, on the right side of the city that lieth in the midst of the river of Gad, and toward Jazer:(5) Pitched in Aroer.—The census began on the east of Jordan, at the extreme south, thence passed northwards through the eastern tribes, and crossing the Jordan, passed southwards through the western tribes. Aroer is the city described in Deuteronomy 2:36; Joshua 13:16 as on the river Arnon, at the extreme southern border of the trans-Jordanie territory.
Of Gad.—This follows the Masoretic reading. It is better to put a period after the word river, and for “of Gad” to read “towards Gad.” Perhaps the words “and they came” (towards Gad) may have been lost from the text.
Jazer.—A boundary city of Gad (Joshua 13:25). Thence they went to Gilead.
Then they came to Gilead, and to the land of Tahtimhodshi; and they came to Danjaan, and about to Zidon,(6) Land of Tahtim-hodshi.—This unknown and strange name, of which the ancient versions make nothing, is generally considered as a corruption. The most probable conjecture is that for “Tahtim” we should read “Hittites” (a change of only a single letter), and that “Hodshi” is the remnant of an expression designating the month of their arrival there.
Dan-jaan.—This is the only place in which the name “Dan” occurs with this addition. It seems certain that the same Dan must be meant as in 2Samuel 24:2; 2Samuel 24:15; and so the reading of the LXX. (Alex.) and Vulg. may be correct: “Dan-jaar=Dan in the forest.”
Zidon.—This mother city of the Phœnicians was in the tribe of Asher nominally, but was never actually possessed by the Israelites. The same also is true of Tyre. Either the census-takers merely came to the confines of these cities, or, being on friendly terms, actually entered them to enumerate the Israelites living in them.
And came to the strong hold of Tyre, and to all the cities of the Hivites, and of the Canaanites: and they went out to the south of Judah, even to Beersheba.(7) Of the Hivites, and of the Canaanites.—The remnants of the original inhabitants appear still to have occupied distinct towns by themselves. The “Hivites” were chiefly in the northern part of the land, though Gibeon and its towns had belonged to them. “The Canaanites” is a general name for the remnants of all the other races.
And Joab gave up the sum of the number of the people unto the king: and there were in Israel eight hundred thousand valiant men that drew the sword; and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand men.(9) In Israel eight hundred thousand.—The numbers here differ greatly from those given in 1Chronicles 21:5-6; but there is no reason to suppose any corruption of the text in either case. Joab undertook the work unwillingly, and performed it imperfectly. According to 1Chronicles 21:6 he refused altogether to number Levi and Benjamin; and according to 1Chronicles 27:24 “he finished not,” and no official record was made of the result; “neither was the number put in the account of the chronicles of king David.” The numbers were, therefore, in part mere estimates. Here Israel is said to be 800,000, in Chronicles 1,100,000; but the latter probably includes an estimate of the omitted tribes of Benjamin and Levi, and perhaps of portions of other tribes. On the other hand, Judah is here 500,000 (a round number like all the rest), and in Chronicles 470,000. The difference is due perhaps to an estimate of the officiating priests and Levities reckoned to Judah. Another supposition is that the regular army of 288,000 (twelve divisions of 24,000 each) is included in Israel in one case and excluded in the other, and that in the same way in regard to Judah “the thirty” may have had command of a special body of 30,000. Possibly in one case the descendants of the old Canaanites were reckoned (since it appears from 2Chronicles 2:17 that David “had numbered them”), and in the other were excluded. There is no reason to doubt the general reliability of the numbers, which would give a probable total population of five or six millions, or from 415 to 500 to a geographical square mile—a number not at all impossible in so fertile a country. (Robinson’s estimate of the area of the country is about 12,000 geographical square miles.)
And David's heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the LORD, I have sinned greatly in that I have done: and now, I beseech thee, O LORD, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.(10) David’s heart smote him.—This time David’s own conscience was awakened, without the necessity of being roused, as in the case of Uriah, by the visit of a prophet. He confesses his sin, and prays for pardon. Still it must be remembered that ten months had passed (2Samuel 24:8) before David saw his sin.
For when David was up in the morning, the word of the LORD came unto the prophet Gad, David's seer, saying,(1l) For when David.—Read, and when. There is no suggestion in the original, as seems to be implied in the English, that David’s repentance was in consequence of the visit of Gad; on the contrary, it was in consequence of his repentance and confession that the prophet was sent to him.
The prophet Gad.—This prophet has not been mentioned since his warning to David to return from the land of Moab (1Samuel 22:5); but he had probably been all along one of David’s counsellors. From 1Chronicles 29:29 it is not unlikely that this account was written by Gad.
So Gad came to David, and told him, and said unto him, Shall seven years of famine come unto thee in thy land? or wilt thou flee three months before thine enemies, while they pursue thee? or that there be three days' pestilence in thy land? now advise, and see what answer I shall return to him that sent me.(13) Seven years.—In Chronicles “three years,” and so the LXX. reads here also. This would be more in accordance with the “three” months and “three” days.
And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the LORD; for his mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man.(14) Let us fall now into the hand of the Lord. Here the spirit of David in his earlier years reappears; he chooses that form of punishment which seems to him most directly and immediately dependent upon God Himself. He places himself in His hands rather than suffer those other punishments in which the will of man seemed to have a greater share. And it may be noticed also that he chooses that form of punishment from which his own royal position would afford him no immunity.
So the LORD sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed: and there died of the people from Dan even to Beersheba seventy thousand men.(15) The time appointed.—Much difficulty has been found with this expression; but, if the Hebrew can bear this meaning, it may be understood well enough of the time (somewhat less than three days, 2Samuel 24:16), which God in His good pleasure determined. The Hebrew, however, probably means “time of assembly,” which is generally understood to signify the time of the evening sacrifice; so the Chaldee understand it, and so also St. Jerome. This would reduce the time of the pestilence to a single day.
When the angel.—The abruptness of the mention of “the angel” here is removed in 1Chronicles 21:15, “And God sent an angel unto Jerusalem to destroy it; and as he was destroying it, the Lord beheld, and he repented,” &c.
Araunah the Jebusite.—The name is variously spelled, “Avarnah” (text), “Aranyah” (2Samuel 24:18, text), and “Aravnah” (margin); in Chronicles it is uniformly “Ornan.” The latter is thought to be the Hebrew, and the former the Jebusite name, slightly varied in. expression in Hebrew. He was a Jebusite, i.e., descended from the former possessors of Jerusalem; but we are not told whether he was now a proselyte.
When he saw the angel.—More fully (1Chronicles 21:16), “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.”
These sheep.—David seeks to take all blame to himself, and prays that punishment may fall only upon him and his father’s house. But, without mooting the question as to how far the people actively shared in David’s sin, his prayer was impossible to be granted. Such was the divinely ordained federal relation between the ruler and his people that they were necessarily involved in the guilt of their head.
And Gad came that day to David, and said unto him, Go up, rear an altar unto the LORD in the threshingfloor of Araunah the Jebusite.(18) Gad came.—As appears from 1Chronicles 21:18, by direction of the angel. Daniel was still in Jerusalem proper, i.e., the hill of Zion, and it was looking out from thence that he had seen the angel “by the threshing-floor of Araunah,” i.e., on the lower hill of Mount Moriah, which afterwards became the site of the Temple, and was included within the city. It was doubtless this event that determined the Temple-site.
And Araunah looked, and saw the king and his servants coming on toward him: and Araunah went out, and bowed himself before the king on his face upon the ground.(20) Saw the king.—Not the angel, as in Chronicles, the words in Hebrew being much alike.
And Araunah said unto David, Let my lord the king take and offer up what seemeth good unto him: behold, here be oxen for burnt sacrifice, and threshing instruments and other instruments of the oxen for wood.(22) And Araunah said.—Araunah, having heard David’s errand, has not a moment’s hesitation. That his threshing-floor is to be turned into the place of an altar, he at once considers as settled; but he would have preferred to make it a gift.
All these things did Araunah, as a king, give unto the king. And Araunah said unto the king, The LORD thy God accept thee.(23) All these things did Araunah.—This clause should be rendered as a part of Araunah’s address to David: “The whole, O king, does Araunah give unto the king.” (Comp. 1Chronicles 21:23.) Then, after a moment’s pause, he added, “The LORD thy God accept thee.” The first word king, however, is omitted in some MSS., and in the LXX., Vulg., and Syr. The word “give,” of course, means only offer. David actually bought the threshing-floor and other things required.
And the king said unto Araunah, Nay; but I will surely buy it of thee at a price: neither will I offer burnt offerings unto the LORD my God of that which doth cost me nothing. So David bought the threshingfloor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver.(24) Of that which cost me nothing.—The principle on which David acted is that which essentially underlies all true sacrifice and all real giving to God.
For fifty shekels of silver.—This sum is expressly said to cover the cost both of the ground and of the oxen, and seems very small. In 1Chronicles 21:25, it reads “six hundred shekels of gold by weight.” One of the most ingenious propositions for the reconciliation of the two statements is that our text speaks of fifty shekels, not of silver but of money, and that Chronicles means that these were of gold, in value equal to 600 shekels of silver. But the explanation is quite inconsistent with the text in both places. In one of them the statement of price must have been altered in transcription. In the entire uncertainty as to the extent of the purchase of Araunah (the whole hill of Moriah, or only a part), and of the value of land in the locality and at the time, it is impossible to decide between the two.
And David built there an altar unto the LORD, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the LORD was intreated for the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel.(25) Built there an altar.—The parallel place in Chronicles states that the tabernacle “and the altar of burnt offering were at that season in the high place at Gibeon,” and that David was afraid to go before it “because of the sword of the angel,” i.e., the pestilence. It also mentions that when David “offered burnt offerings and peace offerings, and called upon the LORD,” “He answered him from heaven by fire upon the altar of burnt offering.” David then fixed upon this as “the house of the LORD God, and this is the altar of the burnt offering for Israel” (1Chronicles 22:1).
Thus, with David’s repentance and reconciliation to God after his second great sin closes this narrative and this book. David’s reign and life were now substantially ended—a witness to all time of the power of Divine Grace over human infirmity and sin, of God’s faithfulness and mercy to those that trust in Him, and of the triumph of an earnest and humble faith notwithstanding some very great and grievous falls.
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