Why did God punish Israel for David's sin?
2 Samuel 24 is one of those little-talked about Bible stories that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
God gets angry at Israel for an unspecified reason, so he incites David against them by commanding him to take a census of the people.
David obeys, albeit twisting the command a little by numbering only the able-bodied soldiers. This appears to be a sinful action, so God kills 70,000 Israelites in a plague.
The main questions upon reading this are:
Why was taking the census considered a sin?
And more troublingly, why was Israel punished for David’s sin?
It’s unclear what makes David’s action so wrong, especially when it appears to be directed by God (2 Samuel 24:1). However, it’s worth noting that there is a second account of this story where it says that Satan rose up against Israel and caused David to take the census (1 Chronicles 21:1-17).
There are many theories on what made David’s action sinful. I don’t think this is the crux of the matter, but I’ll quickly go over a few possibilities before we move on:
A common theory is that David acted out of pride. He wanted to know how many fighting men there were in Israel, which is a way for any king to size up his own power.
The census demonstrated trusting in human strength over God’s power. Rather than relying on the Lord to provide him with volunteer fighting men as he had in the past, David’s military census enabled him to draft soldiers so he could fight wars on his own.
Counting also represents taking ownership. David enrolled these men so that he could use them in war. However, the people did not belong to him, but to God.
Finally, God told Moses that every person should pay the Lord a ransom for their life when counted (Exodus 30:11-12). It’s not stated that David or anyone counted complied with this command during the census, so this could have been another act of disobedience.
Regardless of what made the action sinful, it’s clear that it wasn’t a surprise to anyone present that it was indeed wrong. Joab, David’s military commander tried to dissuade him (2 Samuel 24:3). As soon as David received the numbers, he became conscience-stricken and acknowledged his sin without any recorded prompting from God (2 Samuel 24:10). So, it would be hard to argue that the sin was one of ignorance, with God responding, “Surprise! You messed that up.”
The bigger question is the one David himself asks in the text: “Why are you punishing others for my sin?”
There is an interesting parallel between this story and the stories of the Israelite kings who follow in 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles. These kings represented earthly spiritual leaders who could largely make or break the spiritual health of the entire people—at least on a nation level.
If a king turned away from God, the people usually followed, worshipping the gods that particular king approved. However, if a king worshipped the Lord, the effect usually filtered down to the people. Instead of building more temples to foreign gods, these kings tore them down and instructed the people in God’s law.
Thus, if David demonstrated pride in his own strength, the people could also begin relying on their human power instead of God’s. It is possible, then, that the punishment was not done in isolation so that its lesson was not lost on the people.
Passages like this are uncomfortable for people like me, who’ve absorbed an individualistic mindset that says my life is my own, and that the good or bad I do takes place within a personal bubble—either benefiting or damaging me alone. My individualistic mindset separates my actions from others and gets offended when there is an overlap.
But the Biblical worldview is far more community oriented and inter-connected than that. The Old Testament narrative focuses on the story of a nation, not the story of an individual. This idea is continued in the New Testament, where all who believe in Jesus are compared to a single human body with many parts (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). Each part of the body is different, yet it plays a necessary role in the health and functioning of the whole.
The passage goes on to say, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Just as the whole body is aware of pain if one part is injured, the Church is meant to be so unified and connected that the suffering of one person means the suffering of all.
Similarly, we know that sin is almost never limited to affecting only the person who commits wrong—no matter how individual the sin may appear. Sin in one person hurts others or causes a ripple effect of sin in their lives too.
More could be said on this, but I want to end with what I think might be the most radical part of this whole story. It’s a part that I missed the first several times I read it, but now I can’t stop thinking about.
After David acknowledged his wrong and sought the Lord, God gives him three choices through Gad, his prophet. The choices were either three years of famine, three months of fleeing from your enemies, or three days of plague. While the first two sound pretty terrible and scary, and are in length far longer than the third option, David knows that God is far more powerful than any human force.
For many people, falling into human hands sounds a lot less scary than opting for God’s judgement. The Lord could wipe out the entire world in a day if he wanted to. Very probably, David believed this to be true. And yet, he trusted God so implicitly, knowing him to be good, just and merciful, that he chose to surrender Israel into God’s hands. He had just finished counting the nation’s military might—no doubt proudly surveying the strength of the kingdom he governed.
But then he chooses to give that same country back to the One it belonged to in the first place, saying, “Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into human hands,” (2 Samuel 24:14).
David chose judgement from the most powerful being in existence over any punishment inflicted by humans. That’s crazy. This huge act of faith gives us a glimpse into how firmly David must have believed in God’s goodness. He clearly considered God’s justice to be trustworthy. What’s more, we actually see his faith justified, since God does show mercy in the end.
“When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel, ‘Enough! Withdraw your hand.’” —2 Samuel 24:16
If you want to dig deeper, here are a few other voices who’ve weighed in on this topic.