Although the “black mark” on David’s reputation is his sin with Bathsheba, David committed another serious (although lesser-known) sin which had devastating consequences for Israel.
In 2 Samuel 24:1-25 (cf. 1 Chr. 21:1-28), we read that David took a census. A census was only to be taken with the Lord’s approval and Exodus 30:12-13 warns that even then each Israelite was to pay a ransom for his life “that there be no plague” (Ex. 30:12). God knew that Israel would be preoccupied with the strength of their numbers instead of the strength of their God, and created boundaries to safeguard their trust. David ignored this ordinance and took a military census, discovering that there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword in Israel, and 500,000 more in Judah. The implication is that David stopped trusting the Lord who had given him victory in battle and began trusting in his armed forces.
What follows is deeply troubling: God sends the angel of the Lord and strikes down 70,000 Israelites. While God does not need to defend himself, a careful look at the text helps us to better understand God’s actions. First and foremost, 2 Samuel 24:1 reveals that the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel before the census; Israel had sinned and deserved judgment. Moreover, David’s sin was not committed in innocence; immediately after he numbered the people, “David’s heart struck him” and he confessed, “I have sinned greatly” (2 Sam. 24:10). Although David went on to say that the Israelites were innocent, and tried to bear the full weight of the blame, there is no indication that Israel paid the ransom price required under the Mosaic Law. They knew the consequences of participating in the census and, compounded with their other sins, placed themselves in the path of God’s judgment.
A Costly Sacrifice
When David saw the angel of the Lord striking down the people at the threshing floor of Araunah, he asked God to relent. God sent the prophet Gad to tell David to go to the threshing floor and make an altar.
18 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.
19 And David, according to the saying of Gad, went up as the Lord commanded.
20 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.
21 And Araunah said, Wherefore is my lord the king come to his servant? And David said, To buy the threshingfloor of thee, to build an altar unto the Lord, that the plague may be stayed from the people.
22 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.
23 All these things did Araunah, as a king, give unto the king. And Araunah said unto the king, The Lord thy God accept thee.
24 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.
25 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.
David knew that in order for God’s outpoured wrath to cease, it must be propitiated (appeased) by an atoning sacrifice. At this time, however, the altar where sacrifices were made was in the Tabernacle at Gibeon. (David wanted to replace the Tabernacle with a permanent Temple—a house for the Lord—but he had not yet found the right location.) God commanded David to make another altar on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite and offer the sacrifice there.
David made a burnt offering and a peace offering (v.25); the former was the atonement offering. Araunah the Jebusite volunteered to provide everything necessary for the sacrifice, but David chose to pay for it. After David made his costly sacrifice, “the angel put his sword in its sheath.”
Chronicles records what happened next: “Then David said, ‘The house of the LORD God is to be here, and also the altar of burnt offering for Israel’” (2 Chr. 22:1). David had been looking for a place to build the Temple; he had vowed, “I will not enter my house or get into my bed, I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob” (Ps. 132:3-5). When he witnessed a visual manifestation of God’s wrath and the propitiating effect of sacrifice on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, he knew that it was the place.
It is no coincidence that the location of the threshing floor of Araunah is Mount Moriah. At the same location that the angel of death put his sword back in its sheath, Abraham had put his knife back in its sheath when God provided a sacrifice to be offered in place of Isaac. Both events pointed to the need for an ultimate sacrifice to propitiate God’s wrath against man’s sin.
Although God forbade David from building the Temple, David’s son Solomon went on to fulfill his father’s dream by building it on Mount Moriah, on the site of Araunah’s threshing floor. It was at the Temple that sacrifices were made, and the Day of Atonement was observed. Christians recognize both the Temple and Mount Moriah as preparatory for Christ’s atonement.
Today, God’s wrath still hangs over the head of everyone who has not received Christ’s costly sacrifice. Romans 2:8 warns that “for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil.” Psalm 7:12 cautions, “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword.” As the angel of death punished Israel, so will God punish sinners.
Romans 3:23-25 goes on to exult in the beautiful hope that although “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” all may be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” John rejoices, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). “Christ is our Altar, our Sacrifice; in him alone we may expect to escape his wrath, and to find favour with God.” (Matthew Henry)
When we receive Christ’s wrath-propitiating sacrifice, God puts his sword of judgment in its sheath. Upon justification, God and sinner are reconciled. God’s face is no longer against us, but for us—and if God is for us, who can be against us? Romans 5:10 adds that “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” and “much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”
David went on to offer a peace offering because he was confident that God would show mercy. The peace offering expressed thanks to God for graciously providing a way for Israel to escape God’s consuming wrath.
The Cost of True Worship
While we do not earn God’s mercy by paying a high cost—since Christ has paid it all—there are massive implications for our lives. In light of God’s mercy, we must always offer him our best. When Araunah offered to supply what was necessary for the sacrifice, David insisted, “No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing” (v.24).
“I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” (2 Sam. 24:24)
In Malachi 1:6-10, God rejects the priest’s polluted offerings:
A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, “How have we despised your name?” By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, “How have we polluted you?” By saying that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. … I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand.
The priests offered the Lord the leftovers, and God quipped, “if you gave that to earthly governors, they wouldn’t even accept it as payment for your taxes!”
Matthew Henry insisted that those who do their best to make religion cheap and easy, and are best pleased with that which costs them least pain or money, do not know what religion is. Clarke contends, “He who has a religion that costs him nothing, has a religion that is worth nothing: nor will any man esteem the ordinances of God, if those ordinances cost him nothing.”
Are you like David? In light of his mercy, do you give the Lord your God that which is costly? Or do you just give him the leftovers?
- Are you satisfied to give God what is left of your time? Many complain that it is hard to find time to read the Bible, but Don Whitney points out that “if most people would exchange their TV time for Scripture reading, they’d finish reading the entire Bible in four weeks or less.”
- Are you satisfied to give God what is left of your money? The Bible commands us to give one-tenth of our income to the work of God, but we should not merely give to clear our conscience. When the Macedonian churches knew their fellow Christians were in need, they gave beyond their means, despite their extreme poverty, “begging [the apostles] earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints” (2 Cor. 8:4).
- Are you satisfied to give God what is left of your affections? Organized sports may not be immoral. You may be able to find something on Netflix that is permissible. Worldly amusements may not destroy your faith. But do these activities compete with your affections for God?
Susanna Wesley gives this rule: “Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things, whatever increases the authority of the body over the mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may seem in itself.”
We do not offer burnt offerings on altars like David because the offering that God desires is us. Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Ro. 12:1). God wants you to offer yourself on the altar—and if you do, it will cost you something.
In Luke 14:26-33, Jesus explains the cost discipleship:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost…? … So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
The cost of discipleship is everything; “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Php. 3:8-9).
We may not have to actually give up everything—although we will certainly have to give up some things—but we must be willing to cut off anything that hinders us spiritually.
Christ’s sacrifice was a costly sacrifice—he did not hold back. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross. Christ intends for our joy to be full, but we must follow his example. We will never enjoy God as long as we offer him the leftovers.
If you’re looking for a new year’s resolution, determine in your heart, “I will not offer to the Lord my God that which costs me nothing.” My prayer for me and my wife and our church in 2019 is, “Lord, do not allow us to offer to you that which costs us nothing. We’ve counted the cost of being your disciples, and—by your grace—we’re ready to pay it. Don’t allow us to shrink back and settle for offering you second best.”
Glory to the Father for his great mercy. Glory to the Son for being the propitiation for our sins. Glory to the Spirit who empowers us to give back to God our costly worship.