21:1-3 During David’s later years, Israel was plagued by a famine that lasted for three successive years, which caused David to seek the Lord regarding the reason for it. God responded, It is due to Saul and to his bloody family, because he killed the Gibeonites (21:1). This is a reference to an incident not recorded in Scripture, but it clearly violated a covenant Joshua had made with these non-Israelites years before (2:2; see Josh 9:15-21). To lift God’s judgment against Israel, David asked the Gibeonites how he could make atonement for this wrong and restore the Lord’s blessing to Israel (21:3).
The three men listed in 23:8-12 performed incredible feats of bravery in warfare, rallying Israel from defeat to victory over the Philistines more than once. There were also the thirty leading warriors who acted with great bravery and devotion to David (23:13). During a particular battle, the king expressed a wish he probably never dreamed his men would take literally. He said, If only someone would bring me water to drink from the well at the city gate of Bethlehem! (23:15). David was being nostalgic about his hometown drinking fountain and likely did not expect anyone to take his wish seriously because the Philistines were camped in Bethlehem as he spoke. Nevertheless, three of the thirty did exactly that, risking their lives to draw water from the well (23:13, 16). But, David was struck by his conscience over the risk they took, and he poured out the water as an offering to the Lord.
Benaiah was another of David’s great warriors. He was famous for going down into a pit on a snowy day and killing a lion (23:20-21). David wisely put Benaiah in charge of his bodyguard (23:23), and later Solomon placed him in command of his own army (see 1 Kgs 2:35).
The remainder of the chapter lists the Thirty—David’s elite warriors (22:24-39). Interestingly, this list includes Uriah the Hethite (22:39). His inclusion underscores the power that sin can have even in the life of a dedicated believer like David when it takes over. Uriah wasn’t just a good and loyal soldier. He was one of David’s best, a man who had taken a vow to defend the king at the cost of his own life. Ironically, being David’s soldier did cost Uriah his life, but his death was to David’s great shame (see 2 Sam 11).
24:1-2 The story of David’s census is an example of the mysterious interplay between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Here the text says that the Lord’s anger burned against Israel again, and he stirred up David against them to take this census (24:1). But, according to 1 Chronicles 21:1, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to count the people of Israel.” So, who did the action? The Lord or Satan? The answer is both.
God was angry with Israel, apparently because the people had sinned in some way. So, he allowed Satan to tempt David to arrogantly count the size of the troops under his command. This interplay between God and Satan is similar to God allowing Satan to trouble Job (see Job 1:1–2:7). Ultimately, though, it was God who was sovereign over Job’s circumstances. Job understood that he had suffered because of “all the adversity the Lord had brought on him” (Job 42:11). Though Satan had meant the adversity for evil, God had meant it for Job’s good.
In principle, it isn’t sinful for a commander to count his troops in order to know if he has sufficient numbers to go to battle. But, the Lord had made it clear to David that he—not the army—was the source of Israel’s strength. Satan had tempted David to meet a legitimate desire (to win Israel’s battles) by an illegitimate means (the number of his forces) rather than a legitimate means (relying completely on the Lord).
24:3-10 On this occasion, Joab was more spiritually aware than David. He objected to David’s order because he saw it for what it was—a needless attempt by David to take pride in and feel secure in his military might instead of trusting the Lord (24:3). But, David overruled Joab, and the count was made (24:4-9). Too late, David’s conscience troubled him and he confessed to God, I have sinned greatly in what I’ve done. . . . I’ve been very foolish (24:10).
24:11-13 Sin, even forgiven sin, always has consequences. So, the Lord gave the king a choice of three very painful judgments. These three, spelled out to David by the prophet Gad, increase in severity from a famine to a plague, but decrease in length from three years to three days. Gad gave David some time to think things over before choosing his punishment (24:13).
24:14-17 David thought through the options and made what he considered the best decision. He had experienced years of fleeing from his enemies, so he knew he would find no mercy from them. Knowing the Lord’s mercies are great, David placed himself in God’s hands (24:14). Therefore, the Lord sent a plague on Israel, which resulted in seventy thousand deaths (24:15). The plague stopped only when God spared Jerusalem in his mercy by saying to his destroying angel, Enough, withdraw your hand now! (24:16).
This happened at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (24:16). (In 1 Chronicles, Araunah is known by his alternate name, Ornan; see 1 Chr 21:18-28.) When David saw the angel striking the people, he pleaded with God for mercy. He recognized that the sin was his and begged God to let the judgment be against his family alone (24:17). This is a reminder that we never sin in a vacuum. You may think that your sinful choices affect no one but you. But, this is never correct. When we choose to sin, we leave spiritual harm in our wake—whether or not we see the results immediately.
24:18-23 God ordered David to go to the threshing floor of Araunah to set up an altar so that the plague might be stopped (24:18). David obeyed immediately. When Araunah saw him coming, he paid homage to the king with his face to the ground (24:19-20). Once he learned the reason for David’s visit, Araunah was more than happy to give him not only the threshing floor, but everything else he needed for the sacrifice (24:22-23).
24:24 David refused the offer, insisting that he would pay for everything at full price (see Chr 21:22, 24). Then, he stated one of the great biblical principles of sacrificial giving: I will not offer to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing. This should make us ask what we give to the Lord and his kingdom work (prayers, time, service, money, resources) that costs us little in terms of sacrifice.
24:25 David offered burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. God was pleased with David’s sacrifice, and the plague on Israel ended. In God’s sovereign plan, he accomplished his will despite David’s sin.
The piece of land that David bought (24:24) was Mount Moriah, the spot where Abraham once offered his son Isaac to the Lord and where Solomon would one day build the Lord’s temple (see Gen 22; 2 Chr 3:1). God allowed Satan’s wickedness and David’s sin to run their course until what would become Israel’s holiest site was selected.
The census was the last recorded act of David in the book of 2 Samuel, showing both the king’s vulnerability to sin and his sensitivity to turn to the Lord in repentance. Similarly, God calls all kingdom men and women to be on guard regarding their own vulnerability to sin and to maintain hearts that are sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s convicting work.