“So the Lord sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the appointed time, and from Dan to Beer-sheba seventy thousand men died.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
So, let me get this straight: David did a census of his nation that God didn’t like, and He killed 70,000 people for it? What in the world are we supposed to do with this?
Well, for starters, we keep in mind all the things we have learned over the past year about dealing with hard passages in the Old Testament. Remember these? There are two that are most important.
First, We’ve got to keep God’s character firmly in mind and heart. We know that God is just. He always does what is right. If He does something that appears to us to be unjust, our assumption should not be that He’s not fully just after all. Our assumption should be that we don’t understand the text or His actions or both as clearly as we could or should. We should always assume the problem is in us, not with Him.
The point here is that the sending of this plague does not make God into some kind of a heartless murderer. This was an act of judgment (more on that in just a minute) specifically tailored to a certain act of sin that was entirely appropriate to its context. How do I know that? Because I know God is just and would never do anything unjust. Can I explain God’s justice in this case? Very probably not to your satisfaction. But, this doesn’t mean there’s not a good reason for His actions. It simply means we can’t understand it fully from where we are sitting right now.
We also know that God is love. He always tempers His doing of the right thing with mercy. How is there any mercy in a plague that takes the lives of 70,000 people? Well, it was cut short before it took more lives. That doesn’t help much? That’s okay, because we can trust in God’s character and not let our lack of understanding throw us off course. We make our assumption that our understanding isn’t good, not that God is wrong.
The other thing we’ve got to keep in mind is that our faith doesn’t hang on whether or not we can understand or make sense out of this text. Our faith hangs on whether or not Jesus rose from the dead. Hard passages like this one don’t challenge the historical fact of the resurrection at all so our faith can remain in tact. No challenge necessary. And, Jesus took the Old Testament at face value. If the guy who predicted and pulled off His own resurrection did, we can just go with whatever He said.
Still, it’s worth our time to think through how we might be able to make some kind of sense out of this text. Here’s a modest proposal. The sin of David’s census was that he was trusting in the strength of his army rather than in the Lord. The object of this plague was to show him that trusting in things like a large army is foolish because they could be gone in a moment and then where would his hope and trust be?
This was an act of judgment. We should not assume any of those who died were somehow innocent because there are no innocent people. God wouldn’t have and wouldn’t still take the lives of innocent people without thought. Remember: He is a God of justice. That never changes even when we don’t understand it.
But, something else we should keep in mind—and this is the real takeaway here I think—is that our sin never affects only us. The consequences of our sin may very well impact people who had nothing to do with it. It may alter the lives—or even in some extreme cases end the lives as we see here—of people who were not part of the sin itself. This is true no matter who we are, but the more influence and position we have, the more likely it becomes that our sin will impact others in significant ways like dominoes falling.
We may not be able to totally wrap our mind around hard texts like this one, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true or that we can’t still learn from them. It just takes a little extra work. But, if these are really the words of God, it’s worth the effort.