2 Samuel 24:1-25 – David’s Census


2 Samuel 24:1-25


A terrible plague, seen as God’s judgment upon David for taking a census of the people, is averted after David, following the advice of a prophet, acquires some land in Jerusalem, builds an altar, and sacrifices to the Lord.


The books of Samuel come to a close with this perplexing story of David’s census, which, chronologically speaking, must have taken place earlier. Two points help to alleviate some of the strangeness of this text as a conclusion to Samuel:

First, the concentric arrangement of the last four chapters of 2 Samuel isolates them as a unit comprised of somewhat random texts collected together as an appendix of sorts. In this appendix, chapter 24 is paired with chapter 21, another narrative of national disaster, framing two lists of David’s warriors and two poetic pieces attributed to David. This means that the chapters are somewhat intrusive with regard to the narrative:

A Narrative of national disaster (2 Samuel 21:1-14)
B List of David’s warriors (2 Samuel 21:15-22)
C Poem: David’s song of thanksgiving (2 Samuel 22)
C′ Poem: David’s last words (2 Samuel 23:1-7)
B′ List of David’s warriors (2 Samuel 23:8-39)
A′ Narrative of national disaster (2 Samuel 24)

Second, it must always be remembered that the story does not end with 2 Samuel 24. The section of the narrative continues through 2 Kings, and since the plot of land purchased by David becomes the site of the temple (1 Chronicles 22:1), the acquisition of the temple site is appropriately placed before the story of Solomon, who will build the temple (1 Kings 1-11).

The text falls into three units: David’s census (framed by “Israel and Judah” in vv. 1, 9); David’s confession (framed by “I have sinned” in vv. 10, 17); and David’s altar (framed by “an altar to the LORD” in vv. 18, 25). Nagging questions remain: “Why did God incite David to sin?” “Why was God so upset by the census–a census God had commanded?” (see 1 Chronicles 21:1, where “Satan” [literally, an adversary] incited David). No satisfactory answers have been suggested, and we must look for the message of this text elsewhere. The story should be taken as a paradigm for reading all the David stories. David is a sinner, even a great sinner. Nevertheless, he is also a person of great faith who recognizes his sin, the need for repentance, and that all his accomplishments have their origin in the grace and mercy of God.