We have here David repenting of the sin and yet punished for it, God repenting of the judgment and David thereby made more penitent.
I. Here is David’s penitent reflection upon and confession of his sin in numbering the people. While the thing was in doing, during all those nine months, we do not find that David was sensible of his sin, for had he been so he would have countermanded the orders he had given; but, when the account was finished and laid before him, that very night his conscience was awakened, and he felt the pain of it just then when he promised himself the pleasure of it. When he was about to feast on the satisfaction of the number of his people, it was turned into the gall of asps within him; sense of the sin cast a damp upon the joy, 2 Sam. 24:10. 1. He was convinced of his sin: His heart smote him before the prophet came to him (I think it should not be read for, 2 Sam. 24:11; but and, when David was up, so it is in the original), his conscience showed him the evil of what he had done; now that appeared sin, and exceedingly sinful, which before he saw no harm in. He reflected upon it with great regret and his heart reproached him for it. Note, It is a good thing, when a man has sinned, to have a heart within him to smite him for it; it is a good sign of a principle of grace in the heart, and a good step towards repentance and reformation. 2. He confessed it to God and begged earnestly for the forgiveness of it. (1.) He owned that he had sinned, sinned greatly, though to others it might seem no sin at all, or a very little one. True penitents, whose consciences are tender and well informed, see that evil in sin which others do not see. (2.) He owned that he had done foolishly, very foolishly, because he had done it in the pride of his heart; and it was folly for him to be proud of the numbers of his people, when they were God’s people, not his, and, as many as they were, God could soon make them fewer. (3.) He cried to God for pardon: I beseech thee, O Lord! take away the iniquity of thy servant. If we confess our sins, we may pray in faith that God will forgive them, and take away, by pardoning mercy, that iniquity which we cast away by sincere repentance.
II. The just and necessary correction which he suffered for this sin. David had been full of tossings to and fro all night under the sense of his sin, having no rest in his bones because of it, and he arose in the morning expecting to hear of God’s displeasure against him for what he had done, or designing to speak with Gad his seer concerning it. Gad is called his seer because he had him always at hand to advise with in the things of God, and made use of him as his confessor and counsellor; but God prevented him, and directed the prophet Gad what to say to him (2 Sam. 24:11), and,
1. Three things are taken for granted, (1.) That David must be corrected for his fault. It is too great a crime, and reflects too much dishonour upon God, to go unpunished, even in David himself. Of the seven things that God hates, pride is the first, Prov. 6:17. Note, Those who truly repent of their sins, and have them pardoned are yet often made to smart for them in this world. (2.) The punishment must answer to the sin. He was proud of the judgment he must be chastised with for this sin must be such as will make them fewer. Note, What we make the matter of our pride it is just with God to take from us, or embitter to us, and, some way or other, to make the matter of our punishment. (3.) It must be such a punishment as the people must have a large share in, for God’s anger was kindled against Israel, 2 Sam. 24:1. Though it was David’s sin that immediately opened the sluice, the sins of the people all contributed to the deluge.
2. As to the punishment that must be inflicted,
(1.) David is told to choose what rod he will be beaten with, 2 Sam. 24:12, 13. His heavenly Father must correct him, but, to show that he does not do it willingly, he gives David leave to make choice whether it shall be by war, famine, or pestilence, three sore judgments, which greatly weaken and diminish a people. God, by putting him thus to his choice, designed, [1.] To humble him the more for his sin, which we would see to be exceedingly sinful when he came to consider each of these judgments as exceedingly dreadful. Or, [2.] To upbraid him with the proud conceit he had of his own sovereignty over Israel. He that is so great a prince begins to think he may have what he will. “Come then,” says God, “which wilt thou have of these three things?” Compare Jer. 34:17; I proclaim a liberty for you, but it is such a liberty as this of David’s to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine; and Jer. 15:2; Such as are for death to death. Or [3.] To give him some encouragement under the correction, letting him know that God did not cast him out of communion with himself, but that still his secret was with him, and in afflicting him he considered his frame and what he could best bear. Or [4.] That he might the more patiently bear the rod when it was a rod of his own choosing. The prophet bids him advise with himself, and then tell him what answer he should return to him that sent him. Note, Ministers are sent of God to us, and they must give an account of the success of their embassy. It concerns us therefore to consider what answer they shall return from us, that they may give up their account of us with joy.
(2.) He objects only against the judgments of the sword, and, for the other two, he refers the matter to God, but intimates his choice of the pestilence rather (2 Sam. 24:14): I am in a great strait; and well he might be when fear, and the pit, and the snare, were before him, and if he escape one, he must inevitably fall into the other, Jer. 48:3, 44. Note, Sin brings men into straits; wise and good men often distress themselves by their own folly. [1.] He begs that he may not fall into the hand of man. “Whatever comes, let us not flee three months before our enemies;” this would sully all the glory of David’s triumphs and give occasion to the enemies of God and Israel to behave themselves proudly. See Deut. 32:26, 27. “Their tender mercies are cruel; and in three months they will do that damage to the nation which many years will not repair.” But, [2.] He casts himself upon God: Let us fall now into the hand of the Lord, for his mercies are great. Men are God’s hand (so they are called, Ps. 17:14; the sword of his sending), yet there are some judgments which come more immediately from his hand than others, as famine and pestilence, and David refers it to God which of these shall be the scourge, and God chooses the shortest, that he may the sooner testify his being reconciled. But some think that David, by these words, intimates his choice of the pestilence. The land had not yet recovered the famine under which it smarted three years upon the Gibeonites’ account, and therefore, “Let us not be corrected with that rod, for that also will be the triumph of our neighbours,” hence we read of the reproach of famine (Ezek. 36:30); “but if Israel must be diminished, let it be by the pestilence, for that is falling into the hands of the Lord,” who usually inflicted that judgment by the hand of his own immediate servants, the angels, as in the death of the first-born of Egypt. That is a judgment to which David himself, and his own family, lie as open as the meanest subject, but not so either to famine or sword, and therefore David, tenderly conscious of his guilt, chooses that. Sword and famine will devour one as well as another, but, it may be thought, the destroying angel will draw his sword against those who are known to God to be most guilty. This will be of the shortest continuance, and he dreads the thought of lying long under the tokens of God’s displeasure. It is a dreadful thing, the apostle says, to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31), a fearful thing indeed for sinners that have, by their impenitency, shut themselves out from all hope of his mercy. But David, a penitent, dares cast himself into God’s hand, knowing he shall find that his mercies are great. Good men, even when they are under God’s frowns, yet will entertain no other than good thoughts of him. Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.
(3.) A pestilence is accordingly sent (2 Sam. 24:15), which, for the extent of it, spread from Dan to Beer-sheba, from one end of the kingdom to the other, which showed it to come immediately from God’s hand and not from any natural causes. David has his choice; he suffers by miracle, and not by ordinary means. For the continuance of it, it lasted from morning (this very morning on which it was put to David’s choice) to the time appointed that is, to the third day (so Mr. Poole), or only to the evening of the first day, the time appointed for the evening sacrifice, so bishop Patrick and others, who reckon that the pestilence lasted but nine hours, and that, in compassion to David, God shortened the time he had first mentioned. The execution the pestilence did was very severe. There died 70,000 men, that were all well, and sick, and dead, in a few hours. What a great cry, may we suppose, was there now throughout all the land of Israel, as there was in Egypt when the first-born were slain! but that was at midnight, this in the daytime, Ps. 91:6. See the power of the angels, when God gives them commission, either to save or to destroy. Joab is nine months in passing with his pen, the angel but nine hours in passing with his sword, through all the coasts and corners of the land of Israel. See how easily God can bring down the proudest sinners, and how much we owe daily to the divine patience. David’s adultery is punished, for the present, only with the death of one infant, his pride with the death of all those thousands, so much does God hate pride. The number slain amounted to almost half a decimation, 70,000 being about one in twenty. Now, we may suppose, David’s flesh trembled for fear of God and he was afraid of his judgments, Ps. 119:120.
III. God’s gracious relaxation of the judgment, when it began to be inflicted upon Jerusalem (2 Sam. 24:16): The angel stretched out his hand upon Jerusalem, as if he intended to do greater execution there than any where else, even to destroy it. The country had drunk of the bitter cup, but Jerusalem must drink the dregs. It should seem that was last numbered, and therefore was reserved to be last plagued; perhaps there was more wickedness, especially more pride (and that was the sin now chastised), in Jerusalem than elsewhere, therefore the hand of the destroyer is stretched out upon that; but then the Lord repented him of the evil, changed not his mind, but his way; and said to the destroying angel, It is enough; stay now thy hand, and let mercy rejoice against judgment. Jerusalem shall be spared for the ark’s sake, for it is the place God hath chosen to put his name there. See here how ready God is to forgive and how little pleasure he takes in punishing; and let it encourage us to meet him by repentance in the way of his judgments. This was on Mount Moriah. Dr. Lightfoot observes that in the very place where Abraham, by a countermand from heaven, was stayed from slaying his son, this angel, by a like countermand, was stayed from destroying Jerusalem. It is for the sake of the great sacrifice that our forfeited lives are preserved from the destroying angel.
IV. David’s renewed repentance for his sin upon this occasion, 2 Sam. 24:17. He saw the angel (God opening his eyes for that purpose), saw his sword stretched out to destroy, a flaming sword, saw him ready to sheath it upon the orders given him to stay proceedings; seeing all this, he spoke, not to the angel (he knew better than to address himself to the servant in the presence of the Master, or to give that honour to the creature which is the Creator’s due), but to the Lord, and said, Lo, I have sinned. Note, True penitents, the more they perceive of God’s sparing pardoning mercy the more humbled they are for sin and the more resolved against it. They shall be ashamed when I am pacified towards them, Ezek. 16:63. Observe, 1. How he criminates himself, as if he could never speak ill enough of his own fault: “I have sinned, and I have done wickedly; mine is the crime, and therefore on me be the cross. Let thy hand be against me, and my father’s house. I am the sinner, let me be the sufferer;” so willing was he to accept the punishment of his iniquity, though he was worth 10,000 of them. 2. How he intercedes for the people, whose bitter lamentations made his heart to ache, and his ears to tingle: These sheep, what have they done? Done! Why they had done much amiss; it was their sin that provoked God to leave David to himself to do as he did; yet, as becomes a penitent, he is severe upon his own faults, while he extenuates theirs. Most people, when God’s judgments are abroad, charge others with being the cause of them, and care not who falls by them, so they can escape. But David’s penitent and public spirit was otherwise affected. Let this remind us of the grace of our Lord Jesus, who gave himself for our sins and was willing that God’s hand should be against him, that we might escape. The shepherd was smitten that the sheep might be spared.