Let’s start with our understanding of God’s character. Some references suggest that the “he” in this sentence who incites David is Satan, based on 1 Chronicles 21:1. God’s anger burned against Israel because of their idolatry and rebellion. God allowed Satan to whisper in David’s ear, inciting him to not only take a census, which was not sinful in itself, but to do so without regard for God’s instructions in Exodus 30:12. David’s motivation, as inspired by the adversary, may have been pride over his accomplishments as king, determining the strength of is army to consider invading other lands, to compare the strength of Judah with that of Israel, or to ensure taxes were being fully collected.
Regardless, he had nearly ten months to repent and turn back, and he didn’t. He didn’t listen to his counselors who advised against it and he didn’t repent because it was God’s purpose to judge Israel. Repentance is a gift from God. Without the Holy Spirit granting the gift of conviction and repentance, we will gladly remain embroiled in sin, never recognizing that we are destroying our life and the lives of those around us. God finally granted David repentance at the threshing floor of Araunah, and so David built an altar and gave thanks to God for His mercy. The reality is that the sin of Israel warranted judgment. Our own sin today deserves God’s judgment! It is only because of God’s grace that we are not utterly destroyed!
The second challenge in this chapter is in comparing the census numbers found here to those in 1 Chronicles. Several sources provided explanations. First, the two books have two different human authors and are written from two different perspectives. This makes a point which modern survey takers and statisticians still grapple with - the importance of defining your terms in order to ensure accuracy and consistency. Were they counting all soldiers? Just those trained in battle or battle-tested (“men of valor”)? Were they counting all those over a certain age? What about those who were not native Israelites? How did they ensure they didn’t double count anyone?
When we read through the rest of 1 and 2 Chronicles, we see that the count in 2 Samuel did not include the standing army of 288,000 or the private guard of 12,000 for Israel, which when added to the 800,000 reported would result in 1.1 million as recorded in 1 Chronicles. In Judah, the 470,000 also did not include the standing army of 30,000 mentioned in 2 Samuel 6:1. Chronicles even tells us that Joab did not report to the king the full number because he knew David was in sin. Our understanding of God’s Word sometimes leaves us thinking we see inconsistency, but the deeper we investigate, the more those questions are answered. Even when we cannot reconcile a seeming inconsistency, we can rest assured that our finite minds are less than qualified to critique an infinite God.