That When David Had Numbered the People, They Were Punished; and How the Divine Compassion Restrained That Punishment.
1. Now king David was desirous to know how many ten thousands there were of the people, but forgot the commands of Moses, (23) who told them beforehand, that if the multitude were numbered, they should pay half a shekel to God for every head. Accordingly the king commanded Joab, the captain of his host, to go and number the whole multitude; but when he said there was no necessity for such a numeration, he was not persuaded [to countermand it], but he enjoined him to make no delay, but to go about the numbering of the Hebrews immediately. So Joab took with him the heads of the tribes, and the scribes, and went over the country of the Israelites, and took notice how numerous the multitude were, and returned to Jerusalem to the king, after nine months and twenty days; and he gave in to the king the number of the people, without the tribe of Benjamin, for he had not yet numbered that tribe, no more than the tribe of Levi, for the king repented of his having sinned against God. Now the number of the rest of the Israelites was nine hundred thousand men, who were able to bear arms and go to war; but the tribe of Judah, by itself, was four hundred thousand men.
2. Now when the prophets had signified to David that God was angry at him, he began to entreat him, and to desire he would be merciful to him, and forgive his sin. But God sent Nathan the prophet to him, to propose to him the election of three things, that he might choose which he liked best: Whether he would have famine come upon the country for seven years, or would have a war, and be subdued three months by his enemies? or, whether God should send a pestilence and a distemper upon the Hebrews for three days? But as he was fallen to a fatal choice of great miseries, he was in trouble, and sorely confounded; and when the prophet had said that he must of necessity make his choice, and had ordered him to answer quickly, that he might declare what he had chosen to God, the king reasoned with himself, that in case he should ask for famine, he would appear to do it for others, and without danger to himself, since he had a great deal of corn hoarded up, but to the harm of others; that in case he should choose to be overcome [by his enemies] for three months, he would appear to have chosen war, because he had valiant men about him, and strong holds, and that therefore he feared nothing therefrom: so he chose that affliction which is common to kings and to their subjects, and in which the fear was equal on all sides; and said this beforehand, that it was much better to fall into the hands of God, than into those of his enemies.
3. When the prophet had heard this, he declared it to God; who thereupon sent a pestilence and a mortality upon the Hebrews; nor did they die after one and the same manner, nor so that it was easy to know what the distemper was. Now the miserable disease was one indeed, but it carried them off by ten thousand causes and occasions, which those that were afflicted could not understand; for one died upon the neck of another, and the terrible malady seized them before they were aware, and brought them to their end suddenly, some giving up the ghost immediately with very great pains and bitter grief, and some were worn away by their distempers, and had nothing remaining to be buried, but as soon as ever they fell were entirely macerated; some were choked, and greatly lamented their case, as being also stricken with a sudden darkness; some there were who, as they were burying a relation, fell down dead, without finishing the rites of the funeral. Now there perished of this disease, which began with the morning, and lasted till the hour of dinner, seventy thousand. Nay, the angel stretched out his hand over Jerusalem, as sending this terrible judgment upon it. But David had put on sackcloth, and lay upon the ground, entreating God, and begging that the distemper might now cease, and that he would be satisfied with those that had already perished. And when the king looked up into the air, and saw the angel carried along thereby into Jerusalem, with his sword drawn, he said to God, that he might justly be punished, who was their shepherd, but that the sheep ought to be preserved, as not having sinned at all; and he implored God that he would send his wrath upon him, and upon all his family, but spare the people.
4. When God heard his supplication, he caused the pestilence to cease, and sent Gad the prophet to him, and commanded him to go up immediately to the thrashing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite, and build an altar there to God, and offer sacrifices. When David heard that, he did not neglect his duty, but made haste to the place appointed him. Now Araunah was thrashing wheat; and when he saw the king and all his servants coming to him, he ran before, and came to him and worshipped him: he was by his lineage a Jebusite, but a particular friend of David's; and for that cause it was that, when he overthrew the city, he did him no harm, as we informed the reader a little before. Now Araunah inquired, "Wherefore is my lord come to his servant?" He answered, to buy of him the thrashing-floor, that he might therein build an altar to God, and offer a sacrifice. He replied, that he freely gave him both the thrashing-floor and the ploughs and the oxen for a burnt-offering; and he besought God graciously to accept his sacrifice. But the king made answer, that he took his generosity and magnanimity loudly, and accepted his good-will, but he desired him to take the price of them all, for that it was not just to offer a sacrifice that cost nothing. And when Araunah said he would do as he pleased, he bought the thrashing-floor of him for fifty shekels. And when he had built an altar, he performed Divine service, and brought a burnt-offering, and offered peace-offerings also. With these God was pacified, and became gracious to them again. Now it happened that Abraham (24)came and offered his son Isaac for a burnt-offering at that very place; and when the youth was ready to have his throat cut, a ram appeared on a sudden, standing by the altar, which Abraham sacrificed in the stead of his son, as we have before related. Now when king David saw that God had heard his prayer, and had graciously accepted of his sacrifice, he resolved to call that entire place The Altar of all the People, and to build a temple to God there; which words he uttered very appositely to what was to be done afterward; for God sent the prophet to him, and told him that there should his son build him an altar, that son who was to take the kingdom after him.