Chapter 21 deals with David’s sin in taking the census. This is the only one of the three “major” sins of David that is recorded, and given the Chronicler’s purpose in painting each good king in a positive light, this is an important inclusion. Before looking specifically at why this might be, let’s look at some of the specifics of how the Chronicler tells this story.
First, there is some question as to the difference between the Chronicler’s account that “Satan incited” and 2 Samuel 24 that says “the LORD incited.” In the Old Testament, it was common practice for God to allow or send enemy nations against disobedient Israel. If we understand satan as adversary, then we can see how the Lord sending a foreign army, which David responds to with taking a census, helps explain the proposed discrepancy. Second, Joab tries to remind David in v. 3 that the Lord will help them, but David does not listen. It is not until v. 8 that David acknowledges his sinfulness: “I have sinned greatly because I have done this thing. Now, please take away your servant’s guilt, for I’ve been very foolish.” Third, verses 9-13 record a rather unique narrative in which David is actually given a choice as to the punishment.
It is this surprising choice that David is given that seems to explain why the Chronicler includes his failure for two reasons. And the reasons for including this narrative, I think, are what help tie the narratives of chapters 19-20 together with 21. First, the Chronicler seems to include this sin because this sin specifically allows us to see an important message about the Coming King: he fully trusts in the sovereignty and goodness of God. Though David fails to trust God and instead takes a census, showing he trusts in his military force, he eventually makes the right decision—”let me fall into the hands of God, for He is gracious.” The coming king will fully trust in the sovereignty of God. Second, the resolution of this event is that the angel of the Lord stops at the threshing floor of Ornan. David buys this land and it will become the site for the temple. For the Chronicler, the temple serves as an important location and measure of a good king—despite the fact that it was the priests who were tasked with caring for the temple, the Chronicler measures his kings by what they do for the temple—do they build/renew it or do they desecrate it with idols? This focus on the temple becomes the focus of chapters 22-27, but one insight from John Sailhamer into the temple’s purpose is helpful to introduce here. Sailhamer writes, “It [the temple] was not to be a religious shrine, but the place where sinful man would meet with a righteous and hold God—where God would genuinely show that His mercies were great.”
Audio Sermon: “Counting Our Armies: An Episode of Sinfulness”–1 Chronicles 19-21 (Kyle Rapinchuk)