They had just won a decisive battle against the Ammonites, and after that another one against the Philistines.
The first was important to David because when he had reached out in peace to them, the Ammonites shamed the men whom David had sent as emissaries. As one of the spoils of the victory in battle, David took the crown of the opposing king, a crown heavy with gold and imbedded with precious jewels. King David proudly placed it on his own head.
The second battle with the Philistines was also meaningful to him. This was because the brother of Goliath the giant was among the Philistine warriors of the opposing army, and David’s own nephew slew him. There was something very satisfying in this for David.
In fact, King David felt so good about the strength of his nation that he was beginning to think that he was undefeatable. He had great confidence in his army. He decided that he wanted to know just how mighty they were as an army, and also as a nation. He wanted to enumerate and quantify his strengths.
He called his commander Joab. “Go and count the Israelites from Beersheba to Dan and bring me a report, so that I may know their number,” he said to him.
Joab sensed David’s poor motives in doing this and advised the king against it. Joab seemed to understand that the strength of the nation did not reside in how numerous the troops and people were, but that they as a nation had been blessed by God.
Joab said to David, “May the Lord multiply His troops a hundred times over. My lord the king, are they not all servants of my lord? Why does my lord want to do this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?”
But the word of David the king prevailed over the commander, and despite Joab’s reservations, he set about the task given to him by his king. However, Joab reserved for himself a small token of protest in taking the census. He did not include those from the tribes of Levi and Benjamin in the count, because, as the text tells us, “the king’s command was detestable to him.”
Not only was this census displeasing to Joab, but also to God. In fact, the text also tells us that the command of David was “evil.” It was evil because David was making a census of his strength based on terms of what the world considers strong instead of the strength that is found in the Lord.
David’s Unwise Choice and His Regret
After the census was taken, David began to feel remorse for what he had done. He had forgotten the words of a number of songs that he had written in his younger days that celebrated the strength of the Lord:
The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in Him, and I am helped.
Therefore my heart rejoices, and I give thanks to Him with my song.
The LORD is the strength of His people, a stronghold of salvation for His anointed. (Psalm 27:7-8 BSB)
Struck with deep regret for what his actions, the king said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. I beg you O Lord, take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.” 
David’s foolish choice was to have consequences. God was not simply to ignore this egotistical act by the king. David had called for this census because he was feeling great pride in his accomplishments and wanted to enumerate what he had accomplished. God intended to demonstrate to the king just how weak and vulnerable he actually was.
God offered David the choice of one of three consequences—each one designed to show the great frailty of the great king when the hand of God was withheld.
The Three Alternatives
The prophet named Gad came to David with the message, “This is what the LORD says: ‘You must choose between three years of famine, three months of being swept away before your enemies and overtaken by their swords, or three days of the sword of the LORD—days of plague upon the land, with the angel of the LORD ravaging every part of Israel.’ Now then, decide how I should reply to Him who sent me.”
A difficult choice, certainly. Three years of famine would be devastating to the land and to the people. Ancient Egypt had endured seven years of famine in the days of Joseph, but Joseph had also used the seven years of plenty that preceded the years of famine to prepare for it.
I am sure that the second option given to David must have brought to his mind the years that he spent fleeing from the army of Saul. It was not an experience that he wished to repeat, even for three months.
Nevertheless, I have wondered why David did not choose this one. It apparently would have affected only him personally and not the entire nation. Perhaps there were other factors in the choice that are not mentioned, or perhaps those years when he was fleeing from Saul had been just too painful for him. That experience had created a sort of phobia in him. Whatever the reason, this was not the choice that David made.
David’s answered the prophet, “I am deeply distressed. Please, let me fall into the hand of the LORD, for His mercies are very great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.” 
With David’s choice, the plague came. In three days, seventy thousand died from it! Like covid-19, the plague was not confined to one small part of the country. It fell on people throughout the land, “from Dan to Beersheba,” which is to say “from one end of the country to the other.”
We actually do not know if this was a virus that struck the land, or if it was a bacteria or other microorganism. Perhaps it was none of these. The text just calls it “The sword of the LORD—days of plague upon the land, with the angel of the LORD ravaging every part of Israel.”
Comparing the Two Cases
During these past few weeks that I have been quite liberal in applying some of these Scripture passages to our present situation with self-quarantine and covid-19. But astoundingly so, I also believe that we can learn something about our own spiritual conditions from people in the past who have gone through situations that are similar to what we are experiencing in our day. This experience in Israel has several similarities with our own.
However at the same time, while making these comparisons, I realize that one needs to be very careful about how far one draws it out. It is especially important to keep this in mind in this particular instance, because I know that as I further compare this plague of ancient Israel to the plague in our own day, many who are motivated by disdain for our present leadership will immediately take this comparison too far.
According to the words given to us in the Scripture, the plague of ancient Israel seems to have been the result of the sin of one man—the king David. David had become very proud in his nation’s strengths and wanted to enumerate his assets. I do not know if this same pride extended to others in Israel at the time.
It certainly did not seem to be the case with the commander of the army. Joab was no saint, as subsequent events would demonstrate, but at the time his advice to David was sound—“Do not bring this guilt upon Israel.”
David needed a dose of humility and a pinch of reality about where his power actually resided. He had taken great pride in his own abilities as a king, and he had forgotten the true source of strength. Thus, God gave him the choice between the three dreadful options.
In our own case, my own opinion about our nation may not be shared by everyone, but I believe we have also come to take an unrealistic and unhealthy pride in our abilities as a nation. Our entire nations needs this same awakening as did David.
“Ridiculous!” you may say. “This covid-19 virus has not only struck the United States, but it has affected people world-wide. It is a pandemic.”
I understand that, but I also understand that little comes from comparing our situation with others. Others must learn their own lessons, but let us learn the lesson given to us. This is true in our personal lives and it is also true as a nation. We can always find examples of others who are much worse than we ourselves. (“I may not be perfect, but at least I am not as bad as they are!”)
For the moment, let us put our opinion of others aside and look only within.
For at least the past century, we in the United States have prided ourselves in being the “greatest nation on earth.” Lately, this greatness seemed only to be growing. Our stock market had reached unprecedented levels, and our workforce was employed at almost maximum capacity. We were occupied doing important things and did not bother with small things in life. We hired others to do our cooking and our cleaning. We even hired others to raise our children!
We could not be troubled with those unimportant matters of life. We had money to make and luxuries to buy. One house was not enough. We needed at the least two houses, and of course we were working so that we can have multiple homes in multiple vacation spots. Our wealth was our strength, and our wealth was growing to extraordinary levels.
I will not say that the covid-19 is a “punishment” for this attitude as David’s own plague was for him—I do not know. But at least let us learn something from this situation.
Just when our economic power seemed to be growing beyond what we even thought was attainable, the coronavirus came upon us. Suddenly, we are now doing our own cooking and our own cleaning because we are afraid of bringing the dreaded virus into our homes. We even are finding that we are raising our own children.
Many people actually lost their source of income. I regret the fact that there are very many people who are in difficult situations because they need the weekly paycheck just to pay the rent and to buy food. But there are also many who are detesting this present situation only because their plans to augment their present riches has been stalled and they cannot wait for things to get back to what they call “normal.”
But consider this: What if God does not want us to get back to normal? What if what we consider as being “normal” is actually a depraved lifestyle? It is depraved because we have become so egotistical and self-important that we have forgotten that all security and every blessing comes from God alone. David’s pride has been our pride.
The End of the Plague
In the case of ancient Israel, the plague came suddenly to an end. Here is how the chronicler describes it:
God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem, but as the angel was doing so, the LORD saw it and relented from the calamity, and He said to the angel who was destroying the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand now!”
At that time the angel of the LORD was standing by the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.
One commonality that historical pandemics have had is that they are usually indiscriminate in who is affected by them. With our present covid-19, it is not just a “Chinese problem.” It is not just a “poor people’s problem.” It is an infection that strikes in surprising and sometimes even in puzzling ways.
Of course our situation does not parallel exactly that of ancient Israel, but there is something for each us to learn in this. One of these things is that our own sins have wide-spread consequences. They affect not only us personally, but others also suffer because of our own arrogance. Most often, it is even the ones who are closest to us and whom we know personally who are affected.
It is our own perception of our arrogance that is at the center of whether we will benefit in our spiritual lives from this pandemic or not—if we will indeed learn something. In David’s case, he came to realize his sin:
When David lifted up his eyes and saw the angel of the LORD standing between heaven and earth, with a drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem, David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell facedown.
And David said to God, “Was it not I who gave the order to count the people? I am the one who has sinned and acted wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? O LORD my God, please let Your hand fall upon me and my father’s house, but do not let this plague remain upon Your people.”
What Will Be Our Response?
It will be of great interest to me so see what the attitude of our own nation will be at the end of the covid-19 pandemic. This pandemic will end, for as David said, “The mercies of the Lord are great.”
In David’s case, right at the point where he saw the angel of the Lord with the sword that had ceased its striking, he set up an altar of worship to God. On the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite, after David had given the owner the price of the property, he built a place of worship and called upon the name of the Lord.
The sword of the angel was still drawn and in his hand of destruction, but when David humbled himself before God, the sword was put away. The angel of death returned his sword to its sheath.
We need to learn a lesson from this. When our pandemic finally comes to an end, what will be our attitude?
Will we marvel at the wonders of modern medical science when the researchers develop a treatment and even a vaccine? When that comes we will celebrate their triumph. As I mentioned in the sermon last week, we certainly do owe our gratitude to these faithful and sacrificial professionals who are working tirelessly to come up with a solution to our dilemma.
But will that be as far as our gratitude goes? Will we learn nothing else about our own arrogances and our own goals for life?
The Sword is Sheathed
Did you notice at what point the angel of death sheathed his sword? It was not when the Lord said, “Enough! Withdraw your hand!” It was not when the plague was halted.
With those words the angel stopped his destruction, but he still held the sword at the ready.
It was only when David humbled himself. It was when he took responsibility for his actions.
It is when he said, “Was it not I who gave the order to count the people? I am the one who has sinned and acted wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? O LORD my God, please let Your hand fall upon me and my father’s house, but do not let this plague remain upon Your people” (1 Chronicles 21:17 BSB).
It was only when David paid for the provisions to construct an altar, to make offerings to the Lord and to humble himself before God.
It was only then that Then the Lord finally spoke to the angel, telling him to put his sword back into its sheath (1 Chronicles 21:27 BSB).
The Sword of Covid—19
One of the warnings that we have learned from the medical community is that even after the initial wave of this pandemic dies down, if we are not careful, there could be a resurgence of infections in the fall. It happened with the Spanish Flu in 1918, and it could happen with Covid-19.
Their advice? The advice of the heads of the medical community? Maintain social distancing. Continue to vigorously and frequently wash your hands. Wear face masks. If I remember correctly, I think I even heard Dr. Anthony Fauci say that we should never again shake hands.
Good advice? Too extreme?
Some of our other leaders are telling us that we need not be so extreme. “Be careful,” they say, “But live your lives.”
We can and should listen to all advice, but in the end, we cannot depend either on the government or on the medical community to make our decisions for us. We must make our own assessment of the situation.
My own thoughts is that even after the pandemic has been halted, the sword of covid-19 will remain unsheathed until we follow the manner of King David at the time of his plague.
I think King David’s advice for us would be as he wrote in Psalm 25:
To You, O LORD, I lift up my soul; in You, my God, I trust.
Do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.
Surely none who wait for You will be put to shame; but those who are faithless without cause will be disgraced.
Show me Your ways, O LORD; teach me Your paths.
Guide me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; all day long I wait for You.
Remember, O LORD, Your compassion and loving devotion, for they are from age to age.
Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my rebellious acts; remember me according to Your loving devotion, because of Your goodness, O LORD.
Good and upright is the LORD; therefore He shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them His way.
All the LORD’s ways are loving and faithful to those who keep His covenant and His decrees.
For the sake of Your name, O LORD, forgive my iniquity, for it is great.
Who is the man who fears the LORD?
He will instruct him in the path chosen for him.
His soul will dwell in prosperity, and his descendants will inherit the land.
The LORD confides in those who fear Him, and reveals His covenant to them.
My eyes are always on the LORD, for He will free my feet from the mesh.
Turn to me and be gracious, for I am lonely and afflicted.
The troubles of my heart increase; free me from my distress.
Consider my affliction and trouble, and take away all my sins.
Consider my enemies, for they are many, and they hate me with vicious hatred.
Guard my soul and deliver me; let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in You.
May integrity and uprightness preserve me, because I wait for You.