AMASA David's new commander, had taken soldiers northward to pursue Sheba and the rebellious Israelites. David decided that Amasa was too slow and Abishai, a more experienced officer, would do much better. So Abishai was sent with more troops. Joab went with Abishai because he was intent on regaining command of the army. When they overtook Amasa, Joab pretended to be friendly with him, but suddenly ran his sword into Amasa's chest. (II Samuel 20:1-10.)
A Cruel Age
In plain view of many soldiers Amasa fell by Joab's cruel and deceptive action. He died in great agony. Not a man had the courage to protest. Joab then proceeded to boldly take over the command of Amasa's soldiers as well as those of his brother, Abishai. Joab and his soldiers continued northward in their pursuit of Sheba's army. Perhaps Sheba would have escaped if it had not been for a reliable report that Sheba and his men were in the city of Abel. When Joab and his men arrived at Abel, which was south of Mount Lebanon in the territory of Dan, they were unable to batter their way through the gates. Unhampered by the inhabitants, who made no move to defend themselves, Joab's troops piled a bank of sand and rocks up against one section of the wall, so that they could use battering rams against the higher, thinner part of the wall. (II Samuel 20:11-15.) When they were about to break through, a wise woman appeared on top of the wall and loudly requested to speak with Joab. Action ceased while Joab came forward to identify himself and find out what the woman wanted. "We are a peaceful, faithful people!" she called down. "Why have you come here to destroy our city?" "I'm not here for the purpose of destroying a city!" Joab shouted back. "I am here to capture a Benjamite by the name of Sheba, who with his army is fortified within your walls. He has conspired against King David, and deserves to die. If your city doesn't give him up to us, we'll come in after him. We'll subdue him even if we have to tear your city apart!" "What if we deliver him to you?" the woman asked. "If you do that, we'll go away in peace," Joab promised. "Then do no more damage to our walls," the woman said. "Give us a little while, and we'll throw this Sheba's head out to you!" There was no way of knowing whether or not the woman had enough influence to fulfill her promise. But Joab waited. In any event, she was a person of considerable influence there, and managed to have Sheba beheaded. The head was tossed down to Joab, who made certain that it was really Sheba's head. As he promised, Joab left Abel and returned to Jerusalem to report to David that another plan to take over the government of Israel had been foiled. (II Samuel 20:16-22.) David was relieved to learn that the present danger was over. But he was disappointed and troubled because Joab had forced his way, even by murder, back into the command of the army of Israel. David could hardly change the situation, inasmuch as Joab was so admired for his ability as an army officer — though he had enemies. God was obviously allowing Joab to remain as commander. Even the king of Israel couldn't do much to change that. David took advantage of this period of peace to improve the organization of his government and to appoint officials to various responsibilities. (II Samuel 20:23-26.)
Murder Brings Famine
During the next year the amount of rainfall in Israel was so small that there was a serious crop failure throughout the land. The following year the rainfall was even less. The year after that there was an even greater drought. David was very concerned. He was certain that God had brought on the condition for some specific reason. He asked the priests, Zadok and Abiathar, to try to find out why God had withheld rain from the Israelites. An answer came from God to the priests, who told David that the famine had come to Israel because of Saul. He had ordered many Gibeonites to be slain in spite of a promise Joshua had made that they wouldn't be killed even though they were Canaanites. David called the leaders of the Gibeonites to find out how they felt about the matter. He was told that they remembered the incident with very strong feelings, and that they still expected some kind of settlement from the Israelites, but not with money, valuables or property. "To right that wrong made by Saul, payment must be made with seven lives from the family of Saul" the Gibeonites firmly stated. On behalf of the nation David promised to give the seven men to the Gibeonites. (II Samuel 21:1-6.) This would seem to be a heartless thing to do, but something had to be done, because a whole nation was suffering a famine brought on by faithless King Saul who broke the agreement between Israel and the Gibeonites. Seven men were chosen from among Saul's descendants and turned over to the Gibeonites. Mephibosheth was excluded because of the oath of perpetual friendship between his father Jonathan and King David. (I Samuel 20:12-17, 42.) The Gibeonites hanged the seven men David gave to them. The hanging corpses were protected from wild beasts and birds for some time. They weren't cut down until it started to rain days later when David finally took pity on their guardian. (II Samuel 21:7-14.) When he was much younger, David had led his army in a long and successful struggle against the Philistines. For years they had remained subdued. Now a small army of them appeared on the west border of Judah to threaten the Israelite civilians living there. When the aging king heard of it, he set out with troops to stop the invaders before they could grow in numbers or penetrate farther into Israel. A little while after the Israelites attacked the Philistines, David found that the vigorous action of battle was very tiring to him. He grew so weary that he sank to his knees on the ground. The champion of the Philistine troops, a giant named Ishbi-benob, thought that David was wounded, and that this was a wonderful opportunity to become famous as the slayer of the king of Israel. (II Samuel 21:15-16). Casting aside his huge spear, which was much heavier than the average man could use, Ishbi-benob pulled out his oversize sword and rushed toward David. Abishai, brother of Joab, noticed the giant charging toward David with his sword upraised. Abishai leaped forward in time to thrust his shield over David just as the Philistine slashed viciously at the king. The blow landed on Abishai's shield, or otherwise it would have meant instant death for David. Ishbi-benob was enraged at Abishai's action. He yanked back his sword to thrust at Abishai, but the smaller man was too quick for him. It was the giant who fell from a sword thrust, and not the Israelite. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they gave up the fight and fled westward back to their home territory.
David had come very close to losing his life because of the weariness that was natural for a man of his years. His officers and advisors begged him not to go into the battle again. They pointed out to him that it would be a blow to the whole nation if he were killed in battle. Besides, it would invite unqualified men to seek control of the kingdom. (II Samuel 21:17.) Not long afterward the Philistine troops moved back into Judah. Again the champion was another giant, this one named Saph. David didn't go with his soldiers for this encounter, which resulted in victory for the Israelites when a man named Sibbechai courageously stood up to Saph and killed him in hand-to-hand combat. Undaunted, the Philistines came into Judah a third time, and with still another giant, a brother of Goliath. As before, the Philistines hastily retreated when their champion was overcome by an Israelite named Elhanan. The Philistines couldn't seem to learn that having giants on their side wasn't necessarily a guarantee for victory. For a fourth time they came into Israel, this time accompanied by a man who was unique not only for his enormous size, but because he had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. Apparently the Philistines thought that this freak would somehow impress and terrorize the Israelites to the point that they would give up. The giant was killed by David's nephew Jonathan, regardless of all his extra toes and fingers. For the fourth time the Philistines retreated to their home country. This ended, for a time, a period of trouble for Israel. (II Samuel 21:18-22.) To show his thanks to God for protection, blessings and promises, David was inspired to compose a song. It is recorded in the Bible from II Samuel 22:2 to 23:7. Surrounded by capable leaders and protected from invasion by many heroes (II Samuel 23:8-39), Israel's matters were going well. David allowed himself to feel too secure and powerful. He began to wonder just how many people were in his kingdom, and how Israel compared in numbers to other nations. The more he thought about it, the more he was tempted to take a census, although God didn't want such a thing to be done. At last the king called in Joab, his army commander, and asked him to take men to every part of Israel to find out how many men were fit for army duty. "May all the people in our land be multiplied by God a hundred times," Joab remarked. "But no matter what their numbers, sir, it surely would displease God if we were to count them with the purpose of trying to measure our nation's strength. If we were to find that it is greater than we think, we could be tempted to make some unwise moves against other nations." "For one who obviously has been without fear of God," David observed after giving Joab a long stare, "your present concern with what could displease the Creator shows quite a change in your thinking." "Believe as you choose," Joab replied in his usual brusque manner. "I don't think the idea is wise, and I know that the officers under me think the same."
An Error Progresses
"I respect your opinion and those of the other officers," the king went on firmly. "Nevertheless, I shall meet with you and those officers to give you the details of how I want the census taken." (II Samuel 24:1-4; I Chronicles 21:1-4.) Nine months and twenty days later the unwilling Joab and his men returned to Jerusalem with their report after spending that much time in covering almost all of Israel to number the able-bodied men. (II Samuel 24:5-9.) The report given to David was that Judah had about half a million men who could serve as soldiers, and the other tribes, not counting Levi and Benjamin, could supply over a million men. The grand total included the standing army and frontier guard. (II Samuel 6:1.) Also the twelve monthly courses of troops that did garrison duty for King David at Jerusalem, and the twelve tribal chiefs' reserves. (I Chronicles 21:5; 27:1-22.) Joab and his men didn't take a census of the tribe of Levi because that tribe supplied the priests and their helpers. They didn't get around to counting the men in the tribe of Benjamin or completing the census because the census was disgusting to Joab. Besides, by the time they got back to Jerusalem David was in a state of great distress and told Joab not to bother to complete the count. (I Chronicles 21:6; 27:24.) The prophet Gad had come to the king with the alarming news that God had disclosed to him that He was very displeased with David for counting the people, a function that God would have performed only at His command. "You would be making a grievous mistake to discount what I'm telling you," Gad warned. "God told me something terrible to tell you. He said that because of what you have done punishment will come to Israel. It will come in one of three ways. God is allowing you to choose that way!" "Go on," David muttered, shakily fearful of what Gad was about to say. "You must decide between three years of famine for Israel, three months of heavy attacks by enemy nations and three days pestilence from God," Gad continued. "Tell me what your choice is. I must speak to God for you." (II Samuel 24:10-13; I Chronicles 21:7-12.) David was quite shocked by Gad's words. For a brief period he sat and stared blankly while the stark, awful truth sank into his consciousness that God was again calling him to account for a sin. But even under the stress it wasn't difficult for him to make the decision that had to be made. "Even though God is most powerful, I would rather fall into His merciful hands than fall into the hands of my vengeful enemies," the king told Gad. "If famine comes to our nation, I might not suffer as much as others, but if pestilence comes, it could fall upon all with equal misery. Therefore tell our God that if punishment must come to Israel because of my sin, let it be pestilence. May the Creator have mercy on us." (II Samuel 24:14; I Chronicles 21:13.) Next morning, in the outlying sections of Israel, hundreds of people fell dead. It was as though their hearts had stopped beating. The abrupt deaths were confusing and terrifying to the people who saw others dropping all about them. They couldn't know that it was only the start of a terrible punishment sent supernaturally by God. By the end of the day the mysterious lethal malady had spread inward over the land, killing thousands more people.
God's Altar of Mercy
When a whole day had passed, many people were dead. The awful reports had reached so much of Israel that the nation was in a devastating state of fear and mourning. But the situation grew steadily worse, and as a third day rolled around the pestilence had crept inward across Israel from all directions almost to Jerusalem. By that time seventy thousand Israelites had died! From the death reports that flooded into Jerusalem, it was evident to David that the area of the capital was the only region left in Israel where people hadn't been touched by the fatal seizures. It occurred to the king that possibly God was leaving Jerusalem till the last so that the thousands living there would receive the full measure of God's anger. "I have sinned! I have done a wicked thing!" David loudly groaned, at last prostrating himself in repentant dejection on the floor. "Don't let any more of my people die, God! Take me, instead! Spare those in Jerusalem!" (II Samuel 24:15-17, I Chronicles 21:14-17.) Only a little while later that day Gad came to David to tell him, and other leaders who were dressed in sackcloth as a sign of mourning and repentance, that God had instructed that a special altar should be quickly erected at a certain place on Mount Moriah, a high area on the northeast side of the city. "God knows that you deeply regret that you did wrong," Gad said to David. "If you build this altar and make sacrifices there as soon as possible, God won't allow the awful death plague to continue." The king heeded Gad's advice without delay. Together with some of his advisors, he hurried to Mount Moriah. The top area of the hill was owned by a local Jebusite king by the name of Ornan (or Araunah), who had built a threshing floor there. King Ornan's city, Jebus, was adjoining David's city and the two kings were friends. Ornan was there at the time threshing wheat with his four sons. King Ornan was aware that people were dying in the regions outside the city, and he was fearful of his sons or himself being struck down at any time. But he had work to do, and he reasoned that they would be no safer at home than at work. He was even more concerned when he looked up to see the brilliance of an angel above the land and to see David approaching with a few men. Ornan's first impulse was to run and hide somewhere because he thought the king wouldn't be coming to visit him at such a time unless he had some reason to be angry with him. Hesitantly he went to meet David and inquired how he could be of service to the ruler. "I would like to buy this property from you," David told Ornan. "If the king desires my property, he can have it," Ornan declared. "I'll give you more than a fair price," David said eagerly, "I need this high spot on which to build an altar to make special sacrifices to God. If it can be done this very day, perhaps He won't let any more people die, and Jerusalem could be spared!" (II Samuel 24:18-23; I Chronicles 21:18-24.) Ornan stared at the anxious face of the king. He wondered if selling his property could really be such a matter of life or death.