We often find ourselves, I think, puzzling somewhat over this situation of David’s census, God’s displeasure with it, and the resultant discipline. However, there is something else, as Detective Holmes (as in Sherlock) would say, afoot here. By his own testimony, we see David as a sinner: “David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly’” (21:8). Furthermore, David pleaded, “I am in great distress. Let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great” (21:13).
The narrative leads directly to David’s purchase of the location on which the temple would eventually be built along with a clarification about the meaning of the temple, that is, it would become the place where God’s mercy would be found and where sin would be atoned for: “Then David said, ‘Here shall be the house of the Lord God and here the altar of burnt offering for Israel’” (22:1). Of course, very much like the fulfillment of the promise of an eternal king and kingdom, the temple and its sacrifices pointed to the One in whom atonement would be made: “When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12).
Not all the blood of beasts
on Jewish altars slain,
could give the guilty conscience peace,
or wash away the stain.
But Christ, the heav’nly Lamb,
takes all our sins away,
a sacrifice of nobler name
and richer blood than they. –Isaac Watts (1766)