And David’s heart condemned him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O LORD, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” (2 Samuel 24:10)
Webster’s Dictionary has this definition:
noun: a property of chaotic systems (as the atmosphere) by which small changes in initial conditions can lead to large-scale and unpredictable variation in the future state of the system.
The theory says that as a butterfly flaps its wings in South America, small ripples are made in the atmosphere that build over time and space, so that by the time they reach Texas they are powerful winds that spawn a tornado. While I am not necessarily advocating that theory, it is a fact that a seemingly small action can end in significant repercussions. That is what we observe in 2 Samuel 24.
David was a shepherd, a soldier, a singer, a sovereign—and also, a sinner. He was a man after God’s own heart, but after all still a man. With all his wonderful traits, there were yet wicked tendencies. He had all the frailties common to the flesh—this human condition set in a fallen world. He stood tall, but stumbled too. The good news is that after each fall, he got back up and continued his walk with God. That did not mean, however, that God’s forgiveness removed all the temporal effects of his sin. The apparently insignificant transgression recorded here—like the butterfly effect—made a profound difference in 70,000 lives.
For an unknown reason, the Scripture tells us that God was angry with the nation and would move to judge them. In His sovereignty, He permitted Satan to tempt King David to conduct a census of the army. We know this from the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 21:1.
We may wonder why David desired such a census and what was wrong with it. It would seem he was motivated by carnal reasoning—seeking to lean on the size of his army, rather than look to the strength of his God. Pride was at the root of this thinking, and that is a devilish thing God despises. In our text, we do not find David seeking God’s will in prayer or searching God’s Word for guidance. It was a fleshly decision driven by worldly desires, and the butterfly effect was unleashed.
Too often a leader may think he is not accountable to anyone. He gets too big for his britches. In this case, David’s head had swollen larger than his crown. The horrible consequences were the deaths of 70,000 of his soldiers. David thought he could trust the numbers he could put on the battlefield and God showed him that those numbers could be quickly diminished. David found out that even if no man held him accountable, he was accountable to God. He may have been the king, but God is the King of kings.
Thankfully, that is not the end of the story. David found God to be holy and just—a God who judges sin—but more, a God who forgives and pardons. If God were not merciful, there would be no hope for any of us. The promise is that if we confess, He forgives. This story reminds us that we cannot presume upon the grace of God—our wrong choices can have bad consequences—yet, neither must we despair of the grace of God—He does forgive.