“Why did 70,000 Israelites have to die for David’s sin in numbering Israel? Was that fair?”
When we think about fairness, we think of impartiality, freedom from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism.
When we think about a punishment being fair or unfair, the most likely criteria would be the issue of whether or not it was due. God has always maintained a policy of punishing the guilty for their own sins–not the sins of their children, parents, or neighbors. “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:20) is a timeless principle of the Almighty. When Moses offered to suffer for the sins of the people, the Lord reiterated His plan: “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot him out of my book” (Exod. 32:33).
Did God digress from this policy in the instance of David’s numbering Israel? Was God just in punishing the people of the nation for David’s sin? Why did more than the king have to suffer, when it was clearly the king’s own sin? David even acknowledged: “Surely I have sinned, and I have done wickedly” (2 Sam. 24:17).
Part of the problem may be that we do not know all the facts. But we do know some of them. First of all, we are told that the Lord was displeased with Israel as a nation even before David sinned in numbering Israel. At the very first of the chapter (2 Samuel 24:1), we read the following: “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.” We do not know what occasioned this statement, but in the eyes of God the nation was apparently ripe for judgment. We are also told that Joab objected to the command of the King. When told to number the people, Joab replied, “Now may the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times more than there are, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king desire this thing?” (2 Sam. 24:3). We are told also that “The king’s word was abominable to Joab” (1 Chron. 21:6). But we are not told the details of why Joab felt as he did.
Even when facing punishment at the hand of God David felt that God was fair, even merciful. Above all He wanted to stay in God’s hand. He said, “Let me fall now into the hand of the Lord; for very great are his mercies: but let me not fall into the hand of man” (v. 13).
We are not in a position to judge God’s actions. But God, knowing the end from the beginning, can see in advance who will do His will and who will disregard it. He knows who are worthless and who are wise, and can preserve those He chooses. The rest, though they may live useful lives at the moment, serve no eternal purpose; hence, their destruction would not be a serious loss from the Divine point of view.
We see no reason to accuse God of unfairness in His punishment of the nation for David’s sin–because we trust that to whatever extent Israel was punished, to that extent they were at fault. God is not whimsical or unjust. We know also that if any were worthy of a place in God’s long-term plans, God would have spared them. Where we do not have all the facts, or where we do not understand, we can trust, the words of the ancient Prophet, “The ways of the Lord are right, and the righteous walk in them” (Hos. 14:9).
We cannot always understand God’s ways, but in this case it seems that we are told enough to know that the people of Israel shared the fault with David their king. It is also possible that they were feeling the pride and glory of being so great a nation, and God wanted to bring them back to reality and show them who was in control, and to whom the credit was due.
In any event, we can be sure that God spared any for whom He had future work. Outside His plan, the human creation does not receive a very high value. In his scale, whole nations not serving Him are “as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance:…they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity” (Isa. 40:15-17). On the other side are those faithfully committed to Him, of whom He says, “They shall be mine.., on the day when I make them My jewels, and I will spare them, as a man spares his own son that serves him” (Mal. 3:17).