Q: I don't understand 2 Samuel chapter 24 at all. Mostly because of the first verse:
2 Samuel 24:1 (NLT)
Once again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he caused David to harm them by taking a census. “Go and count the people of Israel and Judah,” the LORD told him.
Why was The Lord angry and why would this route of taking a census harm them? Just for the money aspect? And then why would he punish David and Israel for doing it??
A: This is a really good question, because the text doesn't make any explicit explanation as to why the Lord was angry, so we will do our best to make some theological conclusions based on what the text does say. I'm also going to provide a little speculation on my end, just for fair warning!
First, let's consider the context a little bit. King David is ruling over the united kingdom of Israel and Judah and is getting advanced in age. During David's reign as king, the Lord has greatly expanded their territory and David has made a name for himself through military conquest (see, for example, 2 Samuel 8). Leading up to the chapter in question (24), David sings a psalm to the Lord for what God did in delivering him from the hand of his enemies throughout his life and from the previous king, Saul (22:1ff). David writes a final song of praise for God, and then the exploits of the Mighty Men are described in detail in chapter 23.
It's immediately following this that chapter 24 begins with the verse that you have asked about, and it is an abrupt transition which should alert the reader that something bad is about to happen. What the text does tell us is that God is angry with the nation, and that God's part in bringing discipline and judgment to His people is by the method of inciting David to take a census which will harm the people. What the text does not explicitly tell us, is why the anger of God was once again kindled against the people.
Based on what we do know, we've seen David's perspective on the role of God in delivering the nation from their enemies and in providing victory. David explicitly gives God credit for empowering him with strength, ability, and victory in the past (e.g. 2 Samuel 22:30-51). With the favor of God upon David, the nation of Israel, and its Mighty Men, there should be no reason for taking comfort in anything other than God Himself -- yet something caused God to be angry with the nation, and God responds by causing David to take a census; but specifically, David asks for a number of those who are able to fight.
If we just read 24:1, it sounds like David wants to know how many people there are total in Israel and Judah, but notice that he asks Joab, the commander of the army (e.g. 2 Samuel 8:16, 20:23), to take the census and that Joab objects because he doesn't seem to think it matters based on the Lord's favor they have received (see 2 Samuel 24:3), and after David insists, Joab and the commanders of the army go out and register all the men who are able to fight (24:4-8), and they report this number back to David:
And Joab gave the number of the registration of the people to the king; and there were in Israel eight hundred thousand valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand men. (2 Samuel 24:9)
Immediately upon receiving word back with the results of the census, David's heart troubles him and he seeks the forgiveness of the Lord (24:10). It's after these events that the text explicitly answers the second part of the Questioner's first question of how taking this census would harm the people: it harms them because God punishes the nation for this sin with a pestilence, that leads to the death of 70,000 men in the kingdom of Israel. It's not that the census itself harmed them, but the result of the census was the judgment of God upon the people -- a judgment which, probably not coincidentally, reduced the number of able-bodied men which were just numbered!
After seeing what the text tells us for sure, these questions still remain: Why was God angry with Israel in the first place? Why would He incite David to take a census, and then punish David and the people for doing what He caused them to do?
To answer these questions, we'll need to be a bit more speculative (so be sure to weigh these conclusions accordingly!).
God's anger could have been roused against the nation of Israel for any number of things, as certainly up until this point in the nation's history this is nothing new! A few brief examples of the anger of the Lord being roused quickly can be found in Exodus 4:10-14, Numbers 11:1-10, Numbers 12:1-16, Numbers 22:20-29, Numbers 25:3-5, and Numbers 32:10-15. There are plenty more!
You'll notice if you read through those accounts, that God's anger is kindled towards His people for their disobedience, complaining against Him and His appointed leaders, idolatry, and failure to trust Him to do what He has said He will do. Yet, despite God's judgments being poured out as a result, His people continue to fall into the same destructive patterns and sin against Him in the same ways. It is likely that here, in 2 Samuel 24, the people are doing something similar... failing to trust in what God has said and/or provided, and are beginning to turn their eyes towards their own desires and complaining against what the Lord has provided.
It is a well-documented aspect of human nature, that those in power tend to try and accumulate more power whenever possible. History is replete with examples of "conquerors" and "world powers" that attempted to rule the entire earth and make a unified kingdom of all peoples -- a trend that has not ceased up to our own time! As the nation of Israel piled military victory upon military victory, it is not impossible to imagine that some of the people desired to expand their borders beyond what God had appointed for them, and to use their military might for their own gain as a nation instead of for the glory and fame of the name of the Lord. Part of God's plan for his people was to conquer the Promised Land, yes. But that plan also included leaving the surrounding nations outside of those borders to be witnesses of the glory of Israel, so that Israel would be a testimony to the nations of the glory of the God of Israel!
As I mentioned, this is speculative. However, the commentary recorded in 1 Chronicles 21 of these same events gives a different (inspired) perspective on just what happened:
Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1)
It needs to be pointed out that there is some translational difficulty in this passage; namely, is the one who stood up against Israel the devil (as the translation above indicates), or simply an adversary that was the leader of a surrounding nation and/or military threat (as the NET translation suggests)?
The difficulty arises from the Hebrew word satan literally meaning "adversary" but often referring to the very specific adversary that we know as the Devil. An example of satan meaning simply "adversary" and clearly not meaning the Devil, is Numbers 22:22 (listed above), where the adversary is the angel of the LORD against Balaam!
Depending on how we take this particular passage, makes a big difference on the conclusions we might draw in relation to the particular questions we are trying to answer here. If the Devil is in fact the one who stood up against Israel, then we see Satan being used as an instrument of God's anger and an agent used by His hand to bring about His sovereign purposes. This produces some interesting theological conclusions on its own, but doesn't help answer the questions asked above (while, in fact, probably raising a couple new ones!).
If, however, the adversary is a surrounding military threat that has arisen, then we get a clear answer to our remaining questions as to why God's anger was aroused: instead of trusting in the Lord to deal with the threat that arose, David instead trusted in the arm of the flesh and asked for a census to assess the strength of the nation by numbers and not the Lord's divine assistance and favor (which was displeasing to Joab).
Of course, God is the one who establishes nations and tears them down (e.g. Daniel 2:21), so He is the one who raised this threat to Israel and is able to deal with is as He pleases (regardless of how many men of fighting age exist within the kingdom of Israel!). If the focus of the nation had shifted from the Lord to their own strength, it is consistent with God's character that He would order their circumstances to see how they would respond (a good example of this is recorded in Deuteronomy 8, especially verses 2, and 16-20).
If God's anger was kindled as a result of their failure to keep Him first and foremost in their minds, and because they were beginning to trust in the strength of their own hands (see Deuteronomy 8:17 again), then it is well within God's character to bring about a situation which will expose this error. David's decision to have a census was resisted by Joab, but David persisted anyway. As a result of this failure to trust in the Lord fully, David recognized his sin immediately upon completion of the task, and the price paid in judgment was steep and it diminished the very thing that David (and perhaps the nation as a whole) were trusting in.
In this line of interpretation, we have a reasonable conclusion for the purpose of God's judgment against the nation after putting them in a scenario where they were going to sin against Him because of His anger.
However, if these conclusions are in error, I would simply point out that God is able to do as He pleases and encourage you to take the Apostle Paul's words to heart:
So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?" On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? (Romans 9:18-21)
Certainly, it is often difficult for us to not have a good reason given for why God does what He does, but His ways are not our ways - and thank God for that! Because if His ways were ours, He never would have sent us His own Son as a Savior, because we wouldn't give up our lives or the lives of our most beloved for those who are our enemies (see Romans 5:7-8).
One final comment: the translation provided by the Questioner from the New Living Translation provides some extra difficulty, because it says that the Lord told David to number the people. It must be pointed out that the NLT is not really a translation (even though it calls itself one!), but is a paraphrase. If you contrast this same verse in other translations, you'll see that God was instrumental in David's taking the census, but no other translation makes the explicit claim that God said, "Go and number Israel." The interpretational decision made by the NLT is significant, but my understanding of this passage is in agreement with the other translations - God's anger incited David to say "Go number Israel" which is different than God saying, "Go number Israel" and then punishing them for their obedience. Even if this verse is possibly translated in either direction due to some ambiguities in the text, 2 Samuel 24:10 makes it pretty clear (to me anyway) that David would not come to the Lord and confess that he had acted foolishly if he had simply obeyed what the Lord had explicitly told him to do! In context, the NLT provides extra difficulty in understanding this particular passage that could be eliminated by reading a genuine translation instead of a paraphrase.
I hope this helps! Once again, great question!