The events of the chapter read easy enough, but difficulty arises when read in comparison with 1 Chronicles 21. In 1 Chronicles there are two significant differences. First, there is the impetus as to who inspired the counting; second, there is variance in the total number counted. One approach to the first difficulty, and one I think is quite reasonable, is that offered by R. Payne Smith (Pulpit Commentary), “In saying that David was moved of Jehovah to number Israel and Judah, the writer acknowledges the great truth that all action, both good and evil, is of God. ‘Shall there be evil in a city, and Jehovah hath not done it?’(Amos 3:6).” Taking a census was not sinful inherently speaking (cf. Exodus 30:11-16), but David’s motivation was sinful (24:10). With regard to the second difficulty there is a variation between Samuel and Chronicles, but also Josephus. Youngblood mentions that the variance between the three suggests a text critical problem (p. 608). The point, when you really get right down to it is not the variance, but the motivation. David had done wrong, and the Lord called him to account. Three options were presented to David, and David chose the one where the Lord’s mercy will have sway. Still, the Lord brought a severe judgment to and against the people of the land. David sought the Lord’s counsel, and the Lord gave him counsel. That which David sacrificed and the location where his sacrifice was given became the location of the Temple that was to be built.
Application: The three options given to David were severe all across the board, but he had come to learn that whatever it is (or was) that the Lord can do it would be more merciful than what man would do to him, not to mention more just. What could man do? Whatever he could and would do David knew that with man there is limitation, but in man’s limitation he seems to wish to not be bound by his own limitations!