Plagues are disastrous but even terrible calamities can lead to positive outcomes. A plague can result in unprecedented closeness between the Almighty and his people. In a recent conversation with my colleagues, we concluded, “when you are in the midst of the plague, you are in the hands of God.” In the biblical worldview, plagues are often necessary expressions of divine anger, judgment, and justice. Whether we humans understand their purpose or not, we can trust in God and his mercy.
In 2 Samuel 24 (cf. 1 Chronicles 21), we read how King David held a census to ascertain the number of his subjects. After he numbered the people, he knew that he had sinned by choosing to trust statistics rather than God. Gad came to David and informed him that because of this the Almighty will send one of three possible punishments: (1) famine for seven years, (2) David’s enemies chasing him for three months, or (3) a plague of pestilence against Israel. David chooses the third punishment because he prefers such punishment from a merciful God, rather than from the hands of humanity. Because the census did not include a redemption (cf. Exodus 30:12) the LORD struck down seventy thousand people in the land of Israel.
When the angel came to punish the inhabitants of Jerusalem after the census, the LORD stayed his wrath for a short time (2 Sam 24:15-16). David saw God’s angel at the top of the threshing floor, which was just up the hill from his palace. He received a word from the Lord and hurried there to build an altar and to reach out to God (2 Sam 24:18). David quickly purchased the threshing floor and some cattle from a Jebusite. He built an altar and worshiped God through burnt-offering and supplications for his land and his people (2 Sam 24:24-25). The LORD was moved to compassion and stopped the plague. Something unexpected and unprecedented was about to occur in the aftermath of this calamity.
The very spot where God paused and David built his altar became the location that God later chose for his permanent dwelling place in Israel. The Tent of Meeting (מִשְׁכָּן; mishkan) was stationed at Shiloh, but the Jerusalem Temple (בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ; beit hamikdash) was built on top of that very hill–the place called “Moriah” (מֹרִיָּה; see 2 Chron 3:1). God setting his presence in the midst of Jerusalem was a very unexpected outcome of a plague that took the lives of so many in ancient Israel. Since the days of David and Solomon, the hearts of countless worshipers have been turned to Jerusalem, to that holy hill. For Israel, God’s dwelling place became a permanent beacon of payer and worship. Yet it all began with David’s lack of faith and a terrible plague against the people of Israel. Being in God’s hands during the plague is better than turning away from the LORD. Divine indignation precedes God’s mercy and restoration that, as we see in the establishment of the Temple, lead to instances of closeness to the LORD.