The tabernacle of the Lord, which Moses had made in the wilderness, and the altar of burnt offering were at that time on the high place at Gibeon. But David could not go before it to inquire of God, because he was afraid of the sword of the angel of the Lord. (1 Chr. 21:29-30, NASB)

The context has to do with David's sin in calling for a census and God's decision to punish Israel through a plague sent by a "destroying angel" in which 70,000 died. After David implored God to punish him alone, the angel of the Lord commanded the prophet Gad:

18 to tell David to go up and set up an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite... 26 David then built an altar there to the Lord, and sacrificed burnt offerings and communion offerings. He called upon the Lord, who answered him by sending down fire from heaven upon the altar for burnt offerings. 27 Then the Lord gave orders to the angel to return his sword to its sheath.

Does 1 Chr. 21:29-30 imply that if David had gone to Gibeon to inquire of God, the angel would have renewed the plague against Israel? If so, why? Or is it the case that David was mistaken in his fear and that he could have safely gone to Gibeon?

2 Answers 2


There are two matters here: (1) David's fear (2) Place of worship/sacrifice

I will examine these in the opposite order for reasons that will become obvious shortly.

  1. Place of Worship/sacrifice

Deut 12 is very clear that when Israel settled in their conquered land, they were to have a single place of national worship. Ellicott sums this well when he comments on Deut 12:5 -

(5) But unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes.—The very form of the order proves its antiquity. No one who was acquainted with the removal of that “place” from Shiloh to Nob, from Nob to Gibeon, from Gibeon to Jerusalem, could have written with such utter unconsciousness of later history as these words imply. It is noticeable that in the reading of this precept in the times of our Lord, the Jews seem to have arrived at the came state of unconsciousness. They could not conceive of the presence or worship of Jehovah anywhere but at Jerusalem.

Note that this single place of national worship was moved from, initially Shiloh, and later to Nob, then Gibeon and finally to Jerusalem, is immaterial for our discussion at present other than to note that, with one exception, each move was a plenary move, ie, of the entire sanctuary apparatus, including the altars and the sanctuary itself.

The conspicuous exception was the last move occurring soon after David became king, conquered Jerusalem, and built a palace in Jerusalem. When this occurred, the sanctuary was still (as the OP points out) still in Gibeon.

However, David decided that he wanted the Ark of the Covenant with him in Jerusalem. This was highly irregular - to separate the Ark of the Covenant from the Sanctuary and all the other machinery of national worship; but, good or bad, that is what David did. 2 Sam 6. (It was not until about 40+ years later when Solomon completed the temple that all the rest of the sanctuary equipment was moved to Jerusalem, into the new temple.)

Side note: As stated above, the sanctuary's primary function was to provide a single focus of NATIONAL worship. This did not prevent others having small private or individual sacrifices such as occurred with Samuel and David and others on various occasions. This was what David felt necessary when the plague was stayed and he offered private sacrifices on Mt Moriah, just outside of Jerusalem, on what was to become the temple site.

  1. David's Fear

2 Sam 24 and 1 Chron 21 record the unfortunate lapse of David's humility when he counted the fighting men. His confrontation by the prophet Gad resulted in the realization of his great sin followed by extreme remorse.

The previous occasion of David's sin with Bathsheba had taught David the subtle distinction between forgiveness and consequences - David lost four of his sons because of his public sin.

Thus, it is possible that David's fear of going to the sanctuary at Gibeon might have been based on at least two things:

  • his extreme remorse and sense of sinfulness, and thus unworthiness to go to Gibeon
  • his possible fear of further consequences of his sin (other than the three-day plague)

In any case, David decided on a private sacrifice as a symbol of his penitence and contrition where the angel of death had been seen and the plague stopped.

  • + 1 for good info an analysis. But I have to disagree with Ellicott that "No one who was acquainted with the removal of that 'place' from Shiloh to Nob, from Nob to Gibeon, from Gibeon to Jerusalem, could have written with such utter unconsciousness of later history as these words imply." Of course they could have, if as some critics believe, the book was written to give the appearance of an antiquity it did not really have. Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 15:10
  • @DanFefferman - that is theoretically possible. However, if it is true, then Deuteronomy is pseudepigraphon (ie, a forgery) which would belie and deny any divine inspiration. Since I believe Paul's statement in 2 Tim 3:16, 17 and 2 Peter 1:19-21, I concomitantly believe Deuteronomy is divinely inspired and this is what it claims - the speeches a divinely inspired prophet of God.
    – Dottard
    Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 20:17
  • I don't see pseudepigrapha as necessarily being incompatible with divine inspiration. God works in mysterious ways. Commented Nov 18, 2023 at 0:44

Afraid of Guiltiness David was experiencing the same qualms that Adam and Eve felt after a major committing of sin. They all were afraid the the Presence of God and tried to hide from Him. Adam hid among the trees with a comoflauge of leaves; David wanted to stay away from the same condemning Presence, which was known to dwell in Gibeon.

David was suffering from the same guilt-feelings we all feel after we have been "caught with our hand in the cookie jar." Shame, disappointment, (godly sorrow), and...fear of punishment, rejection, or worse.

Allowing David to make recompense at the threshing floor, by the message of Gad, was a gracious deed on the part of a loving, gracious God! No doubt a theme for another Psalm!

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