David Takes a Census II Samuel 24:1 and I Chronicles 21
II Samuel 24 is a story about a leader who refused to listen to his advisors, who took a national census in which the people were counted, and which resulted in a plague that killed 70,000. Read II Samuel 24:1. When we read on in that chapter we read, in verses 10-11, that God was angry with David for doing the census and gave him 3 punishment options to choose from for his sin. The question is “Why would God tell David to do something and then punish him for doing it?”
It gets more complicated because of what the account of the same incident says in I Chronicles 21:1. Read that verse. Was it God or Satan who incited David to take the census?
We are not told why taking a census was wrong. America is in the process of taking a census and no one seriously thinks God is against that.
Who incited David? Read James 1:13. The answer to the apparent contradiction lies in the theological approach of the writer of each book. The writer of II Samuel wanted to emphasize the sovereignty of God, so he noted that, in the end, God is always in complete control. The writer of I Chronicles was interested in the holiness of God, so he wanted us to see that anything that is contrary to God’s holy will comes from Satan and is wrong. When you put the two approaches together you have Satan desired to tempt David and God allowed it because, in the end, God is always in control.
What was wrong with taking a census? There can be no doubt that it was wrong. Not only did God punish David for it, but one of his military advisors, Joab, advised against it. Read II Samuel 24:3-4. Read II Samuel 24:10 for further proof that taking the census was wrong.
Scholars have given several possible answers. First, taking a census was not, in and of itself, wrong. Exodus 30:12-16 allows for a census but gives specific guidelines for it. Read Exodus 30:12 where we find that a tax was to be collected with the census. David did not collect that tax.
The more common understanding of the sin associated with this was that David was counting men who would be eligible for his army if called upon. David was looking at the potential strength of his army to defend him if needed. Two attitudes flow from that. One is pride in which David would be able to brag about a large army ready to defend him and Israel. The second problem was that it gave away the fact that David trusted in the strength of his army and not in the strength of his God to defend him. (Read Judges 7:1-8. The point God made to Gideon is that the strength of Israel did not depend on the number of men in the army but on God’s strength. David forgot that and God was angry with him.)
On what, or in whom, do we place our trust? There is no problem in checking your 401K occasionally to see how this pandemic has impacted it. It is wrong if we allow the strength or weakness of that account to determine how we feel about the future and God’s ability to care for us. David listened to Satan, who was given permission by God to test him, and counted the men of his army to determine how strong and secure he was.
When David listened to Satan and determined to count the men available for his army, Joab, one of the commanders asked him, according to verse 3, why he would want to do such a thing. David ignored him. It’s fascinating how often we decide to do something that is not right and ignore not just the advice of friends but of the Holy Spirit speaking to our hearts. Because of our sinful humanity we like to think we know what is best and we like to think we have the right to do with our lives as we want. Popular thinking says, “It’s my life and I want to have it now.” Popular thinking says, “It’s my body and I can do with it as I want.” Popular thinking says, “My future depends on what I do.” When we decide we are going to do something that God tells us we should not do we easily come up with a 100 reasons why we can or should. The only reason we can think of why we should not is that God says “no.” Listen to God as He speaks through His Word and via the Holy Spirit.
David knew he had failed. Read II Samuel 24:10-11. The Lord came to the prophet Gad and told him to go to David with three options. He was to choose between three years of famine, three months of fleeing before his enemies, or three days of plague. David chose the third, and God then punished Israel with a plague that killed 70,000 men.
Why did God punish the whole nation for the sin of David? God did not give a reason for His actions, although this whole incident was introduced with the note that He was angry with Israel. It should be noted that while sins may seem personal, the reality of it is that many others are impacted by our sin. Family, neighbors, and friends, along with others in general, see our actions and are influenced by them. We never sin in a vacuum.
Why did David choose the plague? Perhaps because David knew that in the end the plague could only be stopped by God and he knew God is not only just, but He is merciful, so that would be the better choice. The choices he did not take would have left him at the mercy of others. Had he chosen war, he would have been at the mercy of his enemy. Had he chosen famine, he would have had to seek food from other nations, relying on their mercy to give it to them. David wisely chose to rely on the mercy of God. One can only wonder what a difference it might make today if the nations of the world confessed sins and turned to God, seeking His mercy.
What should be our takeaway from this incident? The primary message is the reminder that our care should rest not on our bank accounts or stimulus checks but in the One who has declared that even as He cares for the birds of the air and flowers of the fields, He will care for us because we are much more valuable to Him.
This incident is also a reminder that how we live impacts others. They see our actions for good or evil and respond accordingly. We do not live in a vacuum. Guard your life so you are a living testimony not only to your faith but to what it means to live out that faith each day.