Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people.” But Joab said to the king, “May the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see it, but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?” But the king’s word prevailed against Joab and the commanders of the army. So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to number the people of Israel. They crossed the Jordan and began from Aroer, and from the city that is in the middle of the valley, toward Gad and on to Jazer. Then they came to Gilead, and to Kadesh in the land of the Hittites; and they came to Dan, and from Dan they went around to Sidon, and came to the fortress of Tyre and to all the cities of the Hivites and Canaanites; and they went out to the Negeb of Judah at Beersheba. So when they had gone through all the land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to the king: in Israel there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000.
But David’s heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” – 2 Samuel 24:1-10 ESV
This closing chapter of the book of 2 Samuel will not end with David’s death, but with a recollection of yet another of David’s sins against God. This time, he will be guilty of taking a census in order to determine the size of his army. Most commentators believe this was done late in David’s reign and life, because he will use Joab, the commander of his army, as well as his troops, to travel across the length and breadth of the kingdom in order to take the census, a job that would take them nine months to complete. So it is believed that his had to be during an extended period of peace, when there was no eminent threat of war. The latter years of David’s reign was the only time when this could have happened.
But regardless of when it happened, the main concern is that it did happen. And there is a bit of confusion with this point, because the book of 1 Chronicles, in recording this very same episode, tells us, “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1 ESV). And yet, in this version of the story, it says, “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah’” (2 Samuel 24:1 ESV). So, which was it? Did Satan incite David to number Israel, or was it God? While this appears to be a contradiction, it is really a matter of perspective. We know from the book of James that God does not tempt anyone to sin.
God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. – James 1:13 NLT
But God does discipline His people for their sins. And He has a track record of using others to accomplish His will, including the kings of foreign nations and even Satan himself. In the book of Exodus we read how God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, so that he would refuse to let the people of Israel go. But his stubborn refusal would result in yet another display of God’s glory and greatness. All of this was so that the people of Israel, having lived in Egypt for 400 years, would know that their God was greater than the gods of Egypt.
In the case of David, recounted in this closing chapter of 2 Samuel, it seems that God desired to punich Israel for their disobedience, so he allowed Satan to entice David to take the census. It was in keeping with God’s plan to discipline His own people, but Satan was the instigator of David’s rebellious decision to do what he did. But why was taking a census so bad? What was so wrong about David wanting to know the size of his army? The problem does not appear to be the taking of the census itself, but the motivation behind David doing it to begin with. It was David who wrote:
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. – Psalm 20:7 ESV
Another anonymous psalm states a similar truth:
The best-equipped army cannot save a king,
nor is great strength enough to save a warrior.
Don’t count on your warhorse to give you victory—
for all its strength, it cannot save you. – Psalm 33:16-17 NLT
In taking a census of his fighting force, David was revealing that his hope and trust were in his army, not God. He was placing his confidence in the size of his mighty military machine, not power of God Almighty. He just had to know. So he sent the military commander and his troops to scour the land, determining the exact number of all the men qualified to serve in his army. It is important to remember that this was probably done in a time of peace, when there was no pressing need to have a larger army. But David wanted to know. His action was sinful. And at the heart of David’s sin was his lack of trust in God. And it would appear that David’s lack of trust was an expression of the hearts of the people. God was angry with them, but the text does not tell us why. Perhaps it was their lack of trust in Him that was the real issue here. David, as the king and legal representative of the people, was acting out the very heart attitude of the people of Israel. They had begun to place their trust in someone or something other than God. Perhaps they had become comfortable with David as their king and overly confident in his military prowess and the army’s ability to protect them from their enemies. By the latter years of David’s reign, Israel had become a powerful nation and a force to be reckoned with. Their success had probably produced a fair amount of over-confidence. As is usually the case in most of our lives, when things are going well, we tend to forget about God. In times of relative peace and tranquility, we can find it easy to lose our need for God. Whatever it was that the Israelites had done, God was angry with them, and so, He used David to bring about a fitting punishment for their sin.
David, against the better judgment of Joab, commanded the census be taken, and nine months later he got the news for which he was looking.
…in Israel there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000. – 2 Samuel 24:9 ESV
One million three hundred thousand men. That is a huge army by any standard. And it must have made David proud to know that he had those kinds of numbers at his disposal. This news would have fed his pride and boosted his ego. He was a powerful king with a formidable army at his disposal. But David’s moment of ego-driven ecstasy would be short-lived. We’re told that, “after he had taken the census, David’s conscience began to bother him” (2 Samuel 24:10 NLT). He had second thoughts about what he had done. Perhaps he remembered the words of his own psalm. Whatever the case, his heart began to be burdened by what he had done. He recognized his actions as sin and confessed it openly to God.
“I have sinned greatly by taking this census. Please forgive my guilt, Lord, for doing this foolish thing.” – 2 Samuel 24:10 NLT
David had sinned. No surprise there. After all, we have seen him sin before. But the key lesson in this passage is that David recognized his sin and confessed it before God. He admitted his guilt and sought God’s forgiveness. He didn’t attempt to blame anyone else for his actions. He didn’t make excuses. And it’s interesting to note that David confessed his sin before God had done anything to discipline him for it. Sometimes, we can sin against God and be completely comfortable with our actions, until He chooses to punish us. Too often, it is when the disciplining hand of God falls on us, that we see the folly of our sin and confess it to Him. But David confessed before God had done anything. His heart was sensitive enough to recognize the error of his ways and to admit it to God. He didn’t wait until God’s judgment fell on him.
Trust in God is a vital characteristic for the child of God. The proverbs state:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
do not depend on your own understanding.
Seek his will in all you do,
and he will show you which path to take. – Proverbs 3:5-6 NLT
In numbering the people, David had illustrated his failure to trust God. He was putting his hope and trust in something he could see and count. He was placing his confidence in the physical size of his army, not the invisible might of his God. It’s always easier to trust in something we can see and touch, than to place our confidence in a God who is hidden from our eyes. But God had proven Himself faithful to David, time and time again. He had rescued him repeatedly. He had protected him countless times throughout his life. But here, near the end of his life, David found himself putting his trust in something other than God, and he would pay the consequences for his sin. It is so important for us to remember that “we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT). If we put out hope and confidence in the things of this world, we will lose the battle. We are in the midst of a spiritual battle that will require faith and hope in God. The size of our army or our bank account will not help us in this conflict. Our physical strength will be no match for the spiritual enemies we face. David could number his army, but they would not be his source of salvation in a time of need. God alone can save. God alone deserves our trust. God alone is the one who warrants our attention, affection and hope.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.