On July 21st we read of a perplexing event in the life of King David from 1 Chronicles (which actually corresponds to 2 Samuel 24 that we read over a month ago). The first verse of chapter 21 reads, “Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.” (1 Chronicles 21:1, NASB)
Following this, against the objection of Joab his chief commander (which should have been recognized as a warning from God by David), David moves ahead with taking a census of the Israelites; he has Joab and the commanders of the troops count the people. God is in no way pleased by this action and His punishment is harsh. Through Gad, God’s spokesman to the king, David is given the choice of three devastating options of judgment upon his disobedience. The end result was the death through plague of 70,000 men from Israel and the near destruction of Jerusalem itself by an angel of the LORD.
If you are like me, your first reaction to this passage might have been one of confusion. What is the harm in counting the number of people? Why would God exercise what seems to be such an extreme edict on an action which, on the surface, appears to be so harmless? To understand, requires us to reflect on the foundational promise given to the father of faith, the core patriarch of the people, Abraham. Note as well that the deed undertaken by David is motivated by the evil one. This is one of those places in scripture where we are given a glimpse into the spiritual realm as we see God sovereignly allow satan (meaning the adversary) to incite David toward the census. Obviously if the devil was desirous of engaging in a count, it must have been rooted in evil. Nonetheless, the “why” question remains.
The initial thought in undertaking a census of any people would be considered very useful, not evil. However, in numbering Israel; that people who were to become as numerous as the stars in the heavens, the sand on the seashore, implied a distrust of the divine promise given to Abraham many years prior; faith that was tested through the act of offering Isaac on the alter, halted by the Angel of the LORD (a pre-incarnate Jesus), Who supplied a substitute of the ram caught in a thicket, a symbol of what He would ultimately be for His people. This was a sin; and though it had been done with permission in the time of Moses, the people had contributed half a shekel towards the building of the tabernacle, so “that there may be no plague among them when you number them” (Ex 30:12). Therefore, the numbering of that people was in itself regarded as an undertaking by which the anger of God could be easily aroused; but when the arrangements were made by Moses for the taking of a census, God was not angry because the people were numbered for the express purpose of the tax for the sanctuary, and the money which was collected (“the atonement (kippur in Hebrew- meaning ‘covering’ or ‘ransom’) money,” Ex 30:16) satisfied Him. In essence, a sacrifice was made to cover their sin; which exemplifies sin must be atoned for and ultimately God, exclusively, must be that refuge.
The sin of David numbering the people consisted in its being either to gratify his pride to ascertain the number of warriors he could assemble for some pondered plan of conquest; or, perhaps, to institute a regular and permanent system of taxation, which he deemed necessary to provide an adequate establishment for the monarchy, but which was regarded as a breach of the freedom of the people, inappropriate for a king of Israel. Whatever the reason, self was at the root of the action; David taking the seat reserved for God and God alone over His people.
The lesson for us today is comprised of two very important aspects. First, those who know and follow the Creator of all things must live by faith alone in His words and promises given to them regardless of circumstances and appearances. Trust is the expression of belief in the origin of Truth, which itself is embodied in Jesus; and truth is vehemently opposed by the devil, the ‘father of lies,’ who trusts no one and nothing. Secondly, our temptation to be the lord of our lives, the masters of our destiny, must be relentlessly crushed by the realization that there is only one LORD and He must occupy the throne of our lives in every way. We must think twice before marinating in our self-assurance.
To Him be glory and honor and praise!