Near the end of David’s reign, the Bible records another of the king’s lapses into egregious iniquity: “Now again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” (2 Sam. 24:1). The Bible does not provide specifics as to why God was angry with Israel, but one could presume it was for disobedience, for Israel’s history of rebelling against God was extensive.
Before we examine this great sin of King David, something needs to be clarified regarding God’s Word. There are two accounts of this same sin recorded yet, they appear to differ from each other. The account in 2 Samuel 24:1 reads, David was “moved by the Lord” to number Israel: “Now again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” But the account in 1 Chronicles 21 reads, David was “moved by Satan” to number Israel: “Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.” (1 Chr. 21:1). So, which reference is correct? Both are God’s inerrant Word. So why are there seemingly contradictory accounts? What appears to be a contradiction in the Bible, can easily be explained. Satan, like all of creation, is subject to God’s authority and power. Therefore, God sovereignly and permissively utilized Satan to tempt David into conducting a census of Israel.
Although David was tempted by Satan, he could have [or should have] resisted him (Jas. 4:6) and obeyed the word of the Lord, but in weakness chose to sin. Even King David’s military commander Joab, knew he was sinning against God and challenged the king’s foolishness: “But Joab said to the king, ‘Now 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; but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?’” (2 Sam. 24:3, cf. 1 Chr. 21:3-4). However, Joab’s appeal was in vain, the obstinate king commanded the conduction of the census.
Furthermore, Scripture does not reveal why David sinned, but perhaps it was self-aggrandizement because of his military strength, that prompted his numbering of Israel. A.W. Pink’s asserts: “…it was pride of the heart which moved Israel’s king to commit such folly. If he was intoxicated with the successes which heaven had granted to his arms, and was more occupied with them than their Giver, that that would account for his disastrous lapse, for ‘pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. (Prov. 16:18)’” 5 Keil & Delitzschalso claimed pride motivated David’s folly: “The true kernel of David’s sin was to be found, no doubt, in self-exaltation, inasmuch as he sought for the strength and glory of his kingdom in the number of the people and their readiness for war. This was punished. God determined to punish him by reducing their number either by famine, war, or pestilence.” 6
As Joab was conducting the census: “Now David’s heart troubled him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the LORD, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, please take away the iniquity of Thy servant, for I have acted very foolishly.’” (2 Sam. 24:10-11). Even though the king acknowledged that he sinned, God was displeased with David’s behavior and His wrathful judgment would inevitably fall upon Israel. (1 Chr. 21:10). Through the prophet Gad, God offered David to choose from three options: three years of famine, three months of being defeated by enemies, or three days of pestilence in the land (2 Sam. 24:13, 1 Chr. 21:12). In other words, because of David’s sin, judgment was to befall Israel, by either famine, sword, or plague. The distressed king chose three days of pestilence, hoping for God’s mercy: “Then David said to Gad, ‘I am in great distress. Let us now fall into the hand of the LORD for His mercies are great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man.’ So the LORD sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time; and seventy thousand men of the people from Dan to Beersheba died.” (2 Sam. 24:14-15). However, David’s hope for God’s mercy was granted. God ceased from further destroying Israel: “When the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD relented from the calamity, and said to the angel who destroyed the people, ‘It is enough! Now relax your hand!’” (2 Sam. 24:16). When King David saw the Lord’s angel standing with His sword stretched out over Jerusalem, he and his elders donned themselves in sackcloth, fell on their faces and David cried out: “Is it not I who commanded to count the people? Indeed, I am the one who has sinned and done very wickedly, but these sheep, what have they done? O LORD my God, please let Thy hand be against me and my father’s household, but not against Thy people that they should be plagued.” (1 Chr. 21:16-17, cf. 2 Sam. 24:17).
With a shallow reading of Scripture, it would appear David quickly came to his senses and repented from his grievous sin (2 Sam. 24:1o). However, that was not the case. The census was not an ephemeral event lasting only a few days. Scripture tells that Joab and his men spent nearly a year (“nine months and twenty days”), traversing the land of Israel numbering its inhabitants. (2 Sam. 24:5-8). Without a careful reading of the text, this bit of information can easily be overlooked, because only two verses later [9 months and 20 days later], David is depicted as repentant (1 Sam. 24:10). Moreover, even after that great length of time, the census was never completed (1 Chr. 27:24), for David was convicted at heart and ceased the census. The MacArthur Study Bible states: “David recognized the enormity of his willful rebellion against God. David’s insight saw the seriousness of his error in relying on numerical strength instead of the Lord, who can deliver by many or few.” 7 One can only surmise the turmoil David must have felt within his heart while the census was being conducted; how deeply troubled he must have been; for he knew it was wrong–Joab had warned him. For almost one-year David engaged in conscience suppressing of sin against God. Tragically, King David’s iniquity resulted in the befalling of God’s righteous judgment and the death of 70,000 of his fellow countrymen. The very people God had entrusted to King David’s care, when He chose him to be king of Israel!
One final note, strict records were typically kept of a king’s activity during his reign, but King David was so pained by his sinful behavior in “numbering Israel”, that the account was never chronicled: “Joab son of Zeruiah began to count the men but did not finish. Wrath came on Israel on account of this numbering, and the number was not entered in the book of the annals of King David”. (1 Chr. 27:24–NIV). However, God thought David’s sin was important to record, perhaps that’s why it’s documented twice in Scripture (2 Sam 24, 1 Chr. 21). Additionally, the Apostle Paul thought it was important to include Old Testament examples of sin in his epistles; to admonish believers to obey the Word of the Lord: “Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they (Israel) also craved.” And, “Now these things happened to them (Israel) as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” (1 Cor. 10:6, 11, cf. Rom. 15:4).
I close by pointing out King David’s tragic sin of numbering Israel recorded in 2 Sam. 24 and 1 Chr. 21 as a perfect example of just how devastating sin can affect the lives of countless people. In fact, all of David’s sins recorded in God’s Word illustrate the destruction it can wreak on others, as well as the sinner (cf. Ps. 51:12). And even so, God considered him “a man after His own heart” and bestowed favor upon him, such as was given to no other servant of His. The question one might ask is– “Why was that?” In following article in the King David series, I will attempt to answer that question.
See the next article for (part 5) of David: A Man After God’s Own Heart
4 The New American Commentary, Dr. Robert D. Bergen, 1,2 Samuel, B & H Publishers, 1996, pg. 367
5 A.W. Pink, The Life of David“, Baker Book House, two Vols. in one, 1981, pg. 310 of vol. 2–(Scripture ref. added).
6 Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament Vol. 2 Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I & II Samuel, Eerdmans, reprinted in 1980, pg 502
7 The MacArthur Study Bible (NKJ), Word Publishing, 1997, pg. 465—Footnote on 1 Sam. 24:10, sinned greatly…done foolishly.