This Week's Focus Passage

‘He moved David against them, saying, Go, number Israel and Judah.’

Focus Passage: 2 Samuel 24

‘He moved David against them, saying, Go, number Israel and Judah.’

One writer refers to this episode in his commentary on the life of David in the book of second Samuel with the appellation ‘Senseless Census.’ This very well, and quite cleverly, describes the whole matter. It was indeed most senseless. Why in the world, or whatever in the world compelled David to do such a thing? Even his captain Joab, certainly no epitome of righteousness, raised this question; ‘Now Jehovah thy God add unto the people, how many soever they may be, a hundredfold; and may the eyes of my lord the king see it: but why doth my lord the king delight in this thing?’ So just who moved David to number the people; the fact that Satan had a part in this sin may demonstrate what an intolerable thing it is in the sight of the Lord to be so preoccupied with ‘counting your chickens.’ There is much discussion among writers and commentators with regard to this matter, and it seems that if we are prepared to recognize the truth that even the exalted cherub that fell cannot do one single thing without the permission of his Creator, the matter would be settled without question.

The issue has been debated for centuries because the Scriptural record as we find it in the parallel account given in 1 Chronicles 21 begins with the language, ‘And Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel. So the argument is duplicated, namely, who caused the king, or just who was it that moved David to number the people of Israel and Judah? Did Jehovah move David against them—2 Samuel 24:1, or did the Satan stand up and move David to number Israel—1 Chronicles 21:1? We have already suggested that, given that it was indeed Satan who moved David, it was only as permitted and empowered by Jehovah that he would be able to do anything of the sort. Again, if Satan was the immediate mover, what may have been the motivation, or temptation, employed by him that would so move the king toward this action? One writer has suggested that it was David’s aspirations after self-sufficiency that impelled him in this direction, or we could say that it was simply an aspect or form of prideful human behavior. This writer went on to further explain his reasoning, ‘Throughout the entire world of the Ancient Semite, knowing was equivalent to exercising power or dominion over a person or an object. Counting flocks or populations, “in order to know their number,” was equivalent to a claim of absolute and unlimited dominion. Such dominion, however, was proper only and solely to God, the Lord of all. Accordingly, a census of the people must be regarded as an arrogation of the divine prerogative of dominion, and condemned as an act of sacrilege.’—Robert P. Gordon. Another suggests that perhaps David wanted to know his likely military capability for the coming years. We are not told what his motive was but it must have been wrong to incur such censure. If the census bothered Joab, there must have been something terribly wrong with it, as one has well said, for Joab was not famous for a tender conscience.

What is even more of a mystery is the fact that our text informs us that it was God’s anger that was kindled toward Israel that caused him to so move David. We are not told the specific cause of God’s anger being kindled against Israel. When we remind ourselves of virtually the entire history of that chosen people, how they so often rebelled against their true King, we may conjecture almost ad infinitum in our imaginations as to the immediate cause of God’s anger in this particular case. Nonetheless, David was responsible for his actions; he was accountable for his sin in this behavior. The resultant punishment for David’s faux pas nevertheless fell upon Israel, and not upon David alone. When the king responded to the three options set before him by Gad in Jehovah’s name, David wonderfully responded let us fall now into the hand of Jehovah; for his mercies are great, upon which reply the Lord sent a pestilence over Israel so that there died seventy thousand men. It is not at all easy to reckon with that vast number of lives being required, as it were, in order to satisfy the wrath of God for something seemingly so trivial on the surface. It is a powerful lesson which should teach us the heinousness of all sin, even so-called ‘venial’ sins, because committed against an absolutely holy and righteous God who is of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look upon perverseness.

It is difficult to try to get a handle on what David was thinking; or perhaps he wasn’t thinking well at all. Would he not have before his mind’s eye the grand account of Gideon and his army; how that numbers mean nothing when God is our Lord and King? This surely would have convinced him of his intended folly if he had only brought it before his mind. And even without remembering Gideon, he had experienced so much of the same reality in his own circumstances. What had become of the great faith of that young shepherd who defied the giant of the Philistines when he responded to Goliath’s fearful threatenings, saying, This day will Jehovah deliver thee into my hand; and I will smite thee, and take thy head from off thee…….for the battle is Jehovah’s?

One has wisely said of this occasion that ‘human planning replaced Divine promise.’ Is this not precisely what has taken place in the churches of our land in so many instances? How many decades has the ‘numbers game’ been going on? And is it not so in most, if not all, of these cases that human planning is replacing Divine promise? Has not Christ, our King, promised to build His church that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it? And do we not love to contemplate the veracity of the declaration Except Jehovah build the house, they labor in vain that build it? David recounted to King Saul upon their first meeting when he presented himself as the combatant for the nation of Israel against the Philistine giant, how that God had delivered him out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear; he was, as it were, counting his blessings. It had been well had he continued counting his blessings rather than numbering the people. May we learn from this sad lesson to be content to let God build the house; let Him take care of the numbers as He did for Gideon. Let us count our blessings rather than counting heads.

David Farmer, elder

Fellowship Bible Church

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