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Here are two different introductions to the same historical account of King David taking a census of all the men of fighting age in Israel:
Again the anger of Yahweh burned against Israel, and He incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.” (2 Sam. 24:1)
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel. (1 Chron. 21:1)
Notice how one author credits Yahweh as inspiring the census, while the other credits Satan. This is not a mistake, but a difference in viewpoint. One author is emphasizing God’s instrument: Satan. The other author is acknowledging that God is ultimately responsible for what Satan does, for this is God’s universe and Satan can’t do anything in it without His permission and help. The important point both authors are making is that King David had some supernatural help in coming up with the idea of assessing Israel’s military strength. What’s interesting is that he gets in massive trouble with Yahweh for doing the very thing that Yahweh incited him to do.
Now in this story, David starts off with an attitude which is quite opposite to his Goliath fighting days. He’s getting high on Israel’s manpower and muscle instead of putting his confidence in Yahweh’s ability to defend her. Naturally Yahweh finds this insulting, for He knows that once we humans start putting our trust in numbers, we lose sight of our dependency on Him.
By the time this story begins, Yahweh is already mad at Israel, but it seems He’s got a beef with David as well. Perhaps He saw His king getting puffed up with pride and was determined to rein him in before things got out of hand. David loved God very much, but he was still an imperfect human being. As a king he was very successful and greatly admired. It’s hard for a man to keep his grip on humility when he’s constantly being showered with gushing compliments and treated like his opinion turns the world. All Yahweh had to do was fan the flames of pride which were already burning in David’s heart and soon we see David deciding it would be fun to bask in numerical proof of his kingdom’s power.
It’s important to note that David knew he was doing wrong when he ordered the census to be taken, and so did everyone else. His army commander tried to talk him out of it, but David refused to listen. It took David’s men over nine months to travel through all of Israel and count every male who was of eligible fighting age. But when the final numbers were brought back to the palace, David didn’t get any joy out of them. Instead, he felt terribly convicted.
“I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, Yahweh, I beg You, take away the guilt of Your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.” (2 Sam 24:10)
In response to David’s prayer, Yahweh sends one of His prophets to David and the prophet presents the king with three ugly disciplinary options. Israel can either endure three months of famine, three months of being conquered in battle, or three days of “the sword of Yahweh”. In this case, Yahweh’s sword would take on the form of a widespread plague “with the angel of Yahweh ravaging every part of Israel” (1 Chron. 21:12). David’s response to the prophet is insightful:
“Let me fall into the hands of Yahweh, for His mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands.” (1 Chron. 21:13)
David would rather get spanked directly by God then deal with a third party, for he knows that God is good. Yahweh accepts David’s choice and soon 70,000 men in Israel are dead. We’re told that an angel of the Lord is going around afflicting people, and soon he sets his eyes on Jerusalem with the intention of totally destroying the city. Jerusalem is where David’s palace is and one day he looks up and sees a terrifying sight.
Then David lifted up his eyes and saw the angel of Yahweh standing between earth and heaven, with his drawn sword in his hand stretched out over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, covered with sackcloth, fell on their faces.
And David said to Yahweh, “I am the one who called for the census! I am the one who has sinned and done wrong! But these people are as innocent as sheep—what have they done? O Yahweh my God, let Your anger fall against me and my family, but do not destroy Your people!” (1 Chron. 21:16-17)
David is wrong to suggest that Yahweh is being unfair and punishing innocent people, and he’s being too shortsighted not to realize Yahweh is multitasking with His discipline of Israel. But he’s doing the best he can with where he is at and Yahweh is pleased with his repentant heart. Yahweh sends His prophet Gad to instruct David to build an altar to God on the threshing floor of a man named Araunah (uh-RAW-nuh). The threshing floor was where farmers would process the grains that they harvested in their fields. When he receives these instructions, David hustles on over to Araunah’s farm to obey.
Meanwhile, Araunah and his sons are busy threshing wheat at their place when suddenly the freaky looking angel appears in front of them. Araunah’s four sons go sprinting off to hide but Araunah sees the king approaching and he rushes to greet David with a respectful bow. David explains that he needs to buy the threshing floor so he can build an altar and make a sacrifice to Yahweh so Yahweh will stop the plague. Sounds good. Araunah says the king can have it all for free and he’ll even throw in the needed animals, which were very expensive. But David is not about to go cheap when it comes to Yahweh’s offering. He insists on paying full price for everything, then he sets up multiple burnt and peace offerings as prescribed by the laws which God gave to Moses.
Now we come to a very special moment. After David’s offerings have been made, he prays to Yahweh, and Yahweh answers him by sending fire from heaven onto the altar for the burnt offering. What a great moment of confirmation for a man who is deeply distressed in his heart and so anxious to get right with God again. Yahweh is being very clear to David that his offerings have been fully received and approved of. What a huge sigh of relief. Yahweh then commands His avenging angel to sheath his sword. The ordeal is finally over.
Now at this time David already has his heart set on building a great Temple for Yahweh which will replace the tent Tabernacle that had been in use since the time of Moses. Yahweh has already given David His okay for the Temple idea, but Yahweh specified that He wanted David’s son Solomon to be the builder, not David. When Yahweh chooses this threshing floor for the location of a special offering, David interprets it as Yahweh indicating where He wants His future Temple to be located.
Then David said, “This will be the location for the Temple of the Lord God and the place of the altar for Israel’s burnt offerings!” (1 Chron. 22:1)
There are many lessons we can learn from this story. What got David into so much trouble with God was his attempt to find security in the things of the world instead of trusting that God was enough. Now this doesn’t mean it is wrong for us to work and budget and try to be responsible with our money by putting some extra aside. But David was far beyond the realm of responsible living here–he was collecting statistics just so he could bask in the numbers and tell himself Israel was strong because she had plenty of soldiers. Notice how God responded by attacking the very thing David was putting his trust in. By the time God was done slaughtering the Jews, David’s army wasn’t nearly as large as it had been. We must remember that Yahweh is extremely jealous by nature. When we shove Him aside for some other, better source of protection, satisfaction or pleasure, He is going to react.
Everything that we have is a gift from God. The gifts should never be cherished more than the Gift Giver, yet in real life we’re all guilty of doing this. It’s just so easy for us to feel dependent on the blessings God gives us. It’s easy for us to feel more bonded to things we can touch and see than to a God who is invisible to us. There’s nothing natural about loving God first, yet He will gladly help us get there if we are willing to sincerely seek Him.
This story serves as a sobering reminder that God’s patience doesn’t last forever. It can suddenly come to an end, and when it does, the resulting discipline can be shockingly brutal. Seventy thousand men died in this story. Patriarchal societies like the ancient Jews often only report statistics for the male gender, which means the total number of casualties might have been much higher if women and children were also killed. Yet God is never the bad Guy. He is always more than justified in massacring us because we are always long overdue for a spanking by the time He finally runs out of patience.
We don’t know how the nation of Israel responded to this event. Israel’s incessant rebellion against God is an ongoing theme throughout the Old Testament. But we do see David and Yahweh riding out a storm together. David starts to wander, Yahweh reacts with intense jealousy and violence, David sincerely repents, and Yahweh uses a very dramatic sign to confirm to David that their relationship is back in a good place. Even if the rest of the Jews remained hardhearted, David certainly benefited from this experience, for nothing says “I want you” louder than a God who flips out the moment you wander away from Him. This story reminds us of how important our soul attitude is to God. Though He is our infinite Creator and we are frail, teensy specks, He wants us. He cares immensely about how we respond to Him. Ours is not an indifferent Creator, but One who is extremely involved and interested in every little thing we do. Given this, let’s ask the Holy Spirit to make us the kind of creatures who greatly bless the heart of our glorious King. What a privilege it is to be pursued by such amazing Love.