II Samuel 24:1-14
1 Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.” 2 So the king said to Joab and the army commanders with him, “Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enroll the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are.” 3 But Joab replied to the king, “May the Lord your God multiply the troops a hundred times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?” 4 The king’s word, however, overruled Joab and the army commanders; so they left the presence of the king to enroll the fighting men of Israel. 5 After crossing the Jordan, they camped near Aroer, south of the town in the gorge, and then went through Gad and on to Jazer. 6 They went to Gilead and the region of Tahtim Hodshi, and on to Dan Jaan and around toward Sidon. 7 Then they went toward the fortress of Tyre and all the towns of the Hivites and Canaanites. Finally, they went on to Beersheba in the Negev of Judah. 8 After they had gone through the entire land, they came back to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. 9 Joab reported the number of the fighting men to the king: In Israel there were eight hundred thousand able-bodied men who could handle a sword, and in Judah five hundred thousand. 10 David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.” 11 Before David got up the next morning, the word of the Lord had come to Gad the prophet, David’s seer: 12 “Go and tell David, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you.’” 13 So Gad went to David and said to him, “Shall there come on you three years of famine in your land? Or three months of fleeing from your enemies while they pursue you? Or three days of plague in your land? Now then, think it over and decide how I should answer the one who sent me.” 14 David said to Gad, “I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into human hands.”
The last words of David, were admirably good, but we read here some of his last works, which were none of the best; Joab did well to advise against the mistake though to no avail, yet, when David realized what he had done, he repented quickly and finished well. Christian leaders will learn in this lesson that when a leader makes a mistake, many others are effected, a leader should seriously and prayerfully consider the advice of subordinates and upon discovery of a mistake, the sooner the repentance and correction, the better.
1. David’s Ill-advised Command 1-4
The orders which David gave to Joab to number the people of Israel and Judah was sin. We know that from verse 1. God “. . . incited David against them, saying, 'Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.'" If this were not sin, why would this prelude to the account say that God moved David against them? What harm was there in it? Moses numbered the people twice. The shepherd should know the number of his sheep. The Son of David knows the number and all the names of His. What is evil if he does this? It is certain that it was a sin, and a great sin because of the way God treated it, but where exactly is the evil of it? David did it in the pride of his heart, which was Hezekiah’s sin in showing his treasures to the ambassadors. Both of these men trusted in the arm of flesh and God would not allow it.
Just as kings were not to multiply horses and take pride in them, or that to trust in chariots was wrong, so to boast about the number of soldiers at his command was the sin of pride; trusting in the arm of flesh. It was a proud conceit of his own greatness to have the command of so many people, as if their large number, which was to be ascribed purely to the blessing of God, was due to any conduct of his. It was a proud confidence in his own strength. By announcing among the nations the number of his people, he possibly thought he would appear the more powerful. This was vanity. Sin is a tricky thing and only God knows the heart perfectly.
We determine this was sin because the text implies it. So when we look for the reason why, we easily conclude that it was the sin of pride. God does not judge sin as we do. What appears to us perhaps harmless, or but a small offense, may be a great sin in the eye of God, who sees men’s motives and principles, and discerns the thoughts and intents of the heart. We accept God’s determination in such cases. He is God.
The original source from which this sin stems is an intellectual problem to the thinking Christians. “Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel. . . ” Since when does God move people to sin? Yet it clearly says that God “incited” David to number the people. Let us look at this from two angles. First, God had brought Israel to a prosperous height they had never before experienced. Perhaps they were unthankful for the blessings of David’s government. Why had they been strangely drawn in to take part with Absalom first and afterwards with Sheba’s rebellions? Perhaps their peace and plenty made them falsely self-secure and God was, for that reason, displeased with them. That is a possible explanation from the human side. If so, we still have to face the question why did God move David to sin so that he could justifiably punish Israel?
God is not the author of sin; he tempts no man, so how are we to understand that “he (God) incited David against them.” The usual theological explanation is something like this: Satan, as an enemy and an accuser, suggests or promotes some to sin, as he put it into the heart of Judas to betray Christ. God, as righteous Judge, permitted it, with a design, that from this sin of David, to take an occasion to punish Israel for other sins, for which he might correctly have punished them even without this additional sin. Time and again the people (believers, for example) suffer if the leader (pastor, for example) sins. Just as He brought a famine upon Israel for the sin of Saul, so now a pestilence for the sin of David.
For generations Jerusalem and Judah would suffer bloodshed, captivity, slavery and deportation to Babylon because of the sins of King Manasseh who was born as a result of Hezekiah’s sin of not accepting and obeying the specific Word of the Lord to him through Isaiah the prophet. Through these records, kings can learn, that when they observe judgments of God in the nation, to suspect that their sins are a part of the problem, if not the ground of it, and may therefore repent and reform themselves. How many a godly national leader has brought blessings on his nation by fulfilling the role of priest for his people and praying for them? How many an ungodly national leader has brought curses on their nation because of their sin? And isn’t it also beneficial for people to learn to pray for those in authority, that God would keep them from sin, because, if they sin, the whole nations suffers?
Joab opposed the order to number the people. Twice Joab looks good in Scripture. This is one of those two times. Even Joab was aware of David’s folly and vain-glory and argued that David gave no reason for it. Verses 2-3 say, “So the king said to Joab and the army commanders with him, ‘Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enroll the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are.’ But Joab replied to the king, ‘May the Lord your God multiply the troops a hundred times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?’”
We notice here the good counsel that Joab gave. We see the courtesy and wisdom of his words. There was no reason to tax, nor to enlist them. It was a time of prosperity, safety and peace. Everyone was at ease and happy. Joab wished that their number might increase and that the king would see it. Especially, why should David, who speaks so much of delighting in God and exercises of devotion take pride in numbers?
Why would David say he trusts in God, not in horses or chariots, and then count his soldiers even against the counsel of his general? Many things, not sinful in themselves, turn into sin for us by our inappropriately delighting in them. Joab was aware of David’s vanity in this, though David did not see it. May God give to each of us a friend that would faithfully exhort or reprimand us when we say or do something proud or vain-glorious, for we often do and are not aware of it. There is nothing inherently wrong with knowing how many people attend your church, but if it becomes a point of pride, or, on the other hand, a point of unnecessarily great discouragement, then numbers have become too important to us. We are servants of the Lord. We seek only His approval in what we do.
Even though Joab had more wisdom, logic and prudence on his side, the king prevailed by sheer pressure of personality and/or position. Wisdom does not always prevail. It did not in this conversation. Verse 4 says, “The king’s word, however, overruled Joab and the army commanders; so they left the presence of the king to enroll the fighting men of Israel.” David would have it done; Joab must not argue. It is a grief to great men to have about them some that will help them in doing evil. Joab, according to his orders, reluctantly obeyed and took the captains of the host to help him.
2. The Discovery of Sin and Quick Repentance 5-10
We will see in this section how David repented of his sin and yet is punished for it and how God’s responses to David repenting lead to further development of David’s character. First, let’s notice the conduct of the census recorded in Verses 5-7, “After crossing the Jordan, they camped near Aroer, south of the town in the gorge, and then went through Gad and on to Jazer. They went to Gilead and the region of Tahtim Hodshi, and on to Dan Jaan and around toward Sidon. Then they went toward the fortress of Tyre and all the towns of the Hivites and Canaanites. Finally, they went on to Beersheba in the Negev of Judah.” This means that they began in the most distant places, in the east first, on the other side of Jordan then they went towards Dan in the north, then on to Tyre in the northeast, and next to Beer-sheba in the south. More than nine months were spent in taking this census, and we may imagine it caused a great deal of curiosity and possibly trouble throughout the country. At last the figures were brought to the king at Jerusalem. Verses 8-9 say, “After they had gone through the entire land, they came back to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. Joab reported the number of the fighting men to the king: In Israel there were eight hundred thousand able-bodied men who could handle a sword, and in Judah five hundred thousand.”
Whether the numbers fulfilled David’s expectation or not we do not know. Did it feed his pride? We don’t know. Was he disappointed? It does not say. The people were very many, but they had not increased in Canaan as they had in Egypt. They were just over twice the number that had entered Canaan under Joshua, about 400 years before. Under Joshua, Israel had about 600,000 fighting men plus women and children and at the time of Joab’s census, the combination of Judah and Israel was 1,300,000 fighting men plus women and children. Nevertheless, considering the small size of the land and the considerable percentage of it that was dessert and not developed by modern irrigation and agricultural technology such as we see in Israel today, it gives testimony that Canaan was a very fruitful land that so many thousands were maintained within her borders.
David penitently reflected on and confessed his sin in numbering the people. While the census was in progress we do not see that David was sorry for or aware of his sin, for if he had, he would have commanded that the census be discontinued. But when the account was finished and laid before him, that very night his conscience was awakened, and he felt its pain instead of enjoying what he thought would be its pleasure. He was about to feast on satisfaction in the number of his people but instead his conscience hit him with a hard blow. Verse 10 says, “David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.’” His conscience showed him the evil he had done, it appeared as sin, exceedingly sinful though before he saw no harm in it. He regretted it and his heart would not let him rest.
Though it is painful, wouldn’t you rather have your heart show you your sin than to continue in it? It is a good thing, when a man has sinned, to have a heart in him to let him know; it is a good step towards repentance and reformation. He quickly did the right thing to confessed it to God and begged earnestly for forgiveness. Even if to others it did to seem like much of a sin, to him it was a great sin. Truly repentant persons whose consciences are tender and well-informed, see evil in sin others do not see. He admitted that he had done foolishly, because he had done it in pride; it was folly for him to be proud of the numbers of his people, when they were God’s people, not his. And this was before he knew that, as few as there were, there would soon be even fewer. So he asked for forgiveness, “Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant.”
3. Repentance and Consequences 11-14
David suffered a just and necessary correction for this sin. During the night God and David’s conscience had been at work so he was ready to receive God’s message which Gad brought to him. Verses 11-12 say, “Before David got up the next morning, the word of the Lord had come to Gad the prophet, David’s seer: ‘Go and tell David, “This is what the Lord says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you.’”” Gad is called his seer because he had him always at hand to see spiritually and advise him in the things of God. God through Gad indeed had a message for David.
Gad’s message assumed that David must be corrected for his fault. It is too great a crime, and reflects too much dishonor on God, to go unpunished. Pr 6:13 says, “To fear the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech.” Even if we truly repent and our sins are pardoned, still we often suffer their pangs. David’s punishment must answer to the sin. He was proud of the number of fighting men and now they would be fewer. God may take from us whatever, in our pride, we value too much. The punishment was on both David and the people for both had sinned.
David was given a choice about the rod with which he will be beaten. Verse 13 says, “ So Gad went to David and said to him, ‘Shall there come on you three years of famine in your land? Or three months of fleeing from your enemies while they pursue you? Or three days of plague in your land? Now then, think it over and decide how I should answer the one who sent me.’” His heavenly Father must correct him, but, to show that he does not do it willingly, He gave David permission to choose between war, famine, or pestilence. All three were sore judgments and would weaken and diminish a people. God planned to humble him for his sin, which he and we would see to be exceedingly sinful as a warning to us.
I Cor. 10:11 says, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us,” David was dealt his severe blow so that the king who, in his pride, thought he could choose whatever he wanted, would learn that God, the Master Teacher, would let him choose the punishment he would receive. This would give him some encouragement even under the correction, by letting him know that God did not cast him out of communion or conversation with himself, but he could still talk with God. Also, God may have had in mind that David would more easily bear up under whatever punishment he himself had chosen. Finally the prophet asked for a response. There is, even in this, a message for us today. When God speaks to us, He wants to hear our response. Whomever God uses to deliver a message to us, the messenger is just a messenger; the message is from God and He wants a response.
David objected only against the judgments of the sword, and, as for the other two, he refers the matter to God, but intimates his choice of the pestilence. Jer. 48:44a says, "Whoever flees from the terror will fall into a pit, whoever climbs out of the pit will be caught in a snare;” Sin brings men into difficult situations; wise and good men often distress themselves by their own folly. David made a hard choice. Verse 14 says, “David said to Gad, ‘I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into human hands.’” To flee three months before their enemies would undo what he had fought for for many years. That would ruin the glory of his—and God’s —past triumphs. “Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great.”
David seems to say, let us have pestilence or famine for the mercies of the Lord are great. These two punishments are more directly from the hand of the Lord than the sword of a neighbor. We know from Ezek 36:30 that God controls famines: “will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine.”
Perhaps David thought that sword or famine will devour one as well as another, but the destroying angel will draw his sword against those who are known to God to be most guilty. This will be the shortest and fastest, as he dreads the thought of enduring a length of time under the instruments of God’s displeasure. David, a penitent, dares cast himself into God’s hand, knowing he shall find that His mercy is great. Good men, even when they are under God’s anger, yet will hold no other than good thoughts of Him as Job did when he said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”
From this lesson the Christian leader can learn to listen to the advice of subordinates and that pride and misplaced trust are serious matters with God. Do we trust Him or do we, in pride, trust in numbers—whether those numbers represent people, units of money, material possessions or any other measurable resource? God wants us to trust in Him. Why should this be a problem to us? He is more faithful, trustworthy, dependable, consistent and committed to our success than any other measurable resource could ever be. When we trust God we honor Him and He receives praise; when we rely on other things we insult Him and deny Him glory.