There’s an interesting story in 2 Samuel 24. It occurs toward the end of David’s life, a time when you think he would be long past making foolish decisions, after experiencing a lifetime of God’s mercy and faithfulness. While David is a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), he still had to navigate temptations to sin, just like all of us – something we will struggle with until God takes us home and replaces our frail human bodies with the new, sinless, glorified, perfected model awaiting us in heaven!
1 Samuel 24:1 tells us God’s anger has once again been kindled against Israel. We don’t know the exact circumstances, but knowing Israel’s history, it most likely had something to do with participating in idol worship and/or failing to obey one or more of God’s commands. God’s wrath is always and only kindled against sin (see Leviticus 26:28; 2 Kings 22:17; 2 Chronicles 24:35; Ezekiel 24:13, 30:15). God’s wrath moved Him to allow David to be tempted by Satan (2 Chronicles 21:1) to issue a command for the people to be numbered.
It seems clear that David’s motivation was pride, either to sway God’s opinion of the people by presenting them as a mighty force to reckon with, evidence of his ability to rule the nation, or to demonstrate to the surrounding nations his power as a great leader. Scripture infers that David’s decision was related to the knowledge that God was angry with the people. In any case, God didn’t need David to take a census. His promise to Abraham was a nation of innumerable descendants, more than could be numbered. Counting the people was an affront to His promises, and displeased God even more.
As soon as the census was completed, David was convicted in his heart that he had sinned (24:10). He repents, casting himself on God’s mercy. God speaks through the prophet, Gad, to offer David three choices of discipline: seven years of famine, three months of being pursued by his foes, or three days of pestilence. David wisely replies, “Let us fall into the hand of the Lord for His mercies are great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man.” He trusted God’s discipline more than any other human’s ability to mete out justice.
God sends a pestilence (plague or disease) on Israel; 70,000 men die. Apparently, it is an angel who administers this pestilence. Just before he stretches out his hand to destroy the city of Jerusalem, God says, “Enough.” At the very place where God held back the angel of death, David builds an altar and makes a sacrifice in gratitude for God’s mercy. He buys the plot of land and pays for the oxen to sacrifice, saying, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing” (24:24).
What can we learn from this story?
First, it reminds us that no matter how faithfully we walk with God or how many great things He does in and through us, none of us are immune to temptation. We ought to always be on guard against the enemy’s strategies that motivate us to sin.
1 Peter 5:8 – Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
Second, David got into trouble when he tried to step into the path of God’s wrath against sin. Either he was trying to change God’s opinion, or he “jumped on the bandwagon” and turned against his people. Either way, God does not need our help in deciding who, how and when He will discipline His children. While we should plead with others to turn from sin, we need to get out of God’s way and let Him deal with His own. And like David, when God’s discipline is inevitable, submit to it, and trust God’s mercy.
Job 5:17 – Behold, happy is the person whom God disciplines, So do not reject the discipline of the Almighty.
Proverbs 3:11-12 – My son, do not reject the discipline of the Lord or loathe His rebuke, for whom the Lord loves He disciplines, just as a father disciplines the son in whom he delights.
Third, David overruled the good counsel of Joab and the other commanders of his army. They tried to reason with him, telling him it was not a good idea to number the people. David’s pride got in the way of reason. A bit of humility would have pushed him to perhaps seek God’s wisdom before acting on his idea. Many temptations, sorrow, and regret could be avoided if we are wise enough to have godly counselors around us and listen to them, instead of acting rashly in pride.
Proverbs 16:18 – Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before stumbling.
Proverbs 11:2 – When pride comes, then comes dishonor; But with the humble there is wisdom.
1 John 2:16 – For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world
I can’t help but draw some connections between the current pestilence that the world is facing today. In a very real sense, our world leaders have “numbered the people,” removing any reverence or reference to God from our culture, and replacing it with the humanistic, man-centered philosophy that guides our governments, our laws, and our society. The decisions of “kings” affect the people who live under their governance.
We know God’s wrath will be poured out on our world during the coming Tribulation. Sin will be addressed, and the lines will be made very clear as to who will bow the knee to God in repentance, and who will bow the knee when all opportunity for repentance has passed.
Those of us who know the Lord need to be asking God for mercy for our own sins and interceding for those who do not know Him. May we offer Him sacrifices of obedience, thanksgiving, and praise, knowing that our obedience will be costly.
Hebrews 12:4-6 – You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are punished by Him; for whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He punishes every son whom He accepts.”