|Volume 24 Number 11 November 2022
Louis Rushmore, Editor
“Why did God condemn King David for conducting a Census?” someone inquired. After all, censuses are regularly conducted in our day, and they were historically performed in many nations. The backdrop to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth being born in Bethlehem relates to a census in the Roman Empire (Luke 2:1-7). Furthermore, in former times, God called upon Moses to number the people of Israel – that is, take a census. “As the Lord commanded Moses, so he numbered them in the Wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:19 NKJV; 3:14-16; 26:1-2).
However, in David’s time, God had not authorized taking a census of the Israelites. King David, though, initiated a census – to which David’s general and captains resisted, at first. “…the king’s word was abominable to Joab…” (1 Chronicles 21:6).
So the king said to Joab the commander of the army who was with him, “Now go throughout all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and count the people, that I may know the number of the people.” And Joab said to the king, “Now may the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times more than there are, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king desire this thing?” Nevertheless the king’s word prevailed against Joab and against the captains of the army. Therefore Joab and the captains of the army went out from the presence of the king to count the people of Israel. (2 Samuel 24:2-4; cf., 1 Chronicles 21:2-4)
Joab recognized that what King David proposed would bring about “guilt in Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:3). Upon completion of the census, King David also acknowledged his sinfulness for conducting a census. “And David’s heart condemned him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O Lord, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly’” (2 Samuel 24:10; cf., 1 Chronicles 21:7).
The census for which King David called took 9 months and 20 days to complete (2 Samuel 24:8) and determined that there were in “…Israel… one million one hundred thousand men who drew the sword, and Judah had four hundred and seventy thousand men who drew the sword” (1 Chronicles 21:9).
As we have seen, every male in Israel at the age of twenty, according to the ancient law, became liable for military service (Nu 1:3; 26:2; 2Ch 25:5), just as at a later time every male of that age became liable for the half-shekel of Temple dues. Josephus is our authority for believing that no one was called upon to serve after the age of fifty (Ant., III, xii, 4). (Nicol)
Numbers 8:24-25 stipulate that Israelite priests could serve as such from age 25 through age 50, at which time they could no longer serve. However, the Law is silent regarding retirement for others from military service. The eligibility to serve militarily were those ages 20 years old and older among “all who are able to go to war” (Numbers 26:2); not every male 20 years and above would be an able-bodied man.
First Chronicles 21:1 attributes incitement of David by “Satan” to number the people. Second Samuel 24:1 announces the anger of God against Israel and a prompting of David to number Israel. The verse is understood as God essentially saying, “I’m not going to stand in your way; go do what you’re going to do anyway, but there will be consequences.” The same is true today for every accountable soul; God will not force Himself upon anyone, but there will be consequences for disobedience. God’s punishment of Israel following this census was severe. Seventy thousand people died as a result of a plague of punishment sent forth from and by God (2 Samuel 24:15).
Well, just what was wrong and sinful about the census that King David initiated? “…David’s purpose from the very beginning as an ungodly thing” (Keil and Delitzsch emphasis added). There were neither war nor taxation under consideration by God at that time, either of which might warrant a census. It may have been a prideful maneuver of David, or perhaps he was considering a military campaign beyond what God had authorized. Commenting on 1 Chronicles 21:1, G. Campbell Morgan wrote, “The one sin of Satan is that of pride and ambition, and this was the sin of David.” The King’s desire to number the fighting men of Israel appeared to be more than mere curiosity, which even that wouldn’t have justified it in the eyes of God. Still, perhaps David wanted to compare the actual number of Israelites (extrapolating the overall population from the number of fighting men) to God’s promises to the Patriarchs about their numbers equaling the sands of the seashore and the stars in the night sky (Genesis 15:5; 22:17; 26:4; Exodus 32:13; Deuteronomy 1:10; 28:2; Nehemiah 9:23; Hebrews 11:12). Again, perhaps numbering the men of military age was an act of turning to self-reliance rather than trusting in God for Israel’s welfare.
In any case, David knew the census he decreed was sinful. Joab, his general, as well as the captains, knew that numbering the people on this occasion was sinful. Nevertheless, the census occurred, for which disobedience – doing something not authorized by God – also for the wrong reason or reasons – God enacted severe consequences. God was already angry with disobedient Israel (2 Samuel 24:1), doubtlessly for its on again, off again relationship with Him, and that census was the flash point whereupon God responded with national punishment.
Takeaways from this biblical account are several. Do what God authorizes and refrain from doing what God does not authorize or from activities that are incongruent with the revealed Word of God. Our Father chastises His children (Hebrews 12:3-11) to bring about righteousness in their lives. Furthermore, trials in our lives make us stronger, perfected (James 1:1-4). Consider the adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Collectively as God’s children, we may also experience God’s providential refinement through affliction. God also works among the nations, any of which He may raise or bring down (Daniel 2:21; 4:17; Psalm 75:6-7).
Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament. Electronic Database. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2015.
Morgan, G. Campbell. Exposition of the Whole Bible. Electronic Database. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2014.
Nicol, T. “The Bible as History: The Israelite Army.” Christian Publishing Blog. 13 Sep 2021. 29 Oct 2022. <https://christianpublishinghouse.co/2021/09/13/the-bible-as-history-the-israelite-army/>.