Sept. 28: 2 Sam. 24

Iain D Campbell

When counting people can be a sin...

One would think that it would be no big deal for a king to take a census of his people. That is what we find David doing in 2 Samuel 24; but for some reason - a reason that is not given in the text itself - this was a sin. 2 Samuel 24:1 says that God's anger was strong against Israel, and as an expression of his anger he 'incited David against them', so that the census became a reason for punishing stubborn Israel.

When we compare this with 1 Chronicles 21:1, the situation becomes even more complex; there we read that 'Satan [not God] stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel'. The picture that emerges here is of God using Satan as a means to bring a judgment on his stubborn and recalcitrant people, and he uses David's census to that end. Joab tried to dissuade David from going through with his plan, but David insists, and after almost ten months, the census is complete.

When the figures emerge, David's conscience strikes him. He realizes that what he did was wrong. Perhaps it was wrong because it showed too much reliance on the 'arm of the flesh'; did it matter how many hundreds of thousands of men could draw the sword in battle? Not really; if God is against us, who can be for us?

The consequence is that David has to make another choice - a choice of punishments - will he take three years of famine, three months of defeat in battle, or three days of pestilence? Opting for the last of these, David commits his interests and those of his people into the hands of God (2 Samuel 24:14). 70,000 of David's men are smitten by the pestilence; only the sovereign command of God prevents the disaster from being greater. At the threshing floor of Araunah, the angel of death is made to cease from his work.

Remarkably, that is the very spot where David then builds an altar to the Lord. Sin abounded, and death abounded; but in these dark circumstances, grace abounded even more.

It's a strange passage...but it stands in the sacred record as a warning against confiding in our own strength, and an encouragement to place all our confidence in the all-prevailing grace of God. That is the source of all our hope and encouragement.