David Displeases the Lord by Taking a Census, 1-17

24:1 The LORD’s anger again raged against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go count Israel and Judah.” 24:2 The king told Joab, the general in command of his army, “Go through all the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beer Sheba and muster the army, so I may know the size of the army.”
Who incited David?

2 Sam 24:1 The LORD’s anger again raged against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go count Israel and Judah.”

1 Chron 21:1 An adversary [NIV: ‘Satan’] opposed Israel, inciting David to count how many warriors Israel had.

1. Some think that some resolution can be achieved by translating the text differently.  The NASB softens the the Lord’s involvement by translating: ‘ Now again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”’  In other words, it was not the Lord who incited David: rather, David was responding (sinfully) to the Lord’s anger; it was not the Lord who gave the command, but David.  Davis says this translation is possible, but not the most natural.

2. Others think that the Chronicler is attempting to ‘improve’ the theology of the earlier source.  Why did the theology need ‘improvement’?  Because it leaves us with the question, as Dale Ralph Davis puts it: ‘How can Yahweh stir up David to carry out an action for which he is then held guilty? ‘  According to Anderson (WBC), ‘this alteration may be part of the gradual process in which evil came to be associated with the demons or Satan in particular.’  There may well be some truth in this, but it is theologically naive to leave it at that.

3. If we simply conclude that the two accounts are contradictory, as they appear to be, we are missing out on important theological truth.  The two account ‘each reflect a different aspect of the ultimately mysterious relationship between the action of the sovereign Lord, and the actions of Satan within that sovereignty.’ (Timothy Ward, Words of Life, p141).

Ward adds that this relationship is spelled out most clearly in the first few chapters of Job, where Satan acts within boundaries circumscribed by God, and the actions he has performed come to be regarded later in the book as those of God himself (see Job 2:3).  We think too of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Cor 12:7), which he describes as ‘a messenger of Satan’ and yet clearly sent to fulfill the godly purpose of keeping him humble.

Satan ‘is the one who, as in Job 2:3, actually causes the trouble, although only by God’s permission and within God’s limits.’ (NBC)

Satan’s role ‘is to be sharply distinguished from God’s, who remains totally in control, but who sometimes judges by handing sinners over to Satan (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20).’ (Selman, TOTC)

Grudem (Systematic Theology, p324): ‘David to take a census of the people (2 Sam. 24:1), but afterward David recognized this as sin, saying, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done” (2 Sam. 24:10), and God sent punishment on the land because of this sin (2 Sam. 24:12–17). However, it is also clear that “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel” (2 Sam. 24:1), so God’s inciting of David to sin was a means by which he brought about punishment on the people of Israel. Moreover, the means by which God incited David is made clear in 1 Chronicles 21:1: “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to number Israel.” In this one incident the Bible gives us a remarkable insight into the three influences that contributed in different ways to one action: God, in order to bring about his purposes, worked through Satan to incite David to sin, but Scripture regards David as being responsible for that sin.’

‘All temptation is permitted by God. When evil spirits tempt us, they do so by permission (Job 1:12, 2:6; Luke 22:31, &c.). If Satan therefore provoked David to number the people, God allowed him. And what God allows, He may be said to do.’ (Barnes)

4. Davis criticises such distinctions between God’s ‘permissive’ will and his ‘decretive’ will. ‘The appeal to God’s permissive will solves nothing. It may sound better, but God must decide to permit. We cannot use Satan to avoid God.’

Davis chooses not to try to resolve the theological tension.  He quotes Kaiser (Hard Sayings of the Bible):

‘It is also true, according to the Hebrew thinking, that whatever God permits he commits. By allowing this census-taking, God is viewed as having brought about the act. The Hebrews were not very concerned with determining secondary causes and properly attributing them to the exact cause. Under the divine providence everything ultimately was attributed to him; why not say he did it in the first place?’

This explanation would be more plausible if the text in 2 Samuel 24 was all we had to go on.  But, since the 1 Chron 21 passage says that was ‘Satan’, rather than ‘the Lord’ who incited David, the ‘dual cause’ interpretation (no. 3, above) would seem, despite its own difficulties, the best.

The Lord’s anger again raged against Israel – possible pointing back to the events recorded in 2 Sam 21:1-14.

“Go count Israel and Judah”Cf. 1 Chron 21:1, where it is said that Satan incited David to do this.  The thoughtful reader of Scripture should not be too perplexed by the idea that certain actions and events may have an ultimate cause (God), and also a proximate cause (in this case, Satan).  It is elsewhere, as when the Satan is given divine permission to test Job.

The text does not explain why the Lord’s was angry with Israel, nor why it was wrong to conduct the census.  It is reasonable to suppose that the census was the means of raising taxes to fund an army.  The problem, then, lay in ‘its potential for military aggrandizement at the expense of trust in the power of Yhwh. That would take us right back to Samuel’s speech about the grasping ways of kings, when the people first ask for a king (1 Sam. 8:10–12).’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

‘The military nature of the census may, perhaps, imply that the reason for Yahweh’s anger was David’s lack of trust. The king and the people should not rely on their own strength but they should depend upon Yahweh (cf. 1 Sam 14:6; Isa 31:1). Yahweh can deliver his people and give them victory “by many or by few” (1 Sam 14:6).’ (Anderson, WBC)

Davis outlines four possible explanations of why the census was sinful:

  1. ‘Josephus (Antiquities, 7.13.1) reflects Jewish tradition, holding on the basis of Exodus 30:11–16 (note especially v. 12) that David neglected to pay the per capita atonement money required whenever a census was taken. If, however, the poll tax of Exodus 30 was a one-time requirement and did not become a precedent until long after David, then there could be no fault on this score.
  2. ‘Others infer…that the offence must rest in David’s motivation for the census, so that ‘it is David’s aspirations after self-sufficiency that are being censured’.
  3. ‘Still others, noting…the military nature of the census (see v. 9), hold that the census was a preparation for additional military conquest that was either ill-conceived or beyond the limits of God’s approval.
  4. ‘Finally, one can construe 1 Chronicles 27:23–24 to imply that at first David ordered Joab to include in his count those not yet subject to call up (i.e. those below twenty years of age). Perhaps David wanted to know the likely military capability for the coming years. Such action, however, was an implicit denial of God’s promise to multiply Israel like the stars of the sky. Human planning replaced divine promise.’ (Numbering added)

Davis himself is undecided between these options.

24:3 Joab replied to the king, “May the LORD your God make the army a hundred times larger right before the eyes of my lord the king! But why does my master the king want to do this?”
24:4 But the king’s edict stood, despite the objections of Joab and the leaders of the army. So Joab and the leaders of the army left the king’s presence in order to muster the Israelite army.
24:5 They crossed the Jordan and camped at Aroer, on the south side of the city, at the wadi of Gad, near Jazer. 24:6 Then they went on to Gilead and to the region of Tahtim Hodshi, coming to Dan Jaan and on around to Sidon. 24:7 Then they went to the fortress of Tyre and all the cities of the Hivites and the Canaanites. Then they went on to the Negev of Judah, to Beer Sheba. 24:8 They went through all the land and after nine months and twenty days came back to Jerusalem.
24:9 Joab reported the number of warriors to the king. In Israel there were 800,000 sword-wielding warriors, and in Judah there were 500,000 soldiers.
24:10 David felt guilty after he had numbered the army. David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly by doing this! Now, O LORD, please remove the guilt of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.”
24:11 When David got up the next morning, the LORD had already spoken to Gad the prophet, David’s seer: 24:12 “Go, tell David, ‘This is what the LORD says: I am offering you three forms of judgment. Pick one of them and I will carry it out against you.’ ”
24:13 Gad went to David and told him, “Shall seven years of famine come upon your land? Or shall you flee for three months from your enemy with him in hot pursuit? Or shall there be three days of plague in your land? Now decide what I should tell the one who sent me.” 24:14 David said to Gad, “I am very upset! I prefer that we be attacked by the LORD, for his mercy is great; I do not want to be attacked by men!”
24:15 So the LORD sent a plague through Israel from the morning until the completion of the appointed time. Seventy thousand men died from Dan to Beer Sheba. 24:16 When the angel extended his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the LORD relented from his judgment. He told the angel who was killing the people, “That’s enough! Stop now!” (Now the LORD’s angel was near the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.)
24:17 When he saw the angel who was destroying the people, David said to the LORD, “Look, it is I who have sinned and done this evil thing! As for these sheep—what have they done? Attack me and my family.”

David Acquires a Threshing Floor and Constructs an Altar There, 18-25

24:18 So Gad went to David that day and told him, “Go up and build an altar for the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” 24:19 So David went up as Gad instructed him to do, according to the LORD’s instructions.
24:20 When Araunah looked out and saw the king and his servants approaching him, he went out and bowed to the king with his face to the ground. 24:21 Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” David replied, “To buy from you the threshing floor so I can build an altar for the LORD, so that the plague may be removed from the people.” 24:22 Araunah told David, “My lord the king may take whatever he wishes and offer it. Look! Here are oxen for burnt offerings, and threshing sledges and harnesses for wood. 24:23 I, the servant of my lord the king, give it all to the king!” Araunah also told the king, “May the LORD your God show you favor!” 24:24 But the king said to Araunah, “No, I insist on buying it from you! I will not offer to the LORD my God burnt sacrifices that cost me nothing.”
So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty pieces of silver. 24:25 Then David built an altar for the LORD there and offered burnt sacrifices and peace offerings. And the LORD accepted prayers for the land, and the plague was removed from Israel.