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.”
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:
- ‘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.
- ‘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’.
- ‘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.
- ‘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.