King David and the Census

King David and the Census

King David and the Census.

Please read 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21.

GOD and SATAN.  The Biblical story of David’s sinful census starts right off with somewhat of a mystery. In the 2 Samuel account, God is angry with Israel for unnamed reasons, and decides to use David to punish them. So God incited David to take a census, apparently of all the fighting men of Israel. In this account, God tested David and David failed the test. The account in 1 Chronicles 21, however, states that Satan, the Adversary, incited David to take the census. This apparent difference in the story lines can be explained by noting that God can certainly use Satan to do His will. God wanted to punish Israel, probably for disobedience or the national sin of pride, so He allowed Satan to test David, to see if he would commit the grievous sin of taking a census of his army. God certainly seems to give Satan a limited free hand sometimes. Remember Job? God gave permission to Satan to test Job, to incite Job to sin and compromise his integrity before the Lord. God allows temptation to come into our lives to test us, much as Jesus Himself was tested by Satan in the wilderness. Our job is to resist the temptation, in God’s strength. In Job’s case, Satan was not successful, and Job maintained his integrity before the Lord. Unfortunately, David did not pass the test like Job did. For all the wrong reasons in a very weak moment, David complied with Satan’s suggestion to take a census, which greatly angered God and brought judgment upon Israel.

CENSUS. What did David do that was so sinful? Why was taking a census such a grievous sin? There are several reasons David’s census brought judgment upon Israel, and upon David:

  1. In ancient cultures, a leader only had the right to number or count his people if they truly belonged to him. Taking a census was a sign of ownership. God had made it clear to this point in Israel’s history, though, that His chosen people belonged solely to God. Israel was God’s possession, and no one else’s. In taking a census, David made a statement… He considered Israel to be his possession. He actively took the place of God regarding Israel’s ownership and ultimate leadership. This was not God’s divine plan for Israel;
  2. Yahweh made it clear in Mosaic Law (Exodus 30:12) that there was only one condition in which a census was acceptable to God… Each person being counted must pay a census tax to the priests, a half-shekel of silver, as a kind of ransom payment to God to underline God’s possession of each life. If there was no ransom paid, God stated that He would send a plague upon the people. This of course is exactly what happened with David’s census;
  3. David took the census as an expression of his pride. Look what I have accomplished! Look at my great army! We can defend against any enemy! See how powerful I am? David’s pride and hubris reared its ugly head at this weak moment in David’s life. David committed a sin all too common to those in leadership. Nebuchadnezzar was the poster child of this frailty when he said, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30). It appears that David was prone to that same self-glory at times, like all of us.
  4. Because David thought he could trust in his big army for protection, he broke his trust in God to protect Israel. The census was a big no-confidence vote against God. In his self-sufficiency, David decided to trust in human forces, not God’s. With this census, David didn’t trust God, he didn’t depend on God. He compromised his belief in God for provision and protection. David lost the simple trust in the Lord as his shepherd as he expressed in Psalm 23.

REPENTANCE. Any way one looks at David’s census, it was a great sin and “was evil in the sight of God.” (1 Chron. 21:7). So God was determined to hold David and the people of Israel accountable. David’s own general Joab was highly offended at the idea and resisted the census strongly, but David’s stubbornness resulted in the census being taken regardless. The census took about ten months to complete, so David had plenty of time to reconsider the plan, but he didn’t. By the time the census was completed, though, David  came to realize he had done a grave wrong. “Then David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly by doing this. I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.” (1 Chron. 21:8). The other account stated that David was “conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men.” (2 Sam. 24:10). David’s confession to God and his plea for God’s forgiveness reveals what is great about David. He was humble enough to accept responsibility whenever he did wrong. Sinning before God truly left him broken-hearted, and he unfailingly repented his wrongdoing, whether it was concerning Bathsheba or the census. David was repentant, and he remained a man after God’s own heart.

CHOICES. But now it’s time for David to accept the punishment that God will surely give him. Speaking through David’s counselor/prophet Gad, God decides to give David three choices for punishment. God wants David to choose one of the three alternatives and receive what’s coming to him and his people. All three are mentioned in Deuteronomy 28 as punishments or curses for disobedience and failure to keep God’s covenant:

  1. Three years of famine. The king’s palace and those with means probably have plenty of food stockpiled, so this famine will punish mainly the poor and those without resources. The famine might also result in Israel’s dependence on neighboring nations for food;
  2. Three months of military defeat.  This would result in a punishment of fighting men, and not the general population. Everyone knew there was no such thing as mercy when it comes to warfare. Enemies do not show compassion. David surely knew this, as he was a rather bloody soldier in warfare himself.
  3. Three days of plague. This punishment would be personally given by the Lord Himself at the hands of the unique Angel of the Lord. Whoever was struck by the Angel’s sword would die of plague, “ravaging every part of Israel.” (1 Chron. 21:12).

ANGEL OF THE LORD. There is a unique and mysterious Messenger that appears and disappears throughout the Hebrew Bible. This one-of-a-kind Messenger is known as the Angel of the Lord, the Messenger of the Lord, the Angel of Yahweh, and the Angel of Presence. This Angel is distinguished from other angels and is considered by most biblical scholars as a divine representative of Yahweh to do His bidding on earth. In the Orthodox and early church tradition, this particular Angel was an appearance of none other than the eternal Jesus Christ before His incarnation. We see the Angel of the Lord appear to many in Hebrew Scriptures: Hagar in Genesis 16; Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22; Jacob in Genesis 32; Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3; the terrified Israelite people in Exodus 14; Balaam in Numbers 22; Joshua in Joshua 5; Gideon in Judges 6; Elijah in 1 Kings 19; in the Babylonian furnace in Daniel 3. So we see Jesus, the Angel of Yahweh, acting as God’s mouthpiece and the doer of God’s will at His bidding. “There is a fascinating forecast of the coming Messiah, breaking through the dimness with amazing consistency, at intervals from Genesis to Malachi.” (Cambridge Bible). This Angel is an encourager, inspirer, intimidator, protector, commissioner, deliverer, short order cook, and even a wrestler. This Angel is sent from heaven to accomplish what God wants done on earth at particular moments. This Angelic Messenger represents God in His actions, and is the face of God when seen in physical form. “The Angel of the Lord is the visible Lord God of the Old Testament, as Jesus was in the New Testament.” (Amplified Bible notes).

In this story of David, God wants to hold the people of Israel accountable, so He sent the Angel of the Lord to bring judgment. It’s difficult to conceive of Jesus wielding a sword and bringing a plague to Israel that would kill 70,000 people. This is the same Jesus who during His incarnation did nothing but heal all those who came to him. This is a different side of Jesus, acting as executioner rather than life-giver. This is a mystery, to be sure. But nonetheless we see a Jesus here who is obedient to the Father’s orders. Jesus can be the Redeemer and Sustainer, but He can also be the Judge, as everyone will see for themselves at the Last Day. Yes, we see in scripture Jesus as the Angel of the Lord who would appear as a welcome refuge to Hagar, a savior to Isaac, a burning presence with Moses, a protector for the fleeing Israelites, and a tender bringer of food to Elijah. But we also see this unique Angel in the role of judge and smiter of the people here with David. How do we reconcile these different sides of Jesus? It comes down to trusting in the unchangeable character of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

FATHER. These three options are all extreme judgments that would profoundly impact Israel. Isn’t it interesting that God offered three choices for punishment? Why doesn’t God simply choose a punishment Himself and go with that? Doesn’t this strategy of God’s sound like something a thoughtful parent would do with his child? Yahweh comes across like a shrewd Father here, knowing it’s more likely the person being punished would accept ownership of a punishment if there was a choice and the wrongdoer chooses the punishment for himself? All three punishments were serious, but it was wise and merciful for Father God to give David the freedom to choose for himself.

METAPHORS. The Orthodox note that these three options are metaphors for what God offers to each of us. We could choose spiritual famine, in which we would spiritually starve without the Bread of Life; Or we could choose defeat, remaining captive to sin and death, vulnerable to the spiritual warfare of Satan our enemy; Or we could offer up ourselves to God’s mercy, deciding that death with hope in God’s mercies is better than death with no hope at all.

THE CHOICE. David chose the plague to be the punishment. His response to the choices revealed a heartfelt trust in God. “I am in deep distress. Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for His mercy is very great.” (1 Chron. 21:13). David decided to entrust himself to God, because he knew God to be merciful and compassionate. He would rather trust in God than in the merciless famine or the brutality of warfare.

PUNISHMENT. So God brought a plague to Israel for the designated three days, and 70,000 people died. The Angel of the Lord brandished His sword from the north to the south and the result was devastating. By the time the Angel came to Jerusalem wielding His sword, God changed His mind and halted the plague. God relented and showed mercy to David and all those living in Jerusalem. When the Lord stopped the plague, the Angel was standing by the threshing floor of Ornan. When David looked up, he saw the Angel “standing between heaven and earth with His sword drawn, reaching out over Jerusalem.” (1 Chron. 21:16).

SACRIFICE. When David saw the Angel of the Lord ready to strike Jerusalem, he fell face down on the ground before God and offered himself to God’s judgment. “I am the one who has sinned and done wrong! These people are as innocent as sheep! O Lord my God, let your anger fall against me and my family, but do not destroy your people!” (1 Chron. 21:17). In accepting responsibility for this whole debacle, David offered himself as fodder for God’s judgment. David once again reflects Jesus, who offered himself for sacrifice for the people.

THRESHING FLOOR. The threshing floor of Ornan in Jerusalem is significant in many ways. In Biblical history, threshing floors became a sacred place. It was where Gideon met with God over the fleece of wool (Judges 6). And it was where Jesus’ distant relative Ruth met with Boaz, her kinsman redeemer (Ruth 3). Thus, the threshing floor was perceived as a place of blessing, where miracles happened. And because the busy threshing floor meant a full harvest, it was seen as even more of a blessed place. The fact that the Lord stopped the plague at a threshing floor maintains that symbol of the threshing floor as a site of blessing.

The threshing floor was primarily a place of separating the grain from the husk, the good from the bad, the valuable from the worthless. So it became a symbol of judgment, a place where God judges good and evil, the faithful is accepted and the unfaithful are rejected. The threshing floor is thus a place of discipline, when God puts one in a situation where one is asked to separate good behavior from bad behavior, the wheat from the chaff of one’s character. When one is on a personal threshing floor, God has placed that person in a place of decision, refinement, and self-discipline, of separating the true from the false. Finally, the threshing floor has been seen as a symbol of Calvary, of the place where Jesus Christ defeated death, where he separated the sin from mankind and trampled down Satan, relegating the Adversary to the refuse pile of history.

It is even more astounding then, that this particular threshing floor of Ornan is on Mount Moriah, the site where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. This threshing floor now becomes a symbol again of redemption. And this very threshing floor, of a pagan Canaanite no less, became the site of Solomon’s Temple (2 Chron. 3:1). Not only that, but this very threshing floor became the site of the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the very spot where the Ark of the Covenant was placed!

While the plague was being stopped by the Lord, that unique Angel of the Lord instructed David to build an altar at that very threshing floor. So David purchased the land surrounding and including the threshing floor from Ornan, and David proceeded to build the altar according to the Angel’s command. He offered sacrifices in gratitude there, and called upon the Lord, and the Lord answered by sending fire from heaven to light the sacrifices. It was at this time that the Angel of the Lord “returned His sword to its sheath.” (1 Chron. 21:27). And this tragic but redemptive episode in our history of faith is finally over.