In 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 we read parallel accounts of a census taken by king David. To summarize quickly what happens; David decides to take a census and commands the head of his army, Joab, to go and count the population. Joab tells the king not to commit such a sin, but David insists. As a result of this sin, however, God tells the prophet Gad to offer David a choice of three punishments; 3 years of famine, 3 months of warfare, or 3 days of plague in the land. And so, as a result, 70,000 people die of the plague and an angel of God stands above Jerusalem with his sword drawn, about to destroy it, before God decides to have mercy and halts the angel. He commands David to make a sacrifice of atonement for the people so that the plague might be stopped. This David does on an altar at the site later used by king Solomon to build the temple.
The question on many people’s minds, as well as mine for some time, is typically “What was so wrong about David, the king of Israel, taking a census?” It baffles us because a census seems like a reasonable thing for a king to do, and yet it was somehow wrong. And not just a little bit wrong; it was clearly very wrong and very serious. So I went to Google looking for answers but the few answers I read did not convince me. And I’m not going to disparage or discredit any else’s work, but dissatisfied with the answers I’d read, I simply referred back to the Scriptures themselves, and I think I have a satisfying answer to this riddle, which I’ll share with you for what it’s worth.
From the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, Israel was to travel to the promised land, subdue it and take up residence in it. In 2 Samuel 23, the chapter which precedes the story of David’s census in 2 Samuel, and likewise in 1 Chronicles 20, the chapter which precedes the story of David’s census in 1 Chronicles, we are told of David’s victories in warfare, particularly of how he defeated the kings and giants in the land. At the conclusion of these chapters, it seems to suggest that the land had thus been subdued. It is a key detail, then, that David is asking Joab, the head of his army, to take this census. It is clear that the purpose of this census is to number those who are able to go to war for David. When Joab returns, 2 Samuel 24 explicitly gives the results as “800,000 valiant men who drew the sword.” But Joab, forced by the king against his will to take the census, still refused to count the Levites, which are the priests of the land. If we read Numbers chapter 1, Moses was asked to take a census of “all in Israel who are able to go to war”, and then told “Only the tribe of Levi you shall not list… But appoint the Levites over the tabernacle.” In other words, Joab recognizes the motivation of David’s census as preparation for war and refuses to count the Levites because they must not be counted as those who are able to go to war.
I imagine that there may have been many motivations for a census which would have been fine, even for David. King Solomon, in 2 Chronicles 2, counts all the foreigners in the land for the purpose of putting them to work. Here the purpose is not for warfare. And I even suspect that David, counting the people available to him for warfare, would have normally been fine in the case where Israel was justified in going to war. But here we have Joab, the head of the army, being asked to count the people after we’ve just been told that the land had essentially been conquered. It is my conjecture, then, that the sin of David was that he was planning for war that went beyond the mandate of God to subdue the land. Once the land had been subdued, Israel was not supposed to go invading other territories.
The conclusion of this event is the selection of the site for the temple and the commissioning of Solomon to build the temple. This event signifies the end of the subjugation of the land as God is telling the king to build a temple; the place where God would dwell amongst His people, no longer in a tabernacle, or tent, that was designed for moving from place to place. The temple signified that God could set up His permanent dwelling in the land and settle there because the land had been settled. It had been said that Solomon would have peace in Israel, and his name literally means “peace”. It was the name given to him by God precisely because there would be peace during his reign: “Behold, a son shall be born to you who shall be a man of rest. I will give him rest from all his surrounding enemies. For his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days.” (1 Chronicles 22:9). This was clearly prophesied of Solomon before Solomon was born, and so David knew that the subjugation of the land would be complete. After the events of the census, David instructs his son: "Is not the Lord your God with you? And has he not given you peace on every side? For he has delivered the inhabitants of the land into my hand, and the land is subdued before the Lord and his people. Now set your mind and heart to seek the Lord your God. Arise and build the sanctuary of the Lord God, so that the ark of the covenant of the Lord and the holy vessels of God may be brought into a house built for the name of the Lord." (1 Chronicles 22:18).
It is also curious that the three choices given to David all involve the deaths of many people in the land. Whether by famine, warfare or plague, many would have died. None of these are targeted only at David personally. But the punishment seems fitting; as David had planned to number the people in order to evaluate the army he had available to him, God was more or less foiling David's plans by taking away from that number. David purposed to build an army and God overturned his plans by thinning out such an army. People often consider it unjust that innocent people die because of the sins of one man, but there are actually several reasons why this is justified or wise on the part of God. The main point in this case is that David was the king over Israel. The decisions of those who are in authority unavoidably influence those they lead. That is literally their job - to make decisions on behalf of the people. And it is likewise true of anyone in authority, including you or I if we are in a position of leadership, from being a manager at work to being a parent in the home. If the decisions leaders make are good, the people benefit and prosper. But it is necessarily true that their poor decisions cause the people to suffer. The histories laid out in the Bible focus almost entirely on the decisions that the kings of Israel made and how those decisions affected the people. And in this instance, it was all the more fitting to reinforce this principle to the people and the new king, Solomon, who would soon take the seat of power. Even the punishment itself was offered as a choice the king should make between three options, and the king had to choose according to wisdom; something that Solomon became famous for as he asked, right from the beginning of his reign, that God give him wisdom to make the right decisions to lead God’s people.
The decisions of a king, as they related to spirituality, may not have led directly to the physical deaths of the people. But to lead people to disobey and defy God certainly led to their harm spiritually. It is better, then, to have this principle reinforced by seeing the physical harm caused to people for the disobedience of God by the king so that in future generations the spiritual harm caused by such disobedience might be avoided. The fact that 70,000 people died is of little consequence from the perspective of God. We all die eventually, and we must all prepare for death in this life by turning to God. Whether our death occurs today or sixty years from now, death is inevitable. Some 70,000 or more may have died in the warfare that David had planned. But David had chosen the plague when given his choices saying “for God’s mercy is very great” (1 Chronicles 21:13). David knew that there was the potential for God to call short the punishment. When I read the account, 2 Samuel 24 says that it lasted “from the morning until the appointed time” (ie the full three days), and yet it also seems to be that God relents from the final blow which was to take place. The angel of the Lord was said to have his sword drawn, about to destroy Jerusalem, but God had compassion on the people and said “it is enough” and called off the destruction (1 Chronicles 21:15). It is also noteworthy that the story begins with the phrase “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel” (2 Samuel 24:1), suggesting that perhaps the people as a whole were culpable of some error. Perhaps they had once again began to worship false gods? And so God’s purpose was to chasten the whole population to some degree from the very beginning anyway. All in all, God’s purpose and His wisdom are seen in that David is brought to repentance and Solomon, his successor, surely learns to seek wisdom from this event, amongst probably other events in the life of his father.
Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people. Proverbs 28:15