So many of us who grew up in the church as kids were very early on in our lives taught to memorize the summary verses from Proverbs 3:5,6 – Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. And 50+ years after memorizing it, that passage strikes me anew again today for the totality of wisdom that is packed in a mere 28 words.
As I shared at the beginning of the sermon yesterday, this reading through the story of David in all of these chapters (and more) that we’ve been preaching on and writing about for this series has really also struck me with what a mixed bag of life experiences characterize David. There are the incredibly great moments, yet also there is more than a brief list of failures that cost David dearly in terms of his own comfort and the pain from the total dysfunction of so much of his family.
David is truly an “Exhibit A” of success when trusting God (killing Goliath, inheriting the kingdom) and disaster when functioning in his own flesh (Bathsheba, not discipling and leading his family). And today’s passage is the account of another failure of David – his census of the people to determine the number of those able to fight.
24:1 Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”
2 So the king said to Joab and the army commanders with him, “Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enroll the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are.”
3 But Joab replied to the king, “May the Lord your God multiply the troops a hundred times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?”
The wording in the first verse is a bit odd. The parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 21 attributes this situation to Satan’s intervention.
That passage also more strongly states that Joab found the order to count the people to be repulsive … but why? What’s the big deal about a census?
We can get the answer to this from Deuteronomy 17:16,17 where Moses wrote 500 years earlier in anticipation of the time when Israel would inevitably have a king …
The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.
God wanted his people to trust him completely. He wanted them to trust him for their protection against evil nations surrounding them. If they would be faithful, no harm would befall them. The nation was not to invest in the collection of horses and the implements of war, for this would cause the people to trust in their own strength rather than in God to give them victory.
So David’s census was a direct violation of this principle and exhibited a pride in his own strength and resources. So Joab was overruled, so off he went around the country (“from Dan to Beersheba” is like saying “from Minnesota to Florida”).
4 The king’s word, however, overruled Joab and the army commanders; so they left the presence of the king to enroll the fighting men of Israel.
5 After crossing the Jordan, they camped near Aroer, south of the town in the gorge, and then went through Gad and on to Jazer. 6 They went to Gilead and the region of Tahtim Hodshi, and on to Dan Jaan and around toward Sidon. 7 Then they went toward the fortress of Tyre and all the towns of the Hivites and Canaanites. Finally, they went on to Beersheba in the Negev of Judah.
8 After they had gone through the entire land, they came back to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days.
9 Joab reported the number of the fighting men to the king: In Israel there were eight hundred thousand able-bodied men who could handle a sword, and in Judah five hundred thousand.
10 David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.”
As bad as David is on varied occasions, we may rightly note that it is the root character of his personality to be quick to admit his wrongdoing and to humbly seek God’s forgiveness and restoration. He is given three choices of outcomes, and David chooses the one that most puts him into God’s hands, rather than any hands of men.
11 Before David got up the next morning, the word of the Lord had come to Gad the prophet, David’s seer: 12 “Go and tell David, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you.’”
13 So Gad went to David and said to him, “Shall there come on you three years of famine in your land? Or three months of fleeing from your enemies while they pursue you? Or three days of plague in your land? Now then, think it over and decide how I should answer the one who sent me.”
14 David said to Gad, “I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into human hands.”
15 So the Lord sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. 16 When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of the Lord was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.
17 When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the Lord, “I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall on me and my family.”
18 On that day Gad went to David and said to him, “Go up and build an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” 19 So David went up, as the Lord had commanded through Gad. 20 When Araunah looked and saw the king and his officials coming toward him, he went out and bowed down before the king with his face to the ground.
21 Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?”
“To buy your threshing floor,” David answered, “so I can build an altar to the Lord, that the plague on the people may be stopped.”
22 Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take whatever he wishes and offer it up. Here are oxen for the burnt offering, and here are threshing sledges and ox yokes for the wood. 23 Your Majesty, Araunah gives all this to the king.” Araunah also said to him, “May the Lord your God accept you.”
24 But the king replied to Araunah, “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”
So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen and paid fifty shekels of silver for them. 25 David built an altar to the Lord there and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. Then the Lord answered his prayer in behalf of the land, and the plague on Israel was stopped.
This apparently very good and gracious man Araunah offers to just give to David everything that was needed for the sacrifice before the Lord. But David refuses to receive it and insists that it be paid for by he himself. He understood that if it cost him nothing personally, it was not much of a sacrifice.
What we see is David taking a different attitude at the end of this chapter from that at the beginning. Here he is displaying what God wants to see – a totally dependent attitude of trust and yieldedness.
As good Americans, we like to be very independent and take care of ourselves. In terms of prudent responsibility, that is a good thing. But ultimately we cannot be in control of everything. We need God; we need to trust him fully in all things.