David’s illegal census used to judge a people gone astray

Absalom, King David's son, is caught by his hair in a tree and shortly after is slain. Judgment darkens the house of David after his sin with Bathsheba.

Absalom, King David’s son, is caught by his hair in a tree and shortly after is slain. Judgment darkens the house of David after his sin with Bathsheba. Personal and national judgments unite.

Adversity hath slain her thousand, but prosperity her ten thousand.

— Thomas Brooks, Puritan (1608-1680)

By David Tulis

King David at the end of his life falls into a great sin when he imposes a census on the people. The sin comes from within David, from a sense of pride and laxness, as peace reigns in national Israel, his wars are over and he is thinking of how his son, Solomon, will build God’s temple. God uses David’s sin with which to punish Israel herself.

The story is related in 2 Samuel 24 and in 1 Chronicles 21 and tells how Israel, with sin among the people and sin at the top, comes under a judgment. Of value for us today is the notion that judgment is covenantal, and that we get the civil magistrates we deserve.

“Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel” (1 Chron. 21:1). The accuser of God’s people is Satan, pointing out their sins are great and they are irredeemable, and he stands and points. Samuel points to God’s providential decree: “Again the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah” (v. 1). Such a census was not lawful in peacetime.

God has two forms of His will. He wills you to obey His 10 commandments. He also exercises His will in His sovereign decree of all things that come to pass. At this moment in Israel, the king, the people and Satan exercise their free will and  God imposes judgment time time and space.

Joab, David’s general resists his master’s orders — he interposes and seeks to nullify his boss’ orders as if to say, why do you need to know how many people they are if they are God’s servants; it’s His business? “‘Now may the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times more than there are, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king desire this thing?’ Nevertheless the king’s word prevailed against Joab and against the captains of the army. Therefore Joab and the captains of the army went out from the presence of the king to count the people of Israel” (1 Sam. 24:3,4)

Pride in high places

David’s sin is aggravated because of his great status among God’s people, his familiarity with sin and its consequences, his having tasted many times God’s forgiveness. All sin is heinous before God, the scriptures teach, and the slightest one requires the death of the mediator, Christ. But God deals with us according to our knowledge and opportunity, and a great one among the people of God faces a higher standard of obedience. God will be harsh with David because he should have known better.

David’s sin arises from pride. God hates seven things, including a “proud look *** [a] heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil” (Proverbs 6:12-22). David understands the evil of pride, having suffered under King Saul’s wicked pride. As a fugitive David repented having cut off the hem of Saul’s cloak in the cave because that was an offense against God’s anointed. David feared to fall into the trap. But now David is cocky. He is elated at the nation’s prosperity.

With spiritual complacency, God’s people are prone to innovate. Just look at the church today with its novelty, its marketing approach, its chaotic worship services that reject the regulative principle of worship, its softened and pietistic message.

Aggravation attends David’s sin for another reason. He had experienced forgiveness in the past, particularly in the matter of Uriah and Bathsheba; his adultery brought a train of disasters and disaffection within the kingdom, the seeds of national breakup. Also, David is presumptuous, as Joab notes in his rebuke. David, in a fleshly security, is taking a census that God forbids except in preparation for battle. David does not see the danger; he despises the warning of Joab.

Joab reports in Israel 800,000 “valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000 men.” It is an undercount, for he refuses to obey the king’s “abominable” order and omits Levi and Benjamin

Quick to admit sin

Davd may have violated his constitutional oath with the census, but he repents quickly. “And David’s heart condemned him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O Lord, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly.’”(1 Sam. 24:10) The king comes voluntarily to God; he does not have to be accused by Satan; he does not hedge or try to justify himself or plead extenuating circumstances.

His sovereign gives David three choices in punishment, uttered from the lips of a prophet, Gad.

Go and tell David, “Thus says the Lord: ‘I offer you three things; choose one of them for yourself, that I may do it to you.’” So Gad came to David and told him; and he said to him, “Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land? Or shall you flee three months before your enemies, while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ plague in your land? Now consider and see what answer I should take back to Him who sent me.” And David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Please let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are great; but do not let me fall into the hand of man.” So the Lord sent a plague upon Israel from the morning till the appointed time. From Dan to Beersheba seventy thousand men of the people died. (1 Sam. 24:12-15)

God merciful, men are not

David prefers judgment from God. To be in the hands of men is worse, because men don’t know mercy.

The angel of judgement spares David. It is more painful for a loving king to have his people punished for his sins than it is for him to receive the brunt of it. The Lord strikes David in a tender spot — his children.  “Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, ‘Surely I have sinned, and I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let Your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father’s house.’”

Would you sin as blithely as you do if you knew your children would be punished for them, as opposed to just you? No, you wouldn’t.

The story about how King David is used to judge the sin of the people by sinning himself informs the grief we feel at today’s civil magistrates near and far. Our princes care nothing for God, and neither do we. They violate God’s law and their oaths of office to provide constitutional government. We Christians violate the 10 commandments without caring. The judgment against America, its people, the United States and the 50 states whom it represents is long in coming, but God is patient.

David Tulis is married, the father of four home educated children, and a deacon at Brainerd Hills Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga.

Source: John Auxier, sermon, Brainerd Hills Presbyterian Church, June 8, 2014

Gary North, Tools of Dominion; The Case Laws of Exodus (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), 1,287 pp, see “Blood Money, Not Head Tax,” chapter 32, which discusses the law about the census

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