Why did God discipline David after telling him to take the census in 2 Samuel 24? This seems wrong.
First, we will look at the historical event and then look at why God disciplined David.
The historical event is recorded in both 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. The 2 Samuel account provides us with the political view and 1 Chronicles provides us with the religious view. The accounts are somewhat different because of different emphases. We visit the first verses of both passages later but for now we will start with 2 Samuel 24:2 where David asks Joab, his general, to count the men of Israel and Judah. That is, Joab was asked to take a census of the men of the nation.
The king said to Joab the commander of the army who was with him, “Go about now through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and register the people, that I may know the number of the people.” (NASB) 2 Samuel 24:2
But Joab objects to the command and asks David why he wants the census taken (2 Sam. 24:31). While the conversation is not recorded for us, the conclusion is. David insisted the census be taken (2 Sam. 24:4 and 1 Chron. 21:4) and the men obeyed. Why did David want the census? Scripture never actually tells us but the reason is implied in 1 Chronicles 21:3-4 where it appears that David did not trust God – David was worried about the military power of the nation.
So David said to Joab and to the princes of the people, “Go, number Israel . . . that I may know their number.” And Joab said, “May the LORD add to His people a hundred times as many as they are! . . . Why does my lord seek this thing? Why should he be a cause of guilt to Israel?” (NASB) 1 Chronicles 21:3-4
A Wrong Motive
Notice Joab’s comment about the Lord adding a hundred times as many people. Joab understood that this census was wrong. Was the census wrong because it was not directed by God like those in Num. 1 and Num. 26? We do not know since scripture does not clearly say. But it appears that it is wrong for at least one reason. David’s motive for doing it is wrong. Later in 1 Chronicles 27:23-24, we are told that David did not believe God would multiply Israel in the future. It appears that he did not trust God for safety in the present, and he was seeking comfort in the military power of the nation. David even wanted the priests to be counted (1 Chronicles 21:6). Joab considers this to be “abhorrent” and refuses to count the men of the tribes of Benjamin and Levi (1 Chron. 21:6). The priests were not to serve in the military. Num. 1:1-16, 47; 2:32-33 did not include the tribe of Levi as a tribe in the military.
After nine months and twenty days Joab completed the task of counting the people (2 Sam. 24:8). He and his generals found there were 800,000 “valiant men who drew the sword” in Israel and 500,000 “men” in Judah (2 Sam. 24:9). 1 Chronicles 21:5 adds another 300,000 men for a total army of 1,100,000 “men who drew the sword” in Israel and 470,000 men in Judah. This number of Judah is rounded up. When Moses had counted people, Israel was only 603,000 strong (Num. 1:46). That count was an act of obedience since God had asked for it. The nation had grown. Now Israel and Judah were probably about 6 million people including women and children.
At this point David realizes that he has sinned and God responds by giving David three different ways to be disciplined.
Now David’s heart troubled him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, please take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.” (NASB) 2 Sam. 24:10
At this point God sends the prophet Gad to David. The Lord asks him to choose one of three disciplines. Each discipline results in death throughout the land. This strikes at the heart of David’s worry. The Lord is seeking to draw David to Him – to trust Him and not military strength.
So Gad came to David and said to him, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Take for yourself either three years of famine, or three months to be swept away before your foes, while the sword of your enemies overtakes you, or else three days of the sword of the LORD, even pestilence in the land, and the angel of the LORD destroying throughout all the territory of Israel.’ Now, therefore, consider what answer I shall return to Him who sent me.” (NASB) 1 Chron. 21:11-12
David selects the last choice because he would rather have God’s direct involvement. The Lord answers his request by sending the pestilence and only then does David finally become sorry and honestly admit what that he was wrong and had sinned. He did not trust God even for the present.
So the LORD sent a pestilence on Israel; 70,000 men of Israel fell. (NASB) 1 Chron. 21:14
David said to God, “Is it not I who commanded to count the people? Indeed, I am the one who has sinned and done very wickedly, but these sheep, what have they done? O LORD my God, please let Your hand be against me and my father’s household, but not against Your people that they should be plagued.” (NASB) 1 Chron. 21:17
The spiritual issues you have raised will now be considered. Two spiritual issues are introduced by the first verses in both 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21.
Again the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” (NKJV) 2 Sam. 24:1
Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel. (NKJV) 1 Chron. 21:1
In 2 Samuel 24, we are told that God “moved” or “incited” David to “number Israel and Judah.” Yet in 1 Chronicles we are told that Satan “moved” or “incited” David to number Israel. Some have accused the Bible of being contradictory and have asked, “Who moved David, God or Satan?” A second question often asked is, “If God was angry with Israel, why did He move David to number Israel and Judah and then discipline David, Israel and Judah?” Our third question is, “Why did God use Satan?”
God of This World
God has allowed Satan to be the “god of this world” for a short time even though someday Satan will be defeated.
Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory; and he said to Him, “All these things will I give You, if You fall down and worship me.” (NASB) Matt. 4:8-9
Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world shall be cast out. (NASB) John 12:31
. . . in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (NASB) 2 Cor. 4:4
We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (NASB) 1 John 5:19
Some day Jesus Christ will come and cast him into the Lake of Fire at the end of time (Rev. 20:10). But for now God has given him limited freedom with men and women on planet earth. God determines his boundaries and grants him permission in some areas. Jesus tells us that Satan asked to sift Peter as wheat (Luke 22:31). But God denied his request. Another example of Satan’s asking permission to afflict people is found in the life of Job, an Old Testament saint.
Example of Job
In the book of Job we read that Satan insulted Job’s integrity and faith in God and asked for permission to afflict Job and prove that Job would be unfaithful to God. God responded by granting him permission to do so but prohibited him from killing Job.
So the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power, only spare his life.” (NASB) Job 2:6
God allowed this to prove to Satan that Job’s faith was strong and to use it as an opportunity for spiritual growth in Job’s life. Later Satan returned and God was correct. Job’s faith was strong. So Satan asked permission again to hurt Job some more. God answered with,
. . . though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason. (NASB) Job 2:3
God allowed this to happen to Job even though Job did no wrong (Job 1:1). That is also the meaning of Job 2:3. But this verse is important since we see the same Hebrew word “moved” used by God. This Hebrew word “move” has the idea of “urging someone to action.” It is a neutral word without negative or positive meaning. Scripture is simply saying that Satan had urged God to allow this to happen. This is the meaning of both 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1.
Putting It Together
Apparently Satan knew God was angry with Israel and requested permission to tempt David to number Israel. God granted him permission. Satan usually tempts us where we are weak. It appears that David was fearful that Israel was not strong enough. Why should Satan tempt us where we may not fail? Satan picked the temptation and David gave in. He counted Israel and Judah and God responded with discipline. Did Israel and Judah become proud because of their great population? The census resulted from fear which is a lack of trust in God.
We must also remember that Satan is not completely free to do as he pleases. He must operate within bounds given by God. Scripture does not explain why God gives Satan any freedom. But we know that God uses him 1) to discipline some of us when it is needed (1 Timothy 1:20), 2) to prevent us from sinning when that is the only way (2 Cor. 12:7), 3) to cause us to grow (example of Job), and 4) to motivate us to not sin again (Heb. 12:10).
God never forces us to sin and He does not allow us to be overwhelmed with temptation.
No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it. (NASB) 1 Corinthians 10:13
Satan’s temptations can be strong, but our victory over sin is found in the power of the Holy Spirit. Victory is found in being filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:17-18). This is God’s will for our life.
It is the Spirit of God that is best able to discover Satan’s plots against us; it is only He that can point out all his snares – Thomas Brooks
Resist temptation by making prayer of first importance. – John Owen
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not . . . sin. Gal. 5:16
The great lesson in these passages is that David’s fear or insecurity came as a result of his lack of trust in God. He then, it appears, sinned by calling for a census and violated other biblical principles. It may be the men and women of Israel and Judah did not trust God either. A nation can influence its leadership and the reverse is true too. In the end, God disciplined him to help him see his sin and to cause him to trust in God. Was this a growing problem in David’s life? How do we respond to fear and insecurity? Do you count your money, list your friends, call someone to encourage you, or do you go to the Lord? Who is the Joab in your life challenging you to depend on God alone? God wants us to be seeking security only in Him.