2 Samuel 24:1–17: David Enrolls the Fighting Men
The passage opens up by telling us in verse 1 that the anger of the LORD burned against His people, so He incites David against them to go and take a census. Already, in the very first verse, there’s enough to chew on that it could probably take up a whole post on its own (see the Thoughts below)…
David tells Joab1 to go and do his census, but Joab knows that this is a problem:
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?” (verse 3)
I’m going to argue down below that the census itself is not actually a sin, but that it’s just David’s intentions behind taking the census that are sinful. But regardless of the specifics Joab sees that something is wrong and tries to warn David about it.
Joab! Of all people! The man David has been against for much of the book of 2 Samuel, who seems to disobey David on a regular basis to just do whatever he wants, he is the one to try to reason with David and prevent him from sinning.
However, the text tells us that the word of a king outweighs the word of the commander of that king’s army, so Joab goes and does it. It takes 9 months and 20 days to complete and the final result is that there are 800,000 men in Israel “who could handle a sword,” along with 500,000 in Judah (verse 9).
And then, immediately after hearing back about his census, David does a complete about-face and is suddenly conscience-stricken. In reading the whole passage it’s striking how quickly David goes from overruling Joab because he wants his survey to hearing the result and immediately saying, “Oh no, I’ve messed up!”
But here is his actual response:
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.” (verse 10)
So, that night, God tells Gad, David’s prophet, His answer, which Gad brings to David. God is giving David three options:
- Three months of famine in the land,
- Three months of fleeing from David’s enemies as they pursue him, or
- Three days of plague
David decides that he’d rather fall into the hands of the LORD than the hands of man, which means that he’s choosing option 3.
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. 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.
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.”
I’d originally come into Chapter 24 thinking to close out the book of 2 Samuel altogether, before realizing I had a lot to say about just the first 17 verses!
The LORD’s Anger Against the People
Near the end of the passage we see David repenting before God and saying that he was the one who sinned but the people are the ones who are paying for it. And every time I read that I nod my head—that’s right! David is the one who sinned, but the people are the ones who are dying!2 And there’s a sense in which that is right.
But we also need to go back to the first verse in the chapter, and why this all happened: “the anger of the LORD burned against Israel” (verse 1, emphasis added).
We can talk about who caused who to sin—and will, right after this!—but the “why” of it all is given to us plainly. God was punishing His people. We’re not told what caused that initial anger, the author didn’t feel the need to explain what the people had done, but they had somehow earned God’s anger, and were being punished for it.
Who Caused Who to Sin?
If anyone ever reads this blog post, there’s a good chance this is the only part of this passage they’ll care about. Did God cause David to sin? And if not, how do we interpret verse 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.” [emphasis added]
Seems pretty clear, right? God told David to go and take a census, and then God punished the Israelites for the census that God told David to take! And if I were to read this passage in isolation of the rest of the Bible, it’s probably the conclusion I’d make, too. But… God does not sin, nor cause His people to sin. See, for example, this passage from the book of James:
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:13–15)
That’s only one example, but it speaks to this passage very plainly: James is saying that God won’t even tempt us to sin, let alone cause us to sin. So what’s happening in this passage?
And before I get too far, let me just state for the record that I’m not going to build to a logical conclusion that answers the question satisfactorily. Cause and effect, and who is responsible for what, is one of the more complex themes of the Bible. So I’m going to explore this, but I’m going to do so knowing that it’s beyond my ability to “figure out.” But I’ll have three main themes to think about:
- What actually was the sin?
- Who told David to do it?
- What does God “allow” vs. “cause”?
What Was the Sin?
The first thing that I’ll say is that taking a census wasn’t a sin in and of itself. There weren’t rules preventing a king from taking a census, and Exodus 30 even mentions a tax that was to be collected after a census, so it wasn’t wrong to take a census in and of itself. What seems to have happened, however, is that this taking of a census either caused David to trust in his army (instead of trusting in the LORD), caused him to get puffed up with pride at the power he had at his command, or both. The census itself was a benign action, but David’s heart was sinning in taking that benign action. (I’m still struck by the fact that it is Joab, in verse 3, of all people, who tries to warn David! He could tell from the outset that David wasn’t doing this for the right reasons.)
This doesn’t feel like a strong argument to me—whether the thing was a sin in and of itself, God knew that David was going to sin in the way he went about it—but there is what I’d call a legal implication: If the LORD specifically told David to take a census, and taking a census had been a sin, then the LORD would be specifically telling David to sin, but that’s not the case.
Strong argument or not, the Bible has instructions for how Christians are to live our lives, and sometimes, even in following those instructions, we can sin. (e.g. the Bible tells me I should give to the poor, but when I’m giving to the poor I can get really puffed up with pride about how righteous and good I am.) That doesn’t mean the Bible—or God—is doing anything wrong in instructing us how to live.
Who Told David to do it?
This passage says that God incited David against the people, but the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 21:1 says that Satan incited David to take the census. So which was it? Is this an inconsistency? Was it God, or was it Satan?
It depends how far you want to push the question of cause and effect. I read these two passages, together, as saying that Satan incited David to take the census, and 1 Chronicles words it that way, but that Satan can’t do anything unless the LORD permits it, since He is in control, so at the end of the day it was God who allowed Satan to incite David (because God’s anger was burning against the Israelites), so 2 Samuel words it as God inciting David to take the census because the author felt that was getting more to the heart of the matter.
So in terms of God vs. Satan inciting David, I don’t see an inconsistency. The authors of 1 Chronicles and 2 Samuel simply chose to emphasize different aspects of the situation. Either of the passages could have also omitted that altogether, and just said that “David decided to take a census,” since, regardless of who was “inciting,” it was his decision, and that would be just as true.
What Does God “Allow” vs. “Cause”?
This is the heart of the matter, and the part that I don’t claim to have an answer for. I believe in a God who is in control—of everything. But that raises larger questions: how do we look at events like this one in 2 Samuel/1 Chronicles? How do we look at larger world events like genocides and natural disasters?
As a Christian, I can’t decide that I’m not responsible for my actions because God is in control; the Bible is clear about that. When I sin, it’s me sinning. (See the James passage above, for example, but that’s far from the only place the Bible holds us accountable for our own sin.) I can look at world events in similar ways, too: when millions of Russians died under Stalin, or millions of Chinese under Mao Zedong, or millions of Cambodians under Pol Pot, I can say that Stalin and Mao Zedong and Pol Pot were responsible for their own sins. But… I can also say that, whether we understand them or not, God had reasons for those events to happen.
That last sentence was very difficult to write. I couldn’t say “God wanted those things to happen,” or “God caused those things to happen,” or even “God orchestrated those things happening” without short-circuiting the whole thing I’m trying to think about. Some might accuse me of tying myself into knots to avoid putting a blame on God, and in a sense that’s exactly right! I have to read passages like the one here in 2 Samuel, as well as world events, in light of everything I know about God, and part of what I know about God is that He doesn’t cause people to sin. If that means that some things are more difficult to understand, then I have to live with the difficulties, rather than ignore parts of the Bible that are more clear to come up with a less complex theory as to how the world works.
Speaking of which, I also need to be careful how I look at historical or world events, without trying to over-simplify things. In 2 Samuel 24 we’re told that this all happened because God’s anger burned against the Israelites, but we don’t have any Scripture to tell us anything about God’s anger against the Russians under Stalin or the Chinese under Mao Zedong or the Cambodians under Pol Pot, and I think it would be very irresponsible of anyone who claimed that those events happened out of some kind of punishment from God. I also see a lot of Old Testament prophets talking about God punishing the nations around Israel/Judah for their sins, so I know that God’s punishment of peoples and nations is a possibility. Just not one that I can apply to circumstances where God hasn’t told us the reasons for why it’s happening.
So where does this leave me, as a Christian? What do I do with all of this? A few things come to mind:
- One thing that is clear in the Scriptures is that God is in control. And while that might cause confusion on theological issues3, as I’m wrestling with here, it also means that I should never fall into the sin that David may have been falling into here: I should never decide to try to trust in my own strength, when my own strength is so laughably insufficient and tiny compared to God’s strength.
- Sin is something that God takes seriously, and punishes. It’s good and proper to think through issues like I’m thinking through here, and wrestle with questions of God’s control vs. our actions, but if I ever get to a point where all of life is just a chessboard with God moving pieces around to accomplish His will across history, I’ve pushed things much too far. He created me with free will, and I’m not supposed to use my free will to sin; when I do use my free will to sin, I need to repent of that sin. Any response to my own sin which amounts to, “it’s not important because I know that You’re accomplishing something through my sin” is not Biblical. (It is Biblical to recognize that He is in control, but not to take blame away from myself for my actions.) I think I said something similar in a recent post, but it would be better for God to accomplish His will through my righteous, obedient actions than for Him to accomplish it through my sins and disobedience.
- It’s possible, especially when reading the Old Testament, to put a lot of thought into the fact that God does sometimes punish sins here in this world. As a Christian, however, I should also remember that the ultimate punishment for my sins fell on Jesus, on the cross, not on myself. I will often face consequences for my sins, and maybe sometimes even punishments to a certain extent, but I will never endure the proper punishment for my sins, because Jesus did that on my behalf. This is part of the reason why it’s important to remember, when wrestling with these issues, that God doesn’t sin: If He did—ever, in any situation, in all of history—then Christianity would be null and void. Jesus can only take my punishment on my behalf if He has no sins of his own—if Jesus had any sins of his own He wouldn’t have been a worthy sacrifice for God’s children, and nobody could have been saved.
Israel and Judah
Maybe the least interesting part of the passage, but David is incited to take a census of “Israel and Judah” (verse 1, emphasis added), and later on the census was also divided along those lines, even though the nation hasn’t yet been split into two.
I assume this means there was already a rift between different groups within the larger nation of Israel, despite the fact that they were officially one. Later on, when the nation splits into two, I guess there were already natural lines upon which to divide.
The NIV text says that David told “Joab and the army commanders,” with a footnote indicating that another option for the verse could be “Joab the army commander.” The ESV just has “Joab, the commander of the army.” So I’m going with the option of saying that David probably just told Joab. ↩︎
It also kind of feels like too little too late; once the plague stops David steps in and says that, but that’s not fair of me; it’s when David sees the angel that he says it. People all over the Scriptures, Old Testament and New Testament, have strong reactions when they encounter angels. ↩︎
When I call this out as “theological issues,” I don’t mean to differentiate “theological” from “practical.” I don’t think those are two different things, and I’m not saying that there are some “theological” things that are interesting to think about but don’t really matter, as opposed to “practical” things that are actually important. ↩︎