Q&R: David’s Census – What was God up to? – Brad Jersak

Normally, our Q&R features begin with a reader’s question followed by a response from Greg Albrecht or Brad Jersak. In this case, Brad asks the question of one of our readers.

Question from Brad

In 2 Samuel 24, we read that God was angry with David and therefore incited him to commission a census of his mighty men, so that he could then turn around and punish him for it! It’s not that God was angry about the census, but that in God’s anger, he incited the census!

  • Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he [God] incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.” (2 Samuel 24:1).

Much later, in 1 Chronicles 21, a different narrator seems to be troubled by the injustice of the first account, and adjusts the story, claiming that “Satan rose up against Israel and [satan*] incited David to take a census of Israel. it was actually satan who incited or tempted David to count his armies.

Do you see any problems with this? First, note that in the ancient Jewish worldview, satan reports to God (as in Job 1) and that sometimes, God even sent “evil spirits” to do his bidding and even torment people (see 1 Samuel 16:14, 1 Kings 22:22). But later on, the Christian understanding of satan is that the Adversary is an enemy of God and his people, an opponent to be defeated and driven out by Jesus Christ. And in the first chapter of James’ epistle, he makes the unequivocal claim that “God tempts no one.” In other words, despite the limited understanding of 1 Samuel’s narrator, NO, God did NOT incite David to sin, either directly or indirectly. As John the Beloved will say, “In him is light and there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

We might also ask, what was so wrong with taking a census?

In Exodus 30:12 God told Moses,

  • “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the LORD a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them.”

Apparently, under the law, a census might occur, but it seems God alone could command a census, and that David should only have done it at God’s command, along with a ransom to “atone” for the counting. (BUT if God DID incite David, then doesn’t that count?) You can see why many readers stumble over these texts. Conversely, some readers refuse to wrestle over them, and simply ignore them OR conflate God’s will with satan’s works using an argument from divine sovereignty. That is, Scripture shows that God can use human evil for divine good (as in the story of Joseph – Genesis 50:20 – or the Cross of Christ – Acts 2:23).

Some teachers argue that God sovereignly uses satan in various ways, for our refinement, discipline, and purification. They cite texts such as Luke 22:31–321 Corinthians 5:1–52 Corinthians 12:7–10).

But in this case, remember, God himself seems to be directly or indirectly complicit in the temptation and sin itself.

Well, we could argue the case in circles ad nauseam yet fail to get to the most important point. Namely, where might Jesus figure in the story? And to this question, I’ve asked my dear African brother, James Ihangwe, to share his thoughts:

Response from James Ihangwe

Hello brother Brad!

It’s been quite a while since we last communicated. I hope you and all yours are well. I am happy to discuss King David’s census in the book of 1 Chronicles chapter 21.

We are told David was tempted by satan to conduct this census and succumbed to the lies of the evil one. Even Joab his commander – not known for his high moral ideals – recognized it as sin. He pleads,

  • “May the Lord multiply his troops a hundred times over. My lord the king, are they not all my lord’s subjects? Why does my lord want to do this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?” (verse 3).

But David refused to listen to Joab’s good counsel which might have come from the Lord. He tells him not to go ahead with the census, but David refused. This counsel would have spared him a lot of pain. The consequences were catastrophic. He is given three options by Gad the Seer:

  • + three years of famine,
  • + three months of destruction by the sword of his enemies, or
  • + three days of severe plague as the angel of the Lord brings devastation throughout the land of Israel.

David opts for the third choice of falling into the hands of the Lord. Why? Because he would rather entrust himself to God’s mercy than the hands of humans.

My understanding is that all three choices are destructive and could not have come from the Lord (as the Bible says in John 10:10, for example). First of all, these choices are characteristic of the devil – a liar, a destroyer, and the tempter of David in the first paragraph. We know God as only goodness and was revealed by Jesus as nonviolent.

We also see the plague as the work of satan, killing 70,000 people in three days. We see the death angel being sent (I believe) by satan to destroy Jerusalem while the Lord intervenes to spare the city.

All in all, in light of who God is and God’s goodness, I believe God did not have a hand in this destruction of the 70,000 people. Moreover, I believe God had nothing to do with sending Gad the seer with those three deadly choices. It was satan the culprit who tempted David, wanting to destroy those 70,000 innocent souls, after David refused God’s good counsel.

So, I can see God wanting to spare David through that good counsel from the wrath of satan. David refused to heed and suffered the consequences of the evil one. So where was Jesus? The Lord was working through Joab to prevent the plague and then intervened to end the plague.

  • * Note that we have used the term “satan” with a lower-case “s” to indicate “satan” as something less than personal and more than a principle. While a mystery, “satan” seems to describe and personify the very real phenomenon of evil rooted in human sin.
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