David started listing to the wrong ‘advice’. He was incited to number Israel when God had said not to. It cost him and Israel dearly.
We heard this story when we covered 2 Samuel 24. In that account we were told that God was angry with Israel BEFORE we heard about David’s decision to take a census. I’m wondering which came first. Was something going on that angered God THEN Satan incited David or was it the other way around? We know David was not infallible. His relationship with Bathsheba is proof of that Satan was able to entice him into sin apart from kingdom business. So I suppose what I’m asking is: was this sin fully his or a result of Israel’s attitudes at the time?
Whatever the precipitating event, the result was the same. David made a BIG mistake when he INSISTED that Joab take this census. I want to walk the roads of Israel with Joab today as he goes on this odious task. We will be pulling from the first account for some of the details.
David has been having a tough month. He can’t seem to settle his mind. Every time he focuses on a project he is interrupted or loses interest. Even his prayer life seems to be lacking. He hasn’t composed a new song in weeks. He is looking for something to fulfill him.
One day David’s mind is drawn to the number of enemies Israel is facing and the numbers he has to draw from in order to keep them safe. “If I knew for certain the size of my forces I could make better battle plans” thinks David. He bemoans his lack of knowledge for a few moments before the solution occurs to him.
“I know! I’ll take a census” exclaims David to no one in particular.
The more he thinks about this the better the idea seems to him. Within an hour he has convinced himself that this is VITAL to Israel’s future. After making this decision he summons Joab. Joab is the man David trusts most for this task. He is chief of David’s army and all the people trust him. He can also deal with any resistance by the people.
Joab appears in the doorway of David’s throne room.
“Joab, my friend! Enter.”
Joab bows before David then waits quietly for his king’s command.
“I have a task for you. I require an accurate count of ALL Israel’s resources.”
“I can have an inventory of each of the garrisons compiled for you within a week my lord.”
“That will be appreciated but that is not what I require. I want a count of the people. A count of the men Israel may call upon in time of war.”
“A count of your soldiers can be attained with the inventory of the garrisons. I will get right on it my lord.”
“No. You are not hearing me! I want a census taken. I want to count ALL of Israel, not just the soldiers currently in active service. ‘Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number’ (verse 2b).”
Joab feels as if he has been struck in the chest and staggers back a step.
“Do not do this thing my lord! ‘May the Lord add to His people a hundred times as many as they are! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord’s servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should it be a cause of guilt for Israel?’ (verse 3).”
“I did not ask for your opinion. I gave you a command. I require a report of the number of Israel and you will be to one to attain it for me.”
Joab pursed his lips and gave a slight bow. Then he turned and left David’s throne room. As Joab left he shook his head in dismay. “Surely the king will see the folly in this command and call me to abandon it. Hopefully before any real damage is done” thinks Joab.
Joab returns to the garrison. This job is too large for him to do alone, even if David drops it in mid process. The first thing he must address though is setting his brother in charge of the army. He summons Abishai to his quarters.
Abishai enters Joab’s quarters in a casual manner, chewing on a piece of fruit with juice dripping off his chin.
“You sent for me brother” Abishai asks while wiping away the escaping juice with his forearm.
“I did.” Joab looks at Abishai’s juice stained arm and shakes his head. “Don’t get that juice on my things” he admonishes.
Abishai quickly wipes his arm on his tunic. “Sorry. What did you need?”
“The king has sent me on an assignment. It will take a good deal of time and I need to leave someone I can trust in command during my absence.”
“And naturally you thought of me” replies Abishai with a smile, displaying the fruit still clinging to his teeth.
“I did. I know I can trust you with battle plans but can I trust you with the discipline of the men too?”
“Of course you can” replied Abishai with a hint of indignation in his voice.
“You come to a senior officer’s quarters munching on fruit and stain your tunic with its juice. This doesn’t look ‘well disciplined’ to me.”
Abishai’s face colors with shame. He quickly swallows the fruit remaining in his mouth and straightens himself before Joab. “Please forgive me my lord, it won’t happen again. I will endeavor to live up to your standards in your absence and require the troops to do the same.”
Joab nods. “I’m sure you will brother.”
Joab knows he is being hard on his brother. He realizes he is acting out of his distress over David’s orders. He wants nothing to do with this task but there is no way he can refuse it. He might as well get things moving.
“I will need as small contingent of soldiers to assist me. Ten will be sufficient. They don’t have to be the finest soldiers. They have to be dependable and recognizable to the people. It would be best if they also have some experience in organization and can read and write.”
“What will their task be?”
“They will be assisting me in numbering the people of Israel. They will be required to interview individuals and keep accurate counts.”
“This is indeed a LARGE task. I believe the men currently over the armory would make an excellent choice. They all read, write, and can calculate sums with ease. They fight well in battle but have had little opportunity as of late.”
“And what is their number?”
“All shifts included, they number nine.”
“That should be sufficient. You will have to deal with replacing them as soon as possible though.”
“I will see to it right away. Do you want me to send them to you now?”
“Yes. We will leave first thing in the morning. See to the evening shift replacement immediately so the men I take will all be sufficiently rested and ready for the task ahead.”
“It will be done as you say” replied Abishai.
Abishai saluted Joab and then quickly set off on his tasks. Fifteen minutes passed before the nine men Abishai mentioned stood before Joab.
“Why the delay” barked Joab. “I sent for you some time ago!”
“Many pardons my lord” replied the highest ranking soldier among them. “Three of our number were on duty and had to wait for replacement. I deemed it best to present ourselves as one group rather than asking that you repeat your orders multiple times.”
“A wise move” agreed Joab. “Have you been informed of the task we will be undertaking?”
“Only that you had need of us my lord.”
“We will be conducting a census of all Israel.”
One of the soldiers gasped. Joab snapped his head in his direction and locked eyes with him.
“You have a problem with this task” asked Joab with narrowed eyes.
“It’s just that… No my lord.”
Joab nodded. “We leave first thing in the morning. Report to me at the gate after first meal. You are dismissed.”
Early the next morning, right after first meal, the men were all assembled. They would ride during this task as walking would take even longer. Joab had mounts waiting for them when they arrived.
“How are we to conduct this census? Will we go from house to house or town to town?”
“I have given that some thought” replied Joab. “This first day will be spent in getting the people ready. We will attack it on two fronts. I have a proclamation from the king declaring the census. This will be read in the town square informing the people to gather the following morning for the count. The following morning we will break into two groups. One will count those assembled and the other will notify the towns for the following day. This way there will be only one day in which we cannot make a count.”
“And what of the Sabbath?”
“We will observe the Sabbath as required. You are to instruct the people to assemble the first day of the week when to do so the next day would fall on the Sabbath.”
The men all nodded their understanding and agreement.
“Let’s begin. The sooner we start the sooner we will finish” commanded Joab.
All ten men mounted their horses and rode out of Jerusalem in formation with Joab in the lead. They entered five towns that day and read the proclamation. Joab had no idea how long the actual count would take per town and he decided to err on the side of caution. They could adjust the number of towns alerted in the future depending on the results or resistance they encountered during their task.
As Joab’s contingent settled down to their meal that first night Joab had additional orders for his men.
“I am not in favor of this census. I said as much to the king but he would not be dissuaded. I believe it is an affront to the Lord. I am however a servant of the king and will do as he commands. However, we will NOT count the Levites in the towns we visit. We will also not visit any of the towns of the Levites. Are we clear on this point?”
All heads nodded. The one soldier who had gasped when Joab had first announced their task nodded the most. He too was troubled by their duties but as Joab said, he was a servant of the king and would obey.
Morning came and Joab divided the men. “You three will read the proclamation in these five towns” Joab indicated on a map which towns he meant. “Once you have finished, join us and assist wherever needed.”
The day went fairly smooth for both groups. There was some resistance in some towns and they too were troubled by David’s command but most complied. Joab was able to ascertain an accurate count by questioning people as to if their neighbors were among those gathered. When it was discovered that some were missing, Joab either asked the numbers in the missing household from the neighbor who identified them as missing or he sent the second group out to the home of the missing neighbors.
This worked well the first day and quickly became the routine for their task. Word also spread quickly concerning the task Joab was undertaking. This made the task of reading the proclamation easier. All the town needed to know was what day to assemble.
An unintended consequence of the spreading news was that it allowed those who wanted to abstain from the count more time to request their neighbors not report their absence. Joab noticed a drop in attendance fairly quickly. He put a stop to that by reminding the people that it was the king who was ordering this census and refusing WOULD result in their imprisonment. Compliance became less of an issue after that. Still his men who had returned from informing the next day’s towns would scour the area around the towns for those who had ‘missed’ the announcement.
This routine continued day after day, week after week, month after month until the group made their way back towards where they had started. They had been on this task for more than nine months. Every day Joab had hoped David would send them word to stop but no such word came. This made Joab more depressed with each day. He knew in his heart what he was doing wrong. As they were coming to the border of the territory of Benjamin, Joab had had enough. These were his brothers. He would not have them counted.
“We are finished” Joab announced.
“But what about Benjamin?”
“We are not counting them. This has gone far enough. I don’t want my brothers counted.”
No one argued. They made camp that nigh and began to compile the data they had collected. They would finish it back in the garrison at Jerusalem. Joab would present it to David once it was tallied.
It took three days to read through all the documents, add up all the totals, and get it in order. Joab was ready to deliver it to David five days after their last town visit. Joab was not going to mention that he had omitted the Levites and Benjamin. He would let David figure that out for himself, if he looked deep enough into the numbers. Joab would hide this by reporting on the total numbers counted and David’s own tribe. This should satisfy him.
Joab appeared before David almost ten months after he had last stood in his presence. He was prepared with his numbers; the only ones he was willing to give.
“Joab, have you finished counting Israel?”
“Yes my lord.”
“What have you to report?”
“In all Israel there are 1,100,000 men who can draw the sword. And Judah commands 470,000 of those men.”
“This is excellent news. Thank you for a job well done my friend.”
Joab bowed and quickly left before David could ask him any more questions. He did not want to explain how he arrived at the numbers.
A day after Joab presented David with his final report fires began to devour crop fields and vineyards. There seemed no cause for these fires and fierce winds drove them. The people worked tirelessly to put them out. The fires centered around Jerusalem.
The carnage was so great that David KNEW it was a judgment from God. He already knew his sin and what he needed to repent of. Joab was right in saying that this would displease the Lord. David’s spirit had burned within him as he sent Joab out on his mission but David kept pushing that ‘burning sensation’ down. Now that ‘burning’ would be ignored no longer.
David went to the Tent of the Lord and lay face down in front of it. David wept as he prayed.
“I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly” (verse 8).
As David lay before the Tent the Lord spoke to David’s seer, Gad. Gad was in his chambers at the time. He had not known that David was before the Lord.
“Go and say to David, ‘Thus says the Lord, Three things I offer you; choose one of them, that I may do it to you’” (verse 10).
Gad was very familiar with the Lord’s voice and he immediately got up to go to David. He didn’t even need to search for David as the Lord led him to where David lay. Gad came and stood by him. David felt Gad’s presence and raised himself to his knees. Without any preamble Gad began to deliver the Lord’s message.
“Thus says the Lord, ‘Choose what you will: either three years of famine, or three months of devastation by your foes while the sword of your enemies overtakes you, or else three days of the sword of the Lord, pestilence on the land, with the angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the territory of Israel.’ Now decide what answer I shall return to Him who sent me” (verses 11b-12).
David’s heart broke as he heard each of his choices. How could he choose any of these to subject his people to on HIS account, for HIS sin? David made the only choice he felt offered ANY hope. Now he had to express it to Gad. Even saying the words of his choice was painful.
“I am in great distress. Let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercy is very great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man” (verse 13).
Gad nodded his understanding and acceptance of David’s choice.
“The choice is made. So let it begin” said Gad.
David threw dirt upon his head, tore his robe and hurried home. As soon as he reached his chambers he put away his royal robes and put on sackcloth. He then sent for messengers. He went to the door of his throne room but would not go in. The messengers met him in the entry way.
“I need each of you to carry the news as fast as you can to all parts of Israel. We are being judged by the Lord for three days. I need to elders of each tribe to come to me as fast as possible. We will pray for the people. He may yet relent.”
The messengers left on their mission but Israelites began falling to the pestilence before the messengers’ feet even reached the gates of Jerusalem. This was the swiftest acting illness anyone had ever seen. It was as if people were being cut down in their tracks by the very sword of the Lord. No warning, no symptoms, no reason for who was taken and who was left. It moved from one corner of Israel to another. Some of the messengers were also stricken and several of the elders who made their way to David fell to this pestilence also.
Daily reports could not keep up with the increasing numbers of Israelites being struck down. David had not ceased praying from the moment he sent his messengers. By the evening of the third day David and the elders who had joined him lay on the ground in front Tent of the Lord.
David felt a rumbling within his chest and looked up from where he lay. Not more than a hundred stadia, between heaven and earth hung the angel of the Lord. He was clothed in fire and he had his sword drawn and stretched out towards Jerusalem. David and those with him fell on their faces once again. David’s heart was broken as he cried out to the Lord again.
“Was it not I who gave command to number the people? It is I who have sinned and done great evil. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let Your hand, O Lord my God, be against me and against my father’s house. But do not let the plague be on Your people” (verse 17).
David did not know that God had already stayed the hand of the angel with the words, “It is enough; now stay your hand” (verse 15b).
To David’s eyes the angel stood ready to strike and David was ready to take that blow. He stood, spread his arms wide and presented himself on the hilltop for the blow.
How many times have I stepped into a sin, knowing from the beginning that it was wrong but pushed the caution of the Holy Spirit away? With my eating disorder, I would have to say HUNDREDS! I also know David’s pain of watching those he cared for suffer for his sin. I hear his heart crying out to take it ALL on himself, knowing that doing so would surely mean his death. And yet he will have to live with the knowledge that others paid that price for him.
I have no idea how David made the decision he did in choosing God’s swift hand over all the other alternatives. I would have pleaded for another option. Jesus pleaded for another option when faced with His final choice, this side of the grave. He KNEW His father would have chosen another if one was available AND would do what was necessary to restore our relationship with Him. But there was none. And there were no other options for David. He, and Israel, had to walk through the consequences of sin. Sin is expensive! Are you willing to pay the price? Or are you ready to accept the gift of the One who already paid it for you?
Father God, my heart breaks for all those who paid the price of David’s sin. Was it really Israel’s sin that started it all off that they were paying for? I am SO GLAD I wasn’t born in the time of the Law! I KNOW You are just but this story doesn’t feel ‘just’ to me. I would have David making that prayer from the beginning instead of waiting until he could see the imminent danger. Did he pray it earlier? He had made the choice though and he had to live with it. I’m MORE than glad You have never given me such a hard choice. And I PRAY You never do!