All Scripture passages are from the King James Version, unless otherwise noted
There is an event described in Scripture where king David ordered a census of the Israelite people. God very much disapproved of this census and subsequently punished them harshly, killing a great number of the Israelite citizens in the process.
This is a major stumbling block for many people. They question why God would be so angry about a simple census ordered by the king, and why so many innocent people had to be punished for David's actions. Because this is a major stumbling block, it is worth taking a closer look into it.
At the passage in 2 Samuel Chapter 24 we read :
(1) And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah. (2) For the king said to Joab the captain of the host, which was with him, Go now through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan even to Beersheba, and number ye the people, that I may know the number of the people. (3) And Joab said unto the king, Now the LORD thy God add unto the people, how many soever they be, an hundredfold, and that the eyes of my lord the king may see it: but why doth my lord the king delight in
this thing? (4) Notwithstanding the king's word prevailed against Joab, and against the captains of the host. And Joab and the captains of the host went out from the presence of the king, to number the people of Israel. (5) And they passed over Jordan, and pitched in Aroer, on the right side of the city that lieth in the midst of the river of Gad, and toward Jazer: (6) Then they came to Gilead, and to the land of Tahtimhodshi; and they came to Danjaan, and about to Zidon, (7) And came to the strong hold of Tyre, and to all the cities of the Hivites, and of the Canaanites: and they went out to the south of Judah, even to Beersheba. (8) So when they had gone through all the land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. (9) And Joab gave up the sum of the number of the people unto the king: and there were in Israel eight hundred thousand valiant men that drew the sword; and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand men. (10) And David's heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the LORD, I have sinned greatly in that I have done: and now, I beseech thee, O LORD, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly. (11) For when David was up in the morning, the word of the LORD came unto the prophet Gad, David's seer, saying, (12) Go and say unto David, Thus saith the LORD, I offer thee three things; choose thee one of them, that I may do it unto thee. (13) So Gad came to David, and told him, and said unto him, Shall seven years of famine come unto thee in thy land? or wilt thou flee three months before thine enemies, while they pursue thee? or that there be three days' pestilence in thy land? now advise, and see what answer I shall return to him that sent me. (14) And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the LORD; for his mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man. (15) So the LORD sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed: and there died of the people from Dan even to Beersheba seventy thousand men. (16) And when the angel stretched out his hand upon Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed the people, It is enough: stay now thine hand. And the angel of the LORD was by the threshing place of Araunah the Jebusite. (17) And David spake unto the LORD when he saw the angel that smote the people, and said, Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly: but these sheep, what have they done? let thine hand, I pray thee, be against me, and against my father's house. (18) And Gad came that day to David, and said unto him, Go up, rear an altar unto the LORD in the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. (19) And David, according to the saying of Gad, went up as the LORD commanded. (20) And Araunah looked, and saw the king and his servants coming on toward him: and Araunah went out, and bowed himself before the king on his face upon the ground. (21) And Araunah said, Wherefore is my lord the king come to his servant? And David said, To buy the threshing floor of thee, to build an altar unto the LORD, that the plague may be stayed from the people. (22) And Araunah said unto David, Let my lord the king take and offer up what seemeth good unto him: behold, here be oxen for burnt sacrifice, and threshing instruments and other instruments of the oxen for wood. (23) All these things did Araunah, as a king, give unto the king. And Araunah said unto the king, The LORD thy God accept thee. (24) And the king said unto Araunah, Nay; but I will surely buy it of thee at a price: neither will I offer burnt offerings unto the LORD my God of that which doth cost me nothing. So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. (25) And David built there an altar unto the LORD, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the LORD was intreated for the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel.
First, it is important to note that the taking of a census in Israel was not inherently sinful by itself. We know this because God Himself commanded that a census be taken on two previous occasions: The first was soon after the Israelite deliverance from Egypt (Numbers 1:1-3, 19), and the second was near the end of their forty-year wandering (Numbers 26:2-4). So why was this census so different?
POINTS TO PONDER
To find the answer we need to know the background information on this situation. To do this let's first look at some points that are usually overlooked in this passage:
1. Although vs. 1 states that God moved David to start a census, the passage at 1 Chronicles 21:1 states that it was actually Satan who provoked David to start the census. Yes, this sounds confusing on the surface, but here is what most people overlook: God's allowance of Satan to cause temptations is sometimes referred to as God's own actions. For example, when Job was being tested by Satan, it was an event that Satan sought permission from God to do. God allowed Satan to do it, though God Himself did not specifically ordain it (Job 1:6-12, Job 2:1-6). In spite of this, it was still referred to as God's own doing (Job 1:21-22, Job 2:10). It is a similar situation that is taking place here with the census. Sometimes God allows Satan to test us in order to prevent us from becoming too arrogant or prideful (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Sometimes God allows Satan to test us as a way of exercising our faith to make us stronger (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 5:10). AND... even though God allows Satan to test us, God in His Great Mercy does NOT allow Satan to test us beyond our strength (1 Corinthians 10:13). Therefore, even though God may allow Satan to test us, God will ensure that it is a test we are able to pass; it is simply up to us to actually pass the test.
2. Another point overlooked is the very first verse of this passage in the beginning, at 24:1, which states “ And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.”. Although the Scripture does not say exactly what it was that Israel did to incite God's anger this time, we do know that the Israelites were notorious for falling into grave sin and provoking God's wrath from time to time, requiring God to punish them (Exodus 32, Judges 2:6-3:6, 2 Kings 17:7-17, etc.). It is known that on some occasions God allows the
punishment of unfaithful ones to be through the hands of Satan or of lying spirits (1 Kings 22:6-28, 2 Thessalonians 2:2-12). Such testing serves to reveal those who have a lack of faith.
3. Readers also tend to forget that God decreed the payment of half a shekel for each person when an Israelite census was taken. With this decree was the warning that if the census payments weren't given the Israelites would endure a plague (Exodus 30:12-13). Although this may seem harsh at first you need to realize that a half shekel is equal to about only 3 cents in United States money -- a very small amount that even the poorest citizens could afford (and, I'm sure, some of the more wealthier citizens could cover that expense for the poor). However, this payment was neglected during this particular census as evidenced by the fact that the people did indeed endure a plague after the census.
THE SINS INVOLVED
There was more than one sin involved in this Davidic census.
1. David was listening to the temptations of Satan, not the direct word of God. We know this because, Had God actually decreed this census He would have sent a prophet to inform David of the matter. (Note that God used prophets to inform David on other matters: 1 Samuel 22:5, 2 Samuel 24:11, 13, 19, etc.) We also know that this was a temptation of Satan because David readily admitted that it was he himself who wanted to number of the nation, not God (2 Samuel 24:2). Joab and the army captains recognized this fact, and so tried to dissuade David from this census, but to no avail (2 Samuel 24:3-4).
2. David's actions showed an unhealthy level of pride. We know this because even though his men tried to dissuade him, David gave no ear and continued on his erroneous path. It was as though he was saying that his will was of higher priority than God's will.
3. David's actions showed a lack of confidence in God. We know this because, if he did have confidence in God, Joab's words would have made David let go of the whole idea ("...Now the LORD thy God add unto the people, how many soever they be, an hundredfold, and that the eyes of my lord the king may see it: but why doth my lord the king delight in this thing?-- 2 Samuel 24:3)
4. Lack of godly direction. When the idea of the census came up in David's mind the first thing he should have done is ask God's direction on the matter. This wasn't a foreign idea to David as he had asked God's direction on matters previous to this: 1 Samuel 23: 2-4, 9-12, 1 Samuel 30:8, 2 Samuel 2:1 etc.
5. Lack of census payment. As stated earlier, God had decreed long before this event that an Israelite census must be accompanied by payment from each citizen that was counted. To neglect the payment would mean suffering a plague (Exodus 30:12-13).
Although this passage in 2 Samuel Chapter 24 doesn't mention a lack of payment, we can deduce by the resulting plague that the payment was, indeed, neglected. God in not impotent: He gives clear warning of punishment if people ignore His commands. Since the people pushed the issue by ignoring this particular command God had no choice but to follow through with the attached punishment of plague.
Although David committed these sins he did show remorse when God's prophet confronted him about it (2 Samuel 24: 10-13). It is probable that David's remorse is the reason that God let David choose which plague to endure. To recap, the choices were:
1. Famine in Israel for seven years.
2. Failure in warfare for three straight months.
3. A nationwide plague for three straight days.
The first two choices would put Israel at the mercy of men: A famine would cause them to be completely dependent upon surrounding nations, and failure in warfare would make them subject to their enemies. Because David felt safer in the hands of God rather than the hands of men he chose the three day plague (2 Samuel 24:14).
And again, because the people shared in the sin with David by not giving their census payment it was righteous for God to include them in the punishment.
WHY WASN'T DAVID SMOTE?
Although David's arrogance was the original cause for the ordeal many people question why he wasn't one of the victims of the plague; in fact, David himself wondered that as well. Although this plague did cause him intense anguish (2 Samuel 24: 17) he was spared death. On the surface, this seems unjust. However, it must be remembered that God sometimes spares the death sentence when sinners are genuinely repentant whether it be an individual (such as David ), or an entire nation (Jonah 3:1-10).
THE THRESHING FLOOR
The fact that God stopped the angel of pestilence when it neared the threshing floor of Araunah (a.k.a. Ornan) at Jerusalem was a significant matter (2 Samuel 24:15-16). This is because this was the very same location of Mount Moriah where Abraham brought Isaac (Genesis 22:2-14), and was to be the location of the temple of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 3:1). This is also within the same geographical area of Calvary, where Christ was killed. It was here that God commanded David to erect an altar, which David did after purchasing the altar area from its owner (2 Samuel 24:18-24).
It is no mere coincidence that all these events occurred at the same place over time. Remember, God led Abraham to Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:2), God stopped the angel at this threshing floor (2 Samuel 24:16), God directed that David offer a sacrifice on this spot (2 Samuel 24:18) and God directed that the temple be built on this location (2 Chronicles 3:1). In other words, this particular spot had been God's special piece of real estate for some time.
It was important that David purchase the altar and the burnt offering instead of accepting them as mere donations (2 Samuel 24:22). By purchasing these things this made the sacrifice completely David's; if he had taken them as a donation the sacrifice would actually have belonged to the original owner. Since it was David's sacrifice that God was requiring, David was obligated to make this purchase (2 Samuel 24:24). God was satisfied with David's offering (2 Samuel 24:25, 1 Chronicles 21:26), and the end of the matter was complete.
So, putting it in a nutshell, Israel was facing punishment from God and Satan was the means of this punishment by tempting David to take an illegal census; David succumbed to the sin. Not only did he let his pride and lack of confidence get in the way, but he also neglected to inquire of God and neglected to collect the required payment for the census. Although he felt remorse for his sins the nation of Israel still had to endure the consequences of their collective sins. Because David and the nation of Israel provoked God to anger God was obligated to act on it. This wasn't God being cruel, this was the people forcing God to show uphold His righteous law.
This event clearly shows that God's rules do not change (Malachi 3:6). If one willfully sins and brazenly acts against God's Holy standards one must endure the prescribed consequences. The Israelites should not have been provoking God to anger in the first place and they should have given the prescribed census payment as well when they did; nobody was stopping them. It was their own bad choices that caused them all that trouble. They had been clearly forewarned of the consequences for doing it wrong; God could not back down on His Word when they challenged His decree. If you aren't willing to take God seriously then you must withstand the consequences.