David: Joab, go take a census of the nation.
Joab: Are you sure that’s a good idea? God wouldn’t like that.
David: Go do it anyway.
Joab goes and takes a census over a period of 9 months.
For us, taking a census is merely a means to know the population of people. In David’s time, it was different. If you’ll notice, in both chapters Joab counted the number of men able to wield a sword. How is that significant?
Because a census was needed if you were going to war.
But David wasn’t going to war. He’d finally united the nation and chased everyone out of Israel. It was a time for peace. So why did David order it?
He wanted to know how strong he was. He was glorying in the size of his army instead of in the strength of the LORD.
When David realized he’d made a mistake, he repented. God (through Gad the prophet) offered him 3 options: 3 year famine, 3 month war, or 3 day plague.
I imagine the same number of people, perhaps more, would have died no matter which choice David made. But David was wise and said he’d prefer to take the punishment from God’s hands directly than through human hands because “God is merciful.” (The plague was brought directly by the angel of the LORD like in Exodus.)
70,000 people were killed, but David was right and God stopped before exacting judgment on Jerusalem. It helped that David interceded and asked God to punish him and his family instead of the innocent people of Jerusalem.
But were the people of Jerusalem really innocent? God allowed David to take the census because “Once again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel.” (2 Sam 24:1) David and Israel were equally guilty.
God instructed David to go to a certain man’s threshing floor to make his offerings. (Some speculate this was the same place Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, but why would someone put a threshing floor there?). Even though the owner offered David the land and oxen for the sacrifice for free, David insisted on paying for them. His reason is significant: “I will not present burnt offerings that have cost me nothing.”
Take home points:
- If you’re doing something permissible (census) but for the wrong reasons (pride) it is still a sin.
- God is merciful.
- Our offerings to God should cost us something.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. ~Psalm 51:17
Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God, and keep the vows you made to the Most High. ~Psalm 50:14
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. ~Hebrews 13:15
But giving thanks is a sacrifice that truly honors me. If you keep to my path, I will reveal to you the salvation of God. ~Psalm 50:23