David said to God, ‘Was it not I who ordered the fighting men to be counted? I, the shepherd, have sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? LORD my God, let your hand fall on me and my family, but do not let this plague remain on your people.’
1 Chronicles 21:17 (NIV)
Read: 1 Chronicles 21
Consider: In 1 Chronicles 21 we have an account of a census King David asked Joab to undertake of the people of Israel. On the surface the census would seem to be a harmless activity. Surely any king would want to know how many fighting men he had at his disposal? What looked relatively harmless on the surface produced a time of plague and we are told in 1 Chronicles 21:14 that seventy thousand people died as a result.
There a a few things worthy of note in this account. While David asked for the census to be undertaken, Joab recognised that it was something that should not be done (21:3) and when undertaken he decided to leave out two of the tribes (21:6) so that the numbers were incomplete. We can get a hint as to why the census was considered evil in 1 Chronicles 27:23 where it says: ‘David did not take the number of the men twenty years old or less, because the LORD had promised to make Israel as numerous as the stars in the sky’. Look at Genesis 15:5 for the promise to Abram (later to be Abraham). By ordering a census David showed a lack of trust in God and his promise.
In Exodus 30:12 we read: Then the LORD said to 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’. This means that the census wasn’t just for counting numbers, but also had spiritual significance as it was used to remind the Israelites that they had been redeemed by God from slavery in Egypt. In David’s case he wanted the census to be undertaken so that he could feel safe as a king, in the knowledge of how many fighting men were available to him. The natural result of using and undertaking a census correctly would be that no plague would come on the people of Israel. However, as David used the census incorrectly the outcome was that a plague came on the people.
While all this is interesting, what is most significant is how David responded. He could easily have passed the buck and blamed Joab or his army commanders, who actually undertook the census. What he did was to take the blame himself (21:17). David showed real character in doing this. He knew that he was the leader and that it had been his decision (misguided) that led to God’s anger being displayed against the people of Israel.
So what are we to get from this passage? I think there are a few things we can learn. Firstly, we must ensure that whatever we do is in God’s will. Acting outside his will has consequences not just for us, but also for those around us. Secondly, strength is not to be found in numbers – how big our congregations have grown. What is really important is the spiritual condition of God’s people. Finally, when things go wrong we must be willing to take the blame fairly and squarely. We must be willing to lay the matter before God, asking for his forgiveness.
Pray: Father, may we not seek to gain confidence from anything other than you. Protect us from wilfulness that ignores your will and direction for our lives. Amen