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Numbering the people

What was David’s great sin in numbering the nation of Israel, and why is it important to us now?

If there’s anyone out there who in looking at the church has despaired of its condition (see the David Ryser piece, The Question That Changed My Life, that I’ve posted here, for a powerful take on the condition of the church), and then wondered if the church could ever possibly possess the gates of its enemies, there’s a powerful pericope from the life of David from which we can draw a lot of insight and perspective. It centers around when David numbered Israel, thereby incurring God’s wrath and bringing a pestilence upon the nation. Let’s take a look and see what we can pick up.

Now again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” 2 Sam 24.1

The first thing we learn is that David had just cause to be angry with Israel. We are not told what had transpired, but something Israel had either done or left undone had caused the Lord’s anger to burn against the nation.

So it was not out of the blue that David woke up one day and said, “Hey, let’s number the people!” No, he had very good reason to suspect that Israel was in a weakened state, and that, in turn, would prompt concern about how effective the nation would be in battle. That’s something a commander-in-chief understandably wants to know.

Wouldn’t it have been remiss of David not to have kept tabs on his nation’s strength and readiness? I think so. Yet look what happens.

The king said to Joab the commander of the army who was with him, “Go about now through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and register the people, that I may know the number of the people.”

But Joab said to the king, “Now may the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see; but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?” -2 Sam 24.2-3

Here we have both a red flag and a hint at David’s real problem. David undertook an action that did not have his top advisor’s agreement. When God signals a move, it is attended by peace and accord among his people. Think of how the apostles led the early church. When strife arose regarding charitable work among the Greek believers, the apostles summoned all the disciples and proposed that they choose deacons from among themselves to lead the ministry. Their proposal “pleased the whole gathering” (Acts 6.5), deacons were selected, and:

The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith. – Ac 6:7

Unity was maintained, and with it, strength and effectiveness.

Or consider how the apostles dealt with the very serious threat to unity concerning whether Gentile believers had to be circumcised – that is, whether they first had to become Jews before they could become Christians. They called an eldership meeting and discussed the various arguments. As matters were hashed out, a consensus was built, until finally unity formed around James’ proposal:

Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with [a letter] – Ac 15:22

Notice that at this point it wasn’t just the apostles and elders who were involved in the decision – the “whole church” was in on it! Unity is not built by imposing top-down will, but by sharing decision making. And the testimony is clear – God smiled on the process, as their coming to one mind was admittedly by God’s leading:

it seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, – Ac 15:25

“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: – Ac 15:28

So when God directs, we should expect the brethren to come into one accord. This, David did not do. Instead, he forced his will on his commanders:

Nevertheless, the king’s word prevailed against Joab and against the commanders of the army. So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to register the people of Israel. – 2 Sa 24:1-4

That’s bad enough, but there’s something else we learn from Joab’s statement above. David wasn’t just numbering his nation out of perceived necessity, he “delighted” in accessing their strength.

This is a crucial difference, indeed. Had David numbered the nation simply to access their strength for strategic purposes, he would have been on solid ground with the Lord. But instead he had set his heart on the strength of his people rather than on the Lord. He delighted in knowing their strength. That’s pride.

But it goes even deeper. Recall that in verse one, the Lord’s anger with Israel “incited David against them”. David had entered that verboten area where he took judgment unto himself. It is God’s place to judge his people, not man’s. This failing is exactly what got Moses into trouble. At one point, Moses harbored an unauthorized anger toward the people. The nation was in dire need of water, and was blaming Moses for it. Because the need was so critical, God choose not to chastise the people on this occasion. He merely told Moses to speak to a rock in order to bring forth water. Look at what Moses instead did:

and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?”

Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank.

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” – Nu 20:10-12

Moses had been the subject of the peoples’ complaints. Understandably, but wrongly, he vented his judgmental anger back toward them by name-calling: “you rebels”. But even worse, he exalted himself over God: “shall WE bring forth water?” How serious was this? -this one incident of self-exaltation was enough to keep Moses and Aaron out of the promised land they devoted forty years of their lives to reach.

This is why David’s sin was so serious. It was understandable that he would be upset with the people, because of their sin. But it was wrong for him to set himself up as their judge. They were God’s people, for God alone to judge. This numbering was David’s way of elevating himself and humbling and chastising the people, the same way Moses elevated himself and lashed out the apple of God’s eye by calling them rebels.

David should have known better. During the years when Saul, having lost all moral sanity, was pursuing David to kill him, David had two easy opportunities to kill Saul. With one stroke of the sword he could have neatly ended the very pressing risk to his own life and ushered in his own kingship. Now that had to be extremely tempting. Wasn’t it what God promised? But David forbore, because he instinctively knew that he must not strike out against God’s anointed, which the king was, his depravity notwithstanding. Instead David choose to honor God and to trust him alone to set up David’s Kingdom. He knew God would do things the right way, the permanent way. And if it wasn’t God’s will to do so, if the prophecies and anointing were somehow wrong, then David didn’t want the position. He would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than dwell in the chambers of princes.

You can see how David’s tender attitude toward God’s honor, and his faith in his sovereignty, simply melted the heart of God. This is why God called David, despite his many flaws, a man after God’s own heart.

But now, after many years in office, in his anger David this time let himself forget that earlier lesson. He sinned, and it didn’t take long for him to realize it:

Now David’s heart troubled him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, please take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.” – 2 Sa 24:10

The result was that David was publicly humbled and Israel was punished. David was given the choice of a punishment by man’s hand or by God’s, and he wisely chose God’s.  A pestilence ensued, and when it had already killed seventy thousand men, David interceded for God’s mercy. He sought to buy a field on the leading edge of the pestilence’s spread, in order to offer a sacrifice of atonement there and stay the plague. But the field’s owner offered it to him for free, considering the use for which it would be used. David replied famously, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing”, and insisted on paying the full price.

We usually think of cost of the field when we hear that verse, but the land’s price was the least of it. What David was really offering up in atonement was his very self. In the midst of the painful chastisement, look at David’s tender repentant heart:

Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking down the people, and said, “Behold, it is I who have sinned, and it is I who have done wrong; but these sheep, what have they done? Please let Your hand be against me and against my father’s house.” – 2 Sa 24:17

The ones David had wanted to humble, he now gently and protectively refers to as innocent sheep. He forgets the sin of the nation that originally had incurred God’s anger and he directs all guilt to himself. David’s shepherd heart has been restored to him – the heart that compelled him to risk his own life to confront a lion and a bear in defense of the flock he loved. He admits his sin and asks that the punishment be leveled against himself and his loved ones rather than against God’s beloved nation. This is serious heartfelt repentance, in which God greatly delights.

The lesson for us is this. If we look at the church critically, we do not sin. Frankly, I wish more people would honestly confess the sins of the church from a sincere heart, and intercede for her from a position of Christ’s holiness, so that we would be forgiven and cleansed. If this is done with right motivation, there is no sin involved; indeed, we are obedient and blessed.

But if in considering the church’s shortcomings, we appropriate anger to ourselves that does not befit our humble position in the Lord – remember, we are not saved by any good thing that resides within us, but only by the merits of Christ Jesus (Eph 2.8) – then we sin. And if we, operating from self-righteousness, seek to publicly chastise the church which Jesus wept and died for, and remains committed to out of perfect love, we actually will find ourselves aligned against almighty God himself in this important matter. That’s a place in which we seriously do not want to find ourselves.

How do I know this stuff? I once fell into this very position. I was betrayed and extremely hurt by church eldership that as a new Christian I had trusted implicitly. Christians will fail, but they’ll always repent and reconcile, right?Not that time. The wounds were so deep and brutal that it’s literally a miracle I survived spiritually at all. But as they say, given time, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Jesus told Peter, “when you are restored, strengthen your brothers”.

And that is exactly what I have vowed to do. If there is any way I can help build the Body, if there is anything I can add to our understanding and godliness, this I will do. I have dedicated myself to Christ and his Kingdom. Like David, that is my costly sacrifice, done in public humility for the error of my previous ways, to help stay the pestilence.

Let that hearten you. If you have erred by exalting yourself and taking up judgment that you were neither authorized nor competent to wield, repentance is only a heartfelt prayer away. The Lord WILL accept you back. He WILL restore you. He WILL use you again, to build the church, even to his greater glory. The Lord delights in repentance, and just as he never will abandon his church, and has assured us that, despite her flaws, she indeed will possess the gates of her enemy, he will never abandon you, and he will see you through to your victory side.

Count on it. His very name, after all, is “Faithful and True” (Rev 19.11).

God bless.

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