A questioner asks: “Wrested Scriptures shows that the Satan of 1 Chronicles 21:1 is the Lord of 2 Samuel 24:1. If God was angry with the people of Israel and wanted to punish them, why do you think He instructed David to number Israel? 1 Chronicles 21:7 indicates that God was displeased with David for having the census taken even though “he provoked” David to do so.
Why, if God intended to punish Israel, go through all this with David? What should David have done? If David had ignored what he thought God was telling him to do, wouldn’t David be disobeying God’s instructions.”

We agree with the comments of Brother Ron Abel in Wrested Scriptures, but our thoughtful reader has raised issues which remind us we need to think carefully and deeply to seek out, as best we can, the meaning behind this section of Scripture and the lessons that are there for us to learn.

Perhaps we might firstly consider whether God really “instructed” David to number Israel. 2 Samuel 24:1 says “he moved David…” while in 1 Chronicles 21:1 we read: “… and provoked David to number Israel.” The words “moved” and “provoked” are both the same Hebrew word suth variously translated: “entice, move, persuade, provoke” etc. It seems likely that God is using circumstances to ‘move’ David rather than giving any direct instructions. The events and punishment which finally came would be incomprehensible if God had explicitly instructed David to number Israel.

Indeed though David personally accepted responsibility, declaring: “I have sinned greatly, because I have done this thing …” (1 Chron 21:8), yet it appears that the greater sin lay elsewhere. We remember from 2 Samuel 24:1 that “the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel”. Clearly the nation was sinning against God, who used David to bring about circumstances for judgment upon the nation. Furthermore when the census was undertaken by Joab and the army, Joab though taking “nine months and twenty days” (2 Sam 24:8), deliberately failed to complete the task, declining to include Levi and Benjamin in the count (1 Chron 21:6). The numbers reported to the king look like conveniently large round numbers, lacking the precision of the census of Numbers chapter one for example. It is intriguing in this record to see Joab apparently adopting a posture of greater faithfulness than David and arguing against a census on the grounds of God’s oversight of Israel.

On the surface, David certainly appears to have no proper motivation for taking this census of Israel. The manner of the report of the count by Joab suggests it was meant as an appraisal of the nation’s military potential: “And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to David. In all Israel there were 1,100,000 men who drew the sword, and in Judah 470,000 who drew the sword” (1 Chron 21:5 esv).

When the report finally came in, David appears to have been immediately repentant: “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” (2 Sam 24:10). When the prophet Gad appears before David to give him the three options of punishment, David’s response reveals his true heart: “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” (2 Sam 24:14).

The plague that followed, surely reflected the exercise of God’s judgment and justice, falling on those in Israel who had provoked His anger. “So Yahweh sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed: and there died of the people from Dan even to Beersheba [see v2] seventy thousand men” (2 Sam 24:15). The punishment was surely selective, falling on those “of the people” who were most deserving of it. David, keenly aware of his own guilt, and seeming to have failed to appreciate that God’s judgment was surely directed at the guilty, not the innocent, declared: “Lo, I have sinned, and I have donewickedly: but these sheep, what have they done?” This as he saw the angel, sword in hand over the city of Jerusalem, in the very place where Abraham had stood, knife in hand, over the body of his son Isaac. God used these sad circumstances to carry forward His purpose with Israel and the house of David, in marking out the very site of the Temple which Solomon would build, and where Yahweh would dwell in the midst of Israel.

So to come back to our reader’s question: “What should David have done?” The pattern of David’s younger years gives us the answer. There is a wonderful phrase which tolls like a bell through the inspired record of those early days of David: “And David enquired of Yahweh” (1 Sam 23:2,4 etc). Over and over it rings through the record, a testimony to his faith. But we don’t find it here! The nation had sinned. David’s victories had brought comfort and wealth, leading perhaps to a failure in many in the nation to seek to their God. We are not told why God’s anger was kindled against Israel but likely this was the reason. David should have been seeking to God for guidance in the difficulties of peace as he had done through the bitterness of war.

As for why God chose this process to punish the nation, we cannot speak beyond what is revealed. God is “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.” So we cannot doubt His judgment was just on this occasion. Clearly He sought also to challenge and instruct the now aging King David. Equally clearly He used these circumstances to bring David and the nation to Mt Moriah, the temple mount! Indeed it was only when the purchase of that site was completed, an altar constructed, and burnt offerings and peace offerings offered there, that “Yahweh was intreated for the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel” (2 Sam 24:25). This record teaches us that we must not only continue to enquire of Yahweh, we must not only be faithful in His service and not settle comfortably down when times are good, but we must have a sense of urgency, a focus on carrying forward, according to our abilities, the great cause of our God to which we have been called.

Brother Michael Ashton in his book Chronicles of the Kings puts an interesting and persuasive case that David was seeking to raise funds for the temple from a largely uninterested nation, and readers are directed to Chapter 11 “Numbering Israel” to consider that perspective.