Frequently Asked Questions
Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions About Christianity, Answered Honestly!

Why Was it a Sin that David
Numbered Israel

-by Tony Warren

One of the most frequently asked questions concerns the census that is recorded in the books of Chronicles and Samuel. Why did David number Israel. And specifically, people wonder why it was a sin that king David numbered Israel? Many look upon this episode as an esoteric commentary because they don't immediately understand why God would deal so harshly with King David simply because he counted the number of people in Israel? Some believe that God's wrath was because David didn't take the required offering. However, while there is no biblical record that he did, there is also no biblical record that he didn't. Thus we are limited by the silence of scripture on this point, and so speculating one way or the other would be fruitless. But what the record does declare is that this action was not taken merely because of David's sin. Thus this would seem to preclude this idea that it was judgment because of David's alleged lack of offering.

In order to come to the correct conclusion of why it was a sin that King David numbered Israel, his sin must be understood in the light of the entire context of Israel, all that God said, Satan's provoking, David's sinful delight in the act, the warning of Joab and the captains of the army, David's repentance, Israel's responsibility, and God's judgment for their sin. When all these things are searched out and considered in light of the whole Bible, I believe that David's sin is revealed to be the chronic sin of Israel, which was idolatry, pride and vanity.

1st Chronicles 21:1-4

  • "And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.
  • And David said to Joab and to the rulers of the people, Go, number Israel from Beersheba even to Dan; and bring the number of them to me, that I may know it.
  • And Joab answered, The LORD make his people an hundred times so many more as they be: but, my lord the king, are they not all my lord's servants? why then doth my lord require this thing? why will he be a cause of trespass to Israel?
  • Nevertheless the king's word prevailed against Joab. Wherefore Joab departed, and went throughout all Israel, and came to Jerusalem."
The first thing we should glean from this episode is that it was Satan who provoked David to number Israel. In other words, numbering Israel's army was done because the adversary Satan was tempting David. That is a very important thing to remember because it explains much. The second thing to consider is David's reason for doing this was, "that he may know it." In other words, his own delight or pleasure was what induced him to do this. These are the keys to understanding this sin. God allowed David to be tempted by Satan because Israel had taken their eyes off God as their ruler, fortress and provider. We read in previous chapters how they had begun looking to themselves for strength. Even as they had pressed Samuel for a king that would be just like the nations that were around them, they weren't satisfied. This illustrated that they had forsaken trust in the Lord and forgotten that He alone was their sword and bulwark. And David too momentarily took his eyes off the Lord and looked toward Israel's own ability to provide a host as their strength. By God declaring that Satan provoked this census, we know that David's purpose for numbering the men of war was that he might delight or glory in Israel's own might or resources. Yet this sin was not David's alone, because God Himself informs us that He allowed this numbering because of Israel's sins. Thus it was God who had removed His normal restraint of sin from David, and it was because of the judgment He would upon Israel for their continuing sins of pride and vanity.

2nd Samuel 24:1

  • "And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah."
God moved David in the same way that He hardened Pharaoh's heart. Not that He made David sin, but that He took away his hand of restraint of sin in him, and David's own human pride and vanity does the rest. God tempts no man to sin (James 1:13), but neither is He obligated to restrain any man from his own sin. And here God takes full responsibility for bringing this judgment upon Israel. For by removing his hand of restraint from David, He "allowed" Satan to provoke him to this error. Without God's hand of restraint on believers as they live out their lives in this world, they would all be as lawless and wicked as the unsaved people are. It is only "God in us" that keeps us from succumbing to our diverse sin nature in the lusts of the flesh.

2nd Thessalonians 3:3

  • "But the Lord is faithful, who shall stablish you, and keep you from evil."
So while we may think that we have integrity and have freely restrained ourselves from evil, the truth is that it is God who restrains evil in us. And He is not obligated to do so. For example, consider the episode in how He restrained sin in Abimelech, without his knowledge.

Genesis 20:5-6

  • "Said he not unto me, She is my sister? and she, even she herself said, He is my brother: in the integrity of my heart and innocency of my hands have I done this.
  • And God said unto him in a dream, Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her."
So while, to the novice, the two passages (1st Chronicles 21:1; 2nd Samuel 24:1) might seem like a contradiction, they are in complete harmony with each other. Because it was for Israel's sin that God had removed His hand of restraint and "allowed" Satan to tempt David to pride, that he would number his armies. God takes responsibility for this judgment, because it was He who "allowed" Satan to tempt David, as a judgment. It is not a contradiction, but the idioms of scripture that God has inspired to confound the worldly wise, but are revealed to those given spiritual wisdom. God permitted this to restore David and Israel to a proper relationship with Him. And through this judgment upon Israel, a lesson is taught to all God's people throughout history. In other words, God didn't just bring judgment upon the people of Israel because David had sinned in not offering, or in numbering, it was because of the whole nation of Israel. And David, as King of Israel, is used as a representative of them, and a teaching tool for us. This counting was the goad, and David was the vessel that God used to judge Israel. For his sin was not in the counting, but in "why" he was counting. It was his reasons that were sinful, and not the counting. By illustrating his trust in the number of his own soldiers, rather than trust in the Lord, he illustrated the sin of Israel. The census was merely a product of the sin of God's people in that they fell away from trusting in their God.

Psalms 44:5-8

  • "Through thee will we push down our enemies: through thy name will we tread them under that rise up against us.
  • For I will not trust in my bow, neither shall my sword save me.
  • But thou hast saved us from our enemies, and hast put them to shame that hated us.
  • In God we boast all the day long, and praise thy name for ever. Selah."
This is what Israel should have trusted in, rather than counting the number of soldiers and swords in their army. But they had strayed away from this trust. Those who trust in their own men of war or their own earthly forces, at the expense of this trust and dependence on God, show where their faith is.

I think we need to understand that counting can be done for good reasons, or for bad reasons. For example a country can count people for a census to see how many new roads they should build. And there would be no inherent sin in that. But if a country counted how many men they had that drew the sword (as David did) simply to be prideful, or to invade another country to steal their riches, or to glory in being a great power, then this is sinful. David counted that he might delight in it, and this type is of pride, which is provoked by Satan. He is the "adversary" of trust in God, humility, and all that is righteous.

So based upon all the available biblical information, the only sound conclusion that we can come to is that David did his counting because of human ego and pride. He wanted to determine how powerful Israel's army was. This confirmed by God declaring plainly that the number of the men that he counted were "those that drew the sword" (2nd Samuel 24:9-10). The offense to God concerning Israel was that David had begun to trust in man rather than the Lord. Because it is perfectly clear that numbering Israel was "otherwise" a very lawful thing to do. E.g.:

Exodus 30:11-12

  • "And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
  • When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the LORD, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them."
Numbers 1:1-3
  • "And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying,
  • Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls;
  • From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: thou and Aaron shall number them by their armies."
Clearly we see that there was no inherent sin in numbering Israel. God Himself told them to do it on occasion. But when king David numbered Israel, we are told that he was motivated by sin because he was tempted by Satan to do it. It was through king David's own desire to delight or glory in Israel's own strength that his pride was manifested.

Proverbs 16:18-19

  • "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
  • Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud."
Joab and the captains of Israel's army saw the haughty spirit of David and the pridefulness of his actions (1st Chronicles 21:6), and they argued with him against it. But God tells us that David stubbornly "delighted," or took great pleasure in doing this thing anyway. Thus his word prevailed over the sound wisdom of Joab. That illustrated his lack of a humble spirit in doing this.

2nd Samuel 24:3-4

  • "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?
  • 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."
Clearly Joab and his captains recognized this as sinful and argued against it with King David, but the King's word prevailed [chazaq] in the sense that David was obstinate and withstood their objections. They warned but he held "strong" against their opposition. Joab told David the Lord God had added to the people of Israel as He saw fit, but why was he "delighting" in this numbering? In other words, "as if" this was Israel's power to be gloried in? Joab and the captains saw that the course that David was disposed to take was sin and that God would be offended by it, but David was determined. I underscored the word "delight" in that verse because I believe God is illustrating here that this numbering of Israel gave David great carnal pleasure. That is the reason why he would not listen to the warnings of Joab that this thing was not to the glory of God. It was human vanity and prideful desire that induced David to take this census, and that is what made this otherwise neutral act, a sin against God that was so displeasing.

In God recording this sin, He is showing that David is human just like the rest of us, and was just as capable of error without God's hand of restraint. Even though God had exalted him from a lowly sheep herder to become the great king of Israel, David in the flesh could still fall into this sin and act as if all Israel's might and power was by their own hands. He had momentarily forgotten that it was God who gave them strength and who was their deliverer and fortress. David, in his time of weakness sets his eyes on measuring Israel's greatness, and in doing so is showing he is desirous of some of the glory of Israel's great army. But the sin of pride was not his alone, God declares that his anger was not kindled against only David, but Israel was the primary target. God often uses one person's sin to bring judgment upon a whole group of people who have sinned. Not that God is judging others for one man's sin, but that God is judging all their sins, and using one as the catalyst. David's pride in glorying in numbers was a reflection of the sin of Israel in not trusting in the Lord. They had forgotten how God had fought for them and delivered them, and protected them (1st Samuel 12:6-12), and this is why the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel to move David against them. Their carnal trust in earthly soldiers and chariots demonstrated a lack of trust in God and His promises. And through episodes like these, God is usually painting some spiritual picture or illustration of Salvation, Redemption, or the Consequences of sin.

A modern day analogy would be in Christians becoming gratified and thinking highly of themselves for what they have become, or for how many converts they had made, or for how successful the congregation had become under their guidance. It is not the will of the Father that we glory in our own arm or our own power, but that we depend upon Him and glory in His power. We praise Him for the work of His hands, not our own.

Psalms 92:3-5

  • "Upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the psaltery; upon the harp with a solemn sound.
  • For thou, LORD, hast made me glad through thy work: I will triumph in the works of thy hands.
  • O LORD, how great are thy works! and thy thoughts are very deep."
We triumph in the work of His hands, and glory in the power of His arm, and by the strength of His will. Any other motivation to delight or have pleasure in our numbers is the temptation of the flesh. Israel's greatness and power was all by God's hand, God's presence, and God's blessings. God loves David and Israel, and they temporarily forgot this. And God chastises those whom He loves.

2nd Samuel 24:9-10

  • "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.
  • 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."
His pride caused him to number his men of war to "delight" in their strength. But while the census was taking place, David's heart smote him. In other words, his conscience began to bother him causing him to reevaluate in his heart what he had done. And he recognized this as sin, and was broken in spirit so that he repented of this deed. He immediately confessed that this was done foolishly or unwisely, and he beseeched the Lord for mercy. Note that he didn't continue to rationalize his action away as something needful. He didn't attempt to justify his actions by insisting that it was good to know the number so he'd be prepared. That's probably what the majority of people would have done in the hardness of their heart, and the searing of their conscience. But David was noble and Spirit filled, and so ultimately "repented" of this sin, calling upon the name of the Lord to take away his iniquity.

Matthew 3:8

  • "Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:"
That is the lesson for us today. True repentance bears fruits. In other words, repentance is manifested by a change in our lives or actions. Our fruits or works demonstrate the reality of our repentance. When we turn from sin to ask forgiveness and have an earnest desire to be obedient to the word of God, our true repentance is revealed. And repentance only reveals itself sincere or true, when it produces change or good works. David's heart was in contrition as he turned away from the sin that he had committed, and he sought God's forgiveness and mercy to take away his iniquity.

I think that we can say that this episode is recorded as an example for all of us who take the name of the Lord as our God. The lesson is that we cast aside trusting in our own strength, and reject vain justifications and rationalizations of sin. The foolishness of pride and arrogance is the harbinger of a fall. And this episode demonstrates how God looks upon the sin of man's pride and those who would glory in themselves and their own resources. It shows the humility, trust and full reliance upon God that He requires from His servants. Neglecting this is often the reason for many problems that beset us. We should never forget that ultimately, it was David's repentance, faith and trust in the Lord his God, which made him great. It was not his notoriety, his defeat of the Giant, his riches, or his great armies. For it was God who defeated the giant, and God who provided him an army. And as we consider these truths, we should be led to apply the very same principles to the Church today. Let us not glory in the works of our own hands, but in the new creation that God has made.

1st Corinthians 1:30-31

  • "But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:
  • That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord."
David sinned in his delight in possessing a great army. He was counting his soldiers to the glory of Israel, instead of the glory of the Lord. As a representative of Israel, in him was revealed their trust in their own arm for their help. And this caused God to pronounce and deliver them into judgment. We cannot trust in the sword of man, but in the sword of the Lord.

Isaiah 31:1

  • "Woe to them that go down to Egypt for help; and stay on horses, and trust in chariots, because they are many; and in horsemen, because they are very strong; but they look not unto the Holy One of Israel, neither seek the LORD!"
They that live by the sword shall die by the sword. The Lord will bring grief upon those who look to the world's forces for their help, thinking that earthly might and power has/will secure them. Peace and Safety can only come through Christ, the true Deliverer and Saviour. It is the Holy one of Israel whom David should have trusted in for the protection of Israel, but he looked toward the number of swordsmen he had. Satan provoked David to this action of numbering Israel, and God in His omniscience used the occasion to punish Israel (2nd Samuel 24:1) for her pride and lack of trust. That is why David counting the number of soldiers In Israel was a sin.

So let us take this example to heart as we live out our lives in Glory to the Lord. Let us not delight or have pleasure in the greatness of our nation, abundance, fame, or power. Let us praise God for "His Blessings," that we never forget that all we have is from Him and for Him. God doesn't want our strength to be in numbers, but in our trust that God gives the increase. Let us be satisfied with His results. Our reliance and dependence must be on the Lord, that to Him be all the glory.

    May Our Blessed Saviour, who is wise above all, grant us the wisdom to discern His truth, and the desire to place all our trust in His mighty arms, for the Peace and Safety of Israel.


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Copyright ©2004 Tony Warren
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