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In 2 Samuel 24:1, did God tell David to number Israel?

2 Samuel 24:1 And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved (Hebrew two sooth) David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.

The first thing we notice is that God was angry with Israel not just with David. In the parallel account God is a ‘satan’ or adversary to Israel.

1 Chronicles 21:1 And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked (Hebrew two sooth) David to number Israel.

‘Satan’ in Hebrew means ‘adversary’. In Numbers 22:22 ‘satan’ is properly translated as ‘adversary’.

Numbers 22:22 And God’s anger was kindled because he (Balaam) went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary (satan) against him...

We are not given the specific offence which aroused God’s anger, but Israel was a ‘stiffnecked’ people and continually straying from the commandments of God.

God did not command David to number Israel, but he did not prevent it. This is clear from what David says:

2 Samuel 24:10 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.

David realized that he had done wrong and acted very foolishly in numbering Israel. If we look at what he says to Joab we might find a motive. It is something that David wants to know rather than God.

2 Samuel 24:2 ...number ye the people, that I may know the number of the people.

Joab and the other captains recognise that it is not a good idea; but it is something that David takes a personal delight in doing and he is obstinate.

2 Samuel 24:3 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? 4 Notwithstanding the king’s word prevailed against Joab, and against the captains of the host.

The numbering was from twenty years old and upwards indicating that David’s interest was in men fit for war.

1 Chronicles 27:23 But David took not the number of them from twenty years old and under: because the LORD had said he would increase Israel like to the stars of the heavens.

It was certainly the number of men fit for war that Joab reports.

2 Samuel 24:9 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.

We might reasonably suppose that David’s motive was that of pride; he wanted to see how large an army he had at his command. He was beginning to glory in man instead of in God. He would not be the first king whose heart was lifted up with pride (Uzziah: 2 Chronicles 26:16; Hezekiah: 2 Chronicles 32:25).

Punishment came upon Israel because of the numbering.

1 Chronicles 27:24 Joab the son of Zeruiah began to number, but he finished not, because there fell wrath for it against Israel; neither was the number put in the account of the chronicles of king David.

We might reasonably suppose that Israel failed to comply with the commandment given through Moses.

Exodus 30:12 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.

It is an attribute of God that he tests people to see whether they will obey his commandments or not. There is no mention of the ransom being paid and failure to pay incurred punishment. Because David had been the cause and as the king had a responsibility for his people, God gives him a choice of punishments. In his choice David puts his trust in God where it should have been before he contemplated numbering the people.

God does not tempt men to sin as James makes clear:

James 1:13 Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man:

The expression ‘he moved David against them’ has to be understood in some other way. I suggest that what God permits is said in scripture to be done by him. Christ’s sacrifice is a prime example and Peter explains:

Acts 2:23 Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:

At the same time they did it in ignorance.

Acts 3:17 And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers.

God was not the one who carried out the deed; but Jesus none the less says that it was a cup given to him by his Father.

John 18:11 ...the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?

Luke 22:42 Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.

Isaiah speaks of it as being done by God.

Isaiah 53:10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.

God moved David in the same way that he hardened Pharaoh's heart. Not that He caused David to sin, but that He did not restrain him, and David's pride brings the sin. God tempts no man to sin (James 1:13 above), but neither is he obligated to restrain a man from sin. God takes full responsibility for bringing this judgment upon Israel. For by not restraining David, he "allowed" his pride to bring forth sin. A sin which put Israel to the test.

We see an instance where God restrains sin in Abimelech.

Genesis 20:5 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. 6 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.

The lesson is that God is able to keep us from falling, but we need to pray for it.

Matthew 26:41 Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

The Lord’s prayer carries the same idea:

Matthew 6:13 ...lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:

The exhortation is to put our trust in God do nothing without him.

Proverbs 3:5 Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.6 In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.

The end result of the ensuing plague was that the heart of David and the people was humbled and God extends his mercy to them and accepts David’s sacrifice. At the same time the heart of Israel is suitably prepared for God to reveal the site that he has chosen for the altar and the Temple in which he would place his name.

1 Chronicles 21:26,27 And David built there an altar unto the LORD, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings, and called upon the LORD; and he answered him from heaven by fire upon the altar of burnt offering. 27 And the LORD commanded the angel; and he put up his sword again into the sheath thereof.

1 Chronicles 22:1 Then David said, This is the house of the LORD God, and this is the altar of the burnt offering for Israel.

I hope you have found this helpful.

May God bless you,