David's Senseless Sinful Census
"Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning." (Psalms 30:5)
What a wonderful promise, spoken by a man who truly understood what it meant to endure the night. In fact, the experience of this man was that of being "in the depths", sick unto death, hovering at the very edge of the pit (verse 3).
King David is usually thought of as being the greatest of all the kings of Israel, and is viewed as a very godly man who led the people in their worship of God. We know that he was not perfect, however, and often point to his double sin of adultery and murder. But there was another sin of King David noted in the history, one which is told twice in the Old Testament. This was the sin of numbering the fighting men of Israel, and is found in II Samuel 24 and I Chronicles 21.
Clearly, the census that David ordered was displeasing to the Lord, and David was even warned not to do this by his trusted general, Joab. But David ignored the advice of his military commanders, and for nearly 10 months they went throughout the land counting and enrolling all the men of fighting age and ability. But this act of David brought about disastrous consequences. When David came to his senses, he prayed for the guilt to be removed, and God sent his prophet, Gad with three options for punishment. (I remember my wife and I giving our children choices for punishments. Not a bad idea.)
For David, the choices were, 3 years famine, 3 months being overrun by an enemy or 3 days of plague. David chose the later, not just because it was the shortest time offered, but because He would rather throw himself on God's mercy rather than be subjected to the attacks of men. After 70,000 people had died from this plague, God withdrew the death angel. David, with the elders, put on sackcloth and fell prostrate before the Lord, and asked that the plague would rather be on him and his family rather than on the people of Israel. David was then asked to erect an altar at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite and worship the Lord there. For this occasion, (not the dedication of the temple - the word is "house") David wrote a thanksgiving song for the dedication of this altar, found in Psalm 30 - it is in this Psalm that these words are recorded, "Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning." While this verse may provide comfort in whatever sorrow we might be afflicted with, it specifically has to do with the godly sorrow which leads to repentance.
So what was the sin of David which brought about such a severe punishment and sorrow? The King wanted an accurate count of his military forces. What could be so wrong about taking a census?
It would appear that David had developed a false sense of security in a time of prosperity. Notice what he says in verse 6, "When I felt secure, I said, 'I will never be shaken.'" Everything was going so well, and perhaps David had even begun to take some of the credit for this period of peaceful prosperity. In order to receive some assurance however, David decided to have an assessment made of his natural strength, instead of fully depending on the Lord.
Furthermore, David evidently assumed that the prosperity would continue ("I will never be shaken"), his security was based on human elements, rather than on God's provision.
What we need to pay attention to is the six steps which lead us along the path from Prosperity, to Sin, to Restoration.
Step One: PROSPERITY - David enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity which came from God.
Go back and look at the previous chapters in II Samuel. Listen to his song in chapter 22:1-4 - "David sang to the LORD the words of this song when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. He said: "The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation. He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior-- from violent men you save me. I call to the LORD, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies."
And read some of "The Last Words of David" in chapter 23:3 - "Is not my house right with God? Has he not made me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part?"
How quickly David seemed to have forgotten what was the base of his security.
We in America right now are enjoying a prolonged season of prosperity. And we must never forget that these blessings come from God, as James reminds us, "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father . . . " (James 1:17) Many are forecasting tumultuous times ahead which could well result in economic hard times, perhaps due to possible problems related to Y2K. Think of it, for want of two digits, billions of dollars have had to be spent to correct a problem which we have ignored for over 40 years. No, we're not going to get into a panic over this, but it is a reminder that our society has come to place trust in technology rather than in God.
Step Two: TEMPTATION - But with the prosperity, there came a temptation for David to feel secure based on external measurements, in his case, the numerical strength of his fighting men. Just remember this, sin is as likely to come knocking on your door when things are going well as when they are going badly.
Now for those who go looking for contradictions in the Bible, here's a possible candidate. At one point the record says, "... the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go and take a census of Israel and Judah." (2 Samuel 24:1)
Yet in the other account (1 Chronicles 21:1) it says it this way, "Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel."
So who produced this temptation, God or Satan? Of course, the answer is "Yes". Remember the story of Job? Satan wanted to put Job to the test, and God allowed it. So really it was God, perhaps using Satan for this purpose. In the New Testament we are told that God doesn't tempt any man. The difference is this. God doesn't do anything to try to get us to sin. That's Satan's goal. To put it another way, Satan "tempts", God "tests" - His expectation is always that because of the "test" we will become stronger for it.
Step Three: WARNING - Joab warned David not to initiate this census, but David refused to heed the warning.
It's strange that it didn't occur to David that Joab was the least likely adviser to caution David about taking a census of his military strength. After all, Joab was the head of the Armed Forces. God must have put it in Joab's heart to try to discourage the king. David didn't catch on, he just brushed Joab's objection aside.
Let's learn from this that we should take seriously the advice given by our brothers and sisters. Last year in our church we had a situation where a brother was given warning about the direction he was taking, and he refused to honor that advice. At the same time, we had a couple who pledged to accept the counsel given by the Pastor and the Board - they backed down on that pledge with devastating consequences. One of the problems created by the combination of our Pentecostal theology and Western individualism is that we are not so ready to accept the counsel of others. Because we believe that God speaks to us personally, we often are unwilling to accept the wise counsel that others can offer to us. Of course we want to hear from God, but we must never forget that sometimes God speaks through other people.
Step Four: SIN - When David sinned, he became aware of God's displeasure. He said, in verse 7, "When you hid your face, I was dismayed"
In the KJV, the phrase "I was troubled" comes from the word "bahal", which means "to be disturbed, dismayed, terrified, anxious". We're talking here about sleepless nights, anguish of soul, deep, deep sorrow of heart.
I wonder, does it bother us to know that God is displeased? We get upset if we get cheated on our pay check, or when the car breaks down, or the furnace needs an expensive repair, or when we become unemployed for a time. But do we become sleepless over knowing that God is not pleased with what we have said or done?
Step Five: PRAYER - David prayed for mercy. Read verse 8 - "To you, O LORD, I called; to the Lord I cried for mercy."
Jesus once told the story of the two men who went to the temple to pray. Let's never forget that the one who found favor with God was the one who beat on his chest and said "Lord. be merciful to me a sinner."
All through the history of the Church, Christians have learned to respond to God this way. "Lord have mercy." Sure, for some it became a kind of "mantra" - repeated over and over, it became "vain repetition". But the awareness was there, we need to cry to God for mercy.
The question might be asked, how many times must we ask for mercy and forgiveness? When Peter wanted to know how many times in a day he should forgive a brother, Jesus said, "seventy times seven". So if we offend God, how many times should we come to ask for mercy?
Step Six: RESTORATION - God heard and answered David's prayer, "joy came in the morning."
Read verses 11 and 12 - "You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever. "
The songs of the redeemed will always include up tempo, joyful sounds. We sing, we shout, we clap our hands. Why? Because we have received His forgiveness, we rejoice "with joy unspeakable and full of glory".
There's also something in this chapter that reminds us of our Lord. The statement in verse 7, "you hid your face" makes us think about Calvary when darkness came upon the land as God turned his face away from his Son for a moment. It was then that Jesus cried out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Then look at verse 5, where David wrote, "His anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime." Yes, for a moment, as Jesus took upon Himself your sins and mine, He endured the anger of His Father. But it was only for a moment. For the rest of His eternal life, He receives His Father's favor, and passes it on to all who believe in Him.