“David’s conscience troubled him after he had taken a census of the troops. He said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I’ve done. Now, Lord, because I’ve been very foolish, please take away your servant’s guilt.’” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever done something you knew in your heart was wrong only to feel guilty about it immediately afterwards? You set out on a particular path, some trusted friends told you not to take that path, you took it anyway, and knew almost before you finished doing whatever it was they were right? That’s a miserable feeling, isn’t it?
That’s what David experienced here. He wanted to do a military census of his nation. This would give him a clue as to how strong his army was. From the bigger picture of the text we know this was a desire that was from the devil, but apparently, even without that insider knowledge, his advisers recognized this as a bad idea. Joab told him so about as directly as you tell a king anything.
But David wanted it and so his command overruled their objections and they were sent to count heads anyway. The author of 1 Chronicles adds the detail, omitted here, that Joab didn’t even count everybody as an act of passive-aggressive protest against the order.
And when it was all done and David had his number, the guilt of what he had done hit him immediately. It washed over him like a wave of the sea and he quickly sought the towel of God’s forgiveness and grace.
Now, we obviously shouldn’t follow the path that David took here, but my question is this: Why was this census such a big deal? What made this so bad that God punished the whole nation brutally for it?
The tough answer here is that we’re not told. There are a ton of details that would make this story a whole lot easier for us to get our hearts and minds around that just aren’t included. It’s enormously frustrating. This is part of why it’s so important to get our minds around the fact that our faith doesn’t rest on the absolute inerrancy of the Old Testament (even though that is both the correct and reasonable position to take on it…because Jesus did). Passages like this one don’t have to throw us into a tailspin.
That being said, we aren’t left totally in the dark here. From both the text and some intelligent historical presuming we can say a couple of things. First, what are the reasons David would have taken a census? Censuses were often taken as a way to assess taxes on the people. The king wanted to raise so much money so he counted the people to see how much they were going to have to pay up to reach his goal.
Censuses were also taken for military reasons. The king wanted to attack some other nation and wanted to see if he was going to be able to do it with the personnel he had. Or, he wanted to know if he was going to be able to stand off against some attacking enemy or have to pay them off to go away.
Those were both reasons that made sense and weren’t morally problematic in some way. David didn’t apparently call for the census for either of those reasons. In v. 2 we’re told that he just wanted to know. In other words, he just wanted to know how big his army was so he could sit back and say, “My army is this big.” Why on earth would he want to do that? Pride.
This census was driven by pride. It was driven by pride and a desire to rely on his army rather than God for his help and deliverance in a time of trouble. Given that it happened somewhere near the end of his reign and after he had defeated several enemies, David likely was trying to say that he had won those victories with his great army in order to take for himself credit that should have gone to the Lord.
That was the real problem here. David was falling into pride and God had to pull him out of it before he destroyed everything good he had done. Pride can do the same kind of damage in our lives as well if we don’t get rid of it. Take the lesson vicariously here rather than personally.