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What's Up With 2 Samuel 24?

Israel's Army
Q: I don't understand 2 Samuel chapter 24 at all. Mostly because of the first verse:

2 Samuel 24:1 (NLT)
Once again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he caused David to harm them by taking a census. “Go and count the people of Israel and Judah,” the LORD told him.

Why was The Lord angry and why would this route of taking a census harm them? Just for the money aspect? And then why would he punish David and Israel for doing it??


A: This is a really good question because the text doesn't make any explicit explanation as to why the Lord was angry. We will do our best to make some theological conclusions based on what the text does say. I'm also going to provide a little speculation on my end. Just a fair warning!

First, let's consider the context. King David is ruling over the united kingdom of Israel and Judah. He is getting advanced in age. During David's reign, the Lord has greatly expanded their territory. David has made a name for himself through military conquest (see, for example, 2 Samuel 8). Leading up to the chapter in question (24), David sings a psalm to the Lord for what God did in delivering him from the hand of his enemies throughout his life and from the previous king, Saul (22:1ff). David writes a final song of praise for God and then the exploits of the Mighty Men are described in detail in chapter 23.

It's immediately following this that chapter 24 begins with the verse that you have asked about. It is an abrupt transition. This should alert the reader that something significant is about to happen. What the text does tell us is that God is angry with the nation. God's part in bringing discipline and judgment to His people is by the method of inciting David to take a census. This will harm the people. What the text does not explicitly tell us, is why the anger of God was once again kindled against the people. Which is the question at hand.

We've seen David's perspective on the role of God in delivering the nation from their enemies and in providing victory. David explicitly gives God credit for empowering him with strength, ability, and victory in the past (e.g. 2 Samuel 22:30-51). With the favor of God upon David, the nation of Israel, and its Mighty Men, there should be no reason for taking comfort in anything other than God Himself. Yet something caused God to be angry with the nation. And God responds by causing David to take a census. Specifically, David asks for a number of those who are able to fight. This seems significant.

If we just read 24:1, it sounds like David wants to know how many people there are total in Israel and Judah. But notice that he asks Joab, the commander of the army (e.g. 2 Samuel 8:16, 20:23), to take the census. Joab objects because he doesn't seem to think it matters. Joab bases his objection on the Lord's favor they have received (see 2 Samuel 24:3). David insists. Joab and the commanders of the army go out and register all the men who are able to fight (24:4-8). They report this number back to David:

And Joab gave the number of the registration of the people to the king; and there were in Israel eight hundred thousand valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand men. (2 Samuel 24:9)

Immediately upon receiving the results of the census, David's heart troubles him. He seeks the forgiveness of the Lord (24:10). It's after these events that the text explicitly answers the second part of the Questioner's first question. Taking this census harms the people because God punishes the nation for this sin with a pestilence that leads to the death of 70,000 men in the kingdom of Israel. It's not that the census itself harmed them. But the result of the census was the judgment of God upon the people.

It's probably not coincidental that this judgment reduced the number of able-bodied men which were just numbered.

After surveying what the text tells us for sure, these questions still remain: Why was God angry with Israel in the first place? Why would He incite David to take a census? Why punish David and the people for doing what He seemingly caused them to do?

To answer these questions, we'll need to be a bit more speculative. Be sure to weigh these conclusions accordingly.

God's anger could have been roused against the nation of Israel for any number of things. Throughout the nation's history this is nothing new! A few brief examples of the anger of the Lord being roused quickly can be found in Exodus 4:10-14, Numbers 11:1-10, Numbers 12:1-16, Numbers 22:20-29, Numbers 25:3-5, and Numbers 32:10-15. There are plenty more.

You'll notice if you read through those accounts that God's anger is kindled towards His people for their disobedience, complaining against Him and His appointed leaders, idolatry, and failure to trust Him to do what He has said He will do. Despite God's judgments being poured out, His people continue to fall into the same destructive patterns. They sin against Him in the same ways. It is likely that here, in 2 Samuel 24, the people are doing something similar. Failing to trust in what God has said and/or provided. That they are beginning to turn their eyes towards their own desires and complaining against what the Lord has provided. Or, more likely, they are beginning to trust in the flesh instead of trusting God.

Kings and Queen
It is a well-documented aspect of human nature that those in power tend to try to accumulate more power whenever possible. History is filled with examples of conquerors and world powers that attempted to rule the entire earth and make a unified kingdom of all peoples. This is a trend that has not ceased up to our own time. As the nation of Israel piled military victory upon military victory, it is not impossible to imagine that some of the people desired to expand their borders beyond what God had appointed for them. To use their military might for their own gain as a nation instead of for the glory and fame of the name of the Lord. Part of God's plan for His people was to conquer the Promised Land. But that plan also included leaving the surrounding nations outside of those borders to be witnesses of the glory of Israel so that Israel would be a testimony to the nations of the glory of the God of Israel.

As I mentioned, this is speculative. However, the commentary recorded in 1 Chronicles 21 of these same events gives a different (inspired) perspective on just what happened. Chronicles was written much later than Kings. It is a sort of commentary. The different perspective gives important insight.

Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1)

There is some translational difficulty in this passage. Is the one who stood up against Israel the devil (as the translation above indicates with a capital "S" to signify a proper name) or simply an adversary that was the leader of a surrounding nation and/or military threat (as the NET translation suggests)?

The difficulty arises from the Hebrew word satan. It literally means "adversary." Often this word refers to the very specific adversary that we know as the Devil. An example of satan meaning simply "adversary" and not meaning the Devil is Numbers 22:22 (listed above), where the adversary is the angel of the LORD against Balaam.

How we take this particular passage makes a big difference on the conclusions we draw. If the Devil is in fact the one who stood up against Israel, then we see Satan being used as an instrument of God's anger and an agent used by God's hand to bring about His sovereign purposes. This produces some interesting theological conclusions on its own but doesn't help answer the questions asked above. In fact, it probably raises a couple new ones!

If, however, the adversary is a surrounding military threat that has arisen, then we get a clear answer to our remaining questions as to why God's anger was aroused. Instead of trusting in the Lord to deal with the threat that arose, David instead trusted in the arm of the flesh. He asked for a census to assess the strength of the nation by numbers and not the Lord's divine assistance and favor. This was displeasing to Joab. It was displeasing to God.

God is the one who establishes nations and tears them down (e.g. Daniel 2:21). God is the one who raised this threat to Israel and is able to deal with it as He pleases. The number of men of fighting age within the kingdom of Israel is of no consequence. If the focus of the nation had shifted from the Lord to their own strength, it is consistent with God's character that He would order their circumstances to see how they would respond. A good example of this is recorded in Deuteronomy 8, especially verses 2, and 16-20.

If God's anger was kindled as a result of their failure to keep Him first and foremost in their minds and because they were beginning to trust in the strength of their own hands (see Deuteronomy 8:17 again), then it is well within God's character to bring about a situation which will expose this error clearly. David's decision to have a census was resisted by Joab but David persisted. The failure to trust in the Lord fully resulted in David recognizing his sin. Immediately upon completion of the task. The price paid in judgment was steep. It diminished the very thing that David, and perhaps the nation as a whole, were trusting in. It re-focused their attention on the proper object of their faith. Not the military but God Himself.

In this line of interpretation, we have a reasonable conclusion for the purpose of God's judgment against the nation after putting them in a scenario where they were going to sin against Him because of His anger. God sees the heart condition first. David's shifting faith causes the anger of the Lord to burn. God raises a foreign enemy to expose David's faulty faith through the census and bring about repentance and renewed faith.

However, if these conclusions are in error, I would simply point out that God is able to do as He pleases. I encourage you to take the Apostle Paul's words to heart:

So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?" On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? (Romans 9:18-21)

It is often difficult for us understand why God does what He does. His ways are not our ways. Thank God for that! Because if His ways were ours, He never would have sent us His own Son as a Savior. We wouldn't give up our lives or the lives of our most beloved for those who are our enemies (see Romans 5:7-8).

One final comment: the translation provided by the Questioner from the New Living Translation provides some extra difficulty. It says that the Lord told David to number the people. It must be pointed out that the NLT is not really a translation (even though it calls itself one). It is a paraphrase. If you contrast this same verse in other translations, you'll see that God was instrumental in David's taking the census but no other translation makes the explicit claim that God said, "Go and number Israel."

The interpretational decision made by the NLT is significant. My understanding of this passage is in agreement with the other translations against the NLT rendering. God's anger incited David to say "Go number Israel." That is different than God saying, "Go number Israel." In the second scenario, it would be odd for God to then punish David for obeying God's direct command.

Even if this verse is possibly translated in either direction due to some ambiguities in the text, 2 Samuel 24:10 makes it pretty clear (to me anyway) that David would not come to the Lord and confess that he had acted foolishly if he had simply obeyed what the Lord had explicitly told him to do. In context, the NLT provides extra difficulty in understanding this particular passage that could be eliminated by reading a genuine translation instead of a paraphrase.

I hope this helps! Once again, great question!

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