His Final Folly
2 Samuel 24
The Word of God supplies us with two separate accounts of David’s sin in numbering the people: one in 2 Samuel 24 and the other in 1 Chronicles 21, and both of them need to be carefully pondered by us if we are to have the advantage of all the light the Lord has vouchsafed us on this mysterious incident, infidels have appealed to these two chapters in an endeavor to show that the Scriptures are unreliable, but their efforts to do so are utterly vain: what they, in their blindness, suppose to be discrepancies are in reality supplementary details, which enable us to obtain a more comprehensive view of the various factors entering into this incident. Thus once more God taketh the wise in their own craftiness and makes the wrath of man to praise Him, for the attempt of His enemies to pit 1 Chronicles against 2 Samuel 24 has served to call the attention of many of His people to a companion passage which otherwise they had probably overlooked.
The first help which 1 Chronicles 21 affords us is to indicate the moral connection between David’s folly and that which preceded it. 1 Chronicles 21 opens with the word "And," which bids us look at the immediate context—one which is quite different from that of 2 Samuel 24. 1 Chronicles 20 closes with "These were born unto the giant in Gath; and they fell by the hand of David, and by the hand of his servants" (v. 8). That closes a record of notable exploits and victories which David and his mighty men had obtained over their foes. And then we read, And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel" (1 Chron. 21:1). Is not the connection obvious? Flushed with his successes the heart of David was lifted up, and thus the door was opened for Satan successfully to tempt him. Let us seek constantly to bear in mind that, the only place where we are safe from a fall is to lie in the dust before God.
Some have wondered wherein lay David’s sin in taking this military census. But is it not plain that, as king over all Israel and victorious over all his enemies, he wished to know the full numerical strength of the Nation? —losing sight of the fact that his strength lay wholly in that One who had multiplied his power and given him such success. Would it not also serve to strike terror into the hearts of the surrounding nations for there to be publicly proclaimed the vast number of men capable of taking up arms that David had under him? But if this was one of the motives which actuated the king, it was equally unnecessary and unworthy of him, for God is well able to cause His fear to fall upon those who oppose us without any fleshly efforts of ours to that end—efforts which would deprive Him of the glory were He to grant them success. What honor does the Lord get as the Protector of any nation while they boast of and rely on the vastness of their armaments?
But David was far from being alone in this folly, for as 2 Samuel 24:1 tells us, "And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and He moved David against them." The Lord had a controversy with the Nation. He had dealt governmentally with David and his house (chaps. 12-21), as He had likewise dealt with Saul and his house (21), and now His grievance is more immediately with Israel, whom He chastised through the act of their king—the "again" looks back to 1 Chronicles 21:1. No one particular sin of Israel’s is mentioned, but from David’s Psalms we have little difficulty in ascertaining the general state of his subjects. Ever prone to remove their eyes from Jehovah, there is little room for doubt that the temporal successes which God had granted them became an occasion to them of self-congratulation, and like the children of this world, in the unbelief of self-confidence, they were occupied with their own resources.
The second help which 1 Chronicles 21 affords us is the information which it supplies that Satan was instrumental in mowing David to commit this great folly. Not that this in any wise excused David or modified his guilt, but because it casts light on the governmental ways of God. "In the righteous government of God rulers and their subjects have a reciprocal influence on one another. Like the members in the human body, they are interested in each other’s conduct and welfare; and cannot sin or suffer without mutually affecting each other. When the wickedness of nations provokes God, He leaves princes to adopt pernicious measures, or to commit atrocious crimes, which bring calamities on the people: and when the ruler commits iniquity, he is punished by the diminution of his power, and by witnessing the distresses of his subjects. Instead therefore of mutual recriminations under public calamities, however occasioned, all parties should be remanded to repent of their own sins, and to practice their own duties. Princes should hence be instructed, even for their own sakes, to repress wickedness and to promote righteousness in their dominions, as well as to set a good example: and the people, for the public benefit, should concur in salutary measures, and pray continually for their rulers" (Thomas Scott).
The solemn principles which are illustrated in the above quotation are of wide ramification and go far to explain many a painful incident which often sorely puzzles the righteous. For example, only the Day to come will reveal how many ministers were permitted by God to fall into public disgrace because He had a controversy with the churches over which they were set as pastors. God left David to himself to be tempted by Satan because He was displeased with his subjects and determined to chastise them. In like manner, He has left more than one minister of the Gospel to himself, to be tried and tripped up by the devil, because He had a grievance against the people he served, so that in the fall of their leader the pride of the people was humiliated. Yet, be it said emphatically, this is in nowise a case of making the innocent suffer because of the guilty: the pride of David’s own heart left him an easy prey to the enemy.
"For the king said to Joab the captain of the host, which was with him, Go now through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan even to Beersheba, and number ye the people, that I may know the number of the people. 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?" (2 Sam. 24:2, 3). From the human side of things, it seems strange that Joab should have been the one to demur against David’s act of vain glory. As we have seen in earlier chapters, Joab was a man of blood and eminently one of the children of this world, as the whole of his career makes plain; yet was he quick to see, on this occasion, that the step David proposed to take was one fraught with grave danger, and therefore did he earnestly remonstrate with the king.
It is indeed striking to find that this infatuation of David was met by an objection from the commander of his army. Not that it was the ungodliness of David’s project which filled Joab with horror: rather that he realized the impolity of it. As we pointed out in the preceding chapter, after Israel entered into Canaan God never gave a command for the numbering of His people, and there was no occasion now for a military census to be taken. Joab was conscious of that and expostulated with his master, being wiser in his generation. This serves to illustrate a solemn principle: many a man of the world exercises more common sense than does a saint who is out of communion with God and under the power of Satan. This fact is written large across the pages of Holy Writ and a number of examples will no doubt come to mind if the reader meditates thereon.
The force of Joab’s objection to David’s plan was, why take delight in such a thing as ascertaining the precise numerical strength of your army, and thereby run the danger of bringing down divine judgment upon us? Thus this child of the world perceived what David did not. Most solemn is the lesson which is here pointed for the Christian. It is in God’s light that we "see light" (Ps. 36:9), and when we turn away from Him we are left in spiritual darkness. And as the Lord Jesus exclaimed, "If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!" (Matthew 6:23). A believer who is out of fellowship with the Lord will make the most stupid blunders and engage in crass folly such as a shrewd unbeliever would disdain. This is part of the price which he has to pay for wandering from the narrow path.
But we must now look at Joab’s opposition to David’s plan from the divine side. Had David been walking with holy watchfulness before the Lord he had not yielded so readily to Satan’s temptation, still less had he been prepared to act contrary to the express requirements of Exodus 30:12-16. Nevertheless, God did not now utterly forsake David and give him up fully to his heart’s lusts. Instead, He placed an obstacle in his path, in the form of Joab’s (probably, most unexpected) opposition, which rebuked his folly, and rendered his sin still more inexcusable. Behold here, then, the wondrous mingling of the workings of divine sovereignty and the enforcing of human responsibility. God decreed that Pilate should pass the death sentence upon Christ, yet He gave him a most emphatic deterrent through his wife (Matthew 27:19). In like manner, it was God’s purpose to chastise Israel through the folly of their king, yet so far from approving of David’s act He rebuked him through Joab.
Yes, remarkable indeed are the varied factors entering into this equation, the different actors in this strange drama. If on the one hand the Lord suffered Satan to tempt His servant, on the other hand He caused Joab to deter him. It was David’s refusal to listen to Joab—backed up by his officers (v. 4)— which rendered his sin the greater. And is not the practical lesson plain for us! When we are meditating folly and a man of the world counsels us against it, it is high time for us to "consider our ways." When the merciful providence of God places a hindrance in our path, even though it be in the form of a rebuke from an unbeliever, we should pause in our madness, for we are in imminent danger to ourselves and probably to others as well.
"Notwithstanding the king’s word prevailed against Joab, and against the captains of the host" (v. 4). Joab perceived that David’s purpose sprang from carnal ambition and that it was against the public interest, and accordingly he remonstrated with him. When that failed he summoned to his aid the additional pleas of the captains of the army. But all in vain. David’s mind was fully made up, and in self-will he committed this grievous sin. "When the mind, instead of taking a comprehensive view of all the circumstances before it, persists in viewing them partially in some favorite aspect, it is astonishing how blind it may become to things obvious as the day to every one who has no such bias to warp his judgment. David’s soul, whilst absorbed in contemplating the might and triumphs of Israel, had no desire to consider other circumstances, the consideration of which would leave on the heart a sense of weakness—not of strength" (B. W. Newton).
How merciful is God to raise up those who oppose us when we anticipate doing that which is displeasing to him! Yet how often, in the pride of our hearts and the stubbornness of our wills, do we resent such opposition. Everything that enters our lives contains a message from God if only we will pause and listen to it, and many a thorny path should we have escaped if only we had heeded that hedge which divine providence placed in our way. That hedge may take the form of a friendly word of advice from those around us, and though we are far from suggesting that we should always follow out the same, yet it is for our good that we prayerfully weigh it before God. If we do not, and in our self-will force our way through that hedge, then we must not be surprised if we get badly torn in the process. How much better had it been both for David and his subjects to have responded to the council of Joab and his officers.
"And Joab and the captains of the host went out from the presence of the king, to number the people of Israel" (v. 4). On other occasions Joab had lent himself readily to the furthering of the king’s evil designs (2 Sam. 11:16; 14:1, 2), but at this time he carried out his orders with great reluctance. How strongly he was opposed to David’s policy appears from "the king’s word was abominable to Joab" (1 Chron. 21:6). The service on which Joab now embarked was most distasteful to him, nevertheless he carried it out, for it was "of the Lord" (as verse 1 shows) that he should do so. Yet that did not excuse him; the less so when he clearly perceived the wrongfulness of it. What God has decreed must come to pass, nevertheless the entire guilt of every wicked deed rests upon him who performs it. It is never right to do wrong, and Joab certainly ought to have declined having any part in such an evil course.
Joab commenced his distasteful task in the remotest sections of Palestine, and took his time about it, perhaps hoping that long ere it was completed the king would repent him of his folly. The compilers of the census first numbered the inhabitants of the country to the east of Jordan, from thence proceeding to the northern part of Canaan, and finishing up in the region to the west of Jordan (vv. 5-7). They compiled a complete register of all the men capable of taking up arms, excepting only the Levites and the Benjamites: the former because their sacred vocation exempted them from military service: the latter, probably because they could not yet be relied upon to render wholehearted devotion to David (compare 2:28; 3:1, etc.). Nearly ten months were spent on this task: how patient the Lord is and how great His mercy in giving us "space for repentance—alas, how great is our madness and sin in refusing to repent.
"So when they had gone through all the land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. 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" (2 Sam. 24:8, 9). The careful student will note that the figures given here are different from those found in 1 Chronicles 21:5—a variation which sceptics are quick to seize upon as one of the "errors the Bible is full of"; but most deplorable is it to find that some of the orthodox commentators solve "the difficulty" by suggesting that the records were "inaccurate." The fact is that the two classifications are quite different, the one supplementing the other. It is to be carefully observed that 2 Samuel 24 qualifies the first total by "there were in Israel 800,000 valiant men," whereas 1 Chronicles only says 1,100,000 "men that drew sword" in Israel, so that an additional number to the "valiant men" was there included! Again, in Chronicles the men of Judah "were 470,000 that drew sword," whereas in 2 Samuel 24 the "men of Judah were 500,000—evidently 30,000 drew not the sword.
It is striking to note that the Hebrews had not multiplied nearly so much during their five hundred years’ residence in Canaan as they did in their briefer sojourn in Egypt; nevertheless, that such a vast multitude were sustained in such a narrow territory is clear evidence of the remarkable fertility of the country—a land flowing with milk and honey. Whether the total figures which Joab presented to his royal master reached his expectations, or whether they mortified his pride, we are not told; but probably his subjects were not so numerous as he had expected. It usually follows that when we set our hearts upon the attaining of some earthly object, the actual realization of our quest proves to be but a chimera. But such disappointments ought only to serve in weaning our affections from things below, to fix them on things above which alone can satisfy the soul. Alas, how slow we are to learn the lesson.