The story of David numbering the people is found in 2nd Samuel 24 and 1st Chronicles 21. Let’s start out by reading 2nd Samuel 24:1, “Again the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel, and HE MOVED DAVID against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” Now let’s read 1st Chronicles 21:1, “Now SATAN stood up against Israel, and MOVED DAVID to number Israel.” This sounds like a clear contradiction, for in Samuel we are told the Lord moved David to number Israel and in Chronicles it was Satan who moved David to number them. Which one is true? Why of course they are both true! How can that be? It is actually quite simple; God ALLOWED Satan to influence David’s heart to do it. One has put it this way: “Satan PRECIPITATED it, David PERFORMED it (because of the pride of his heart), and God PERMITTED it” (William MacDonald).

Why did God permit Satan to do this? We had read, “Again the ANGER of the LORD was aroused against Israel.” We aren’t told exactly why God was angry with Israel but this is the reason He permitted David to take a census. Many believe that God was still angry with them for their cruel treatment of the Gibeonites under King Saul. We read in 2nd Samuel 21:1, “Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David inquired of the LORD. And the LORD answered, ‘It is because of Saul and his bloodthirsty house, because he killed the Gibeonites.’” The fact is God had good reasons on many occasions to be angry with Israel for they were constantly failing Him in one way or another, and because God is holy He had to judge them for their sins. At that time He sent a famine to the land and in the time of David’s census He sent a plague: “So the LORD sent a plague upon Israel from the morning till the appointed time. From Dan to Beersheba seventy thousand men of the people died” (2nd Samuel 24:15). This is very solemn, but God is holy and in His righteousness He must judge His people when they sin. Israel was God’s chosen people and favored above all nations, but along with the PRIVILEGES they had there was great RESPONSIBILITY to glorify God before the nations by living a life of holiness. God had told them over and over again, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (see Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7). This principle is still true for God’s people today, for the Apostle Peter exhorted the saints in 1st Peter 1:16, “But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’” And just as God judged Israel for failing to be holy, He will surely judge us when we fail to glorify Him in our lives. Peter spoke of this later in 4:15 & 17, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters…for the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God.”

Why did David number the people? As we saw from the quote by William MacDonald, it was PRIDE that moved David’s heart to take the census. God knew that this pride was lurking in his heart and that he would easily succumb to Satan’s temptation. David’s pride was so great that he even refused to listen to the commander of the army who pleaded with him not to count the people (verse 3). So David went ahead with the census and we learn in verse 9 that “the sum of the number of the people” was 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword in Judah and 500,000 men in Judah. That was quite the army that David could BOAST IN and no doubt he would also be tempted to TRUST IN his men to give him victories over his enemies instead of trusting in the Lord.

To David’s credit we read in verse 10, “And David’s heart condemned him after he had numbered the people.” We could say that David quickly “came to his senses” and realized his sins of PRIDE and INDEPENDENCY OF GOD. This led him to say to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O LORD, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” Yet the “damage had been done” and in verses 11-13 God told David through the prophet Gad that he could pick between three acts of judgment (a famine, fleeing before his enemies, or a plague) as punishment for his sin. David decided to let the Lord decide (see verse 14) and God then sent a plague (verse 15). As David witnessed the devastating judgment upon his people he was moved to once again confess his sin to the Lord, “Surely I have sinned and I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let Your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father’s house.” This is truly commendable, for David was, in spite of many failures throughout his life, a “man after God’s own heart” (see Acts 13:22) and thus he was more than willing to let the judgment fall upon him and his house instead of on those who he was ruling over. Of course, David erred in asking, “What have they done,” for as we saw in verse 1, “the Lord’s anger was aroused against Israel” and thus they were not innocent. David had sinned and so had the people, and as a result God’s righteous judgment fell on the whole nation.  (413.3)  (DO)