The twenty-fourth chapter of second Samuel begins by stating that “The Lord’s anger again raged against Israel, and He incited David against them, saying, ‘Go count Israel and Judah.’” (24:1) So David gives an order to his general, Joab, telling him to “Go through all the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beer Sheba and muster the army, so I may know the size of the army” (24:2b). Now, this is not precisely what David had been commanded to do, which is somewhat telling when it comes to an overall analysis of David’s character, which was seriously flawed. Yes, David, as the Apostle Paul would say, “served God’s purpose in his own generation” (Acts 13:36a), but this statement is removed quite a distance from the initial report of David before he was anointed to be king, in which Paul presents David as “a man after My (God’s) heart” (13:22). With this, Paul borrows from the first book of Samuel, where we read about the Lord having sought out, what is perhaps a better translation, “a man who is loyal to Him” (13:14b).
God instructed David to number Israel and Judah. In and of itself, this is not a problem. God has no problem with a census of His people. In fact, in His law as given through Moses, the Lord gave instructions as to how it was that the census was to be carried out, and what it was that must occur along with the census. In fact, the book of Numbers, for the most part, is itself a census. However, we know that the Lord’s anger was raging against Israel, which is an indication that there was a problem with which God intended to deal. It seems as if God knew that David would not follow the directive that had been given, which might very well be the implication of the author’s record of inciting David against Israel. Rather than direct a numbering of the whole of the people, David instead asks for a numbering of the army.
It seems that Joab better understood the Lord’s command than did David, as he replies to the order that has been given, saying “May the Lord your God make the army a hundred times larger right before the eyes of my lord the king! But why does my master the king want to do this?” (24:3) It is worth repeating that the Lord wanted His people numbered, whereas David asked for a numbering of his army. By all appearances here, Joab is aghast at the king’s command. However, “the king’s edict stood, despite the objections of Joab and the leaders of the army” (24:4a). So not only did Joab have a grasp of what it was that the Lord wanted, but so too did the leaders of the army, who were likely influenced by Joab to offer their objections to the king. Ultimately, the record indicates that “Joab and the leaders of the army left the king’s presence in order to muster the Israelite army” (24:4b), so that David, as he said, could know its size. After a period of time, “Joab reported the number of warriors to the king” (24:9a). The given report stated that “In Israel there were 800,000 sword-wielding warriors, and in Judah there were 500,000 soldiers” (24:9b).
David’s response to the report of more than a million soldiers at his disposal is not what one might expect. Rather than exulting in the power that such a count represented, “David felt guilty after he had numbered the army” (24:10a). Why would David feel guilty? Was it because numbering the people was wrong? Not at all. Rather, David felt guilty because he commanded something to be done that was not what the Lord commanded him to do, which also served to give him an insight into his own mindset. As a result, “David said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned greatly by doing this! Now, O Lord, please remove the guilt of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.’” (24:10b) What was David’s sin? Naturally, we can easily make the case that it was disobedience. God asked for one thing, and David did something different. This is not difficult to ascertain. However, there was something more substantial than disobedience. It was the same problem that we saw with Saul and the situation with the Amalekites.
God, through Samuel, had given specific instruction to Saul as to how he was to deal with the Amalekites. Saul only partially carried out the Lord’s command. This resulted in Saul being rejected by God as king over His people. So in David’s actions, we see hints of the same thing. Saul was given a specific instruction, as was David. Saul followed the instruction to an extent, as did David. Saul is rejected as king, and David, knowing this story of Saul and perhaps coming to his senses a bit, feels guilty, offering his plea to the Lord for the removal of guilt. He did not want to be rejected as king (which would be the second time if this occurs after the Absalom situation), and he did not want to be overtaken by the same fate as that which was experienced by Saul. In connection with what brought about his downfall, Saul was said to have been setting up a monument for himself (1 Samuel 15:12). In our exploration of Saul’s life in the course of this study, we determined that this was the beginning of idolatry for Saul. This idolatry is what would result in Saul being exiled from the throne of Israel, as Saul began to operate outside of God’s purposes for him, though he would remain king until his death. His idolatry led to exile.
So what was David’s sin---his great sin, as he said? Of what was he guilty? Into what had he entered which he now regarded as foolishness? What did the numbering of the army rather than the people represent? Plainly and simply, it was idolatry. His army, which represented his power and his kingdom, had become his idol. It seems as though Joab and the leaders of the army had a sense of this, but that David was blinded to this fact. The fact of his own idolatry appears to have dawned upon him when he received Joab’s count. As we understand this about David, we are now better positioned to understand what it was that caused the Lord’s anger to rage against Israel.