Why was David's Census a Great Sin?

Series: Question Box

by Rick Phillips July 28, 2002

Tonight I am going to briefly handle three questions that have come to me recently. The first asks, “Why was it such a great sin for King David to order a census of Israel?” This refers to 2 Samuel 24:1-17, where God’s anger burned against Israel because David took a census of the fighting men. Even Joab, David’s thug general, knew this would bring trouble, saying, “Why does my lord the king want to do such a thing?” (24:3). As soon as David did it he, too, knew it was a sin. God’s wrath was so stirred up that 70,000 people died as a result. But, interestingly, the biblical account never explains why this was a sin.

What makes this more interesting is that the chapter begins by saying that the LORD incited David to do this, apparently by giving Satan permission to tempt him. The parallel account in 1 Chronicles 21 says, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” The record in Chronicles places this right after a great victory over the Philistines, so the sin was probably related to a problem with pride and self-reliance. A census was preliminary to a draft of soldiers and a levying of taxes. It seems, therefore, that David’s intent was to increase the royal power in a way that contrasted with humble reliance on God. As Deuteronomy chapter 17 so strongly insists, the human kingship of Israel was to be noticeably dependent on God’s divine kingship. For Israel’s king to build up the same kind of power common to pagan kings was tantamount to repudiating God’s over-kingship. This seems to have been the nature of David’s sin so that God was angered and acted to nip it in the bud.

This sin is repeated today when churches rely on marketing and salesmanship to gain success. There is nothing wrong with prudent surveys about how the church may better serve its people, or how practical matters may be improved. But when the church takes surveys of felt needs and desires so as to identify consumers and convert them into customers—paying customers, of course—by redesigning its worship and message, then, like David in his census, the church repudiates its reliance on God, places its own prowess in the place of his provision, denies the gospel by implication, and angers God so that he judges it and allows it to spiritually wither. This is, in my view, the very thing the church in America is suffering from today.

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