His Final Folly

2 Samuel 24

We are about to look at one more of the dark chapters in David’s life, though it has a much brighter ending than had some of the others. It concerns an episode which though simple and plain in some of its features, is in other respects shrouded in deep mystery; nor do we profess to be able to solve it fully. The incident which is narrated in 2 Samuel 24 concerns the purpose which David formed for numbering Israel and Judah, in order that be might know the exact fighting strength of his people. Apparently this was quite an innocent undertaking, yet it promptly met with disfavor and opposition from the commander and officers of his army. A little later David himself acknowledged that therein he had "sinned greatly," and the Lord Himself manifested His sore displeasure by slaying no less than seventy thousand of his men by a pestilence.

On two occasions the Lord Himself had directed Moses to number the people. First in connection with their encampment in the Wilderness (Num. 1), and later it was enjoined with special reference to the allotments which the different tribes were to receive in Canaan (Num. 26:2). On each occasion Moses numbered the male Israelites from twenty years old and upwards, "all that were able to go forth to war"—the fighting strength of the congregation being thereby ascertained. We mention this because it would thus appear that David had clear precedent to warrant his procedure. It is true that after Israel settled in Canaan God never again issued a command for His people to be numbered, and while we are not informed that He gave any such order to our hero at this time, yet we are told that the Lord "moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah" (v. 1).

We are not left in any doubt that on this occasion David committed a grave fault, yet wherein lay the evil of it is not so certain. Varied indeed have been the conjectures formed and the explanations advanced by different writers thereon. Some have drawn the inference from 1 Chronicles 27:23, 24 that David’s sin lay in numbering those who were under twenty years old (yet sufficiently developed as to be able to bear arms), and that because his act was thus illegal it was not formally entered in the state records. Others conclude from the same passage that he erred in numbering the people at all, that his act sprang from unbelief in the promises of God to the patriarchs that their seed should be as innumerable as the sand of the seashore. Others think that he was guilty of presumption, acting without any instruction from God. Others think that the fault lay in his failure to require the half shekel, which was to be paid for the service of the sanctuary when the people were numbered, as "a ransom for their souls" (Ex. 30:12).

Now we are not one of those who take pleasure in pitting the interpretations of one expositor against another, rather do we prefer to combine them when this seems permissible and helpful. In the absence of any authoritative word from God as to the precise nature of David’s sin in the case before us, we shall, as we proceed to comment upon it, bear in mind these several views, which may well supplement each other. One other explanation has been advanced, which impresses us personally most strongly of all, namely, that it was pride of heart which moved Israel’s king to here commit such folly. If he was intoxicated with the successes which heaven had granted to his arms, and was more occupied with them than their Giver, then that would readily account for his disastrous lapse, for "pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall."

Some light may be cast on this mysterious episode by taking into account the relative period in David’s history at which it occurred. As the previous chapters have informed us, the sword of David and of Israel had been successful over all their enemies. The Philistines had been subdued, Moab had brought gifts, garrisons had been stationed in Damascus, and the Syrians as well as the Edomites had become their servants. To such a remarkable extent had his arms been permitted to triumph, that we are told, "And the fame of David went out into all lands; and the Lord brought the fear of him upon all nations" (1 Chron. 14:17). Naught of the good of which Jehovah had spoken to him had failed. But David was human, a man of like passions with us. Man—no matter who he be—if left to himself is quite incapable of holding a blessing, as was clearly demonstrated in Eden at the beginning. The fuller be our cup of joy, the steadier the hand required to hold it.

The history of David’s sin is stated thus, "And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah" (2 Sam. 24:1), or as 1 Chronicles 21:1 gives it, "And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel." Those two statements are not, as some have foolishly supposed, contradictory, but are complementary. Though God is not the Author of sin, and can never be charged with evil, yet as the Governor of the universe He is the Controller and Director of it, so that when it serves His righteous purpose even Satan and his hosts are requisitioned by Him: 1 Kings 22:20-22; Ezekiel 14:9, etc. In this instance it is clear at least that God permitted Satan to tempt David, and David being left to himself yielded to the temptation and sinned. Moreover, the fact that David yielded so readily, and so obstinately rejected the counsel of his servants, seems to indicate that he had not been walking with holy watchfulness before God.

It was a remarkable juncture in the history of David. The ancient foes of Israel, after centuries of conflict, had at last succumbed. Even the powerful sons of Goliath had been so crushed by his vanquisher that they no longer made any effort to antagonize. But not only had the surrounding nations been subdued, they were despoiled, and the huge quantities of gold which had been taken from them was dedicated unto the Lord (see 1 Chron. 18:11; 20:4). "Triumphs had been gained and a rest attained such as Israel had never known before. The sword was about to be sheathed and the reign of Solomon (the typical Prince of Peace) was at hand. The Ark of God, ceasing from its lengthy wanderings, was no longer to dwell in curtains. The Temple was about to be built. Israel was to be gathered there in solemn and associated worship, and God’s house was to be filled with His glory. It was a bright and blessed era, but it was only a typical and shadowy one" (B. W. Newton).

Ah, that was the very point: this wonderful juncture in Israel’s history was but "a typical and a shadowy" one, and therefore it made all the difference whether it were viewed by the eye of faith or with the eye of sense. To those who contemplated it with the eye of faith, and saw therein a blessed foreshadowment of a yet distant future, it afforded holy encouragement, strengthening them in patient endurance and hope. But to those who looked upon this successful period with the eye of sense, it could prove only a snare. As another has pointed out, "When the Feelings of nature predominate (and they always do predominate when faith is not in vigorous exercise), triumph or success even when recognized as a gift of God’s undeserved mercy, will, nevertheless, be so used as to exalt ourselves. As weeds flourish under sunshine and flowers, so when there is not watchfulness, the tendencies of our nature germinate under mercies.

This, it seems to us, is the chief practical lesson inculcated by our present passage. It points a most solemn warning against the dangers of success. If adversity carries with it a measure of menace to the spiritual life, the perils of prosperity are far greater. If through our unwatchfulness the former leads to discontent and murmuring, the latter will, unless we be doubly on our guard, issue in self-complacency and self-sufficiency. It is when we are brought low, by losses and trials, that we are the most cast upon God; as it is when success crowns our efforts and our barns are well filled, that we are most apt to walk independently of Him. Little wonder, then, that the Lord entrusts few of His people with much of this world’s goods. The same applies to spiritual blessings: if earnests of a coming rest are granted, they will be regarded as realities instead of foreshadowings, and then we shall rest before our time to rest be come—instead of continuing to press forward.

It seems likely that David had fallen into this snare, encouraging imaginations which were completely at variance with the actual facts of both his own and Israel’s actual condition: that is, utterly inconsistent with the truth that their national prosperity was but typical and transitory. In the first place, to number the people was but the natural act of one who had persuaded himself that Israel had entered upon a period of stable and permanent rest. In the second place, to number the people was an act indicative of ownership, and it was obviously wrong for David to regard Israel as though they were his people, whom it was legitimate to number as his inheritance and strength. Instead, he should have viewed them as the congregation and inheritance of Jehovah, to be numbered only when He gave the command. Finally, he ought to have looked upon them as Jehovah’s redeemed inheritance, and therefore never to be numbered without a typical ransom for the soul of each being rendered to God.

The divine statute was very definite on this point: "When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord, when thou numberest them . . . And thou shalt take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shalt appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation, that it may he a memorial unto the children of Israel before the Lord to make an atonement for your souls" (Ex. 30:12, 16). "The very mention of the ‘atonement money’ was sufficient to banish every feeling of pride or independency both from him who numbered and from those who were numbered amongst the congregation of Jehovah: for ‘according to Jehovah’s fear so is His wrath’: that is, the nearer we draw to Jehovah to fear and to serve Him, the more do we supply occasions for His displeasure and wrath, for the higher and holier the service, the more does our natural sinful incompetency appear.

"The very fact of being His congregation, appointed to draw nigh to Him and serve Him in His holiness, must entail chastisement and plague on all numbered as His people, unless atonement interposed and provided a ransom for the soul. If David unbidden, and in unholy elation of heart presumed to number Israel as if there had been in them a strength that needed not to fear any chastisement, or dread any abasement, it is no wonder that the atonement money would have been withheld. It seems to have been utterly forgotten. No mention is made thereof. He seems not to have recollected the words ‘that there be no plague among them when thou numberest them.’ Israel was numbered as if they could forego that protection of grace which the atonement money signified, and stand firm on the basis of that strength which in their recent triumphs had been so marvellously exhibited" (B. W. Newton).

But we must now look at this strange and solemn incident from another angle, from the side presented to us in 1 Chronicles 21:1, where we are permitted a glimpse behind the veil: "And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel." Expositors have pointed out that these words "stood up" (carefully compare Zech. 3:1) have a forensic force, being an expression which alludes to the posture of those who accuse or charge another person with a crime in a court of law. In Revelation 12:10 Satan is expressly designated "the accuser of our brethren," which office we behold him discharging in Job 1:9-12. All these passages are admittedly deeply mysterious, yet in the light of them it appears that the spiritual condition of Israel at this time gave the adversary an advantage, and that he promptly used the same by representing their condition to the Lord as a reason why they should be punished. This seems to be clearly borne out by the terms of 2 Samuel 24:1.

"And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah." "The Israelites had offended God by their ungrateful and repeated rebellions against David, by not duly profiting under the means employed for the revival of religion; and probably by that pride, luxury and ungodliness, which generally springs from great prosperity. They had before, in a famine which lasted three years, experienced the effects of the divine displeasure, and it is likely they had not been amended by the correction: but some think that the sin immediately intended was the setting up of Absalom for king, and rebelling against David. This, David had cordially forgiven; but it was a national defection from God, which He did not judge it proper to leave unpunished. So that ‘again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel,’ and He permitted Satan to tempt and prevail against David, that in chastising him, He might punish them" (Thomas Scott).

The Nation at large was not made up of those who walked by faith and trod the path of the divine statutes. Very far from it, as is clearly intimated by David’s prayer, "Help Lord, for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men" (Ps. 12:1). From 2 Samuel 23:6 it is also plain that the "sons of Belial" were strong and numerous in the midst of Israel, so that we need not be surprised that the signal triumphs which had been vouchsafed them should have awakened in the hearts of the majority a proud and self-sufficient arrogance, which was bound to affect their fellows, and which thus called forth the sore displeasure of God. Nothing gives Satan so easy an approach to and such an advantage over us as when we are swelled by a sense of our self-importance. Few things are more detestable unto God than a heart that is inflated by egotism: note how the seven things which He hates is headed by "A proud look" (Prov. 6:16-19). How urgently we need to heed the exhortation of Christ and take His yoke upon us and learn of Him who is "meek and lowly in heart."

It is indeed solemn to see one so near the end of his earthly pilgrimage, one who had (in the main) for many years walked so closely with God, now giving place to the devil and being overcome by him. What proof is this that neither age nor experience is (in itself) any safeguard against his attacks! As long as the believer is in this world the great enemy of our souls has access to us, is often permitted to work upon our corruptions, and under certain restrictions to tempt us. And therefore it is we are called upon to "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time: casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith" (1 Peter 5:6-8). We have purposely quoted the whole of that passage because it is imperative that we heed the order of its several precepts: we cannot obey those in verse 8 unless and until we respond to those in verses 6 and 7.

There never comes a time, then, when the saint on earth can dispense with any part of the armor which God has provided, nor when he may relax his vigilance against his untiring and remorseless adversary. If the time of youth be dangerous because of hot passions, the season of old age is imperiled by the surgings of pride: therefore must we watch and pray always lest we enter into temptation. And, the higher be the rank of the saint, the more important and influential be the office he holds, then the greater is his need to be doubly on his guard. It has ever been Satan’s way to level his principal attacks against those who are eminent for usefulness, knowing full well that if he can encompass their downfall, many others will be involved either in his sin or in his sufferings. We must leave for our next other important lessons taught by this incident.