And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1, K.J.V.)
Ask the average Christian to name the greatest mistake of King David’s life and the answer you’ll get is, “His affair with Bathsheba.” And that affair certainly was a major mistake, no doubt it, a mistake that produced consequences that plagued David for the rest of his life in the area of his children. But in terms of the sheer loss of human life David’s greatest mistake was something else. It was a census that he had conducted in the latter years of his reign. “Sounds harmless,” you say? Well, by the time everything was said and done that census had cost 70,000 of Israel’s citizens their lives. And who provoked David to take that census? Answer: Satan.
I like the old King James translation’s use of the word “provoked” in our text verse, but other translations go with other renderings. The New King James and the New American Standard both go with “moved.” The New International Version, the New Revised Standard, the English Standard Version, and the Holman Christian Standard all go with “incited.” Perhaps The Amplified Bible catches the flavor of the situation best by saying that Satan “stirred up” David to number Israel.
It should be understood that there was nothing inherently wrong in having a census taken. In the Mosaic law, God had actually given specific instructions for how it was to be done in Israel for the purposes of taxation (Exodus 30:11-16). Furthermore, the book of Numbers opens up with a major census being conducted in Israel, and another one is conducted in Numbers chapter 26. The problem with David’s census was his motivation for it. He wanted a head count of how many fighting men were at his disposal. You see, at this stage of his life he was now trusting in numbers instead of God. He wasn’t the same guy who had once penned the words:
Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; But we will remember the name of the Lord our God. (Psalm 20:7, N.K.J.V.)
David’s old general, Joab, wasn’t exactly a spiritual giant, but even he instinctively understood that David’s census was a mistake. He begged David not to go through with it, but David wouldn’t listen (1 Chronicles 21:3-4). Remember, David was being provoked by Satan.
So Joab and the captains of David’s army set themselves to the task, even though the king’s word was “abominable” (N.K.J.V.) to Joab. The census took almost ten months to complete (2 Samuel 24:9), and when the numbers came in it was found that Israel’s large northern region (generally known as Israel) had 1,100,000 men who could draw a sword if needed. The smaller southern region (generally known as Judah) had an additional 470,000 (1 Chronicles 21:5). 2 Samuel 24:9 cites a number of 800,000 men in the northern region, but that probably doesn’t include the approximately 300,000 who were already soldiers in the standing army there (1 Chronicles 27:1-15). Similarly, 2 Samuel 24:9 cites a number of 500,000 in Judah, but that probably doesn’t include the 30,000 soldiers of the standing army there (2 Samuel 6:1).
Actually, as impressive as the numbers were Joab didn’t even complete the census (1 Chronicles 21:6). Why not? It seems that the priestly tribe of Levi and the small tribe of Benjamin were scheduled last for the census, but by the time Joab came to them David had already realized his mistake. Since both those tribes were part of the southern region of Judah, with David’s palace being located in Judah’s city of Jerusalem, it was logical for Joab to personally report to David on the progress of the census before completing it. But when he did David told him to stop everything because David was already in confession mode, saying to God, “I have sinned greatly, because I have done this thing; but now, I pray, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly” (1 Chronicles 21:8, N.K.J.V.).
And how did God respond to David’s confession? Being highly displeased with the census, He spoke through the prophet Gad to offer David one of three punishments. Option 1: Three years of famine. Option 2: Three months to be defeated by the sword of his enemies. Option 3: Three days of the angel of the Lord going through Israel and inflicting a plague.
David told Gad that he’d rather fall into the hands of merciful God than the hands of man, which amounted to David choosing option 3. So for three days the angel of the Lord moved throughout Israel inflicting the plague wherever he went. All told, 70,000 people died.
That death toll evidences the truth of 2 Samuel 24:1, which says that God was angry with Israel the nation, not just David the king. It’s been speculated that the 70,000 who died were those who had sided with David’s son, Absalom, in Absalom’s failed coup (2 Samuel chapters 15-18). To be clear, though, there’s no Bible evidence to back up that speculation.
Finally there came a moment when David visibly saw the angel standing between earth and heaven over Jerusalem, with the angel having a drawn sword in his hand (1 Chronicles 21:16). David and the elders of Jerusalem then clothed themselves in sackcloth (garments of mourning) and fell on their faces. David personally begged God to stop killing those who hadn’t ordered the census and strike him and his family instead (1 Chronicles 21:17). By that time, though, God had already instructed the angel to relent and cease the killing (1 Chronicles 21:15).
It is interesting that a parallel account of the story, found in 2 Samuel chapter 24, says that it was God rather than Satan who provoked (moved, incited, stirred up) David to take the census. The two seemingly different accounts can be harmonized by understanding that Satan was the vessel through whom God moved David. Such a thing speaks to the absolute sovereignty of God. He’s so sovereign that He can even use Satan to accomplish His purposes. It’s hard to say whether or not Satan knew that God was using him to orchestrate events to bring judgment upon sinful Israel, but either way Satan was surely eager to provoke David to do something not of God.
Here, then, is the story’s application lesson for us. We must never forget that Satan enjoys nothing better than motivating us to do things we shouldn’t do. He loves whispering in our ears, causing us to become infatuated with actions that will take us out of God’s will. If he can get us to do something wrong, he racks up another win in his efforts against us. Unfortunately for us, he’s a master provoker who has far too many wins in his column.
And so I’ll ask you right now: What plans are you pursuing these days? What goals are you chasing? What projects are you working on? Well, whatever they are, have you paused long enough to make sure that God is in them?
Perhaps some Joab in your life has been trying to tell you that what you are planning isn’t of God, but you have been ignoring that godly counsel as you forge on ahead with what you want to do. But is it really what you want to do or is it what Satan is provoking you to do? Ah, now there’s a question. And it’s one that you’d better have the correct answer to before you plow ahead and end up doing some major damage not only to yourself but to others. As someone has wisely said, “It’s bad not to finish what you start, but it’s even worse to finish what you shouldn’t have started.”