Why was King David Punished for Taking a Census?

CRI-Blog-Hanegraaff, Hank-David Census

Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah” (2 Sam. 24:1).*

Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel (1 Chron. 21:1).

Q: Did God tell David to take a census and then punish him for it? Why?

Hank Hanegraaff: We have to look at this in context. I mean in the context of all of Scripture, because that passage is cited at different places in the Bible. If you look at 2 Samuel, you’ll find that God told David to take a census (2 Sam. 24), and if you look at Chronicles, it says Satan incited David to take a census (1 Chron. 21). The passages demonstrate that although Satan incited David, ultimately it was God who allowed Satan to carry out the provocation. Satan’s design was to destroy David and to destroy the people of God in the process. But it was God’s plan, and it was His purpose to humble David, and then to teach his people a valuable lesson.

Here’s what’s going on. Instead of trusting solely on God, David had begun to trust in his military might. David himself—you see so clearly in context—has a sense of guilt, there’s also an uneasiness on the part of his general Joab, and that indicates that they were both well aware that they were on dangerous ground in taking the census. So they already knew that to fall for the provocation of Satan was to distrust God. They knew that this was against the very command of God, and yet, they failed the test, because in the end they wanted to depend on the arm of flesh as opposed to depending on the arm of God.

Q: David was “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14), and this was stated in his early life; however, yet later in his life he sins dispassionately, one example being the incident with Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam. 11; cf. 1 Kings 15:3 and Psalm 51). At the end of his life was he still a man after God’s own heart?

Hank: I don’t think there’s any question about it. He’s Israel’s quintessential king, he’s a man after God’s own heart. That is not because he doesn’t sin. It is because he desires fellowship with his heavenly father and therefore confesses his sin, most notably in Psalm 51 where he says “Have mercy on me, O God | according to your unfailing love | blot out my transgressions | Wash away all my iniquity| cleanse me from my sins” (vv. 1-2). And he asks God to restore to him, grant to him a willing spirit and the joy of his salvation. “Create in me,” he says, “a pure heart, O God | and renew a steadfast spirit within me. | Do not cast me from your presence | or take your Holy Spirit from me. | Restore to me the joy of my salvation | and grant a willing spirit to sustain me” (vv. 10-12) And then he says “Then I will teach transgressors your ways | and sinners will turn back to you. | Save me from blood-guilt, O God, | the God who saves me, | and my tongue will sing of your righteousness” (vv. 13-14).

David was well aware that he not only had an affair with Bathsheba, but as a result of that affair he had to have Uriah killed on the battlefront. So he had blood on his hands and this was pointed out to him in no uncertain terms when Nathan pointed a boney finger at him and said “You are the man…You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own” (2 Sam. 12:7, 9). And Nathan used an illustration to get through to David, who was living in denial with respect to his own sin. And this was not even the greatest of his sins. I mean, it was a great sin, but there were many other great sins in David’s life, including the census that he took, demonstrating that he was leaning on the arm of flesh rather than on the arm of God.

David is not just anyone, he is the leader of God’s people and therefore his responsibilities and his judgment is a stricter judgment, very much like what James says about teachers. “Not many of you should be teachers because in teaching there is a stricter judgment” (Jas. 3:1). So David sinned horribly, but he had a heart that panted after God “as a deer pants after streams of water” (Psa, 42:1).

For further related study, see the following equip.org resources:

Articles:

Taming Bible “Discrepancies” (Rachel Ramer)

Presumed Innocent Until Proven Guilty (H. Wayne House)

Does Satan Have Access to Our Minds? (Hank Hanegraaff)

Books:

New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (B106) by Gleason Archer

Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority (B2023) by Jonathan Morrow

The Covering: God’s Plan to Protect You from Evil (B665) by Hank Hanegraaff

* All Scriptures cited from The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984).

This blog adapted from “Did God tell David to take a census and then punish him for it?” and “Science Affirm Intelligent Design and Q&A.”

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