During a recent discipling session, I was asked why King David’s census was a sin. Dissatisfied with the answer I gave, I chose to reexamine the passage for deeper clarity.
Before reading 2 Samuel 24, the text regarding David’s census, I suggest reading Exodus 19:3-6, Deuteronomy 17:14-20, and 1 Samuel 8, which I briefly summarize below.
Ex 19:3-6—The people of Israel were to be a kingdom of priests, a nation whose entire existence was to embody and exemplify the harmony of holiness that flowed from active allegiance to God’s rule.
Dt 17:14-20—Were Israel ever to have a king, Moses clarifies his duty would be that of a lawful steward who practiced God’s law first as an example for all the people.
1 Samuel 8—Israel demanded a king who would rule them like other nations. While permitting this displeasing request, God also had the prophet Samuel warn them what they were in for.
The text of 2 Samuel 24 begins with God being angry, again, with Israel. The text doesn’t say why. Whatever the reason, it’s David’s response that exacerbates the situation and becomes the story being told here. The last time God was angry with Israel, David’s response was to seek his presence and make amends. This time David’s response is to take a census of the people. Based on the results in 2 Samuel 24:9, it appears its purpose was to raise a national army. David, however, soon realizes he has sinned greatly. But how so? Censuses were taken in the past. Why was this one different?
Ever since the incident with Bathsheba, David’s reign had grown to resemble the kind of kingships Moses and Samuel had warned the people about, which God had never wanted Israel to have. By raising a standing national army, the census would be another step toward Israel becoming the kind of kingdom they were never called to be. In the past, Israel’s sanctioned wars with other nations only occurred when God used them to purge the Canaanite nations whose culture and way of life God had marked for judgment. Once these God-sanctioned wars were complete, the God-sanctioned army of Israel disbanded and went to live in their tribal-allotted lands. Throughout David’s rule, the soldiers following and fighting for him were of his own tribe or kin (2 Samuel 23), a growing point of contention amongst other tribes of Israel (2 Samuel 19:41-43). The raising of a standing national army would push Israel further towards their demanded desire to be “like other nations” rather than God’s priestly people. David’s census, therefore, augmented Israel’s rejection of God as their King.
What possibly compounds the sinfulness of David’s decision, however, is the motive. Reacting to God’s anger, David’s decision is a preventative measure against the possibility of an invading army. But if that army were being brought against him as part of God’s judgment, then David’s use of Israel’s national army would be tantamount to opposing God. The census is the contemplation of raising an army from amongst God’s people to defend God’s king against the LORD their God who saved and called them to be his purposeful people. David is here being the kind of king God never wanted Israel to have. This contemplation by the “man after God’s own heart” to undermine God’s covenant with such an initiative verifies why nationalization posed such a danger to Israel’s identity as a people whose purpose was to bless all the families of the world. Adulterating their God-shaped uniqueness, nationalization would indeed make them like all the nations. Israel’s united kingdom only lasted three kings before it split. David’s son, Solomon, would give Israel the final fragmenting push. Israel wanted a kingdom like all the nations; they got one.
By contrast, David’s decision also underlines why, if Israel was ever to fully become the kingdom of priests through whom God would bless the world, they would need a King fully endowed with God’s holy character to show them how. A king, not like that of the nations, but of heaven, who would enact God’s will on earth.
Jesus’ tenet to “Seek first the kingdom of God” would correct this tendency of God’s people to prioritize policies that compete with God’s rule, whether it was the first century Jewish commonwealth or the current “America First” policy, or simply the usual “Me First” philosophy. By seeking Jesus’ “kingdom first” policy, we order our lives around, not the sameness of nations, but the uniqueness of Jesus’ reign by which God is restoring humanity to the harmony born of God’s holiness.