In 2 Samuel 24, we see a strange event, a test which David failed, another of those incidents which seem innocuous to us but which have catastrophic consequences. David chose to take a census of Israel and Judah. We are so used to the idea of a census every ten years (2021 has seen yet another UK census) that we may fail to see why this became the source of God’s anger blazing against David. To us, a census is an eminently reasonable, pragmatic, practical thing to do; forward planning needs data; it’s good to know how many people we are dealing with! Counting people does not appear to have been universally despised in the Bible; there are many, many lists of numbers therein (even a whole book with that name!) So what’s the problem?
God’s people are constantly called to live in trust rather than to use the world’s methods and teactics. Even Joab – David’s chief of army, hardly the most spiritual man from all we read of him, protested against this measure (‘why on earth would you do a thing like this?’ 2 Sam 24:3) He was overruled (a reminder that those in authority don’t always get it right), bringing the news of 800,000 able-bodied fighting men in Israel and 500,000 in Judah (2 Sam 24:9) – presumably a great comfort to a king who was constantly facing wars on every front.
Far from providing David with reassurance and satisfaction, however, he came to realise that his actions had actually replaced trust with statistics (2 Sam 24:10). He had based his thinking and strategy on human ideas (protection in numbers, ‘might is right’ and so on), rather than on God. The man who had once defied all human strategy and logic in slaying Goliath, the man who had survived opposition and persecution through trusting in God, had succumbed to the age-old temptation to trust something visible rather than God.
David’s heartfelt sorrow and repentance remain the springboard to his ultimate success: he acknowledged his sin and asked for God’s mercy (2 Sam 24:10-14) There were terrible consequences (70,000 people died in a plague in a day), but there was ultimate restoration. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that the site of the temple later built by Soomon was the site where the plague stopped, a living reminder of this incident, a symbol that God can bring glory from our most serious mistakes and failures.
The human tendency is always to trust what we can see and understand rather than what is invisible, intangible and (frankly) inexplicable. Trust is at the heart of the gospel message, but it’s a message even Christians of many years don’t much like.
We will never earn God’s pleasure by following the crowd, wanting to be like the world and having neatly packaged answers to all of life’s mysterious questions. What pleases God is faith – and that will usually look reckless, adventurous, crazy and downright terrifying to us. Don’t be tempted to replace trust with anything at all. Trust in God has to be at the heart of everything we do.