We pray at times because we want to discern God’s will. We may actually believe that is our motive for prayer. I suspect that sometimes when we say that we want to discern God’s will, we really want God to affirm what we want to do. Even when we add Bible study to prayer, confusion may result when we mix our desires with the commands and examples in the Bible. An array of actions and prayers by King David recorded in 2 Samuel 24 displays the conundrum we encounter when we impose our will onto instructions in Scripture. The passage also reveals how humility-inspired calls for fire can induce God to choose a different course of action.
David takes a census. It intrigues me that the Bible says in 1 Samuel 24 that God “incited” David to do this because God was angry with Israel while in 1 Chronicles 21 the inciting is attributed to Satan. While we could consider several theories on the development of the text or the evolution of Israelite religion, I prefer to stay with the text as it stands (and has stood for as long as all the copies of this story we have). I infer from this statement in 1 Samuel that sometimes God allows or even causes us to suffer the effects of the decisions we make. God’s reason for anger here is not clear to me. However, the decision to take a census reminds that earlier leaders like Moses and Saul had ordered a census with God’s approval or at least with no negative effects. In David’s case, the urgency with which military leaders advised their commander-in-chief not to take this census intrigues me. Why did they oppose David’s decision so strongly?
We fret when we cannot learn the results of an election overnight. It took nine months and twenty days to complete David’s census. The number of Israel’s combined fighting force now more than doubled the number counted during Moses’ lifetime.
Oddly, David did not rejoice that he commanded such a formidable force. His conscience troubled him severely. He prayed, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing” (2 Samuel 24:10). How had he sinned?
A possible explanation for the military leaders’ opposition and David’s prayer for forgiveness is found in Exodus 30: 11-12: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them.” Also, while this is not stated as a reason for the census, it was about this time that David designated a supervisor for forced labor, a practice that his son Solomon would continue, and a practice that would fan the flames of rebellion against his grandson Rehoboam. The census could provide a rationale for a military draft or a labor draft. In both scenarios, David would find himself fulfilling the Mosaic prophecy of how a king would infringe upon the freedoms of his people. David had sinned, and sought forgiveness, but his sin would have grave consequences for his people. David’s sin results in a plague killing seventy thousand people. David prays again in response to the plague,
“I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall upon me and my family” (2 Sam. 24:17).
David will purchase a threshing floor (at which location Solomon will build the temple to the Lord) and offer sacrifices to God. The final verse of the chapter, however, attributes the end of the plague to prayer, “Then the Lord answered prayer in behalf of the land, and the plague on Israel was stopped.” This intriguing episode in the life of King David explains the location of the temple, origins of forced labor in Israel, and perhaps notes the seeds of an eventual rebellion. However, it also records David’s calls for fire on behalf of his people and his plea that God, whose “mercy is great” (v. 14), will forgive him. These prayers cause God to stop the plague. David, while admitting that his sin has caused horrible consequences, prays that God will choose another course of action in response to his offense.
Our decisions have consequences also. Let us pray that we will identify when we have sinned, and that we will pray as David did for forgiveness and that others will not suffer because of our sin.