Chronicles Census

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: David, Old Testament


Why was taking the census in Chronicles 21 bad?


Up to this point in Chronicles, David's reign had been blessed. Nonetheless, this is considered to be David's great sin. In 21:1-6, David decided to take a census of all Israel. He never really said why he wanted this done, but there were usually three possible reasons.

  1. A census usually was called before taxes would go up.
  2. A census could be used to find out how many men were available for forced labor.
  3. A census gave the king an idea of how many men might be conscripted into the army.

Regardless of David's reason, it's not hard to see why census-taking had a bad reputation. It was never good news for the populace. Most scholars think David might have had the third option in mind, since he asked the commander of his army (Joab) to take the count. If this is correct, then he was placing his trust in a large army instead of in God. Interestingly, Joab initially balked at the idea, claiming such action would bring guilt on all Israel. David, however, was not to be deterred, and Joab complied - with the result that God was "displeased with this thing, and he smote Israel." (1 Chron 21:7)

The reason this passage confounds scholars is not so much that David took the census, but that "Satan stood up against Israel and incited David" to do it. This word has previously appeared as the satan, and scholars have typically translated it as "adversary." This, however, is the first mention of Satan without the article. Here, it is simply "Satan," leading some to question who this figure represents. It's even more confusing to compare this version with what is written in 2 Sam 24:1. There, "the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them…" The implication is that this was all part of the divine plan and that it was necessary for some reason. In fact, it did set up a chain reaction with varied consequences.

First of all, it allowed David to repent for his wrongdoing. David accepted full responsibility for his action and even offered to sacrifice himself for his people. (21:17) He referred to the people as sheep and said they were not to blame. Of course, they had nothing to do with the census, but they were not exactly sinless. These are the same people who had sinned much (and often), and had even committed numerous revolts against David - who still was God's anointed king. Most importantly, however, the resolution of this situation resulted in God revealing to David the exact location of the site for the temple. He was told to buy the land, which was a threshing floor at that time. He paid full price for it. He then built the altar and sacrificed upon it. God's acceptance of his sacrifice would mean forever that God chose the site of the temple to be located on this spot in Jerusalem.

Editor's note: No matter who or what tries to influence our decisions, we are personally responsible for our choices. No one forced David to take the census. He was free to choose, and chose to rely on numbers rather than God.

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