Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the troops, ‘Go and count the Israelites from Beersheba to Dan. Then report back to me so that I may know how many there are.’
But Joab replied, ‘May the Lord multiply his troops a hundred times over. My lord the king, are they not all my lord’s subjects? Why does my lord want to do this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?’
The king’s word, however, overruled Joab; so Joab left and went throughout Israel and then came back to Jerusalem. Joab reported the number of the fighting men to David: in all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who could handle a sword, including four hundred and seventy thousand in Judah.
But Joab did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, because the king’s command was repulsive to him. This command was also evil in the sight of God; so he punished Israel.
Then David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly by doing this. Now, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.’
The Lord said to Gad, David’s seer, ‘Go and tell David, “This is what the Lord says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you.”’
So Gad went to David and said to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: “Take your choice: three years of famine, three months of being swept away before your enemies, with their swords overtaking you, or three days of the sword of the Lord – days of plague in the land, with the angel of the Lord ravaging every part of Israel.” Now then, decide how I should answer the one who sent me.’
David said to Gad, ‘I am in deep distress. Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands.’
So the Lord sent a plague on Israel, and seventy thousand men of Israel fell dead. And God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem. But as the angel was doing so, the Lord saw it and relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was destroying the people, ‘Enough! Withdraw your hand.’ The angel of the Lord was then standing at the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite.
David looked up and saw the angel of the Lord standing between heaven and earth, with a drawn sword in his hand extended over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell face down.
David said to God, ‘Was it not I who ordered the fighting men to be counted? I, the shepherd, have sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Lord my God, let your hand fall on me and my family, but do not let this plague remain on your people.’
1 Chronicles 21.1-17
These days the Church is keen to count everything – the more numbers and statistics, the better.
How many members do we have? And how many ministers and churches? How much money do we have in the bank? And what’s our budget projection? It can be responsible stewardship to reflect and to count and to plan. However, this alarming passage may give us some pause for thought.
Are we pinning our hopes on our numbers? Will salvation come from statistics and strategies?
Surely our faith and our hope is in the Lord our God.
It is a sobering corrective to reflect that we must not forget to wait upon God for our direction, to trust in his grace, and to put everything else into this context. God is our number one, and our plans begin and end with him.
you are the first and the last,
the beginning of life and its end.
Forgive us when we think we can go it alone,
counting and planning as seems best to us.
In your grace, let us return to wait upon you,
to rest in your goodness, to trust in your guiding,
to begin again our planning with you at the start.
Andrew Atkinson is the Legal and Trust Officer for Northern Synod and a Lay Preacher.
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