I once heard a comedian say, “I have no problem with temptation. I just give in.” I laughed, but it also resonated with me.
This week our youngest son was asked to speak to his youth group on an assigned topic, the story of David taking the census. At first it seems somewhat straightforward — David did something that was wrong and there were consequences — but as you did deeper the passage becomes more complex.
II Samuel 24 (NLT)
David Takes a Census
Once again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he caused David to harm them by taking a census. “Go and count the people of Israel and Judah,” the Lord told him.
2 So the king said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Take a census of all the tribes of Israel—from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south—so I may know how many people there are.”
3 But Joab replied to the king, “May the Lord your God let you live to see a hundred times as many people as there are now! But why, my lord the king, do you want to do this?”
4 But the king insisted that they take the census, so Joab and the commanders of the army went out to count the people of Israel. 5 First they crossed the Jordan and camped at Aroer, south of the town in the valley, in the direction of Gad. Then they went on to Jazer, 6 then to Gilead in the land of Tahtim-hodshi and to Dan-jaan and around to Sidon. 7 Then they came to the fortress of Tyre, and all the towns of the Hivites and Canaanites. Finally, they went south to Judah as far as Beersheba.
8 Having gone through the entire land for nine months and twenty days, they returned to Jerusalem. 9 Joab reported the number of people to the king. There were 800,000 capable warriors in Israel who could handle a sword, and 500,000 in Judah.
Judgment for David’s Sin
10 But after he had taken the census, David’s conscience began to bother him. And he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly by taking this census. Please forgive my guilt, Lord, for doing this foolish thing.”
11 The next morning the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, who was David’s seer. This was the message: 12 “Go and say to David, ‘This is what the Lord says: I will give you three choices. Choose one of these punishments, and I will inflict it on you.’”
13 So Gad came to David and asked him, “Will you choose three years of famine throughout your land, three months of fleeing from your enemies, or three days of severe plague throughout your land? Think this over and decide what answer I should give the Lord who sent me.”
14 “I’m in a desperate situation!” David replied to Gad. “But let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great. Do not let me fall into human hands.”
15 So the Lord sent a plague upon Israel that morning, and it lasted for three days. A total of 70,000 people died throughout the nation, from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south. 16 But as the angel was preparing to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord relented and said to the death angel, “Stop! That is enough!” At that moment the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.
17 When David saw the angel, he said to the Lord, “I am the one who has sinned and done wrong! But these people are as innocent as sheep—what have they done? Let your anger fall against me and my family.”
(the story continues further into the chapter)
There is so much about this passage that Bible commentators agree we don’t know. Why was God angry with Israel? What it pride that caused David to want the numbers. Did the punishment fit the transgression? (Quickly now, how many Facebook friends do you have?)
But one of the most difficult aspects of this passage is the source of David’s desire to count his men, especially when you consider the parallel passage in I Chronicles 21. Because there the first verse there reads:
Satan rose up against Israel and caused David to take a census of the people of Israel.
So was it Satan or the Lord who caused David to do the thing David later called ‘sin’ and ‘foolish’? What is the source of temptation?
NLT -Genesis 2:15 The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. 16 But the Lord God warned him, “You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden— 17 except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die.”
I think the point is that today, each of us has “trees” in our “garden” that are the source of spiritual testing. Adam and Eve “walked with God in the cool of the evening,” so they were intimate friends; but God was clearly God, so the temptation to ignore his warning not to eat the fruit — especially when offered the opportunity that “your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil”(3:5 NLT) — was easily rationalized away.
Sometimes these “trees” are simply there, but I believe sometimes God says, ‘It’s exam time. So what about that, or those, or him, or her? Aren’t you just a little bit interested?’ Sometimes the answers are obvious, but sometimes the details are more complicated. A thing that is generally a good thing — there are many times a census takes place in scripture, including the time at the birth of Jesus where Joseph and Mary are both registered and taxed — can at other times be a bad thing if it’s being done from the motivation of pride.
A good thing done at the wrong time is a bad thing.
I Corinthians 10:13 tells us,
The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. (NLT)
So what do we do with James 1:13?
And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else.
I think the key to this story is that God didn’t cause David’s pride or disobedience, but rather that God exposed the pride that was already resident within him. This is probably key to understanding why the first verse of the two accounts appear to disagree. And it surfaces in the very next verses in James:
14 Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. 15 These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.
A parallel study would involve the trials that are sent to Job. Satan — at God’s suggestion — is allowed to wreak havoc on Job’s life, but within limits. Satan is the agency of calamity, but only as God permitted that unique test to happen.
Job 1:8 Then the Lord asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless—a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil.”
Job 2:3 Then the Lord asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless—a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil. And he has maintained his integrity, even though you urged me to harm him without cause.”
We have to recognize that the source of temptation isn’t nearly as important as our response to it.