When The Same Thing Isn’t The Same Thing: A Brief Reflection on 1st Chronicles 21

censusAtheists often claim that the Bible was written in order to keep the powerful in power and keep the oppressed in subjection to them. Yet if this is the case, then it doesn’t even come close to accomplishing this goal. The leaders of Israel, for instance, who sinned were not given a free pass to do whatever they pleased. They were judged, disciplined, and humbled by God. The ministers in the tabernacle were not given a free pass either, but were disciplined and punished by God for their failure to keep his law. The same can be said of the prophets and priests and kings of Israel, too.

Noah’s sin of drunkenness is not hidden from us by God, neither are Abraham’s lying and Moses’ murderer and anger. How, then, do the Scriptures oppress the common man and give a free pass to those in power?

They don’t.

Among the leaders who sinned grievously and did not get away with it, we may add King David. David’s sins of murder-by-proxy and adultery are well known to any semi-biblically literate person. David’s new conceived child, i.e. the fruit of his adultery, dies. His son Absalom openly defiles women and defies his father the king, later dying a shameful death.

What many readers of the Bible forget is that there is another sin for which David is disciplined, and one which seems to pale in significance to murder and adultery. The sin?

Taking a census.

In 1st Chronicles 21:1-7, we read:

Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to numberb Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number.”  But Joab said, “May the Lord add to his people a hundred times as many as they are! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord’s servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should it be a cause of guilt for Israel?” But the king’s word prevailed against Joab. So Joab departed and went throughout all Israel and came back to Jerusalem. And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to David. In all Israel there were 1,100,000 men who drew the sword, and in Judah 470,000 who drew the sword. But he did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, for the king’s command was abhorrent to Joab.

But God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel.

According to the Law of God, David’s act of taking a census was illegitimate and, therefore, sin. We read in Exodus 30:11-12:

The Lord said to Moses,  “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them.”

David, apparently, did not obey the law of God regarding taking a census of the Israelites. Consequently, the Lord struck the people of Israel with a plague.

Rather than being exempt from obeying the law of God, even the anointed king of Israel was subject to God’s authority. Even the king of Israel had to obey the Lord or be disciplined for his sin of disobedience. Even if the infraction of the law is seemingly insignificant.

Even when the majority of the book in which this narrative appears consists in the enumeration of the various people constitutive of the people of God.

The Same Thing Isn’t The Same Thing

As I read about the judgment brought upon Israel for David’s sin, I was struck by how David’s taking a list of the people of Israel was not very much different from the author of 1st Chronicles’ taking a list of the people comprising Israel in his day. As the chronicler enumerated the various families of Israel, identified their place in the nation (i.e. explains whether they are priests or soldiers, etc), so too David enumerated the various people of Israel.

To the casual reader, myself included in this, David’s actions seem to be pretty insignificant. But they weren’t, for several reasons.

  1. David’s role as king of Israel was to reflect God’s role as King of kings. By not doing what God does, i.e. by breaking God’s law, David was misrepresenting the Lord God. David was failing to properly represent Yahweh.
  2. David’s role as king of Israel was also to model faith and obedience to Yahweh, to lead by moral example. David’s disobedience was a bad example to Israel.
  3. David’s sin of not following the Law in its detail teaches us that God’s Word cannot be neglected without there being consequences. David either ignored or purposefully refused to obey a fraction of it. As a result, he and Israel were judged severely by God.

What this also teaches us is that obedience to God’s Law is either complete or non-existent. David’s census-taking was not “the same thing” as the census taking incorporated into the book of 1st Chronicles itself. And the point of differentiation is detail ignored by David but acknowledged and obeyed by the writer of the book.

The Absoluteness of Law and Grace

The “same thing” is not the same thing, in other words. Rather, behavior that appears to pass muster with us may very well be judged severely by God. The Law does not show partiality, after all. The Law allows for no exceptions to its demands.

Yet neither does the Gospel allow for exceptions to what it promises. And in 1st Chron 21:11-12 we read:

So Gad came to David and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Choose what you will: either three years of famine, or three months of devastation by your foes while the sword of your enemies overtakes you, or else three days of the sword of the Lord, pestilence on the land, with the angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the territory of Israel.’ Now decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.”

This is not the Gospel. That will come to view in a few verses. But for now, note the last judgment: “Three days of the sword of the Lord…” Three – not one or two or four or six but three – days.

Among the possible judgments of God, after which the judgment of God would cease and Israel would be reconciled to God, was a judgment lasting three days. After three days, the people of God would be restored to him. Their sins would be atoned for. He would no longer be angry with them for the sin of their representative.

This is the punishment David chooses.

The three days of judgment, however, are not placed upon the worthy recipients – i.e. Israel and their sinful representative – but upon an innocent animal slaughtered in their place, for their reconciliation, for their atonement.

We read in 1st Chron 21:26-27:

David built…an altar to the Lord and presented burnt offerings and peace offerings and called on the Lord, and the Lord answered him with fire from heaven upon the altar of burnt offering.  Then the Lord commanded the angel, and he put his sword back into its sheath.

The judgment due to David and Israel, because of David’s sin, was atoned for by the death of a substitutionary sacrifice, an innocent burnt offering bearing the sins of many.

Concluding Remarks

The claim that Scripture was written to keep the oppressed in subjection to their oppressors is a lie fabricated out of ignorance or malevolent intentions. What is actually contained in the Bible is just judgment for all sinners, regardless of their position in life, regardless of their connection to God’s covenant people. Judgment falls on those who deserve it.

Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samson, David, and countless anointed leaders of God’s people were not exempt from God’s anger, displeasure, disciplinary action, and judgment.

Thankfully, however, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samson, David and all who would repent of their sin and believe in the Gospel will find that their sins have been placed upon another, a sacrifice who died, and after three days of being dead arose to newness of life – the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ the Son of God.

Contrary to the claims of some atheists, Scripture does not allow men of power to remain guiltless for their sins. Scripture does not allow men in power to believe that they are above God’s Law.

The Law is not a respecter of persons. And neither is the Gospel.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; but to all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

Soli Deo Gloria



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