Counting publications and soldiers

I was working on my CV today (I’m not applying for jobs, I just update it regularly), and I decided to count up my publications by category (books, articles, dictionary articles, book reviews). As the number grew, I suddenly thought, “Perhaps this isn’t a good thing for me spiritually…


Then I thought of David and the census. I’ve been thinking about David and the Israelite monarchy a lot lately since last week I was at Logos Bible Software taping courses on 1, 2 Kings and 1, 2 Samuel. The book of 2 Samuel ends with a bizarre story where YHWH is angry at his people so he incited David to count the people (2 Sam. 24:1-17).

1 Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” 2 So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people.” 3 But Joab said to the king, “May the LORD your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see it, but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?” (2 Sam. 24:1-3)

In Chronicles it was Satan who incited David to count the people (1 Chron. 21:1). Did the biblical authors sometimes get confused between God and Satan? That’s not something you want to mix up.

The text of 2 Samuel 24 isn’t exactly clear what’s wrong with counting the people. After all, the book of Numbers does a lot of counting (hence the catchy title). But Joab clearly knows David shouldn’t do it.  For David, it seems to be related to pride in the size and strength of his military.

Gideon, after all, had too many soldiers and had to whittle down his army to 300 which was still ample to defeat the Midianites (Judg. 7) since it was YHWH that was fighting for Israel. Just as Gideon needed to depend upon YHWH and not the size of his military, David should do the same. By counting the people under his control, David would know how large his forces would be. He would then be tempted to rely on his enormous standing army for victory in battle, and not on the God who had delivered him from Goliath, the Philistine giant (1 Sam. 17).

Tragically, for David the divine punishment was severe upon the people. But why did YHWH punish them, for something David did that he provoked David to do? Great question–any thoughts?

For me counting publications, book sales or speaking requests can lead to pride, arrogance and a lack of dependence upon the God who’s given me my gifts, experiences and abilities.  As an act of penance, I decided to write a blog about the topic.

Next time I feel like counting, I’ll count my blessings.  I may even name them one by one.

How do we “take a census” today? Why is census-taking unhelpful spiritually?


  1. I have been thinking about this passage all week – The only thoughts are that YHWH demanded a ransom payment for all men over twenty whenever a census was done; to me a type of Christ in that the payment was a ransom to belong to God’s people. If God demanded a census then someone should have flagged up the need for the payment as failure to do so would mean a plague (Ex 30:11-16), if satan inspired it then perhaps he was relying on Israel’s relaxed attitude to the law. Maybe we have a mixture of the two, something required by God, but corrupted by the devil and mans spiritual ineptitude.

  2. I’m looking forward to hearing your response to that ‘is it God/Satan?’ puzzle… (That’s my code for ‘nope – haven’t a clue’)

    I always enjoy reading how you apply the Bible – it’s helpful. Thanks!

  3. Mark, I’m still confused by 2 Sam. 24. But we see something similar at the beginning of Job (ch. 1-2). The satan character is clearly provoking God to allow him to bring disaster upon Job, and God goes along with it. Both God and the Satan are involved in Job’s turmoil.

    Tanya, I don’t really have a good answer for the God/Satan thing, except what I just said to Mark.

    Thanks for engaging.

    1. Hi David, if this pushing too far just delete it, but I would appreciate your qualified opinion (I am no academic). I used to think that if we knew Scripture we would have all the answers; today I would say that at one level the opposite is almost true.

      We have God and “the accuser” at the census, the same in Job, and could I say also in the Garden? This isn’t an answer, more an observation of the mystery that flows all the way through Israel’s messy story to the cross, and isn’t really fully resolved until the end of Revelation.

      To my mind the book of Job would have been the perfect place for God to have explained all this, and He doesn’t. If I understand it correctly, Job died without ever knowing what really happened.

      BTW: Your book has really helped me embrace the OT in a new way, and I really appreciate the posts. Thanks

  4. A good word. Let us repent often! And be wise about recognizing when we have started to place our confidence in ourselves and our abilities rather than God (who gave us those abilities and can take them away…duh!) and his abilities.

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