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God's Word

Counting Sin


Spiritual warfare is a touchy subject.  You’ll definitively find out some interesting things about people when you broach the topic with them.  You might find that one family believes that their house is inhabited by demons, another might claim to have been abducted by aliens, only to find out later that it was an actual demonic encounter, and still others - Christians, mind you - pretty much think the whole thing is so much poppycock, and that the only real “spiritual warfare” is an internal struggle with their own fallen natures.

And while there are truths behind each kind of response - if maybe not the full truth - the reality is that in the Bible’s narrative, there are some overt descriptions of ‘spiritual warfare’ that sort of fall all over a similar kind of spectrum.  And since these accounts are contained in the inspired and inerrant Word of God, we have to take them at face value.

One of the more colorful, if subtle, stories of Satanic influence comes in the twenty-first chapter of 1 Chronicles.  There in verse 1 we are told that “Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.”

I know what you might be thinking.  Or at least I know what I am thinking.  I have two pretty big questions about this account.  First, why is it such an evil act to count your people?  And second, how does this whole thing jive with what we are told in James 1:13-15 about sinful desires coming from our own wicked hearts?

Surely just counting people couldn’t be that bad, right?  We can imagine one reason why God might be angry at David for this: pride.  In counting his people, he was stoking his own pride in his nation and army, while at the same time relying more on the number of people at his back than on his God.

I have a bit of a problem with this explanation, however.  Even in our own family, we don’t punish our children for a wrong unless we have first taught them that the action in question is wrong.  We first give a warning - a law or rule if you wish - and then begin to punish for disobedience after the law has been laid down.  And we do this in our family because that is the way that God operates.

I’m not trying to suggest that pride and lack of faith had nothing to do with God’s reaction.  Joab seemed to understand that David was wrong to undertake such a faithless act.  But there is something else going here also that I think we need to consider.

David was not very careful when it came to obeying God’s righteous rules.  Kings were commanded in Deuteronomy 17:18 to make a full copy of God’s Law for their own reference, and ostensibly because making the effort to write them all down aids in memory.  The kings were then responsible to keep this law in its entirety.  David, however, had already shown in several instances that he did not have a very intimate recollection of what God had demanded, even though his heart was often said to be “after God’s own heart.”

Of course there is the massive sin with Bathsheba that we could point out, but there is also the more subtle - but still very deadly - oversight with the way the ark was carried on the way to Jerusalem that illustrates David’s somewhat lazy attitude toward God’s commands.  The ark was to be carried on poles by Levites, not on a cart drawn by oxen.  It was also to be coved with the various layers of the tabernacle so that it would not be seen.  Therefore, when Uzzah, David’s friend, reached out to steady the ark as it bounced uncovered on the ox cart, God struck him dead.  And David was upset about this.

Fast forward to the story of the counting of Israel in 1 Chronicles 21, and we are not told that David made any effort to obey the very strict commands of Exodus 30:11-16.  Listen to these instructions (emphasis mine):

And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them. This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary: (a shekel is twenty gerahs:) an half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord. Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering unto the Lord. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering unto the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls. And thou shalt take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shalt appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation; that it may be a memorial unto the children of Israel before the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls.

Reading back through 1 Chronicles 21 and the parallel passage in 2 Samuel 24, there is no mention of this offering being given.  It’s as if David has just completely neglected it.  What we do find mention of, however, is the plague that was promised in Exodus 31:12.

So I believe that what we have here is yet another lazy disobedience from a king that should have known better (if he would have made his copy of the Law).  And we also have here an unhealthy dose of pride, and a desire to lean on his own strength, and this is what sets Joab at odds with his king.  But I believe that it is super important to realize that God’s wrath is stoked by transgression of His Law, and David did in fact transgress the very clear instructions given about taking a census.

But what about our second question - the one dealing with spiritual warfare, Satan’s provocation, and how that all relates to James 1:13-15?  We know now that David’s act of counting the people came from his pride and his reliance upon man’s strength instead of God’s.  This sounds very much like what we read in that passage in James:

Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.

That seems like a pretty clear description of what happened within David, doesn’t it?  But the text says that Satan provoked him.  And to make matters worse, the parallel passage in 2 Samuel 24 says that “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’”

Now this presents quite a pickle!  Did God move David to commit this evil, did Satan provoke him, or was David drawn away by his own lust?  The Bible rather clearly - and seemingly contradictorily - tells us that all three are somehow true.  These concepts may be a bit too difficult to try to tackle at the end of an already lengthy article, but we can at least try to summarize the answer, and leave the proof-texting for a later essay.

We know that God is the sovereign author of all of history, and that there is nothing that comes to pass that was not written in His book before the foundation of the world.  David himself confesses this in Psalm 139:16.  We also know that the Devil is God’s Devil.  He created him, and He owns him.  Satan serves God’s purposes.  Recall the story of Job, and how God suggested that Satan test His servant Job (and then He set certain boundaries to that testing). When Satan operates in history, he is operating in God’s story, by His permission.

Tying all of this into James 1 shows us that God doesn’t make us commit evil.  He doesn’t compel evil actions from us.  He won’t and He can’t because He does not act contrary to His own nature, which is the very definition of good.  The passage does not, however, state that certain ideas that enter our heads cannot have an origin outside of ourselves.  Satan suggested to Eve that she should take the forbidden fruit, but it was her own lust for knowledge and power that drove her hand to reach out and take it.  Thus, she was responsible, the serpent was responsible, and ultimately the man was responsible because he had the Law clearly articulated to him by the Lawgiver Himself.

And that is also David’s responsibility.  He was commanded to make his own personal copy of all of God’s Law.  In that Law, there were strict standards for how a census should be taken, and stiff penalties for not doing it in the prescribed way.  God decided to test him, and so He appointed Satan to the task.  Satan somehow presented the idea to David that it would be good to know just how many men he had at his disposal, and David’s own prideful lusts did the rest - with the culmination being in the transgression of God’s Law.

So when it comes right down to it, our greatest weapon in spiritual warfare is exactly the one used by Jesus in the desert when Satan was sent to test Him: the Law of God.  Our Enemy desires for us to transgress God’s Law.  He and his minions know how to point our wicked hearts toward things that will entice us to do just that.  But if we know God’s righteous rules very well, then we will be well-equipped to fight back against this kind of deception.  

How well did David write in Psalm 19 (maybe sometime after he realized his error):

The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward. Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression.

Those High Ways

Some awful statistics are tossed around in Baptist circles - or maybe the statistics are for all evangelical churches - at any rate, the numbers say that something like 80% of churches baptize no one in a whole year.  An even larger percentage of churches are plateaued or declining in membership.  And the way that this data is usually presented, the finger is pointed at those declining churches, making them responsible for the loss, pouring out guilt on their pastors, and beating up the members for not sharing the gospel more than they do. Here's an odd thing: I've never been a member of a "growing" church (at least not one that is growing numerically), but for some reason, I always thought that I would pastor one.  I suppose the odds should somewhat prepare young pastors for the likelihood that they will lead churches that are declining, but they don't.

I think about this issue a lot.  Recently, at our association's annual meeting, I had to sit and listen to the evidence that my church was in the 80% as the various annual church profile numbers were read aloud from all of the association's member churches (we'll not discuss at this point whether or not such a practice is sinful - maybe that would be a good topic for another time).  Why do churches seem to lose ground?  Why aren't people saved?  I mean, I'm a pastor that loves Christ, I preach the Word of God and try not to preach myself, I share the gospel, I organize mission trips, outreaches, revivals, etc.  So why does this happen?  I always had in my mind the picture of pastors who didn't care about the Bible or God's people, who didn't know the gospel or how to proclaim it, who were content to maintain the status quo and nothing else.  Those were the ones who were supposed to make up the 80% in my mind - not me!

Then I read a passage like Isaiah 55:10-11:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

It sounds like the source of power for growth is the proclamation of the Word of God, and from these verses, it sounds like what it accomplishes will always look positive.  And yet we know that such was not Isaiah's call.  When God told Isaiah to go and proclaim this powerful Word (Isaiah 6:9-10), He told him:

Go, and say to this people: "Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive."  Make the heart of this people dull,and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.

What I think we have to gather from this is that sometimes God's intention is that His Word will drive away as much as it draws near.  His Word always accomplishes God's will as it goes out.  It never returns void.  But God's will is not always what we think it ought to be.  It is not always a positive number in the 'baptisms' column on the annual church profile, or consistently higher numbers on the Sunday School attendance board.  We have to know that God is at work even when we can't count the signs during the reading of the church letters at an associational meeting.

This reminds me of another passage in Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  (Isaiah 55:8-9)

God knows what He's doing even if we don't.  He is conforming His people ever closer to the image of Christ.  He is crushing pride, stirring up a hunger and a desperation for Himself, and even purging His church of those who were not of His people.  He is working on the pastor, He is working on the pillars of the church who love Christ, He is working on the immature who need to grow, and He is working on the seed of the enemy sown into His field.  Who knows, tomorrow He may begin to bring in a harvest of souls, adding thousands to the number of the faithful.  He's done it before.  But we must remember that when He does, it is not Paul who planted or Apollos who watered who are anything, but it is God who gave the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).