Where Is Your Delight?

Toward the end of King David’s life, there’s a bizarre scene in which David decides to issue a census. You and I might not find census-taking very thrilling. We almost certainly wouldn’t say it’s wicked. But the text is perfectly clear that counting the people was a sin:

But David’s heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” (2 Samuel 24:10 ESV)

What’s confusing about this is that there aren’t any specific laws against census-taking. With many of the other sins in David’s life, we can point to chapter and verse to say why it was wrong. But counting his people? Where’s the law against that?

Making this even more complicated is the fact that God not only allows, but sometimes commands census-taking elsewhere in the Bible. In fact, the fourth book of your Bible is named for a census. It’s called “Numbers,” for crying out loud. God had commanded Moses to count all the fighting men, which is essentially what David did.

So why did David get dinged on this one? The problem, I believe, lies with David’s motivations.

At the beginning of 2 Samuel 24, Joab (the commander of David’s army) pushes back against David’s plan. That’s a signal that something isn’t quite right. When your chief counselor tells you that your plan doesn’t sit right with him, it’s worth listening.

But look at specifically how Joab framed his objection: “‘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 Samuel 24:3, emphasis added).

Why does the king delight in this thing? That’s an important word: Joab could see that David “delighted” in this census. It wasn’t a response to God’s faithfulness. It wasn’t wise stewardship of a nation. No, this census was a matter of David searching for delight. It was a manifestation of idolatry.

Just think about why a king might take a census. There are three major reasons, each of which was probably going on in David’s heart:

First, a census was about security. It guaranteed you’d be safe against an attack, because it gave you, the king, an accurate idea of the size of your army. It’s a bit like knowing the exact amount in your bank account today. If that number is big, you can rest easy.

Second, a census was about aggression. It’s not an accident that David wanted to number his soldiers. You don’t assess your army unless you are thinking about using it. You want to know what you can afford to go and conquer! Scholars point out, in fact, that the entire end of 2 Samuel has a violent, oppressive feel to it. In chapter 20, for instance, we find that David had started to use “forced labor,” which is an overly polite way to refer to slavery. David is both enslaving people and building a big army with a view toward violence.

Third, a census was about pride. In those days, the size of a king’s army was the measure of his stature. It’s like, for somebody today, what kind of school they get into; how much money they make; what kind of house they live in; what kinds of circles they run in; or who comes to their parties. David is looking for a validation of his value.

All of this helps explain what was sinful about this census. It represented David replacing God with an army as the source of his identity and security, and because it represented a military build-up with a view toward conquest.

I can’t imagine any of us are tempted to sin in exactly the same way—by issuing a wicked nationwide census. But the core elements of this sin are very real for all of us. Which makes me ask: What do you delight in? Where is your identity, security, and happiness? What is the “army” size that you measure to find identity and security?

I have to be honest: When I read how it was a sin for David to count the army, I wonder what that means for how easy it is for me, as a pastor, to focus on numbers. For me, it’s not the size of my army, but the size of my church. I know I’m not alone in this: For pastors, the size of their church can be identity, security, and happiness. Now, we have good reasons to count: Counting helps us plan for the future, serve our people well, and engage in God’s mission more faithfully. But we have to be aware that our counting can be this same sin of David’s—if we are delighting in it more than we are in God.

What do you delight in? What thought makes your heart soar just a little? Is it how you look? How much money you made last year? An award you got? Your SAT scores, or where you got into college? How often you’re cited in academic papers by other experts in your field? How much attention you’re getting?

It could be a big thing or a small thing. The size of it doesn’t matter. What matters is this: Anything that takes the focus of your identity, security, and happiness off of God is an idol.