I'm reminded this morning that the foolish sins of leaders have devastating effects on the lives of God's people. In 1 Chronicles 21, King David instructs Joab and the commanders of the army to take a census of Israel. For that decision, incited by Satan (v. 1) under the sovereign control and anger of God (2 Sam. 24:1), God displays his wrath against the people of Israel.
David confesses his sin simply and powerfully: "I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly" (v. 8). What was his great sin and the very foolish act?
It's not simply taking a census. In numerous passages of the Old Testament a census is taken. A census was taken for military purposes (Num 1:3, 45; 26:2), for the sanctuary tax (Ex. 30:11-16; 38:25-28; Num. 3:40-41), for populating the land (Num. 26:52-55; Neh. 3:40-41), for organizing the Levites (Num. 3:14-39; 1 Chr. 23), and for building the temple (2 Chr. 2:17-18). The census isn't itself the problem.
The great sin, the foolish act, was to act:
1. Independent of God's purpose. In all the other instances of census taking, there is a specific God ordained purpose for the census. The census isn't an end itself; it serves some other goal in God's expressed will. David's action was taken without consideration of the purposes of God.
2. Ignorant of God's power. Joab speaks to warn David against this act, saying, "May the Lord add to his people a hundred times as many as they are!" (3a). David blows past his friend's warning. He wants a count, and seems to think his own military prowess depends upon the size of his army and not the "size" of his God.
3. Unappreciative of God's gifts. Joab goes on to point out, "Are they [the people] not, my lord the king, all of them my lord's servants? Why then should my lord require this?" (3b). The Lord had taken David from the sheep pastures and made him king over all Israel. He had been given a stewardship, to shepherd all of the people of Israel. Even if he had an exact head count, it would not change his stewardship responsibility and privilege for every one of them. He failed to appreciate them singly and ultimately collectively.
4. Undeterred by advanced warning. Joab concludes his speech by saying, "Why should it be a cause of guilt for Israel?" (3d). The counting of the people by the head of the people would bring guilt on all of the people. Indeed, the three possible punishments all affected the entire nation (vv. 11-12). David's sin is not a victimless crime. He vaults over Joab's warning, and with him the entire nation lands in the pit of God's wrath. He awakens to his folly in v. 17, praying to God he says, "Was it not I who gave command to number the people? It is I who have sinned and done great evil. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let you hand, O Lord my God, be against me and against my father's house. But do not let the plague be on your people." The life of the leader affects the people.
I'm certain I've committed every one of David's errors and thus very great and foolish sins of my own. Before the day is over, I'll have done it several times again. I'll lose sight of God's purposes. I'll act without dependence upon His power but my own. My sinful heart will grumble in some pastoral responsibility, failing to see the precious gift and privilege it is to serve as a shepherd of God's people, entrusted to my care. And, boy, will there be warnings everywhere. But I'll not see or heed some of them. And with pride far surpassing David's, I'll act foolishly and sin greatly against the God I love. And in some way, sometimes small and sometimes significant, one or more of the sheep will be affected. I'm a great sinner, the worst I know.
But what shines through most gloriously in this chapter isn't David's sin; it's God's mercy. God's wrath is terrible, but His mercy triumphs over judgment. God sends the judgment but He also stays the sword of the angel of the Lord. He doesn't have to, but He accepts David's sacrifice. The altar David builds will one day become the Temple of Israel. The sacrifice David also will one day be surpassed by the perfect sacrifice God will make of His own Son. And by His sacrifice the Lord Jesus becomes a living stone Who makes of us living stones in a new temple to the Lord (1 Pet. 2:4-5). And one day yet future, soon to come, He'll bring us into His glorious presence where the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb will be the Temple of that place (Rev. 21:22). Shining all through 1 Chronicles 21 and the remainder of the Bible is the staggering mercy of God toward sinners!
The Lesson: Avoid foolish, sinful leadership by depending upon the purposes, power, gifts and warnings of God, as you look to the mercy of God in Christ and the hope of glory.
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