The story of David’s census is puzzling in some ways, particularly when you compare it with its parallel account in Chronicles (1 Chronicles 21).
First, it would seem that the whole idea (though a bad one) was incited by God himself (the writer of Chronicles says the idea was Satan’s). Then, God punishes David for doing what God Himself set out to do. Second, why was it such a bad thing to take a census of the army? Third, why punish Israel for something David does (even David reasons this way). Fourth, why tell us this story; how does it fit into the book?
The story reminds me of Jesus’ temptations. When the Lord was tempted to turn stone into bread or throw himself from the top of the temple, the temptation was to exalt personal greatness – it why Satan precedes these temptations with “if you are the son of God.” It’s a matter of pride. David too is being tempted into this kind of chest-thumping by showing how great his army is (when in fact, the greatness is solely in God’s care for his people). Joab sees the folly of such an action and opposes it, but David will not be denied.
For some unstated reason, God was angry with Israel and determined to punish her. He used this incident of David’s own pride as an excuse for the plague he inflicted on the people. It is an incident of God using the events of history for his own purpose. But why did He need David to sin this way when, in fact, he could have punished Israel directly?
God didn’t need David to sin, but David was going to and God used it as the reason for the punishment. But in the story, something else is emphasized.
Usually overlooked is David’s characterization of his relationship with the people of Israel. It gets scant attention, but it is very important. Israel is “sheep,” and that makes David the “shepherd.” While Israel sinned and brought about the wrath of God, David was responsible for that sin since he was the king. The king’s job was to lead and not just politically or economically or militarily. His job was to lead ethically and spiritually as well, and to shepherd the people in the ways everlasting. He had failed in doing that, and the sins of Israel, as well as their punishment, were laid at David’s feet. He was to blame.
Leadership is not benign. It always impacts people – whether good or bad. And real leaders, good leaders, always take responsibility for the failings of those entrusted to their care.