This entire episode can be better understood if we know:
- Why Joab told David not to follow through with this idea of conducting a census.
- How Joab knew David’s plan to have a census would “bring guilt on Israel”? (Joab: “Why should the king bring guilt on Israel?” – 1 Chron.21:3)
At Mount Sinai in Exodus 30:11-15 God commanded Moses:
“When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. This half shekel is an offering to the Lord. All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to the Lord. The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives.”
Joab did not want David to take the census because David was merely counting the men for the king’s own purposes. When a leader like Moses took the census as he did in Num. 1:1-2; 4:1-2;
26:1-4, he did it at the Lord’s command, “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: ‘Take a census…”
But, for the king to take a census he is to collect a half shekel “to atone for your lives” from each
one “at the time he is counted.” When the Lord counts the people in a census he is doing it for his purpose, but when the king takes a census he is counting God’s people for the king’s business and because of this the people must be atoned for with an offering given to the sanctuary.
In David’s case there was no collection of the half shekel “to atone for your lives.” And, this is because, there was no tabernacle or temple to bring the half shekel to as “an offering to the Lord.”
First, Joab knew David’s census was a bad idea because Joab knew there would be no half shekel collected since there was no sanctuary to take it to. (The Lord had forbidden David the chance to build one, 2 Samuel 7:4-17.)
Second, Joab knew this information from the Law of Moses recorded in Exodus 30:11-15. (David had already made mistakes because he did not know the Law of Moses, such failing to transport the Ark of the Covenant correctly, 2 Samuel 6:1-11). The Law of Moses specifically says that, “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them.”
When the counting was finished David realized it was too late for each Israelite to “pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted.” At this time David repents and the prophet Gad shows up to ask David what form he would like to have his plague: Famine, war, or plague? And, do you want it in three years, three months, or three days?