God’s Census and Man’s
Bob Glasgow, Brasil
translated from the Portuguese
The Family Count. It is always a laughing point when a father cannot remember the birthdays of his children. The author met one father of a large Brasilian family who could not quite recall in which order his many children were born, though it appears that the mother knew. And then there is the father counting his children out of the bus, ". . . seven, eight, nine, and mother, we're all here". A family census is a useful thing.
A Nation Numbered. Brasil and many other countries take a census each ten years. They list the people, the families, the industries, the farms. All this helps the government in its planning. Romans 13. 1-2 shows that the Christian should co-operate fully with the census takers. Our names are written in heaven, Luke 10: 20, but for official purposes they have to be enrolled on earth also.
Census Taking in the Bible.
There are three, or even four, different kinds of census in the Bible. They are :
(1) the numbering of the Israelites at God's command;
(2) David's census which displeased God so much;
(3) the census taking by pagans which God permitted and even used to fulfil His purposes;
(4) God's lists of names "written in heaven".
(1) God Counts His People.
The first count of Israel occurred when Jacob went down into Egypt with 70 of his family, Exod. 1. 5, though the whole family, including those already in Egypt, numbered 75, Acts 7. 14. The family increased and became a nation and when God redeemed them from Egypt, He commanded a payment of silver when a census was taken, Exod. 30. 12; 38. 25-26. For this reason, silver became a type of redemption in the Old Testament, and perhaps even in the parable of the lost coin in Luke 15. 8-10.
The book of Numbers (chapters 2 and 26) gives two censuses of Israel, one on their leaving Egypt and the other before entering the land of Canaan. The details of Exodus 38. 26 are a summary of the first census; see Numbers 2. 32.
(2) God will not have Pride.
When David had established himself firmly in the kingdom, he began to show pride in his accomplishments, and he thought to count his subjects. He had started out in public life as a fugitive with 400 partisans . . . "and now, just look!" David did not even think of the redemption silver. Had he thought of it, he may have remembered God's will instead of his own pride. He forgot that the peacock of today is the feather-duster of tomorrow.
The book of 2 Samuel is written from the point of view of the prophets; 1 Chronicles shows signs that they were priests who wrote it. Both record David's census but each gives a different total. The census was never completed, 1 Chron. 27. 24; perhaps some of the census-takers left their work before others, and God permitted two different incomplete totals to enter the Bible records in order to show His displeasure with the census. The story itself is related in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. God sent the prophet Gad to tell David that he had to choose between three punishments. In spite of being backslidden through pride, David had not losttrue faith, and he quickly chose to be punished by the Lord Himself because he trusted in the mercy of the Lord.
It so happened that the destroying angel halted exactly at the place where Abraham had offered the ram in place of his son Isaac, 2 Chron. 3. 1. One can still see the large, flat rock at that place; there is a mosque built around it now. It is not unlikely that the surrounding soil was nearer to the level of the flat rock surface in Araunah's day and that he threshed his wheat on the protruding surface of the rock in the way that is seen in some parts of India today.
When the plague burst over Israel, David was humiliated and repentant. He himself paid the redemption money. He bought the threshing-floor of Araunah as a place of offering, and paid for the sacrifice which typifies the death of the Lord Jesus for us, sinners under the wrath of God.
David's failure in this census is highlighted in the Bible "for our admonition", that we should not follow his bad example of pride. We should hesitate when we hear a person say, "I converted 37 people to God these past few months." We hesitate for two reasons: (1) the statement has the flavour of pride, and (2) God alone knows how many of the 37 were really born again. Opportune was the reply of the king of Israel to the challenging enemy, "Let not him that girdeth on his harness (armour) boast himself as he that putteth if off", 1 Kings 20. 11.
There are denominations in Brasil that take their own censuses, counting baptized persons as converted ones. The results could well be like what happened in the old imperialist China : two government departments took independent censuses of a particular province. The department that distributed food to the poor registered 100 million inhabitants,including many fictitious names from families that wanted to receive more food. The department of the army registered 25 million people because so many families denied the existence of their sons of military age. We too have our church statistics, but some of the disappointing failures that have followed today'seasing of moral standards should make us realize that God's church statistics are very different from ours.
We have a list of the 500 assemblies in Brasil. The list is printed for its usefulness; it is not printed for show, nor for us in Brasil to say, "Look what we have done". Rather the list should be a cause for humility, (1) because there are so many cities in Brasil without any assembly witness, (2) because those who have worked hardest in Brasil can say, "we have done that which was our duty to do", Luke 17. 10, and (3) only the Lord knows all the defects of the churches, Rev. chs. 2-3.
Years ago a young man asked me if he could preach in the assembly I then attended. To give weight to his request, he explained that he had already spoken 235 times. I said I would think about it. But the more I thought, the less I liked his use of statistics, and I did not want to become his promoter in our area. I met him years later and found, thanks be to the Lord, that he no longer talked of his private census-taking, and God was using him in His service.
Under this heading we should also make it clear that when 2 Samuel 24 speaks against pride in numbers, it does not intend to stifle the spontaneous spiritual joy of every Christian when they know of a soul converted. This is a joy that reaches heaven itself, Luke 15. 7, 10, 32.
(3) Census Taking by Gentile Nations. We know the kind of national census that is taken in Brasil and throughout the world, and we know that God does not reward them with a plague nowadays, as He did with David. God deals differently with the Gentile world; He does not put them with Israel under the law. The non-Jews were not redeemed nationally; they did not have to pay the redemption silver. Thus, in 2 Chronicles 2. 17, the 153,600 foreigners in Israel in Solomon's time were counted without redemption payment. Then later, Babylon dominated Israel and listed all the Jewish population, with no mention of the redemption money, 2 Kings 25. 19.
It would appear from the sketchy Roman history available that the two censuses in the New Testament stem from the decree of the Roman emperor that Israel should recognize him as conqueror and lord. In the year 6 A,D. the emperor had a census taken as a basis for the payment of tribute, and Judas of Galilee led a revolt against the taxes; Acts 5. 37 tells the story. So much did the Jewish political opposition revolve around this subject that the Jews accused the Lord Jesus of refusing tribute payment, Luke 23. 2. The exact truth was the contrary, that Jesus accepted the right of the Romans to rule and receive taxes, Matt 22. 18-21; He showed Himself opposed to the politics of Judas of Galilee.
The other and better known census in the New Testament was the one that caused Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem, Luke 2. 1-4. The Bible had prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem but the problem arose that Mary was a long way off in Galilee when she conceived by the Holy Spirit. Then it was that God, the Most High, showed His rule in the kingdom of men, Dan. 4. 17, by using the emperor's census to lead Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem at the time when the Lord Jesus Christ would be born, Gal. 4. 4.
(4) The Lists "written in heaven". The patriarch Job lived in an area as dry as the arid semi-desert of inland north-eastern Brasil, an area where "the waters of the lake evaporate and the river empties and dries up", Job 14. 11 (Brasilian version). Verse 5 of the same chapter says that our days are numbered; they also evaporate.
God has many statistics that human census-takers cannot count. He sets a limit to our days, Job 14. 5. He numbers the hairs of our heads, Matt. 10. 30. He measures our tears in a bottle and lists them in His book, Psa. 56. 8. He had His own roll-book of the members of the church, Heb. 12. 23.
Perhaps you look at the professing Christians around you, and think that you always know who is really converted and who is not; but, in fact it is only God who knows. The true Christian shows his conversion by his godly walk, but there are cases that would make you ask, "I wonder whether he was a Judas Iscariot who was never converted? or is he a Peter truly converted but temporarily in the far country?" The two sides of the one coin are given in 2 Timothy 2. 19: from the Lord's side, He knows those that are His; from the Christian's side, let him that names the Name of Christ depart from iniquity.
During the great tribulation, God will put a sign on the Jewish believers for their protection, Rev. 7. 3-9. This passage shows that God knows each one, and He knows how many there are. He also knows to which tribe they belong, something that few Jews know today. In the same context is "a great multitude, which no man could number", except the Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, who knows each one by name. It is man that cannot number them.
The apostle Paul did not want a place in the hierarchy of the church; he counted himself as less than the least of all the converted ones, the saints, Eph. 3. 8. The way that God counts us is more important than how man does, as is also seen in Malachi 3. 16. Malachi wrote at a time of declension and apostasy when the true believers were of insignificant numbers, despised and ignored, but "a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name".
Even in the hour when we see successes in the Lord's work, the Lord tempers our joy by asking us to remember something more important that our "names are written in heaven", Luke 10. 20.
God's census-taking is perfect.