“Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” ~ 1 Chronicles 21.1 [ESV]
In one of the more obscure Davidic tales, we find an intriguing sub-plot. Joab, David’s military commander, was given the task of numbering the king’s troops, yet he has enough discernment to recognize that this is a really bad move. He even goes so far as to tell David that this decision is going to bring guilt on Israel (see v.3). Ultimately, Joab was right and God’s judgment of David’s ego cost 70,000 Israeli men their lives!
So what goes through our minds when an authority figure tells us to do something wrong, something we know is going to bring disaster? Well, I think it would be a tragedy to imply from this story that we should always comply with whatever our authority figures tell us to do. God gave us a conscience for a reason (assuming it’s in good, biblical health!). God gave us the Holy Spirit, who leads and guides us into all truth. No, I wouldn’t look at this story as a blank check to simply comply with top-down commands, regardless of the ethical implications.
But I do think this story gives us a glimpse into divine justice and accountability. Joab “argued” with David and yet the King prevailed (v.4) – it’s “good to be the king!” So even though Joab knew this was wrong, and the king rejected his sage wisdom, AND he was internally repulsed by the prospect, he complied. Maybe he shouldn’t have, but here is what we do know: when the LORD came to judge, he wasn’t looking for the guy with the clipboard who did the counting. God went straight to David. Joab is out of the story. He’s not an accessory. This is how God understands authority (and submission), and this should give us reason to pause…
As a man in authority, I need to be prepared to assume responsibility for my decisions, even when other people carry them out. And as a man under authority, I need to be sensitive and obedient to the voice of the Holy Spirit, while at the same time, realizing that my personal opinions (excellent as they may be) are not the issue at hand. I may be right about an issue, but that doesn’t give me license to be wrong in how I react to it. The king’s command may be “abhorrent” to me – abominable – but ultimately, God’s always judges within the context of authority (not in spite of it).