Questions From Readers
● Why was it a sin for King David to take a census, as reported at 2 Samuel chapter 24?—M. C., U.S.A.
We must frankly say that we do not know with certainty, for the Bible does not tell us precisely wherein this was a sin. Yet, giving some thought to this occurrence makes it clear that Jehovah was in no way unjust or cruel in his handling of it.
The account says: “The anger of Jehovah came to be hot against Israel, when one incited David against them, saying: ‘Go, take a count of Israel and Judah.’ So the king said to Joab the chief of the military forces who was with him: ‘ . . . register the people, and I shall certainly know the number of the people.’ But Joab said to the king: ‘May Jehovah your God even add to the people a hundred times as many as they are while the very eyes of my lord the king are seeing it. But as for my lord the king, why has he found delight in this thing?’ Finally the king’s word prevailed upon Joab . . . And David’s heart began to beat him after he had so numbered the people. Consequently David said to Jehovah: ‘I have sinned very much in what I have done.’”—2 Sam. 24:1-10.
Taking a census or registration of the people was not something prohibited in Israel. Not long after the exodus from Egypt, God spoke to Moses about taking “the sum of the sons of Israel as a census of them.” This listed all males who were eligible for military duty, and a head tax was taken for the service of the tabernacle. (Ex. 30:11-16; Num. 1:1-3) Another census was taken shortly before Israel entered the Promised Land.—Num. 26:1-4.
Realizing this, commentators have offered various possible reasons for Jehovah’s viewing David’s census taking as a sin. Some have thought that David erred in not collecting the head tax as God said should be done at such times. Others have felt that the king was showing weakness in trying to find out how large his military force was, instead of depending on God for victory no matter what its size. Yet others say that David might have given in to human pride, wanting to be able to boast over Israel’s importance and glory.
But, as noted, we simply do not know why David’s census was a sin. What he did was definitely wrong, for it was Satan who “proceeded to stand up against Israel and to incite David to number Israel.” (1 Chron. 21:1) Even Joab, who at times put his own passions and ambitions ahead of what was right, recognized the badness of David’s census. We read: “The king’s word had been detestable to Joab.” (1 Chron. 21:6) Today we are far removed from the facts, but if David’s contemporaries knew that this act was absolutely wrong, there must have been a basis for their conclusion. Remember, even David, when he had finished, confessed: “I have sinned very much in what I have done.”—2 Sam. 24:10.
As a punishment for this sin Jehovah brought three days of pestilence that killed 70,000 Israelites. (2 Sam. 24:12-16) Was that unjust? Were 70,000 innocent people dying for the king’s error? The Bible plainly shows that we all are sinners deserving of death; it is only by God’s undeserved kindness that we live. (Rom. 3:23; 6:23; Lam. 3:22, 23) So those who died had no special “right” to life. Additionally, can any human today say for sure that those 70,000 were not guilty of some serious sin not mentioned in the historical record?
Just pause and reflect on how Jehovah has dealt with humans in the past. Did he simply wait until Cain had murdered Abel and then banish him? No, God warned Cain beforehand about the wrong attitude he was developing. (Gen. 4:2-16) Jehovah provided the innocent a way of escape before he destroyed the wicked in Sodom. (Gen. 19:12-25) And in dealing with Israel, God continually sent his servants the prophets to warn the people against their bad ways before he brought punishment.—Jer. 7:25, 26.
These, and many other examples that could be cited, show what fine qualities Jehovah has. With good cause the Israelites could describe him as “a God of acts of forgiveness, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness.” (Neh. 9:17) In all his dealing Jehovah matches what Moses and Elihu said about him: “All his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness, with whom there is no injustice.” “God himself does not act wickedly, and the Almighty himself does not pervert judgment.”—Deut. 32:4; Job 34:12.
So even though we do not have, at this late date, all of the details concerning David’s sin in taking a census, or the resulting pestilence, we have good reason to acknowledge that the course God took must have been altogether righteous and just, as have been his other activities involving imperfect humans.
● Was Jesus dead when the Roman soldier pierced Christ’s side with a spear?—W. H., Ivory Coast.
Yes, the account in John 19:31-37 makes it clear that Jesus had died before the soldier pierced him.
According to the Mosaic law, an executed criminal was not to hang all night on the execution stake, but should be buried the same day, so as not to defile the land by disregard for God’s law. (Deut. 21:22, 23) If Jesus and the criminals beside him lingered alive on the stakes, it already being late afternoon, they would remain on the stakes after the sabbath began at sunset. To prevent this, the Jews asked that all three have their legs broken.
A French researcher, Dr. Jacques Bréhant, commented on the reason for this, as reported on in Medical World News for October 21, 1966. We read: “The crurifragium, breaking the legs of the crucified man, made it impossible for him to raise himself to breathe. . . . The Jews asked that the legs of all three of the condemned be broken and that they be taken away. The soldiers accordingly broke the legs of the thieves. But when they came to Jesus, the soldiers could see that He was already dead.” Dr. Bréhant offered two possible reasons as to why only Jesus was dead: (1) “The thieves may have been tied, rather than nailed.” (2) “Christ was greatly weakened by the treatment inflicted before” impalement.
Had Jesus been alive, the soldiers would have broken his legs also. Instead, we read: “But on coming to Jesus, as [the soldiers] saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Yet one of the soldiers jabbed his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.”—John 19:33, 34.
Though John’s account is quite plain, the question posed might come up because of reading Matthew 27:49, 50. It says there: “But the rest of them said: ‘Let him be! Let us see whether Elijah comes to save him.’ Another man took a spear and pierced his side, and blood and water came out. Again Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and yielded up his breath.” The sentence put in italics is what causes the difficulty; it might lead one to conclude that Jesus was alive when speared.
Many Bible translations, including The Jerusalem Bible in French and English, Elberfelder and Aschaffenburger in German, and Moderna, Valera and Nácar-Colunga in Spanish, omit that italicized sentence. Other translations include the words, but put them in brackets or provide an explanatory footnote. For example, in the original edition of the New World Translation a footnote explains that the sentence is contained in some important manuscripts, such as the Sinaitic and Vatican No. 1209, but not in others. Many scholars feel that a copyist mistakenly put in Matthew 27:49 words belonging at John 19:34.
The Greek Scripture portion of the New World Translation is based primarily on the master text by Westcott and Hort. This respected master text contains the sentence in the main body at Matthew 27:49, but puts it in double brackets. In explanation it says that the sentence “must lie under strong presumption of having been introduced by scribes.” Possibly in the future we will have more manuscript evidence regarding Matthew 27:49.
Nonetheless, it is evident from the plain presentation at John 19:31-37 that Jesus was already dead when he was speared. So the account in Matthew must be understood in the light of this. Matthew does not say exactly when the spearing of Jesus’ side took place; it simply lists it as one of the occurrences at the time of Jesus’ impalement. But John’s account does give clear indication of the time element. In view of this, one’s understanding of Matthew’s account must be influenced by what John wrote. When this is done, there is really no contradiction.