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The Numbers Racket

 ·   ·  ☕ 9 min read  ·  ✍️ Greg Hinnant


Key Text: Psalm 81.
👀: Original post.

My Dear Friend,

The numbers racket, or numbers game, is a form of gambling in which a bettor tries to identify three numbers, and their correct sequence, that will be chosen from a random drawing the next day. If he gets the right numbers in the right sequence, he gets the payoff. Like all gambling, the numbers racket is addictive - and harmful, resulting in needless grief and senseless waste.

Sadly, many pastors and other church leaders are snared in a numbers racket. Oh, not the one described above, but a religious form of it just as real, senseless, and damaging. Even godly King David got caught playing the numbers on one occasion.

2 Samuel 24 tells the story. David issued the order, “Go, number Israel,” and Joab, after protesting, complied. The infamous total count was 1.3 million soldiers from Israel and Judah. Immediately, David’s sensitive heart was convicted by what he had done, but the damage was done. God’s wrath was stirred and His discipline was forthcoming, despite David’s humble confession.

It turns out Joab’s protest was inspired. It was also revealing. When Joab asked, “Why doth my lord … delight in this thing?” (v. 3), David didn’t answer his probing. But we will. So, let’s explore what motivations likely moved David to number Israel.

But before doing so, let’s consider what was not motivating him. David did not number the people for God’s glory. It remained the same whether Israel’s population and army swelled or shrunk. Nor was it to bless the people. They were not even informed apparently of the impressive sum. Nor was it to intimidate Israel’s enemies. David didn’t send the news to Assyria, Philistia, or Egypt so their armies would stand down. Nor did God send Nathan, Gad, or another prophet to directly order David to number Israel. We may be sure these things did not move this godly leader to play the ungodly numbers racket.

But just as surely, two things did: first, trusting in human strength; second, kingly pride.

David’s numbering was a military census. Therefore, he was hoping for a large number so he could trust in the size of Israel’s military forces, instead of trusting the Lord alone and His all-sufficient power to deliver Israel whether with many or few. David, who as a boy had slain mighty Goliath by glorying and trusting in the Lord alone, immediately realized his error and confessed (v. 10).

Also, though a deeply spiritual and humble man, David still had a sin nature, the chief attribute of which is pride. In the situation before us, David had obviously been moved by the worldly ways of pagan kings. When not glorying in their idol gods, Gentile monarchs boasted in, and compared each other by, their wealth, wives (harems), subjects, horses, chariots, and armies. So, David sought an impressive number so he, too, could boast of his regal glory.

But there is a far more important question the Holy Spirit, who inspired Joab’s question, would ask Christian leaders today: “Why do you delight in numbering your people or other religious measurables?” Not sure that this is a problem?

Attend any ministers conference anywhere anytime and, upon meeting almost any pastor, two questions immediately follow. First, “What’s your church’s name?” Second, “How many are in your congregation?” So, I believe the Spirit is probing us, as He did David, “Why are you doing this?”

The root of our numbers racket is usually religious pride. Like David, though saved, Spirit-filled, and well trained, we still have an old nature driven by pride. And our pride wants to boast of our numbers to others. It also wants to compare our numbers to others' hopefully lesser numbers, so we may appear more important.

Another hidden root cause is the presumption of God’s favor. It works like this: the more the Good Shepherd favors us, the more sheep He adds to our flock. We don’t realize God may favor small flocks, also.

Another quiet motivator is the presumption of success. We imagine we cannot be a successful leader without a numerous following. We simply cannot imagine success in small numbers.

But both of these assumptions are fallacies - false notions. Sometimes God favors and uses small pastors, flocks, missions, and denominations, if humble and faithful, to do big things, passing over larger but less faithful ones, just as He passed over the large tribe of Ephraim to choose the small clan of Judah. And ministerial success lies in one thing only: being what God called us to be and doing what He tells us to do. That’s it! In their day Jeremiah’s, Micaiah’s, and Elijah’s poll numbers came in at, well, zero! But they were all stunningly successful divine spokesmen, who faithfully went where God sent them and uttered every message God gave them. Without fear or favor. To the end of their earthly lives! But there’s more here.

Worst of all, God is repelled by our proud numberings because pride is the first, and worst, sin in His sight (Proverbs 6:16-17). And religious pride is the worst form of it! In its essence, our religious numbering obsession is self-worship. We use numbers to try to make ourselves look important so we can admire our religious self-image - and draw others to bow at our holy shrine! Why?

As David was, we’ve been influenced by our pride-driven, pagan culture. Every day in every place everything we see is evaluated by being quantified, or described in numerical terms. We assign numbers to everything and assume they translate into value and importance.

How many dollars did we make this year? How many votes did our candidate get? How many degrees do we hold? How many important people do we know? How many hits does our website get daily? How many of our social media posts are liked or shared? How many people attended our wedding - or funeral? And so forth.

So, though God has given us the grace to be spiritually minded all the time, pastors, elders, worship leaders, bishops, superintendents, and other Christian leaders too often get trapped in this numbers mania. Like the pagans, we, too, count everything in the house of God: souls saved (or commitment cards filled out); attendance at worship and Sunday school; church members gained; new churches planted; church tithes and offerings; missionaries sent out or supported; magazine subscribers; worship albums released; podcast subscribers; Christian books sold; and so forth. We often convince ourselves we are numbering these religious categories for Jesus' glory, but our hearts and the Spirit know better. We’re worshiping our religious selves. Some may blow off this message with a simple, “So what?!”

Well, here’s what. When we stand before Christ to be evaluated, all pride-motivated works will bring demerits and loss of rewards … forever! And that’s not all. David’s number game brought on disaster. It grieved God’s heart - because David’s actions had telegraphed this hurtful message, “You’re not enough to content me or protect me.” This in turn grieved David, because he knew he had grieved God and his spiritual heart regretted this carnal folly. Finally, David’s sin brought divine discipline. He offered David a choice between famine, enemy attacks, and plague. When David deferred to God’s judgment, God sent a plague that killed 70,000 in Israel.

The religious numbers racket, if persisted in, is just as addictive, harmful, grievous, and wasteful as its worldly counterpart. The more you do it, the more you are compelled to do it - and the less content you are, whatever your numbers. It is harmful and wasteful to your spiritual life, which starves and stagnates whenever you favor and feed your pride. We make Jesus weep, as surely as He wept at Martha and Mary’s offense and unbelief over Lazarus' death and Peter’s vehement denial. And we force God to visit us with one of His corrective disciplines.

We experience a famine of God’s Word - reading for days without even a single insight blessing our hungry hearts; or preaching sermons that, however well organized, leave our hearers still deeply hungry for timely biblical truth. Or God looses our enemies to chase us - with new reproaches, unfounded accusations, bitter opposition, or lingering controversies from which we emerge with painful, fresh losses. Or the plague sets in - errors sweep through the congregation stunting faith and creating confusion and fear; or sin spreads throughout the people, leaving them compromised, weak, unspiritual, and unusable to God. Or some other needless adversity visits.

Again, some may scoff at this, claiming grace means Jesus no longer disciplines sinning Christians. The blood of Jesus automatically covers all our sins. Well, read Hebrews 12 and Revelation 2 - 3 and tell me what you find. And one more thing.

Does this message mean we cannot keep church rolls or tally numbers of religious activities? Absolutely not! Moses numbered Israel’s men not once but twice (Book of Numbers), and neither numbering was sinful. But he did so at God’s command, and without any false trust or pride.

No, this message means we must not boast in our religious statistics - with our lips or in our hearts, where only the Holy Spirit sees. It means that we must not equate large numbers with divine favor - or more favor than that enjoyed by our brother’s or sister’s smaller church, ministry, or mission. It means that we can no longer take security in numbers - imagining swelling numbers prove our doctrine and practices are all true and biblically correct in every detail. It means we must not consider ourselves a success in God’s sight merely because many people flock to us. They also flocked to Ahab and Jezebel’s false prophets while God’s true prophet, Elijah, was forced to live by a brook and preach to ravens, and then, for a promotion, take a church outside the country with a congregation of two - one of whom died and had to be raised!

Have you fallen prey to the numbers racket, as David did? And have you been visited by famine, pursuing enemies, plague, or some other discipline? Want a way out on God’s terms as soon as possible?

Then note this: David’s plague of divine discipline ended when he resumed the true, humble worship of God (vv. 18-25); when he gloried in the Lord and only the Lord - not his religious impressiveness in his own or others' eyes; when he trusted in the Lord and only the Lord to fight for him and Israel, not the many muscular men in his armed forces and their formidable combat skills. Why then? These things proved he was finished forever with the numbers racket!

And may we all follow his humble, true, Christlike footsteps.


Greg Hinnant

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Greg Hinnant
As a speaker, Greg has for many years ministered in churches, schools, and conferences across America and abroad.