The Trap of Vainglory
Robert Wurtz II
Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number” (1 Chron. 21:1-2 ESV)
But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God” (Acts 5:3-4 ESV)
Towards the end of David’s life, he was tempted by Satan to number Israel. The cognate passage in 2 Samuel 24:1 reveals that God was also front and center in this process, having known the thoughts and intents of David, gave him over to his quest for vainglory. Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. This is the pattern that many leaders, God-fearing or pagan, have fallen into.
We are not told the exact reason why David wanted to number the people, but many scholars have speculated. Whatever it was it reeked of the worse kind of offense to God as He was being provoked by both the people and David at the same time. The stage was set for David to number the people as though they were his. And yet they were not his, they were God’s sole possession (See Exo. 30:12).
This is a great temptation that can accompany great blessings. Paul asks a question, “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Pride wants to be seen and recognized. It says, “look at me” or “look at what I have accomplished.” Yet every good and perfect gift is from above. We have nothing that is of any worth that we did not receive from God. That’s the difference between one and another.
Ananias and Sapphira fell for a similar attempt at vainglory when they plotted to lie and say they were giving 100% of the money they received for the property they had sold while holding back some of it for themselves. Perhaps they wanted the recognition that accompanies great sacrificial giving? Their vain pursuit of temporary prestige was rewarded with death and perpetual notoriety.
In modern times, the ancient trappings of vainglory are more bountiful and dangerous than ever. What is God’s estimate of men and women who seek to exalt themselves in this world? What about in the churches of God? I’m reminded of the frightful story of Herod who put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to the people. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last (Acts 12:21-23).
The old-time preachers used to pray that God would hide them behind the cross when they stood before the people—lest they are guilty of arrogating to themselves glory that belongs solely to God and He has determined not to give to others (Isaiah 42:8). I must decrease and He must increase was the prayer of John the Baptist.
Imagine your congregation is dwindling down like John’s did as the people lined up to hear Jesus. John was not here to be exalted. He was not chosen to be high and lifted up. He was chosen for a task and he did it with great humility. When the time came for his influence to end he wasn’t taking a headcount—he was preparing to lose his. He performed his duty and fell asleep. No final stab at vainglory. No desire for prestige. In other words, no “look at me” and “look at what I have accomplished” but a clarion cry for all to look to Jesus.