In 2 Sam. 24 it says that God moved David to make a census of Israel’s military power, but in 1 Chron. 21 it says that Satan moved him to do so. Can these two statements be combined, or are they mutually exclusive?
One solution is that it concerns two different kinds of censuses, and another solution is that David did not perform a census the way God had described a proper census as per Ex. 30. A third option is the one described below.
Israel was already under God’s judgment to begin with, so there were no innocent men involved in this particular story. God is angry with Israel and punishes them by allowing Satan to “unleash” David’s illegitimate pride to create a rift between them.
2 Sam. 24:1 And again the ANGER of the Lord was kindled AGAINST ISRAEL, and he moved David AGAINST THEM to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.2 For the king said to Joab the captain of the host, which was with him, Go now through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan even to Beersheba, and number ye the people, that I may know the number of the people.3 And Joab said unto the king, Now the Lord thy God add unto the people, how many soever they be, an hundredfold, and that the eyes of my lord the king may see it: but why doth my lord the king delight in this thing?
1 Chron. 21:1 And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.2 And David said to Joab and to the rulers of the people, Go, number Israel from Beersheba even to Dan; and bring the number of them to me, that I may know it.3 And Joab answered, The Lord make his people an hundred times so many more as they be: but, my lord the king, are they not all my lord’s servants? why then doth my lord require this thing? why will he be a cause of trespass to Israel?
God sometimes bestows evil consequences (physical evil, or calamity) upon man’s evil actions (you reap what you sow). He also chooses what kind of evil to bestow, and if he would like to take the chance to bestow evil by means of other people (or Satan) who are already set on doing harm. Satan is often accusing both Israel and believers for various things, and he seeks to get God to punish his people. In 2 Samuel, it says that God was angry with Israel (due to the recent revolt under Sheba in I Chron. 20 and other acts by Amnon and Absalom), and this would be a good reason for God to allow Satan to do what he always wants to do – cause harm!
Here are a couple of examples of when it’s possible to suggest that God and/or Satan perform the evil:
In I Kings 22 (and. 2 Chronicles 18) which you can read about in this article, God decides to kill the evil king Ahab, and asks the heavenly hosts as to how to entice Ahab to enter into a battle in which he will die. A spirit volunteers to be a “lying spirit” in the mouth of Ahab’s false prophets, and God accepts the offer and allows him to do it. Nevertheless, God is not guilty of lying (there is no darkness in God), but merely gives Ahab what he deserves (Jer 24.7).
In I Sam 16, after repeated failures to submit to God’s leadership, Saul is rejected as king. He remains on the throne and continues his non-committed lifestyle and reign – even indulging in sorcery and seances. God punishes him by sending an “unclean spirit” to trouble him.
The motivation to cause calamity is a bit different in the book of Job, but God allows Satan to attack Job and he later confronts Satan with Job’s failure to sin even though we can read “you incited me against him to ruin him”. In other words, Satan was the “ruiner” but God was also a “ruiner” – so sometimes it’s actually not a big difference to suggest that “God moved a person to do this and that” or “Satan moved a person to do this and that”. The idea of God acting through agents -for reasons of judgment, of mercy, of testing, etc – occurs a few times in scripture, but nowhere does it say that God acts in this way ALL THE TIME. When it comes to Joseph and his brothers, there were evil human intentions (Joseph’s brothers sinning by selling their brother), with God’s overarching purpose for good.
1 Sam might be understood in this way:
- God is angry with Israel’s sin (and David’s handling of the royal family issues).
- Satan sees his opportunity, accuses them of wrongdoing, and wins approval to inflict David’s and Israel’s wrongdoing back on themselves.
- God, knowing that the punishment is well deserved, that the example of correction/contrition on David’s part will be recorded in Scripture forever as an example, and that He will be gracious ‘ahead of schedule’ and reveal the site of his temple/crucifixion, agrees to turn David and Israel over to him, for this specific punishment (cf. I Cor 5.5).
- Satan, with this permission from God, moves David to begin the Census.
Moreover, there was no order from God to David to NOT count the men, and the taking of a census was allowed in the law
Ex. 30:11 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,12 When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them.13 This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary: (a shekel is twenty gerahs:) an half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord.14 Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering unto the Lord.15 The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering unto the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls.16 And thou shalt take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shalt appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation; that it may be a memorial unto the children of Israel before the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls.
Had the numbering been done correctly (with the census tax for atonement), then undoubtedly no plague would have been sent, and the people would have benefited from the atonement. The fact that Joab knew that David was doing this out of pride (and even to bolster his military ranks, 1 Chron 27.2,4) instead of out of some religious sentiment, gives an indication of that the religious guidelines were not going to be followed. Joab specifically knew that what he was ordered to do was wrong (1 Chron 21.3), so the issue might not have been the census itself but that it was done without regard to the religious dimension and proper process. The observation made in 1 Chron 27.23-24 about God’s promise to make Israel numerous, could be taken as a reference to the population-reducing judgment of God. Punishing people by giving them over to their own will (see the case with Pharoah and the statements in Romans 1) can sometimes be seen in scripure, but it is never done without plenty of prior opportunity to change and to open up to goodness and truth.
In 2 Sam 24.16 we can read: “When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the LORD was grieved because of the calamity…”. God’s justice is always angry at sin, and his love is always grieved over the misery that sin causes.
You can read more in this article from christianthinktank.