Again the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” (2 Sam. 24:1)
1 Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel. 2 So David said to Joab and to the leaders of the people, “Go, number Israel from Beersheba to Dan, and bring the number of them to me that I may know it.” (1 Chron. 21:1-2)
The opening verse of the closing chapter of 2nd Samuel brings with it some interesting textual and theological questions. First we might ask, “Why ‘again?’” You’ll notice the beginning of the verse states, “Again the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel…” What was the prior event of God’s anger that preceded this occasion of His righteous indignation? Perhaps the best answer is found in Israel’s previous nation-wide sin of supporting Absalom and/or the more recent Sheba-inspired rebellion. Next, why exactly was God’s anger aroused against Israel at the time of this text? We are not given the precise reason but we can rest assured, based upon Israel’s prior disobedience and God’s unfailing righteousness, that they were deserving of His wrath. Third, there’s the theological question, “In what way did the sinless Sovereign move or, better translated – ‘incite,’ David to number Israel?” At the risk of oversimplifying the answer while still being completely true to reality and the text of Scripture, let me respond by saying – sinlessly, with the proximate cause (Satan) being seen in the parallel account of 1 Chronicles 21:1. God can move in judgment and test His culpable servant, knowing that His servant will not pass the test, and yet not be the agent of temptation. Is that a mysterious aspect of God’s sovereignty? Yes it is. Is it impossible, implausible, or unreasonable? No. Not at all. Fourth, is the NKJV translation above the best way to translate the text? The NASB’s rendering, a slight deviation from every other major translation, changing “He incited” to “it incited,” may be a subtle attempt to linguistically distance God from direct involvement in this incident. So, there are plenty of questions that warrant discussion in this text; but now, having referenced and briefly addressed the aforementioned issues, we will turn our attention to the question that gets the most press: who moved David to number Israel – God or Satan?
When you set the texts of 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1-2 alongside one another, you do not see an example of a Bible contradiction that validates jettisoning the doctrine of inerrancy; rather, you see how passages of Scripture, both dealing with a single historical event, furnish additional layers of narrative and theological details by providing complementary accounts. In this case, the combination of both accounts highlight different levels of causality. Sometimes that reality is seen in the same book, while in a case like this it is done by the combination of two – 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles. Concerning the former, first consider the LORD’s servant Job; in fact, it was God who spoke similar words to Satan in the opening chapter of Job (Job. 1:8). What followed was God’s removal of the hedge of protection that He had given Job, and Satan was the proximate instrument of catastrophe in Job’s life. Satan’s actions, though willful and wicked, were under the auspices of God’s sovereignty. The fact that God is sovereign over the demonic realm is further attested to in the Old Testament. God sinlessly used demonic beings as instruments of judgment against Saul and Ahab (1 Sam. 16:4; 1 Ki. 22:20-23). Likewise, in the New Testament, one example, among others, is the apostle Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Granted, we may not know exactlywhat that thorn was but we do know who was the proximate cause and who was the ultimate cause: the proximate cause was “a messenger of Satan” (2 Cor. 12:7b) and the ultimate cause was the God who gave Paul the thorn to him to keep from being exalted beyond measure (vs.7b).
What we see, then, is that both passages – 2 Samuel 1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1-2 – communicate two aspects of the same event. God determined to act in judgment upon a disobedient people and He permitted Satan to test David. David disregarded the advice of Joab (2 Sam. 24:3-4), moved forward in disobedience, and later acknowledged his sin (vs.10) – the sin which prompted the judgment that ensued in the chapter. As seen over and over again in the Bible, God is Lord over Satan and the demonic realm. Even their rebellion, just like the rebellion of mankind, is not outside of the sovereignty who only works all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11).