Life, Hope & Truth

Who Led David to Number Israel: God or Satan?

Do the biblical accounts in 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1 contradict each other? Who really led King David to number Israel—with disastrous consequences?

Does Satan have the ability to afflict any of God’s servants without His knowledge and approval? There are those who use the incident of King David’s census as proof that this is possible. They point to 1 I Chronicles 21:1: “Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel.”

But what about 2 Samuel 24:1? It says, “Again the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’”

What is the truth about this apparent contradiction? Who really led David to number Israel? Was it God or Satan?

First of all, we need to understand that the Bible tells us it does not contradict itself. Jesus Christ stated that “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Furthermore, while praying to His Father, Jesus declared: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:17, emphasis added throughout).

Contradictory or complementary?

The two verses—2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1—appear to be contradictory, but in fact, they complement each other. Taken and studied together, they clear up any misunderstandings.

So was it the Lord or Satan who “moved David” to number Israel?

Satan can only act according to what God allows him to do. In the well-known account of Job’s adversity and personal losses, God allowed Satan to afflict Job, but with certain limitations: “And the LORD said to Satan, ‘Behold, all that he [Job] has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person’” (Job 1:12). God placed restrictions on Satan’s power.

While 1 Chronicles 21:1 states that it was Satan who moved David to take the census, 2 Samuel 24:1 assigns this action to God. But there is no contradiction. The answer is that God allowed Satan to influence David. Satan cannot afflict true Christians unless God allows him to do so.

Study the wording

The words again and anger in 2 Samuel 24:1 are instructive. It is evident that God was angry with the Israelites for some unspecified sin. The motive or intent for taking the census appears to be the problem. God had ordered censuses in the past (Numbers chapters 1 and 26). But this one was different.

Some commentaries speculate that David and the people became proud of their own achievements: “It is not clear why it was wrong to take the census. Perhaps it indicated reliance on numbers, instead of on God” (David and Pat Alexander, The Lion Handbook to the Bible, p. 250).

“Satan may have considered it an opportunity to move David away from his trust in God to trust in himself” (Halley’s Bible Handbook, p. 188).

Other biblical scholars theorize that David was contemplating an unauthorized military campaign in order to expand his kingdom. David ordered his military commander, Joab, and the captains of the army to undertake the census (2 Samuel 24:2), and the number included “valiant men who drew the sword” (verse 9).

This may indicate David’s desire to further expand the territory Israel occupied beyond what God had given. Furthermore, there is no indication that David sought God’s advice and counsel before undertaking the census.

Why was God angry?

Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance defines the word anger in this verse as “abhor” or “indignation, especially of God’s displeasure with sin.” There is every reason to believe that David’s and Israel’s approach in taking this census was considered by God to be a sin.

Unfortunately, the history of Israel is a chronicle of continual rebellion against God and His laws. If you examine Israel’s relationship with God and check words such as provoke, anger and sinned in a concordance, you will be amazed how often the Israelite people resisted, rejected and defied God, thereby sinning against Him.

Isaiah 1:4 is one such scripture: “Alas, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers, children who are corrupters! They have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away backward.”

In Jeremiah 32:30 God says they provoked Him to anger “‘because the children of Israel and the children of Judah have done only evil before Me from their youth. For the children of Israel have provoked Me only to anger with the work of their hands,’ says the LORD.”

Psalm 7:11 states, “God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day.”

We conclude that the plague that was unleashed and that killed a large number of people was sent because the nation of Israel had sinned again. This is just another incident in the long history of their rebellion against God, and for their sake He could not allow it to go unpunished.

Read as well Psalm 78:1-8, 17, 21-22, 32, 36-42, 56-57.

The results of sin

Sin has consequences, and it will result in national and personal problems, and ultimately, unless repented of, eternal death.Sin has consequences, and it will result in national and personal problems, and ultimately, unless repented of, eternal death (Romans 6:23; James 1:15).

If there were no sin involved in David’s actions, why would God cause a plague to kill so many people? He states in Proverbs 12:21, “No grave trouble will overtake the righteous, but the wicked shall be filled with evil.”

In the future God promises His people protection from, among other horrors, plagues (Psalm 91:9-10). The psalmist penned these words of promise and assurance: “I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me” (Psalm 119:75).

For those who delight in the law of God—who strive not to sin against Him—there are assurances of “merciful kindness,” “tender mercies,” “comfort” and gladness (verses 74-77).

These and other scriptures describe our loving and caring God, who desires that all people be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).

God desires the best for all people: “‘Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?’ says the Lord GOD, ‘and not that he should turn from his ways and live?’” (Ezekiel 18:23). God has the power to later bring back to life (resurrect) those who died in the plague. (Read more about God’s plan and resurrections in our article “Resurrections: What Are They?”)

It is evident from these and other scriptures that David and the Israelites were guilty of some sin, otherwise an all-loving God would not have caused the plague. God always punishes in love.

David’s repentance

Near the conclusion of the census, David recognized that he had made a serious error and sinned against God. He realized that there were grave consequences—as there are with our sins.

God wants us to understand that He hates sin, because sin brings about suffering, hardships, misery and ultimately death. Reminiscent of his adultery with Bathsheba and his subsequent repentance in Psalm 51, David sought God’s forgiveness: “I have sinned greatly, because I have done this thing; but now, I pray, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly” (1 Chronicles 21:8).

Upon genuine repentance, God is always willing to forgive: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). However, sin, even forgiven sin, can still have consequences. David and the nation had to suffer the consequences of their actions—the penalties that their sins caused (2 Samuel 24:10-17).

Lessons for us today

Incidents such as the taking of this census are recorded in the Old Testament as teaching tools for our spiritual benefit and development. Notice 1 Corinthians 10:11: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition [margin, instruction], upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” In this regard, read Romans 15:4 as well.

It is vital that we learn and respond to the lessons God has given us in His Word so that we may follow the way of His righteousness.

On a personal note, as a minister, I find it inspiring and heartening to be in the company of individuals who have responded to the calling of God, beaming with excitement and anticipation because they have come to understand the plan of God for themselves and all of mankind. They are keen to know more and to put into practice what they have come to learn from the Bible.

As the apostle James stated, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” A doer of God’s teachings will be “blessed in what he does” (James 1:22, 25).

Let’s all be doers and not hearers only!

Read more about what God wants you to do in our free booklet Change Your Life!

About the Author

André van Belkum

Andre van Belkum

Andre van Belkum currently serves as the pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in New Zealand and the Pacific region. Previously he pastored congregations in southern Africa, including South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

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