Who Called David’s Census—God or Satan?

Who Called David’s Census—God or Satan?

Satan comes against us like a roaring lion who seems ready to swallow us alive (1 Peter 5:8). But he has no more power over us than he has been given, and God’s grace is sufficient for us in the midst of our failure, just as it was for David. God is able to enhance His own glory and our good even through our greatest sins, which He uses to humble us and make us more grateful for the gospel. That is good news for great sinners like us.

At first sight, David’s census, which is recorded for us in 2 Samuel 24 and in 1 Chronicles 21, provides one of the more obvious “contradictions” in the Bible. According to 2 Samuel 24:1, “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’ ” However, 1 Chronicles 21:1 says, “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.” So was it the Lord or Satan who was responsible for inciting David into this sin?

The first point to notice is that the Chronicler uses Samuel-Kings as his basic source material for Israel’s history, and in many places quotes it verbatim. In other places, he adds material from other sources that is not found in Samuel-Kings, while in yet others he reshapes the material in Samuel-Kings to bring out points he was particularly keen to emphasize for the sake of his particular audience.

In Samuel-Kings, the focus of the story is on the exile as the culminating judgment to the sin of multiple generations of Israelites, answering the question of the exiles, “Was the Lord not powerful enough to protect us against the Babylonian gods?” But that answer created a new concern among the exiles—that the Lord was unfairly judging one generation for the sins of previous generations: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jer. 31:29Ezek. 18:2). To the contrary, the Chronicler was keen to highlight how on many occasions the Lord consistently judged sin and blessed faithfulness at the time it occurred. These two perspectives are complementary: the Lord in His patience waits long to judge His people, but His judgment never falls upon an innocent generation, because each generation is weighed down by their own sins (see Ezek. 18). Any generation can humble themselves, repent, turn to the Lord, and receive favor from Him (2 Chron. 7:14).

In one sense, David himself was responsible for numbering the people. That was not merely unwise but sinful, since the primary reason in ancient times to undertake a census was to establish the size of army a ruler could depend on in a conflict.

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