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. 31:29; Ezek. 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. However, David was supposed to be trusting in the Lord, not in the size of his army. If David had been trusting in God, he would have had no need for a census. As Jonathan put it so eloquently in 1 Samuel 14:6, “Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.”
The writer of 2 Samuel wanted to bring out a deeper truth, however. Even in our sinful decisions, we can do nothing other than what the Lord has determined. The Lord didn’t make David sin—He didn’t have to, since David’s sinful nature naturally led him in that direction. He simply had to remove the restraints and allow David to pursue the desires of his sinful heart. In David’s case, this sin was the result of a downward spiral into the darkness, which began with his adultery with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11. That one sin opened the door for other sins to follow, culminating in this sin, which cost the lives of seventy thousand people (2 Sam. 24:15). Yet the Lord had redemptive purposes even in allowing David to sin like this, since it was through David’s repentance over this sin that the site of the temple was identified (2 Sam. 24:18–25). Where sin abounded, grace was multiplied even more (Rom. 5:20).
The Chronicler wanted to clarify one aspect of the story, which is the role of Satan as the intermediary in this process. After all, God does not tempt people Himself (James 1:13); He is not the author of evil. Sometimes, the source is in our sinful nature, while at other times it comes from the allure of the world around us (1 John 2:16). Yet there are times, as the Chronicler notes in this case, when temptation comes from the evil one. This is not a contradiction of what 2 Samuel said, since (as Martin Luther put it) the devil is “God’s devil.” He can only color within the lines drawn for him by the Almighty, as the book of Job makes clear. Satan has no more power than the Lord allows him, and ultimately, he can do nothing other than what the Lord has purposed from the beginning (Gen. 50:20).
Together, these passages make an important theological point: the Lord is ultimately in control of all temptations that come to us—and of those to which we give in. In Luke 22:31–32, Jesus told Peter that Satan desired to sift him like wheat—that is, to subject Peter to severe temptation. However, Jesus prayed for Peter—not that he wouldn’t be tempted or wouldn’t sin, but that his temptation and failure would not destroy his faith. 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.
This article is part of the Responding to Apparent Contradictions collection.