David Numbers the Fighting Men, 1-30

1 Chron 21:1 Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.

Who incited David?

2 Sam 24:1 The LORD’s anger again raged against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go count Israel and Judah.”

1 Chron 21:1 An adversary [NIV: ‘Satan’] opposed Israel, inciting David to count how many warriors Israel had.

1. Some think that some resolution can be achieved by translating the text differently.  The NASB softens the the Lord’s involvement by translating: ‘ Now again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”’  In other words, it was not the Lord who incited David: rather, David was responding (sinfully) to the Lord’s anger; it was not the Lord who gave the command, but David.  Davis says this translation is possible, but not the most natural.

2. Others think that the Chronicler is attempting to ‘improve’ the theology of the earlier source.  Why did the theology need ‘improvement’?  Because it leaves us with the question, as Dale Ralph Davis puts it: ‘How can Yahweh stir up David to carry out an action for which he is then held guilty? ‘  According to Anderson (WBC), ‘this alteration may be part of the gradual process in which evil came to be associated with the demons or Satan in particular.’  There may well be some truth in this, but it is theologically naive to leave it at that.

3. If we simply conclude that the two accounts are contradictory, as they appear to be, we are missing out on important theological truth.  The two account ‘each reflect a different aspect of the ultimately mysterious relationship between the action of the sovereign Lord, and the actions of Satan within that sovereignty.’ (Timothy Ward, Words of Life, p141).

Ward adds that this relationship is spelled out most clearly in the first few chapters of Job, where Satan acts within boundaries circumscribed by God, and the actions he has performed come to be regarded later in the book as those of God himself (see Job 2:3).  We think too of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Cor 12:7), which he describes as ‘a messenger of Satan’ and yet clearly sent to fulfill the godly purpose of keeping him humble.

Satan ‘is the one who, as in Job 2:3, actually causes the trouble, although only by God’s permission and within God’s limits.’ (NBC)

Satan’s role ‘is to be sharply distinguished from God’s, who remains totally in control, but who sometimes judges by handing sinners over to Satan (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20).’ (Selman, TOTC)

Grudem (Systematic Theology, p324): ‘David to take a census of the people (2 Sam. 24:1), but afterward David recognized this as sin, saying, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done” (2 Sam. 24:10), and God sent punishment on the land because of this sin (2 Sam. 24:12–17). However, it is also clear that “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel” (2 Sam. 24:1), so God’s inciting of David to sin was a means by which he brought about punishment on the people of Israel. Moreover, the means by which God incited David is made clear in 1 Chronicles 21:1: “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to number Israel.” In this one incident the Bible gives us a remarkable insight into the three influences that contributed in different ways to one action: God, in order to bring about his purposes, worked through Satan to incite David to sin, but Scripture regards David as being responsible for that sin.’

‘All temptation is permitted by God. When evil spirits tempt us, they do so by permission (Job 1:12, 2:6; Luke 22:31, &c.). If Satan therefore provoked David to number the people, God allowed him. And what God allows, He may be said to do.’ (Barnes)

4. Davis criticises such distinctions between God’s ‘permissive’ will and his ‘decretive’ will. ‘The appeal to God’s permissive will solves nothing. It may sound better, but God must decide to permit. We cannot use Satan to avoid God.’

Davis chooses not to try to resolve the theological tension.  He quotes Kaiser (Hard Sayings of the Bible):

‘It is also true, according to the Hebrew thinking, that whatever God permits he commits. By allowing this census-taking, God is viewed as having brought about the act. The Hebrews were not very concerned with determining secondary causes and properly attributing them to the exact cause. Under the divine providence everything ultimately was attributed to him; why not say he did it in the first place?’

This explanation would be more plausible if the text in 2 Samuel 24 was all we had to go on.  But, since the 1 Chron 21 passage says that was ‘Satan’, rather than ‘the Lord’ who incited David, the ‘dual cause’ interpretation (no. 3, above) would seem, despite its own difficulties, the best.

Satan is mentioned in only two other places in the OT (Job 1-2; Zech 3:1f) and only here as a proper name (the other instances have the definite article – ‘the Satan’).

According to 2 Sam 24:1 it was the Lord who incited David to this action.  It is reasonable to see here ‘a developing and popular piety that preferred not to predicate evil directly of God.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

A census of Israel – Why was it wrong for David to take this census?  The book of Numbers takes its very name from a census, and 1 Chronicles itself records such lists in its early chapters.  Perhaps the problem lay with David’s motives, given that this was a military census. Texts such as 2 Ch. 14:11; 16:8 emphasise the importance of relying on the Lord, rather than in size of the army.

1 Chron 21:2  So David said to Joab and the commanders of the troops, “Go and count the Israelites from Beersheba to Dan. Then report back to me so that I may know how many there are.”

1 Chron 21:3  But Joab replied, “May the LORD multiply his troops a hundred times over. My lord the king, are they not all my lord’s subjects? Why does my lord want to do this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?”

1 Chron 21:4  The king’s word, however, overruled Joab; so Joab left and went throughout Israel and then came back to Jerusalem.

1 Chron 21:5  Joab reported the number of the fighting men to David: In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who could handle a sword, including four hundred and seventy thousand in Judah.

1 Chron 21:6  But Joab did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, because the king’s command was repulsive to him.

1 Chron 21:7  This command was also evil in the sight of God; so he punished Israel.

‘God takes notice of, and is displeased with, the sins of his people; and no sin is more displeasing to him than pride of heart: nor is anything more humbling, and grieving, and mortifying to a gracious soul, than to see itself under God’s displeasure.’ (MHC)

1 Chron 21:8  Then David said to God, “I have sinned greatly by doing this. Now, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.”

‘Here is evidence that the Chronicler had no intention of “whitewashing” David or any other character about whom he wrote. David had his faults, but not every existing story about them served the author’s purposes. The Chronicler included this story of the census, but omitted the Bathsheba affair (cp. 20:1 with 2 Sm 11:1). One major difference between the two events is that while David’s sin and murder affected only a small number of people, his ordering the census had consequences for many thousands. Put another way, the Chronicler chose to omit personal sins, but he included sins of a king that had negative consequences for “all Israel.”’ (Apologetics Study Bible)

1 Chron 21:9  The LORD said to Gad, David’s seer,

1 Chron 21:10  “Go and tell David, ‘This is what the LORD says: I am giving you three options. Choose one of them for me to carry out against you.’”

1 Chron 21:11  So Gad went to David and said to him, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Take your choice:

1 Chron 21:12  three years of famine, three months of being swept away before your enemies, with their swords overtaking you, or three days of the sword of the LORD—days of plague in the land, with the angel of the LORD ravaging every part of Israel.’ Now then, decide how I should answer the one who sent me.”

1 Chron 21:13  David said to Gad, “I am in deep distress. Let me fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.”

“Let me fall into the hands of the Lord” – David would rather endure the merciful punishment of God (a plague) than the unbridled and unprincipled wrath of people (an invasion).  In wrath God will remember mercy (Hab 3:2).

‘Good men, even when God frowns upon them, think well of him.’ (MHC)

1 Chron 21:14  So the LORD sent a plague on Israel, and seventy thousand men of Israel fell dead.

‘He was proud of the multitude of his people, but divine Justice took a course to make them fewer…David had another number of them brought, more to his confusion than was to his satisfaction, namely, the number of the slain—a black bill of mortality, which is a drawback to his muster-roll.’ (MHC)

1 Chron 21:15  And God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem. But as the angel was doing so, the LORD saw it and was grieved because of the calamity and said to the angel who was destroying the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of the LORD was then standing at the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite.

1 Chron 21:16  David looked up and saw the angel of the LORD standing between heaven and earth, with a drawn sword in his hand extended over Jerusalem. Then David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth, fell face down.

1 Chron 21:17  David said to God, “Was it not I who ordered the fighting men to be counted? I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? O LORD my God, let your hand fall upon me and my family, but do not let this plague remain on your people.”

1 Chron 21:18  Then the angel of the LORD ordered Gad to tell David to go up and build an altar to the LORD on the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite.

1 Chron 21:19  So David went up in obedience to the word that Gad had spoken in the name of the LORD.

1 Chron 21:20  While Araunah was threshing wheat, he turned and saw the angel; his four sons who were with him hid themselves.

1 Chron 21:21  Then David approached, and when Araunah looked and saw him, he left the threshing-floor and bowed down before David with his face to the ground.

1 Chron 21:22  David said to him, “Let me have the site of your threshing-floor so that I can build an altar to the LORD, that the plague on the people may be stopped. Sell it to me at the full price.”

1 Chron 21:23  Araunah said to David, “Take it! Let my lord the king do whatever pleases him. Look, I will give the oxen for the burnt offerings, the threshing-sledges for the wood, and the wheat for the grain offering. I will give all this.”

1 Chron 21:24  But King David replied to Araunah, “No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing.”

1 Chron 21:25  So David paid Araunah six hundred shekels of gold for the site.

1 Chron 21:26  David built an altar to the LORD there and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. He called on the LORD, and the LORD answered him with fire from heaven on the altar of burnt offering.

1 Chron 21:27  Then the LORD spoke to the angel, and he put his sword back into its sheath.

1 Chron 21:28  At that time, when David saw that the LORD had answered him on the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite, he offered sacrifices there.

1 Chron 21:29  The tabernacle of the LORD, which Moses had made in the desert, and the altar of burnt offering were at that time on the high place at Gibeon.

1 Chron 21:30  But David could not go before it to enquire of God, because he was afraid of the sword of the angel of the LORD.