David Displeases the Lord by Taking a Census, 1-17

24:1 The LORD’s anger again raged against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go count Israel and Judah.” 24:2 The king told Joab, the general in command of his army, “Go through all the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beer Sheba and muster the army, so I may know the size of the army.”
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.

Some think that the Chronicler is attempting to ‘improve’ the theology of the earlier source.  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)

‘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)

“Go count Israel and Judah” – Cf. 1 Chron 21:1, where it is said that Satan incited David to do this.  The text does not explain why the Lord’s was angry with Israel, nor why it was wrong to conduct the census.

The thoughtful reader of Scripture should not be too perplexed by the idea that certain actions and events may have an ultimate cause (God), and also a proximate cause (in this case, Satan).  It is elsewhere, as when the Satan is given divine permission to test Job.

24:3 Joab replied to the king, “May the LORD your God make the army a hundred times larger right before the eyes of my lord the king! But why does my master the king want to do this?”
24:4 But the king’s edict stood, despite the objections of Joab and the leaders of the army. So Joab and the leaders of the army left the king’s presence in order to muster the Israelite army.
24:5 They crossed the Jordan and camped at Aroer, on the south side of the city, at the wadi of Gad, near Jazer. 24:6 Then they went on to Gilead and to the region of Tahtim Hodshi, coming to Dan Jaan and on around to Sidon. 24:7 Then they went to the fortress of Tyre and all the cities of the Hivites and the Canaanites. Then they went on to the Negev of Judah, to Beer Sheba. 24:8 They went through all the land and after nine months and twenty days came back to Jerusalem.
24:9 Joab reported the number of warriors to the king. In Israel there were 800,000 sword-wielding warriors, and in Judah there were 500,000 soldiers.
24:10 David felt guilty after he had numbered the army. David said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly by doing this! Now, O LORD, please remove the guilt of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.”
24:11 When David got up the next morning, the LORD had already spoken to Gad the prophet, David’s seer: 24:12 “Go, tell David, ‘This is what the LORD says: I am offering you three forms of judgment. Pick one of them and I will carry it out against you.’ ”
24:13 Gad went to David and told him, “Shall seven years of famine come upon your land? Or shall you flee for three months from your enemy with him in hot pursuit? Or shall there be three days of plague in your land? Now decide what I should tell the one who sent me.” 24:14 David said to Gad, “I am very upset! I prefer that we be attacked by the LORD, for his mercy is great; I do not want to be attacked by men!”
24:15 So the LORD sent a plague through Israel from the morning until the completion of the appointed time. Seventy thousand men died from Dan to Beer Sheba. 24:16 When the angel extended his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the LORD relented from his judgment. He told the angel who was killing the people, “That’s enough! Stop now!” (Now the LORD’s angel was near the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.)
24:17 When he saw the angel who was destroying the people, David said to the LORD, “Look, it is I who have sinned and done this evil thing! As for these sheep—what have they done? Attack me and my family.”

David Acquires a Threshing Floor and Constructs an Altar There, 18-25

24:18 So Gad went to David that day and told him, “Go up and build an altar for the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” 24:19 So David went up as Gad instructed him to do, according to the LORD’s instructions.
24:20 When Araunah looked out and saw the king and his servants approaching him, he went out and bowed to the king with his face to the ground. 24:21 Araunah said, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” David replied, “To buy from you the threshing floor so I can build an altar for the LORD, so that the plague may be removed from the people.” 24:22 Araunah told David, “My lord the king may take whatever he wishes and offer it. Look! Here are oxen for burnt offerings, and threshing sledges and harnesses for wood. 24:23 I, the servant of my lord the king, give it all to the king!” Araunah also told the king, “May the LORD your God show you favor!” 24:24 But the king said to Araunah, “No, I insist on buying it from you! I will not offer to the LORD my God burnt sacrifices that cost me nothing.”
So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty pieces of silver. 24:25 Then David built an altar for the LORD there and offered burnt sacrifices and peace offerings. And the LORD accepted prayers for the land, and the plague was removed from Israel.