Again the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” (2 Samuel 24:1)
Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1)
We are sure that God is not the author of sin and He tempts no man to sin (James 1:13). A census in and of itself was not a sin, but Exodus 30:12–16 gives very specific requirements for how a census was to be conducted, and this census by David did not follow the God-given instructions. Then we are told in 1 Chronicles 21:1 that Satan provoked David to number Israel. How do we reconcile this? Did God incite (move or stir up) David to take a census of Israel, or did Satan?
It is not surprising that the anger of the Lord was directed against Israel at this time: there certainly was cause enough for it. They were ungrateful for the blessings of David’s government, and strangely drawn in to take part in rebellion against David with Absalom first (2 Samuel 15:1–12) and afterwards with Sheba the son of Bichri (2 Samuel 20:1–2). The armies of Israel and Judah had constant strife between their commanders, and Joab proved to be a cold-blooded murderer on several occasions (2 Samuel 3:27, 18:14, 20:10). We have reason to think that their peace from outside enemies and the prosperity of the land under David’s rule had made them secure and sensual, and that God was therefore displeased with them.
Satan, as an enemy, suggested this census as an occasion to incite a sin, just as he also put it into the heart of Judas to betray Christ. Satan is frequently described in Scripture as doing what God merely permits to be done; and so, in this case, He permitted Satan to tempt David. Satan was the active mover, while God only withdrew His supporting grace, and the great adversary prevailed against the king. (For other examples of God permitting temptation and it being ascribed to Him, see 2 Samuel 16:7–13; 1 Kings 22:20–23; Psalm 105:24–25.) God as righteous Judge in this instance permitted it with the design that from this sin of David He would take occasion to punish Israel for other sins, for which He might justly have otherwise punished them.
It should be noted that when God has a plan in mind, He will sometimes allow Satan and his demons to do things they want to do (e.g., lie and cause disaster and death), while actually they are working the will of God (who wanted to punish Israel for their idolatry and wickedness). A couple of biblical examples include 2 Chronicles 18:18–22, where God allows a demon to use the false prophets to convince Ahab to go to battle and ultimately to his death, and Job 1–2, where Satan persecutes Job.
Remember that God brought a famine upon the nation for the sin of Saul’s house (2 Samuel 21:1), which according to Ussher and Nolen Jones had just ended a year earlier.1 Now after this census God leveled a three-day pestilence for the sin of David. Perhaps the three-year famine came so that the leaders of the people would learn to recognize the judgment of God, to suspect that their sins were the cause, and therefore to repent and turn to God. This would have a great influence upon national repentance and reformation. This would in turn cause the people to learn to pray for those in authority, that God would keep them from sin, because, if the leaders engage in open sin, the whole nation languishes (Proverbs 29:2). Indeed, we are commanded to pray for those in authority (1 Timothy 2:1–3), as this is pleasing to God. But we see no such repentance from the leaders or the people who engage in open rebellion, seemingly at the slightest provocation.
The author of 1 Chronicles ascribes this census-taking plan to Satan, who wanted to oppose Israel and cause them as much harm as possible, perhaps even hoping to destroy the Lord’s anointed (David and/or Solomon) which would have terminated the earthly line through which Christ came. God however wanted to punish Israel for their sins (most notably rebellion), and so He allowed Satan to tempt David so He could stamp out those traitors who despised the Lord and His anointed king.
The difficulty in reconciling the statement in 1 Chronicles 21:1, “Satan . . . moved David,” with that of 2 Samuel 24:1, “the Lord moved David,” is not problematic. All temptation is permitted by God, but not caused by God. When evil spirits tempt us, they do so by permission (Job 1:12, 2:6; Luke 22:31). Satan therefore provoked David to number the people, and God allowed him to do so. God allows those things which serve to advance His holy and perfect will.
The author of 2 Samuel (probably the prophets Nathan or Gad) chose to view this whole affair in the ultimate sense of God being in control of all things, while the author of 1 Chronicles (probably Ezra) wanted to showcase the satanic plot and how God used this as a tool for judgment. It is the same account with a different point of emphasis. This also makes sense, for Nathan and Gad were prophets who proclaimed that God is in control of all the affairs of men, and knows and predicts events before they come to pass. Ezra was a priest who was interested in pointing out the holiness of God, and as one who hates sin—treason and idolatry being two of the most heinous, and the two which Israel were most prone to. The “takeaway” point here is that God judges and punishes sin, and purges out the leaven of sin from His people (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6–8). Satan meant it for evil for David and for Israel, but God ultimately meant it for good in the long run of the nation, and so allowed Satan to provoke David.