Who Incited David to Number Israel?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
Census-taking under the Law of Moses was not inherently evil. In fact, God actually commanded Moses to number the Israelite soldiers on two different occasions—once in the second year after deliverance from Egyptian bondage, and again about forty years later near the end of Israel’s wanderings in the desert (Numbers 1:1-3,19; 26:2-4). Even though the book of Numbers describes many of their experiences while wandering through a barren land, the book takes its name (first assigned by the translators of the Septuagint) from these two numberings of the Israelites. Indeed, the taking of a census was a legitimate practice under the old law (cf. Exodus 30:11-16). Sometimes, however, one’s motives can turn lawful actions into sinful deeds (cf. Matthew 6:1-18). Such was the case with King David when he decided to number the Israelites in the latter part of his reign. God had not commanded a census be taken, nor did David instigate it for some noble cause. Instead, the Bible implies that David’s intentions (and thus his actions) were dishonorable, foolish, and sinful (cf. 2 Samuel 24:3,10ff.).
For many Bible readers, the parallel accounts that describe David’s numbering of Israel (found in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21) pose a serious problem. “Why does 2 Samuel 24:1 state that God ‘moved’ David against Israel, while 1 Chronicles 21:1 says that it was Satan who ‘stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel’ ”? Can both passages be right, or is this a contradiction?
The Hebrew verb wayyaset, translated “moved” (NKJV) or “incited (NASV), is identical in both passages. God and Satan’s actions are described using the same word. The difference lies with the sense in which the word is used: Satan incited (or tempted—cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:5) David more directly, while God is spoken of as having incited David because He allowed such temptation to take place. The Hebrews often used active verbs to express “not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do” (Bullinger, 2898, p. 823, emp. in orig.). Throughout the Bible, God’s allowance of something to take place often is described by the sacred writers as having been done by the Lord.
The book of Exodus records how “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7:3,13; 9:12; 10:1; et al.), but it was not that God directly forced Pharaoh to reject His will. Rather, God hardened his heart in the sense that God provided the circumstances and the occasion for Pharaoh to reject His will. God sent Moses to place His demands before Pharaoh, even accompanying His Word with miracles—to confirm the divine origin of the message (cf. Mark 16:20). Pharaoh made up his own mind to resist God’s demands. God merely provided the occasion for Pharaoh to demonstrate his unyielding attitude. If God had not sent Moses, Pharaoh would not have been faced with the dilemma of whether to release the Israelites. So God was certainly the initiator of the circumstances that led to Pharaoh’s sin, but He was not the author (or direct cause) of Pharaoh’s defiance (see Butt and Miller, 2003).
Another instance where this idiomatic language can be found is in the book of Job. In fact, the situation regarding God and Satan inciting David to number Israel probably more closely parallels the first two chapters of Job than any other passage of Scripture. Satan went into the presence of God on two different occasions in Job 1-2. The first time, he charged that the righteous man Job only served God because of the blessings God showered upon him (1:9-11). God thus permitted Satan to afflict Job with suffering, telling Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person” (1:12). After Satan used both humans and natural agency to destroy Job’s wealth and all of his children (1:13-19), Satan returned to the Lord’s presence. Notice the exchange of words between God and Satan (in view of the Hebrew idiomatic thought: what God permits, He is said to do).
Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil? And still he holds fast to his integrity, although you incited Me against him, to destroy him without cause.” So Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! Yes, all that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will surely curse You to Your face!” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand, but spare his life.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and struck Job with painful boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head (Job 2:3-7, emp. added).
Even though God knew that Satan was the direct cause for Job’s suffering (recorded in chapter one), He told Satan: “You incited Me against him, to destroy him without cause” (2:3, emp. added). As a result of Job’s abstaining from sin during this time of suffering, Satan then proposed a new challenge to God, saying, “But stretch out Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will surely curse You to Your face” (vs. 4). In essence, God said, “Okay. I will,” but He did not do it directly. He merely allowed Satan to do it: “Behold, he [Job] is in your hand, but spare his life” (vs. 6). So Satan “struck Job with painful boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (vs. 7). The dialog between God and Satan in Job chapter 2 leaves no doubt that what God permits to take place often is described by sacred writers as having been done by God. The inspired author of Job even reiterated this point forty chapters later, when he wrote: “Then all his [Job’s] brothers, all his sisters, and all those who had been his acquaintances before, came to him and ate food with him in his house; and they consoled him and comforted him for all the adversity that the Lord had brought upon him” (42:11, emp. added).
In his commentary on 2 Samuel, Burton Coffman made mention that the same principle still is operative in the Christian dispensation.
Paul pointed out that people who do not love the truth but have pleasure in unrighteousness are actually incited by God to believe a falsehood that they might be condemned (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12). “Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned, etc.” (1992, p. 329).
Those discussed in 2 Thessalonians 2 made a decision to reject the truth of God’s Word (cf. vs. 10), and believe a lie. God sends a delusion, in the sense that He controls the world’s drama.
The problem of how a loving God (1 John 4:8) can send a “strong delusion” (2 Thessalonians 2:11), harden someone’s heart (Exodus 9:12), or incite someone to sin (as in the case of David numbering Israel—2 Samuel 24:1), can be compared to God’s work in nature. In one sense, a person could speak of God killing someone who jumps from a 100-story building to his death, because it was God Who set in motion the law of gravity (but He did not force the person over the edge). Some inspired writers wrote from this viewpoint, which was customary in their culture.
Truly, similar to how Pharaoh hardened his heart because God gave him occasion to do such, and similar to how Job suffered because God allowed Satan to strike Job with calamity, God allowed Satan to incite David to sin (1 Chronicles 21:1). Israel suffered as a direct result of Satan’s workings in the life of King David, which God allowed. Thus, both God and Satan legitimately could be said to have incited the king—but in different ways (and for different reasons).
Bullinger, E.W. (1898), Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1968 reprint).
Butt, Kyle and Dave Miller (2003), “Who Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart?” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2259
Coffman, Burton (1992), Commentary on Second Samuel (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).