Late in David’s life, he make a foolish and sinful decision. You would expect a man to mature with age and his decision-making to become more God-honoring the older he gets, and in some regards, that was the way David lived. But not on this day. As David prepared to transition the kingdom of Israel to Solomon, he evidently wanted one last evaluation of the condition of the nation, and so he decreed that a census be taken of the number of soldiers in the Israelite army (2 Sam. 24:2, 9). While it is not stated explicitly in the text it seems that since David was only counted the members of the army, he wanted to boast in his military might and authority — “look how strong of an army I’m leaving you, Solomon…” This was a sin (2 Sam. 24:10) because God was the One who protected Israel, not David (as David himself had penned in Ps. 20:7).
Yet what is interesting is that the narrators of this account (both Samuel and Chronicles tell the story) point to two different origins of David’s desire:
“Now again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” (2 Sam 24:1; NASB)
And then the chronicler says:
“Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.” (1 Chr. 21:1; NASB)
So the obvious question is, “Who made David do what he did?” Was it God? Or was it Satan?
While there seems to be a conundrum here — and some would suggest a contradiction — it really is quite simple. The two writers are writing from two different perspectives, each offering a different perspective about the reality of the circumstance. So as the narrator of Chronicles recounts the story,he considers the immediate tempter and says, “Satan…moved David to number Israel.” The sense of the word “moved” is that Satan mislead, incited, and enticed David to count the people of Israel. That is what the tempter does.
But how does God relate to that temptation? Certainly God cannot tempt anyone (Js. 1:13), so why does 2 Samuel say that God is the One who incited David? (The same word is used in both passages.) The situation here is analogous to God, Job, and Satan in Job 1-2. In that account, Satan went to God for permission to afflict Job and God gave permission, so Satan was the immediate cause of the temptation. Yet throughout the account of Job, God is understood to be behind Job’s suffering (e.g., Job 1:21-22; 42:11). So also in this situation, God does not tempt David; Satan does. And yet behind the temptation, God is working His sovereign purposes for David and the nation of Israel. And in that sense, David did what he wanted to do. And Satan made David do what he did. AND God used Satan’s temptation of David to accomplish His plan of discipline for Israel (2 Sam. 24:1).
Like the account of Job, this is of great comfort to the believer. We can be assured that nothing is outside the boundaries of God’s control. He always accomplishes all His will and nothing can thwart His purposes. Illness and disease do not compromise His plans. And even temptation and sin cannot frustrate His intentions. While He does not will sin to happen, He is sovereign over every sin and uses sin to accomplish His plans (as He did with Joseph, Gen. 50:20, and as He did with the greatest sin ever committed, the crucifixion of Christ).
David’s immediate confession of his sin after the completion of the census reminds us that we do not use God’s sovereignty as an excuse to engage in sin; but at the same time we can be sure that when others sin against us and when we ourselves sin, we have not undermined God’s sovereign control of our lives.