Who Provoked David To Sin?
And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah. (2 Samuel 24:1)
And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1)
Did God or Satan provoke David to sin?
This is a question that has been asked many times, and I have found most, if not all answers to be unsatisfactory (In fact, I think wrong conclusions have been reached because of a beginning false premise). I say they are unsatisfactory because some have thought that we as English-speaking people must look to the Hebrew language to understand the Bible and then they make the Bible say something different than what it actually says, or they give the standard explanation that Satan enticed David to sin and God allowed it, thus when God allows something it is properly said that he himself does it. Finally, there are those who believe one of the writers simply had a wrong view about God and God let it stand, though he corrected the matter through progressive revelation. I do not affirm any of the three explanations. I believe I can read the KJV and allow scripture to interpret itself without knowing Hebrew, without slandering God, and without having to wonder how much of the Bible God allowed to be recorded wrongly only for it to be corrected down the road.
It makes no sense to say that since God was angry with Israel, he provoked David to commit an act of sin, and he then became displeased with David afterward. Remember the words of James:
“Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. Do not err, my beloved brethren” (James 1:13-16).
For anyone that would like to point out that God used people from pagan nations to chastise Israel (Psalms 105:25) or is said to have at one point “made us (Israel) to err from thy ways” (Isaiah 63:17), it is important to remember that these pagan nations were already at enmity with God and their punishment was already coming, though God providentially used them to chastise Israel for their rebellion, and God temporarily withdrawing his influence resulting in a hardening of the hearts of the rebellious people (Isaiah 63:10), are not the same as God provoking King David to commit an act of sin. David was not a pagan King; he was a man after God’s own heart, and we have no example in the scriptures of God provoking a righteous man to commit sin so that God could accomplish a specific purpose.
Notice what is said and what is not said in 2 Samuel 24:1, while sticking to the most enduring and consistent English-translation of the Bible, while also avoiding the confusion of a Concordance and modern Bible versions. God’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, go and number Israel and Judah. When we read about this incident, we notice that God never told David to number the people. David is the one who told Joab to go and conduct a census. God did not provoke David to sin. Joab even tried to warn David that he was wrong, and Joab could see that trouble was coming for Israel because of David’s command. So how should we take this verse? The Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them.
In working through these two verses that so many have poorly explained, I asked the Lord to help me see the truth in this. Theologians can make matters more difficult than they need to be, and it appears this is a case in point. After asking the Lord for help, my mind went to my own personality and some of my own personal experiences and this was instructive. At some point in the last few years, I identified something about myself. I can be easily moved, or stirred, by the anger and emotions of others. This was clearly seen while I was an officer in the prison system. When another officer was involved in a contentious situation with an inmate, I gravitated toward the conflict and I was moved, or stirred, against the inmate. My common interest and connection with other officers influenced my actions toward those who opposed them. To oppose one was to oppose all and it was also opposition toward the principles that we valued. As my views on the prison system have developed, I find that it causes more harm than good, for staff and prisoners (and their families), but I am simply drawing out the fact that people can easily be influenced to adopt certain behaviors, or a course of action, on an emotional rather than a rational basis. That is not to say that the ensuing actions are always wrong, but the ensuing actions are certainly not always right.
I’ve seen the same in my relationship with my wife. She can become upset toward someone and I will become stirred against that person. Being as protective of my wife as I am, and being moved against someone, Satan can tempt me to react wrongly, and I can sin. It can be rightfully said that my wife moved me against the person, but this does not mean she forced me or intentionally enticed me to sin. Satanic spirits - our adversaries and tempters - seeing us in this vulnerable situation, can provoke us to sin. They can exploit our emotions and tempt us to sin, even if we think we are doing right by our loved one, or by God. Though not an exact parallel, I am reminded of the incident when Uzzah tried to steady the Ark of the Covenant so that it did not hit the ground, but upon touching the Ark, he instantly died. God had said not to touch the Ark. Uzzah had good intentions, but God’s law was breached. Uzzah did something that the Lord said not to do.
Many wrong actions have been committed by Christians in the name of God, or for God. Examples would include all the instances of “Christian” militarism, such as the Crusades or invasions for the purpose of killing Iraqis and Afghanis “for Christ”, the killing of other Christians in church history because of doctrinal disagreements (read Jesus Wars by Christian historian Philip Jenkins to get a sense of this hideousness), the violent actions of the likes of abolitionist John Brown, and many other wrong actions taken by pastors and other Christians in opposition to rebellious church members or non-Christians. In short, God’s views toward someone or something has caused people to go beyond what God would have them to do, even if they are aligned with God on a moral issue.
It appears to me that David, rather than conducting a census out of pride as some have suggested, instead wrongly crossed the line in his opposition to those who rebel against God.
The scriptures do not tell us David’s purpose for numbering Israel, but could it be that he did so because he was moved by God’s anger toward them, and David had something in mind that would result in their chastisement? The dismissal of Joab's warning cannot be overlooked.
The explanation seems to be that the Lord’s anger caused David to move against Israel, and being provoked by Satan, David sinned, just as Moses moved against Israel when they were displeasing God and he struck the rock instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. Moses, who was aligned with God when it came to dealing with the murmuring Israelites, moved against Israel wrongfully, and it resulted in negative consequences. Did David number Israel and Judah out of frustration with them because they were rebelling against God? Did he know that since their hearts were not right (remember, the Lord was angry with them) he knew they would not do as they were supposed to do when a census was taken? Exodus 30:12 states: “When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the LORD, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them.” This condition was not met and indeed, as Joab declared, David became a “cause of trespass to Israel.” David may have thought he was doing God a favor, but after the task was completed, he realized his sin and it brought him grief.
In summary, I see no contradiction or need to disregard the plain reading of scripture. The Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he (or we might say the Lord’s anger) moved David against them because David was a man who opposed those who opposed God (Psalms 139:19-22), and Satan capitalized on his emotional state by tempting David to sin, which David did by ordering Joab to number Israel and Judah.