2nd Samuel 24:1 (see also 2nd Chronicles 21:1-10)
Now again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”
David’s census, of course, was a sin. Verse 10 states: “Now David’s heart troubled him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the LORD, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, please take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have acted very foolishly.’”
Question: So how could it be David’s sin, when yet it was God who incited David to do the sin?
There’s more. 1st Chronicles 21:1-2 states: “Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and to the princes of the people, ‘Go, number Israel from Beersheba even to Dan, and bring me word that I may know their number.’”
So not only was the census a sin, for which David
took blame himself, and not only was it God who
incited David to commit this sin, but it was also
Satan who moved David to sin. So naturally,
Calvinists have a field day with this, in attempting
to prove that whereas God is the author of sin, He
is not guilty of the sin that He authors. But not so
fast, my friend! Calvinists have it all wrong.
One member of The Society of Evangelical Arminians: “Given 2 Samuel 24 says that God did it and 1 Chronicles 21 says that the devil did it, this is a good example that permission is is in play, even if the passage doesn’t mention it. God seemed to permit this as a punishment.” (SEA)
Laurence Vance: “There is also the matter of God’s permission. Often times God is said to do something when in fact he only permitted it to be done. Satan provoked David to number Israel (1 Chr. 21:2), but God was said to do it (2 Sam. 24:1). The best example is Job. Satan was the cause of Job’s trouble (Job 1:12, 2:7), but Job (Job 1:21), the writer of Job (Job 42:11), and Satan himself (Job 1:11, 2:5) attributed it to God.” (The Other Side of Calvinism, p.273)
That’s exactly what is going on. According to Job 2:7, the devil harmed Job, and at Job 2:3, God says that He harmed Job: “...you incited Me against him, to ruin him without cause.” Sound familiar? However, the context reveals that what actually happened was that God had taken personal responsibility for having granted permission to the devil to harm Job, though with certain restrictions. So God took responsibility for allowing it, but that doesn’t mean that God was in agreement with the devil, or that He wanted the devil to succeed against Job, in getting him to doubt God. Far from it. Filter that back into the matter pertaining to David and the census:
(1) God was angry with Israel, as the text states.
(2) Satan brings his usual accusation before God and makes his usual demand to be allowed to harm someone.
(3) Since God is angry with Israel and sees a benefit in bringing judgment upon it, in order to motivate repentance and restoration, He allows Satan to do as he asks.
(4) Whereas Satan was a willing party to harm Israel, God was a reluctant party to permit it, knowing that Israel had to experience the judgment that it brought upon itself, like a reluctant parent having to discipline their beloved child in order to instill good moral character.
According to Job 2:3 and Job 2:6, God took responsibility for the harm done to Job, but clearly what is shown in verse 6 is that God is limiting what Satan is allowed to do. The principle is that God is taking ownership of what He allows, not that He wanted Satan to make the challenge, or to blaspheme God and Job, but that God was willing to allow Satan to make a fool of himself, and for Job to learn true faith in the process. Now filter that back into the narrative with David. God didn’t want Israel to sin. But Israel did, and Satan blasphemed God on account of it, and God determined to judge it, and Satan was permitted to deceive David, and God took ownership of what He permitted, which also explains why David understood that it was completely his own fault.
The fact is that Satan is the accuser of the brethren. Revelation 12:10 states: “Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night.’” Jesus said concerning this accuser, Satan: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32) So that’s what we see illustrated in the book of Job, in which Satan entered Heaven to challenge God concerning Job: “‘But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.’ Then the LORD said to Satan, ‘Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.’ So Satan departed from the presence of the LORD.” (Job 1:11-12) So Satan did it, and God took responsibility in allowing it: “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil. And he still holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause.” (Job 2:3)
Question: So who asked David to take the census?
Answer: No one. The devil simply tempted him to do it. Although it’s true that God moved David to take it, God never told him to take it, and David never recognized the census as having divine origin. God spoke to Jeremiah and Solomon in dreams and Joseph through a dream and called out audibly to young Samuel as a boy, but God never communicates via temptation. The devil does that, and the parallel passage at Chronicles confirms that the devil was the sole acting party, exactly like in the Book of Job, where in that instance the devil was also the sole acting party, even though God took sole responsibility for what happened. (Job 2:3) So what you have is that whereas in the Book of Job, God was incited to harm Job without cause, in Samuel/Chronicles, God was incited to harm Israel with cause, yet in both instances, God did nothing more than to remain idle. Note that there is no prophet communicating any census command from God to David, and no spoken words from God to David, and no acknowledgement from David back to God that the census was of any divine origin. Just like in the Job encounter, the Lord’s role is entirely passive, yet while taking ultimate responsibility.
Question: Was God pleased with David’s sin to take the census?
Answer: No. According to 1st Chronicles 21:7, “God was displeased with this thing, so He struck Israel.”
Question: But didn’t God command that David take the census?
Answer: The words, “Go, number Israel and Judah,” were not God’s spoken words to David, but according to the text, David’s spoken words to Joab, which Joab resisted, words albeit that God “moved” David to command, but consider that in light of Matthew 6:13, which states: “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” This is relevant because God never leads anyone “into temptation,” since God never tempts anyone to sin. (James 1:13) The backdrop is that Satan is the accuser of the brethren, and issues challenges against God’s people, night and day, demanding to sift them like wheat, just like with Peter, and questioning their love for God, like with Job. So when we sin, and get out of the will of God, sometimes God may then permit the devil to execute his harmful desires against us, and which in fact, becomes divine judgment, since God permitted it to go forward, however painstakingly and reluctantly so. This seems to explain 2nd Samuel 24:1, especially given the supporting information (i.e. no prophet communicating a census decree, no vision for it, no pushback from David, and God’s displeasure in the census having been taken). In the case of David, God was incited against Israel. God wasn’t necessarily glad to see Israel in a state of rebellion. Far be it. God wasn’t glad to see David’s pride get the best of him, in order to be moved by the devil to take the census, which would result in Israel’s guilt and punishment, just as God wasn’t glad to see Peter being sifted like wheat. God would have it that all went well, and everyone resist the devil.
Question: So how could it be David’s sin, when yet it was God who incited David to do the sin?
Answer: God was incited by His anger against Israel’s rebellion to permit Satan to proceed with his accusations against Israel and subsequent challenge. God was merely reluctantly involved, and the same principle applies to Job, in which God permitted Satan to proceed with his challenge against Job. In this way, God was angry at Israel, and displeased with David’s failure to resist the devil. But God still took pity on Israel: “So the LORD sent a pestilence on Israel; 70,000 men of Israel fell. And God sent an angel to Jerusalem to destroy it; but as he was about to destroy it, the LORD saw and was sorry over the calamity, and said to the destroying angel, ‘It is enough; now relax your hand.’” (1st Chronicles 21:14)
There is evidence of ambiguity in the Samuel passage because it doesn’t have God speaking to David to tell Israel, “Go take a census,” but only that God moved him. That’s just how Scripture is sometimes, and which is why it requires study, both in context and parallel passages.
One Calvinist points out: “But what it does say is that God incited David to sin against the Lord - showing it was His will for David to do such and also we see that it says that Satan incited David to sin against the Lord.”
But it wasn’t God’s will for David to take the decree, as God specifically said that He was “displeased.” (1st Chronicles 21:7) It wasn’t God’s will for David to get duped by Satan, no more than it was God’s will that Job waver in his faith, no more than it was God’s will for Peter deny Christ three times. Satan is the accuser; God permitted his challenges. Due to God’s anger against Israel, he wasn’t particularly motivated to want to defend Israel against Satan’s challenges, and hence permitted him to hoodwink David into taking the census. I think that that’s the most natural reading of the texts involved, and hence I reject the Calvinist “proof-text” for antinomy.
Here is a link to further discussion on this passage.