One of the more interesting contrasts of the Bible is looking at who was responsible for the census that David called and what implications it has about the relationship between God and Satan and the way that Satan is used for God’s purposes despite his hostile and adversarial relationship to mankind (and to God). It is important to remember that even if we are opposed to God as Satan is, we will still find ourselves used for His purposes, even in ways that we may not like. I do not happen to know if Satan appreciated being used by Go as an agent provocateur in the judgment of a sinful Israel, but that is what happened in 1 Chronicles 21.
Let us first look at this story from what is said in 1 Chronicles 21:1-13: “Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and to the leaders of the people, “Go, number Israel from Beersheba to Dan, and bring the number of them to me that I may know it.” And Joab answered, “May the Lord make His people a hundred times more than they are. But, my lord the king, are they not all my lord’s servants? Why then does my lord require this thing? Why should he be a cause of guilt in Israel?” Nevertheless the king’s word prevailed against Joab. Therefore Joab departed and went throughout all Israel and came to Jerusalem. Then Joab gave the sum of the number of the people to David. All Israel had one million one hundred thousand men who drew the sword, and Judah had four hundred and seventy thousand men who drew the sword. But he did not count Levi and Benjamin among them, for the king’s word was abominable to Joab. And God was displeased with this thing; therefore He struck Israel. So David said to God, “I have sinned greatly, because I have done this thing; but now, I pray, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” Then the Lord spoke to Gad, David’s seer, saying, “Go and tell David, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord: “I offer you three things; choose one of them for yourself, that I may do it to you.” ’ ” So Gad came to David and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Choose for yourself, either three years of famine, or three months to be defeated by your foes with the sword of your enemies overtaking you, or else for three days the sword of the Lord—the plague in the land, with the angel of the Lord destroying throughout all the territory of Israel.’ Now consider what answer I should take back to Him who sent me.” And David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Please let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are very great; but do not let me fall into the hand of man.””
And while this account is certainly interesting for a wide variety of reasons, especially David’s apparent ignorance of the biblical law that forbade the counting of a census unless a head tax was paid, for our present purposes what is a striking mystery is why it was that Satan stood up against Israel, but it is rather striking that here again we see cosmic matters in which David is possibly unaware of the ramifications of what is going on, where his action leads to a predictable judgment on the part of a people that merited judgment, and where Satan’s accusatory spirit is used for God’s purposes.
This sort of conclusion is all the easier to come to when we compare 1 Chronicles 21 to its companion chapter in 2 Samuel 24:1-14: “Again the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” So the king said to Joab the commander of the army who was with him, “Now go throughout all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and count the people, that I may know the number of the people.” And Joab said to the king, “Now may the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times more than there are, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it. But why does my lord the king desire this thing?” Nevertheless the king’s word prevailed against Joab and against the captains of the army. Therefore Joab and the captains of the army went out from the presence of the king to count the people of Israel. And they crossed over the Jordan and camped in Aroer, on the right side of the town which is in the midst of the ravine of Gad, and toward Jazer. Then they came to Gilead and to the land of Tahtim Hodshi; they came to Dan Jaan and around to Sidon; and they came to the stronghold of Tyre and to all the cities of the Hivites and the Canaanites. Then they went out to South Judah as far as Beersheba. So when they had gone through all the land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. Then Joab gave the sum of the number of the people to the king. And there were in Israel eight hundred thousand valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand men. And David’s heart condemned him after he had numbered the people. So David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done; but now, I pray, O Lord, take away the iniquity of Your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” Now when David arose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, “Go and tell David, ‘Thus says the Lord: “I offer you three things; choose one of them for yourself, that I may do it to you.” ’ ” So Gad came to David and told him; and he said to him, “Shall seven years of famine come to you in your land? Or shall you flee three months before your enemies, while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ plague in your land? Now consider and see what answer I should take back to Him who sent me.” And David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Please let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are great; but do not let me fall into the hand of man.””
Almost all of the details of these two stories are identical, except that 1 Chronicles 21 says that Satan rose up against Israel and 2 Samuel 24 says that God was raised up to anger, and both say that David was moved and stirred to call a census of Israel for the purpose of judgment, and that David’s choice was for God to be the one doing the punishment instead of man, and for the punishment to be short instead of lengthy. That leads to the question of how it was that this process came to be? Did God and Satan meet on one of those days where the angels and demons presented themselves to God? Did Satan accuse the people of Israel of something that they had done wrong that led God to angrily bring down judgment and allow Satan to move David to sin? We do not happen to know the details. What we do know is that both God and Satan were involved in David being moved to sin by counting the census and that once this happened David was convicted of sin in his own heart and chose God as the judge, knowing that God could indeed be moved to mercy in a way that famine and enemy nations could not be. Whatever the details, though, what we see here is Satan’s accusation serving the purposes of God, whether or not Satan appreciated or realized that or not.