“The Lord’s anger burned against Israel again, and he stirred up David against them to say: ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.'” (ESV – Read the chapter)
This is a really uncomfortable chapter. It raises a couple of really hard questions. I’ll treat them as they come starting with this one: Why would the Lord cause David to do something for which He then punished him? How is that just or fair or right or good or whatever other adjective you want to throw in there?
Well, when we encounter a story like this, one of the first things we need to do is use Scripture to interpret Scripture. This means we need to look around a bit and see if there are any other passages that offer us additional insights for understanding. In this case, there is. This same story is repeated at the end of 1 Chronicles.
With a couple of minor exceptions it’s almost a word-for-word copy except for one little thing. Actually, it’s not such a little thing. The author of 1 Chronicles tells us that it was Satan who goaded David into taking this census of his army. So, was it God or Satan who initiated this whole sequence? That’s a pretty significant difference in origin. It’s a pretty significant contradiction.
Maybe not. One of the basic principles of biblical interpretation is that when a text or two texts like this have multiple options for wording or an apparent difference between them, the option most likely to be correct is the one that is hardest to understand. The reason is that later editors were unlikely to make a change to the text to make it harder to understand. In this case, both of these passages existed a long time with multiple opportunities to be edited in such a way as to smooth out this kind of a jarring, apparently obviously contradictory difference between them.
But it wasn’t. Which means they understood it in such a way that it didn’t bother them. So, what did they know that we don’t? Unfortunately, we can only guess at an answer to that question. But, we guess with a couple of important things in mind. First, the text is right and we’re not. Anytime we think the Scriptures get something wrong, we’re wrong. We simply don’t understand as fully as we need to see more clearly. Second, our faith doesn’t hang on whether or not we can get our minds all the way around this or even if it really is hopelessly contradictory in some way (it isn’t). Jesus’ resurrection is our foundation. Jesus accepted both of these stories at face value. And if a guy predicts and pulls off His own death and resurrection, we just go with whatever He said.
All of that being said, here’s a proposal. Satan was the provocateur for the episode, but God was the one who allowed him to do it. God was upset with David for some reason—we don’t know the reason and neither text gives us any kind of a clue as to what it might be—and stepped back from David enough that Satan moved in to attack.
Is this fully the case? We don’t know, but it does make a whole lot more sense. Either way, our faith is secure. Now, it prompts some other big questions, but we’ll tackle those in separate notes. For now, we don’t have to let hard passages like this one throw us off track or challenge our faith. We are secure in Christ.