Difficult Bible Passages: 1 Chronicles 21:1-4

This text certainly presents a number of very real challenges:

There are two main problems or difficulties that one finds in this text. One is immediately obvious, but not so much the other one. This portion of Scripture has to do with David taking a census of the people and the judgment of God that followed. The full account is found in 1 Chronicles 21, and the parallel account is found in 2 Samuel 24. The first four verses of the Chronicles account are as follows:

Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number.” But Joab said, “May the Lord add to his people a hundred times as many as they are! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord’s servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should it be a cause of guilt for Israel?” But the king’s word prevailed against Joab. So Joab departed and went throughout all Israel and came back to Jerusalem.

And in verses 7-8 we see more about how wrong this was: “But God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel. And David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing. But now, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have acted very foolishly’.”

So the first issue has to do with why taking a census was so wrong. A census was taken back then for two main reasons: for taxation purposes, and for military reasons. It was often done to determine the number of fighting men that were available for Israel.

The problem with this was that it too easily meant that those ruling Israel at the time would seek to rely on their own strength (how many fighters they had), instead of relying on Yahweh. And sometimes looking to form military alliances with pagan nations was a part of this. I have discussed this elsewhere. In one piece I said this:

Often (but not always) God condemned Israel for taking a census. Why? Because when it was done to determine the number and capacity of Israel’s fighting men, that too was often an indication of looking to others instead of to the Lord to be safe and secure.


But that did NOT mean Israel could never take a census for any reason – and the same with us today. Consider the book of Numbers where several such censuses are undertaken. In Numbers 1, 4 and 26 God commands the people to take a census – these were acceptable censuses.


However, in places like 1 Chronicles 21 we read of a sinful census being taken. When Israelite kings wanted to know how strong they were militarily, they were taking their eyes off Yahweh and his promised protection. When that occurred, judgment followed. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/04/13/scripture-politics-and-messy-thinking/

Thus God took this seriously, and when a census was taken for the wrong (sinful) reasons, God would judge his people. So this possible difficulty is not all that hard to get a handle on. But a seemingly much greater problem arises when we look at the parallel account in 2 Samuel 24. The first four verses say this:

Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people.” But Joab said to the king, “May the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see it, but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?” But the king’s word prevailed against Joab and the commanders of the army. So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to number the people of Israel.

And verse 10 has the similar reaction; “But David’s heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And 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 done very foolishly’.”

Just in case you ask, ‘What’s the diff?,’ look again. Here we see that God incited David to do the numbering. But in the Chronicles account it says Satan did this. So which is it? And if it is God, does that mean he causes people to sin? This is indeed a seemingly difficult text to deal with. But a few things can be said.

One is that God is sovereign and always brings about his purposes, but he also uses secondary means quite often to achieve these things. For example, does he want people to hear the gospel message? Yep. He could then directly broadcast it into the hearing of every person on earth. But he has chosen instead to use you and me to get the job done. So we are the secondary means.

Even when great evil takes place, this is often the way things work. The greatest evil to happen of course was the human hatred of Jesus, resulting in him being falsely accused and hung on a cross to die a cruel death. This too was part of God’s sovereign will, but he again used secondary agents to bring this about. Two passages in Acts make this crystal clear. Consider Acts 2:22-23 and Acts 4:27-28:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”


for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”

Romans and Jewish leaders put to death Jesus, yet this was part of God’s eternal purpose and plan. So we have the same here: God allowed Satan to incite David, just as he allowed Satan to buffet Job (Job 1) or buffet Paul (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).

Image of 1 and 2 Samuel: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries)
1 and 2 Samuel: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries) by Long, V. Philips (Author), Firth, David G. (Series Editor), Longman III, Tremper (Consultant Editor) Amazon logo

But the problem remains that David was somehow incited to do something that was sinful. Does that make God the author of sin? In James 1:13-15 we are told that God does not tempt people to sin. So what is going on here? As V. Philips Long asks, “Is there a way to make sense of all this?” He is worth quoting at length:

To begin, we must acknowledge that the presence of evil in the world is beyond full human understanding. That said, various biblical passages may shed some light. First, there are passages that indicate that wilful hardness of heart can be punished with more of the same (Exod. 4:21; Josh. 11:20; 1 Sam. 2:25). False prophets receive lying spirits (1 Kgs. 22:20-23); idolatrous prophets will be enticed by the Lord himself and destroyed (Ezek. 14:7-10). Second, divine action takes place against a backdrop of human (mis)behaviour. The story of Balaam tells of a man who asks God for permission to go on a lucrative mission and is refused (Num. 22:10-12). When Balaam persists, however, God eventually says ‘go’ (v. 20), but then is ‘very angry when he went’ (v. 22). One is reminded of the Lord’s concession to the people’s demand for a king like those of the other nations (1 Sam. 8). Third, God sometimes uses an individual or nation as his instrument of judgment and then subsequently punishes them for their own sinful behaviour (e.g. Jer. 25:8-14). Fourth, in view of the Chronicler’s attribution of the incitement of David to Satan, the complex picture painted by the book of Job is pertinent; the sovereign God allows the accuser to test Job (Job 1:12; 2:6) but is nevertheless displeased with the accuser for doing so (2:3). In both Old and New Testaments, there is a mysterious sense in which the sovereign God accomplishes his will in spite of and even through the unforced sinful acts of people (Prov. 16:4; Acts 4:27-28), even through what Paul refers to as ‘a messenger of Satan’ (2 Cor. 12:7). This brief survey survey only begins to scratch the surface, but it suggests that the Samuel and Chronicles descriptions of how David was incited and by whom are not conceptually incompatible.

Good words indeed. The relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is complex enough, but when we throw in a third main factor – Satanic activity – it can get very perplexing and confusing indeed. But the truth is, we do not need to have it all fully figured out.

It is enough to know that God is in control and that we must take responsibility for the choices that we make. That was the path that David took. As he rightly stated, “I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing.” He did not engage in a major theological investigation of what was going on – he just dealt with his role in the whole affair, and left the rest up to God.

While we may not understand everything that happens to us and to others, we can rest assured that God is too good to be unkind and too wise to make a mistake. And we can take heart in knowing that although he does not cause sin, he somehow can use our sinful actions to achieve his purposes.

Amazing stuff. As Paul put it in Romans 11:33-36:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
    or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
    that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

[1723 words]

One Reply to “Difficult Bible Passages: 1 Chronicles 21:1-4”

  1. Thanks Bill, I found it hard to understand why God didn’t tell Job and others like David that there is a devil or Satan influencing their lives and the planet but then someone else said if God had made it known to Old Testament people that Satan existed some of them would have started worshiping Satan just like they were worshiping idols.

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