God did. 2 Samuel 24:1 And again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.[i]
Satan did. 1 Chronicles 21:1 And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.
The sentence in 2 Samuel 24:1 attributes directly to God the things that come under his sovereign control. Men will use whatever expressions necessary to soothe their own consciences and support their own beliefs. “God caused it” on the one hand, or “God permitted it” on the other. Even the stout predestinarian Baptist John Gill equivocates in his commentary, writing, “he moved David against them; not the Lord, but Satan, as may be supplied from 1 Chronicles 21:1.” Nevertheless, in whatever ways one wishes to speculate, the statements are still that both “God moved David” and “Satan provoked David” to number Israel.
God’s anger was kindled against the nation Israel for some sin or sins committed, which are not here named. The sin in 2 Samuel 24 verse 1 is not a reference to the numbering, which takes place only after the kindling of God’s righteous anger. Here God does not expose Israel’s “secret sin,” to tell us what it is, but rather judges them with a sin that is public, obvious, and alarming prior to its execution. Matthew Henry writes, “It is certain that it was a sin, and a great sin; but where the evil of it lay is not so certain.” We can be sure that David’s purpose in numbering the people was sinful, if we accept the Bible as written.[ii] Joab immediately recognized it as a wrong (v. 3; 1 Chronicles 21:3). David quickly grasped that after the fact and freely admitted it was wrong (v. 10).
The situation of both God and Satan inciting David to number Israel finds a close parallel in the book of Job, in the first two chapters.[iii] Even though Satan was the immediate cause for Job’s suffering, we find Job saying, “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away” and “shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” These statements of Job are followed by biblical commentary: “In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly” and “In all this did not Job sin with his lips.” Even in the conclusion the inspired author wrote “Then came there unto him all his brethren, and all his sisters, and all they that had been of his acquaintance before, and did eat bread with him in his house: and they bemoaned him, and comforted him over all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him…” (Job 42:11).[iv]
God’s authority, sovereignty, and providence extends over the affairs of men and the actions of Satan. The word can speak of God, Satan, and man performing the same act. We intuitively perceive that there is a “reasonable” explanation, but (if we are honest) are frequently flummoxed floundering to find it. These acts of God, men, and devils are intricately interwoven, sometimes cryptically concealed and otherwise mysteriously moved. May we accept that there are puzzling aspects of this incident of the numbering of Israel that we are not able to understand fully in our present state of existence. It is better to live with the enigma than to twist the Bible to make its plain statements incomprehensible. Though there is sin and sorrow in this world, God will accomplish his purpose (Isaiah 14:24) and work together good for his people (Romans 8:28). We can know that assuredly.
[i] Summary of 2 Samuel 24: Israel sinned. God was angry. God and Satan moved David to number Israel. David sinned in numbering Israel. God judged Israel. David fell on the mercies of God. God revealed the way of relief and then withdrew his hand of judgement when the relief was applied.
[ii] Numbering of itself was not sinful. God twice commanded Moses to number the Israelites. The first occurred in the second year after they came out of Egypt (Numbers 1:1-3,19). The second occurred near the end of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness (Numbers 26:2-4,63-64). The book “Numbers” even receives its title from these two occurrences. Perhaps David violated the legal instructions concerning number the people (cf. Exodus 30:12-16) or placed his trust in the strength of numbers rather than God (cf. Isaiah 31:1). Perhaps there is some implication of pride in David’s statement “that I may know the number of the people.”