Is This a Bible Contradiction?

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Picture of a hand counter

One might read today’s Bible reading* and ask, “Is this a Bible contradiction? How can you possibly reconcile 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1?” We’re told that God punished David for conducting a census of the people under his reign. What could be wrong with that?

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.”
2 Samuel 24:1 (CSB)

Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to count the people of Israel.
1 Chronicles 21:1 (CSB)

I began by reading the 2 Samuel passage. As I read the 1 Chronicles passage, I thought, “That doesn’t sound right!” So I went back to 2 Samuel. Sure enough, it seemed that I had a Bible contradiction laid out before my eyes.

Which was it? Did God tell David to count the people? Or did Satan? It can’t be both!

I have said on many occasions that the Bible doesn’t have any contractions. There may be apparent contradictions, but due to God’s nature and His self-revelation, God can’t (and won’t) contradict Himself.

This is when having access to a good study Bible (or two) comes in handy. The CSB Study Bible says, “Satan is not mentioned often in the OT. When he does appear, he is the adversary of someone beloved by God (Jb 1:6; 2:7; Zch 3:1–2). The parallel passage in 2 Samuel makes it clear that Satan would not have been able to cause trouble for David if God had not let him (2Sm 24:1). The census itself was not an infraction of God’s law (Nm 1:2; 26:2). David succumbed to the sin of pride. This could have included thinking that the men of Israel were his to enumerate, not God’s, and that he could take refuge in military strength rather than God’s sovereignty. He also violated rules that God had given for carrying out a legitimate census. The law stipulated that each man who was counted had to donate a half-shekel to the temple treasury (Ex 30:11–16). God had decreed that a census taken without these provisions would be punished by a plague.[1]

The ESV Study Bible tells us, “In 2 Sam. 24:1, it is God himself who in anger incites David against Israel, leading to the census. God’s angelic “adversary” (which is the meaning of the proper name; see ESV footnote on Job 1:6) is in no sense God’s equal (rather, Satan’s counterpart in the Bible is Michael; see Jude 9; Rev. 12:7–9). Still, the Chronicler wanted his readers to think of Satan’s malice as God’s means of carrying out his will (see note on 2 Sam. 24:1). Nevertheless, David himself sinned in giving in to Satan’s enticement and ordering the census. This census was sinful probably because it arose from David’s presumptuous military ambitions (see 1 Chron. 21:5) and pride, rather than from Yahweh’s express command. In addition, David neglected to levy the poll tax for a census required by Ex. 30:12, an act of disobedience that could bring plague on the people.[2]

We see similar situations in the story of the Exodus where Moses tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, where elsewhere we’re told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Each may have hardened the Egyptian king’s heart at different times, but the bottom line is that God’s will was executed through Pharaoh’s hard heart. We saw in the story of Job that Satan had to get God’s permission to do anything to him. So in that story, it’s possible to say that Satan afflicted Job, while at the same time say that Job’s affliction came through God’s hand.

Paul says he was given a “thorn” to keep him humble. “So that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so that I would not exalt myself.” 2 Corinthians 12:7 (CSB) In other words, Paul says that he was demonized (messenger=angel so a “messenger of Satan” would mean a “demon”) to keep him humble. So who would have given the thorn to him? God did it!

[1] Corduan, Winfried. “1 Chronicles.” CSB Study Bible: Notes. Ed. Edwin A. Blum and Trevin Wax. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017. 631. Print.
[2] Crossway Bibles. The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008. Print.

Application

Whenever you encounter a Bible passage that appears to contradict something else in the Bible, take a step back and ask God to show you whether this is a contradiction or if you’re not reading it correctly. (Note: It’s always the latter!)

In today’s readings, we see that God used Satan to accomplish His purposes for His glory, even in bringing a plague against David and the people of Israel. The two chapters are not a Bible contradiction.

God is big enough to do whatever He wants to do and say whatever He wants to say. God is infinite in wisdom. His ways are higher than our ways. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9) God doesn’t owe us explanations for what He does or why He does it. Our theology must allow God to be God.

* Chapters covered in today’s reading:
2 Samuel 24
1 Chronicles 21
1 Chronicles 22
Psalms 30


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