Is it God or is it Satan?

Elliot Ritzema and Tod Twist

Toward the end of his career, King David conducted a census, which turned out to be a bad idea (2 Sam 24 and 1 Chr 21). Censuses in the Old Testament were associated with preparation for war (Num 26:2; 31:49), but David had not been commanded to go to war and thus suffered the consequences for pride and self-reliance. What is not clear in these passages is who suggested it:

“The anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah’ ” (2 Sam 24:1).

“Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel” (1 Chr 21:1).


Did God incite David to number Israel, or did Satan? We can resolve this issue by using a concordance and a Bible dictionary.


Who is Satan in the Old Testament? We can start by searching for the word satan (שׂטן) in the Old Testament using a concordance or Bible software. We find two kinds of uses:

As a general term for “adversary,” satan occurs several times, mostly referring to humans (e.g., 1 Sam 29:4; 2 Sam 19:22; 1 Kgs 11:14; Psa 109:6). There are two instances where the Angel of the LORD is described as a satan, because he is opposing Balaam (Num 22:22, 32).

As a specific celestial being hostile to God, satan appears in Job 1–2 and Zechariah 3:1–2. In those passages, he is referred to using a definite article: “the satan.”

The translation of satan in 1 Chr 21:1 is ambiguous because, while most translations treat it as the proper name of a celestial being who opposes God, it does not include the definite article. Could it refer to a human adversary?


In 2 Samuel 24:1, we read that “the anger of the LORD burned against Israel.” This is not the only time this phrase is used in the Old Testament. We find similar passages in the books of Judges and Kings: “So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies” (Judg 2:14; compare 3:8; 10:7).

“And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them continually into the hand of Hazael king of Syria and into the hand of Ben-hadad the son of Hazael” (2 Kgs 13:3).

In the parallel context of Judges, Samuel and Kings, when “the anger of the Lord burned against Israel,” God raises up a human enemy against Israel to afflict them.

Chronicles is explaining that a satan rose up and made David nervous, so David was moved to number his military forces. David’s census was against God’s commands (Deut 17:14–20), since Israel’s kings were not supposed to build military strength.


Consulting a Bible dictionary gives us background on the relationship between Samuel and Chronicles. According to the Dictionary of Deities and Demons of the Bible, the writer of Chronicles “presents an idealized portrait of David’s reign. In general, the Chronicler deletes accounts that cast David in a dubious light.” 1

This can help explain the different descriptions of the census in the two books. In Samuel, God is angry with Israel for an undisclosed reason. The Chronicler is reluctant to talk about God becoming angry with Israel during David’s reign—because he is presenting David the way he “should have been,” as an example. Thus, he attributes the census to the arising of a human adversary. It is likely, however, that both were happening: God raised up an adversary, and David sinned by acting faithlessly and relying on his own strength.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 4 No. 1

1. C. Breytenbach, “Satan.” In K. van der Toorn, B. Becking & P.W. van der Horst (Eds.), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (2nd rev. ed.) (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999), pg. 730.