We received a question through our public website about 2 Sam 24:1 and 1 Chron 21:1 and the inciting of David to take the sinful census. Here is the exchange between one of our members and the inquirer, slightly edited:
I am not a member of SEA, but I am an Arminian and I check your site everyday for new articles and enjoy reading the different perspectives on various Bible passages. There is one set of scriptures that I am kind of struggling with and when I did a search on your site for the particular scriptures in question, I found nothing. So I thought I would shoot you a message and see if anyone at SEA has any insight to offer on this.
In 2 Samuel 24:1, it says that “God moved David” to do a census of Israel. Then in the parallel passage of the same event in Chronicles (I don’t have my Bible open at the moment and cannot remember the exact passage), it says that Satan moved David to order the Census. Then after ordering the Census, it says that David knew he had sinned and that God offered him 3 choices of punishment.
What I am struggling with is the whole issue of God moving David to do something and them punishing him for what he made him do. The footnote in my Bible attempts to reconcile the two stories by saying that it was Satan who moved David to do the census (per the Chronicles account) but ultimately, God is in charge of Satan and he sovereignly allowed Satan to move David to commit this sin for God’s own sovereign purposes. I am not sure I am satisfied with that explanation, as it still smacks too much of Calvinistic “effectual permission”. According to Calvinism, there are some things which God does not directly “cause” people to do, but he employs various secondary causes (including Satan) to render the event inevitable. Since this “permission” is so certain as to make the event inevitable, it still seems to revert back to God as the author of the sin, and this seems to be the case with that explanation of those two passages. Yet, the fact still remains that 2 Samuel DOES say that “he (presumably meaning God) moved David” to commit this sin.
Is there another possible explanation that doesn’t involve “effectual permission”? Could it be some kind of a grammatical thing where the “he” pronoun in 2 Samuel 24:1 refers to Satan, and not to God and it just didn’t come out that way in our English Bibles? Any other explanation, or should I just take it at face value, the seeming Calvinism notwithstanding?
That is a difficult issue. Let me offer my thoughts.
First, I don’t think it is a matter of God making David do it. The text speaks of inciting, which would be a resistible thing from an Arminian perspective. Second, I think that we can take 1 Chron as the later text aware of 2 Sam 24:1 and offering clarification to it. It essentially directs us to interpret 2 Sam 24:1 as God allowing Satan to entice David, and it gives a reason for why God allowed that, and apparently even desired it in some sense. Moreover, since God is described as inciting David, it may be that he took action that made it easier for David to get tempted or even that tricked Satan into directing his temptation of David in a certain direction (i.e., not that God got Satan to tempt David, but perhaps shaped Satan’s tempting activity already in effect in a specific way that would accomplish God’s purpose, sort of like he might have influenced Joseph’s brothers to sell him instead of kill him when he would rather that they had not done any evil to him. So in the David situation, God could have made sure Satan knew of David’s vulnerability in this area, which would resistibly influence Satan to focus his tempting activity there. That is a little uncomfortable, but I think it is largely ameliorated by the suggestion that God was wanting to get David to reveal the wickedness of his heart in action to bring him and Israel to judgment for it in a full and vivid way. This mixes with the issue of permission and resistible action to the effect that David was acting freely, and so God was not making David do anything, and so not punishing him for something he made him do. Third, something already implicit in what I have said is that the permission involved here was not “effectual permission”, but genuine permission. The Calvinist notion of divine permission is incoherent and amounts to God not stopping himself from accomplishing what he has unconditionally decreed. But Arminian theology has a genuine concept of permission in which God allows things that he could stop, permitting them for various reasons, such as allowing people to act freely. So it is not a matter of God irresistibly causing what is going on and slapping the label of permission on it, but of God genuinely allowing David to be enticed in order to judge him fully for the sin in his heart and in Israel. It would sort of be like God allowing Satan to strongly though not irresistibly entice a Christian who is unfaithful to his wife into an act of unfaithfulness in which he will get caught by his wife so that the consequences of his sin catch up to him. In this circumstance one could even imagine God wanting the guy to succumb to temptation in the specific instance because it will bring his sin to light and bring consequences upon him, though not really wanting the guy to sin per se. Some of what I have written here is obviously conjecture in the details. I provided them to illustrate how the basic principles I was articulating could happen without intending to suggest that is actually how everything necessarily happened.
I don’t think the grammatical suggestion you mentioned is very likely. It is certainly not something that is hidden in the original language, as if it reads differently in Hebrew. One could always posit a different referent for “he” than is implied in the text, but that seems like special pleading and not very plausible.
Does any of that help? What are your thoughts now?
In Christ, who is good and just and sovereign.
The questioner’s reply:
When you explain it like that, it sounds very much like the typical Arminian interpretation of the hardening of Pharoh’s heart. I used to struggle with that story as well, but from studying it (including things I have found on this site), I find that God did not CAUSE Pharoh to be evil, but simply FOUND him to be evil. And the first several times, Pharoh hardened his own heart. After the 5th plague, Pharoh knew he was beaten and was willing to surrender simply out of self preservation, but his heart was still evil. God was willing to accept repentance, but not mere self preservation, as a motive for doing the right thing, so he “hardened” Pharoh’s heart to carry out the evil inclinations that were still in his heart. God did not place the evil in Pharoh’s heart, but simply gave him the tenacity to follow through with what Pharoh really wanted to do anyway (but was too fearful to do because he knew he could not succeed against this God).
The explanation that you offer sounds pretty much the same as the Pharoh story. If I understand you correctly, David perhaps was starting to be prideful in his heart after his military victories and was boasting in his armies and rather than giving God the credit (even if such boasting was only private in his own heart up until that time). God did not CAUSE this sin in David’s heart, but simply “hardened” David’s heart to act out the inward sin that he already had.
When put that way, that makes sense and I can accept that as an explanation.
That explanation sounds much better than the typical explanation that Satan is just God’s little lapdog that God sicks on people to cause them to do evil for his own sovereign purposes, just so he can keep his hands clean. It makes God seem too much like a mafia Godfather who wants to rub somebody out, so he employs a series of lackey’s to carry out the deed in order to keep his hands clean and prevent the police from being able to have enough evidence to connect the crime back to him. But regardless of how many lackeys he uses, it does not change the fact that he is ultimately culpable for the crime that he orchestrated.
Thanks for the explanation. That does help alot.
And finally, the 2nd reply:
I am glad that was helpful. I think you are right that it is like the situation with Pharaoh, in which God draws out Pharaoh’s own sinful will and makes it his own fitting punishment.
Some further evidence for the view I have shared is the Book of Job, in which the text uses the language of God acting against Job and ruining him when the text itself actually reveals that this language refers to God allowing Satan to attack/ruin Job, and this being something that Satan incited God to do rather than some sort of scheme of God causing Satan to do what he did or God causing Job’s affliction. One can see how *in a sense* and in a loose way of speaking, one could say God allowing Satan to attack Job could be termed God doing it. And it is well known that the Hebrews had a tendency to speak loosely in this way. But the details of the text reveal that that is just a loose way of speaking and more precisely it is a matter of God allowing free will actions rather than causing what happens.