2 Samuel 24:1 states that David took a census of Israel due (at least in part) to the anger of God: “Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.'” 1 Chronicles 21:1, on the other hand, while recounting the same moment in history, sees David’s action as being influenced by a different source: “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.”
The difference between these two verses is stark and leaves us with an unavoidable question: Who really incited David? Was it “the LORD” (2 Samuel), or was it “Satan” (1 Chronicles)? Is this an example of the Bible contradicting itself? How are we to reconcile this?
In their book When Critics Ask, Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe show where this same “contradiction” appears elsewhere in the Bible, and give a helpful take on resolving it.
Both statements are true. Although it was Satan who immediately incited David, ultimately it was God who permitted Satan to carry out this provocation. Although it was Satan’s design to destroy David and the people of God, it was God’s purpose to humble David and the people and teach them a valuable spiritual lesson. This situation is quite similar to the first two chapters of Job in which both God and Satan are involved in the suffering of Job. Similarly, both God and Satan are involved in the crucifixion. Satan’s purpose was to destroy the Son of God (John 13:2; 1 Cor 2:8). God’s purpose was to redeem humankind by the death of His Son (Acts 2:14-39).
A similar answer is given in the study note on 2 Samuel 24:1 in the NET Bible. The answer offered here is a little bit different, however, because of the translators’ conviction that the Hebrew word satan in 1 Chronicles 21:1 is best rendered “an adversary” instead of “Satan”:
The Samuel version gives an underlying theological perspective, while the Chronicler simply describes what happened from a human perspective. The adversary in 1 Chr 21:1 is likely a human enemy, probably a nearby nation whose hostility against Israel pressured David into numbering the people so he could assess his military strength.
Whether the Hebrew is best understood as referring to a nearby nation or to Satan himself, the answer to the apparent contradiction is the same: God is sovereign over every aspect of human history, and he uses others to accomplish his perfect plans, regardless of whether or not that is their intention.