Who is behind evil: God or Satan?

Last updated on February 26, 2024

Who is behind evil: God or Satan?

Why does 2 Samuel 24:1 say that the LORD incited David against Israel, but 1 Chronicles 21:1 says Satan was responsible?

When we compare 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1, we notice something very interesting.

2 Samuel 24:1 – “Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”
1 Chronicles 21:1 –“Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.”

A contradiction?

At first glance, these verses may seem to contradict each other. Did the LORD incite David to take a census of Israel (which was a wrong thing to do, as the story makes clear), or did Satan do it? Or, somehow, were they both involved? When we look more widely at the Bible, we see a fascinating pattern: both the LORD and Satan can be involved in the same act (though always with different motives). Indeed, the Bible shows us that in any event, many people may be at work, some with good intentions, and others with bad ones.

An example: Jesus’ death

The most obvious example is Jesus’ crucifixion. Some wonder why we call the day Jesus died “Good Friday”? Wouldn’t a better name be “Bad Friday”? After all, what could be worse than crucifying God’s only Son (Mark 12:6-9)? That’s half-right. Good Friday was a day of great wickedness and hate. Satan (Luke 22:3), Judas (Mark 14:21), Pontius Pilate (John 19:11), the religious leaders (Acts 4:28), Herod (Acts 4:27) and the people (Matthew 27:25) all shared the blame for putting Jesus to death. However they missed the other side of the story. Good Friday was also a day of great goodness and love, because on that day God was also at work, though with a different motive: love (Romans 5:8). God so loved the world that He gave up His only Son (John 3:16) to suffer and die for the sins of many (Isaiah 53), to bring us back to God (1 Peter 3:18).

Along with God’s love, Good Friday also shows us God’s power. You have to be very powerful to have your enemies do your bidding when they are working against you… yet, this is exactly what happened on Good Friday! God’s enemies, while still responsible for their actions, were nevertheless doing what God’s “power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:28).

God is in charge of all things

This pattern can be seen again and again throughout the Bible. God is in charge of all things (Romans 11:36) and His enemies can do only what He permits, and no more. Remember, for example, how Satan needed God’s permission to tempt Job (Job 1:12; 2:6), and the lying spirit needed God’s permission to deceive Ahab (1 Kings 22:22-23). In these cases, where Satan was at work with evil motives, God was doing something good: vindicating Job (Job 1:8; 2:3; 42:12-17) and punishing an evil king (1 Kings 22:37). Another good example is Pharaoh. Pharaoh “hardened his heart” (Exodus 9:34) with evil motives, but God was also at work in this same event with a good motive: to rescue His people miraculously so that His “name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16; Romans 9:17). Similarly with Joseph’s brothers: they sold him into slavery intending to harm him, “but God intended it for good … the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). Through their evil action, God worked to promote Joseph to Prime Minister of Egypt, and so provided food for the Israelites and the surrounding nations in the famine.

Practical implications

All this has some very practical implications. Because God is completely powerful (Job 42:2) and has motives which are completely good (James 1:13) we can trust Him and pray to Him with confidence in the face of temptation (Matthew 6:13). We can also see suffering from two complementary perspectives. On the one hand, suffering is a temptation. The world (Romans 12:2) the flesh (James 1:14) and the devil (Ephesians 6:12) are working in our suffering with evil motives, tempting us to sin against God. On the other hand, however, the suffering as a Christian is also a trial. God has good intentions in our every trial: to make us more like Christ (Romans 8:28). God sends us these trials to give us an opportunity to learn to trust and obey Him ever more fully (Romans 5:3-5). As we do, our faith is refined and so ultimately results “in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:7).


We can now see how the two verses we began with shine light on the same event from two different perspectives. In 2 Samuel we see God working through David’s census with a good intention: to punish Israel for their sin, as they deserved. 1 Chronicles, however, shows us that God also gave Satan permission to be the “middle man” in the chain. In this way, God and Satan were both working through the same action, though God for good, and Satan for evil.

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