Who was 'satan' in 1st Chronicles 21v1?
("And satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel")
note that the word 'satan' should not be rendered with a capital letter 's' - see page 1
Some have tried to equate 'satan' with God Himself on the basis of 2nd Samuel 24v1 (A.V.)
("And again the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, go, number Israel and Judah")
However for reasons given hereunder, such an understanding is incorrect.
(Note that 'the LORD' in the Authorized (KJ) Version should be rendered as 'Yahweh',
which signifies 'He who will be'. It is the Memorial Name of God, which reminds His people
of His future purpose with the redeemed and with the earth. Compare Exodus 3v14,15, Numbers 14v21)
- link to 'God' - page 2.
"(Some) understand the verse in 2 Samuel to mean, "Yahweh, being angry with Israel, moved David to number them". If this deduction were true, the narrative order of events would be,
(1) God is angry with Israel;
(2) He uses David to manufacture a means by which He (God) could justly punish them;
(3) He punishes David for having responded to the Lord's own motivation.
Such conclusions are not to be entertained. It would mean that God, being angry with Israel, would provoke David to sin and to cause Israel to trespass so that He could bring the consequences of David's sin upon them (1 Chron. 21. 17) and, having done so, to punish David.
The basic misunderstanding (and a very natural one) (is) culled from the Authorised Version..(some) read that "Yahweh moved David to number Israel". Now this is not true: the text here reads, "he moved David…". Any casual reader would quite naturally understand the pronoun as referring to Yahweh; but a little more thought should remind us that the subject of the verse is not Yahweh, but the anger of Yahweh. Therefore, if the pronoun "he" stands in relation to the subject of the sentence, it would be a personification of God's anger. But is it so related? Reference to the Hebrew shows that it does not refer to either Yahweh or His anger, but is an indefinite form less ambiguously rendered as "one". In fact, the whole passage in the Hebrew is ambiguous, and can be rendered,
"one against them moved David", or, "one moved David against them".
I favour the former rendering, and translate accordingly: "The face of Yahweh blazed against Israel again: one against them having motivated David to say, 'Go count Israel and Judah!'"
This translation shows the numbering as the cause of God's anger - a fact confirmed by
1 Chron. 21. 7: "And God was displeased with this thing; therefore He smote Israel".
It remains to discover who the one against Israel (the "enemies" of 1 Chron. 21. 12) could be. I submit that the context of both records (2 Sam. 21. 15-22 and 1 Chron. 20) indicates that the enemy was the Philistine. David, in lack-faith, was moved by the increasing might of the Philistines to examine his man-power.
In 1 Chron, 21. 12 there is a hint of this. David is asked to choose his own punishment from three alternatives: he does not name any, although two of them would have been "the hand of Yahweh". Instead, he entreats Yahweh to spare him from the third, "three months to be destroyed before thy foes, while that the sword of thine enemies (i.e. the Philistines) overtake thee". He looked for mercy from Yahweh, but for none from the Philistines.
Contrast the following summary of events with the usual understanding of these verses:
The Philistines gather together against Israel.
David, his faith failing, calls for a numbering of Israel.
God is displeased with this thing, and His fury comes up in His face.
He smites Israel with the pestilence;
The plague stops at the threshing floor of Ornan, where David builds an altar and selects this floor as the site of the temple (1 Chron. 21. 16; 22. 6);
Yahweh gives them rest from the Philistines (1 Chron. 22. 18)."
Adapted from an article by D. F. Matthews (1962).
Added note: the above understanding is further endorsed by the fact that the Hebrew word used in 1st Chronicles 20v4 (tr. "arose") is the same word used in 1st Chronicles 21v1(tr. "stood up"). Because the first reference is to the Philistines, the reference in the second must logically also be to them.
And another question must be answered. Why did God punish Israel when it was David who had sinned? David faced this dilemma in 1st Chronicles 21v17, but received no answer from God. It is significant that when David sinned over the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah, God's judgment was exactly what David prayed for here - judgment upon him and his "house" - cp 2nd Samuel 12v9-13.
There must be an explanation which is consistent with Ezekiel 18v4, 20. Because it is recorded that "the anger of Yahweh was kindled "against Israel", it must be that David was not alone in his failure of faith - rather, it was shared by the nation as a whole (with the exception of those like Joab, who tried to dissuade David from his sinful action). A good indication of the fear displayed by Israel in general towards the Philistines is found in 2nd Samuel 23v9-11. Contrast this with the courage displayed by "the mighty men whom David had", v8-39. And therefore the nation as a whole was judged. It may well be that the "seventy thousand men" who fell had shared in his lack of faith. However, in the absence of revelation, this matter cannot be definitively answered.