First Chronicles 21:1 provides a classic illustration of double causality. It says, “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number.” (1 Chronicles 21:1–2 ESV)
Who incited David to number Israel?
Seems simple enough.
But what about 2 Samuel 24:1? It says:
Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” 2 So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people.” (2 Samuel 24:1–2 ESV)
2 Samuel 24 states very plainly that it was the LORD who incited David to number Israel.
So who was it? Satan or the LORD?
The answer of course is that it was both. The LORD incited David by allowing Satan to incite David. Satan is a dog on a chain. He can only do what God permits him to do and God shortens and lengthens his chain in order to accomplish purposes that are in accordance with his perfect and ultimately benevolent will.
We see the same thing in the first 2 chapters of the Book of Job.
In chapter 1 we are introduced to a man of uncommon faith and virtue.
There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. (Job 1:1 ESV)
God took great pleasure in this man and when the heavenly court assembled to report their activities to God the LORD himself drew attention to his outstanding example:
Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? (Job 1:8 ESV)
Satan himself answered the Lord saying:
Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face. (Job 1:9–11 ESV)
Satan accused Job of being a religious mercenary; he loved the Lord because of the benefits and protections that he received. Remove those benefits and protections and he will withhold his love and worship. Rather than simply rebuking the devil for his impertinent suggestions, the Lord lengthened his chain. He permitted Job to be tested. He said:
Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand. (Job 1:12 ESV)
What are we to make of this strange scene? Why was Satan allowed into the heavenly court? Why would God permit Satan to touch and disturb his people? Why was Job never told the reason for the change in his situation?
Some of those questions are answered over the course of the narrative while some of them remain shrouded in mystery. David Atkinson comments usefully on Job chapter 1 saying:
There is evil here, but not dualism … Satan is always only an adversary on a chain.
When we experience trials, difficulties and sorrows in this life it may well be that the devil is attacking us – but that can never be the end of our internal deliberations. The devil can only do what he is permitted to do, therefore the real question must be: what is the purpose of God for me in this trial? How can I glorify him? How can I grow in my faith? How can I display my faith? What honour is there in this for him and what profit is there in this for me?
There is a hidden world of benevolent purpose behind all our earthly sorrows. We may not always know what those purposes are – Job never did – but we can be confident that such purposes exist.
We can also be sure that God is absolutely Sovereign. Nothing happens apart from his ordaining or permitting will. The devil is a dog on a chain. He will always attack God’s people if given permission to do so. God occasionally lengthens the chain so as to chastise, test, assess, or display as suits his purpose.
Thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
Watch for the new Into the Word podcast series on The Book Of Job releasing in February of 2019.
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes.
David Atkinson, The Message of Job, ed. J. A. Motyer, The Bible Speaks Today. Accordance electronic ed. (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 22.