However this is not what “after His own heart” means. The Hebrew preposition translated “after” basically means “the like of, like or as,” and in this context means “according to, … expressing conformity to a standard or rule” (Brown 1979: 453, 454). The translation “after” is correct as the word can mean “in accordance with,” though this meaning is lesser known. David was “a man according to God’s own heart,” that is, he met the standard of what God desires in a human king.
In other words, David was a model king. This is not to say he was a perfect king. The Old Testament does not cover up David’s failings as a king. How then did David meet God’s standard for a king? In contrast to Saul, who had “not kept what the LORD commanded you” (1 Samuel 13:14), David would “do all My will” (Acts 13:22). No doubt “do all My will” is God’s desire for every human being. But David would do God’s will even as a king. Any human being who would do God’s will is already remarkable. Given Lord Acton’s proven dictum, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” a king in the ancient world who would do God’s will is exceptionally remarkable.
God’s will for every human being, even a king, is to love God with all his heart, and to love his neighbor as himself. But since the Fall, no human being, let alone a human king, can do God’s will perfectly. God’s will for fallen humanity then includes repentance whenever one has sinned against God. Hence David, though he did sin by abusing his power as king, could still be considered a king who did God’s will because unlike Saul, he was repentant. So his failings did not disqualify him from being a king after God’s own heart—a model king. This is confirmed when after his death God held him up as a standard for future kings (see for example, 1 Kings 3:14; cf. 2 Kings 22:2).
The account of David’s life stretches from 1 Samuel 16 all the way through the whole of 2 Samuel to 1 Kings 2. The narrative is not only long but also rich in details as well as in teaching. For our purpose here we will only highlight how David did God’s will in terms of loving his neighbor as himself and loving God with all his heart, and how he repented when he failed.
After God had rejected Saul as king, God did not remove him from the throne immediately. Saul remained king of Israel until he died in a battle against the Philistines (Jonathan and Saul’s two other sons also died in that battle). What God did instead was remove His Spirit from Saul (1 Samuel 16:14) and instructed Samuel to anoint David as king, with the result that “the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13). By thus “transferring” the Spirit from Saul to David, God had virtually replaced Saul with David.
And the account indicates that the flow of the events that culminated in David actually becoming king of Israel was a consequence of God transferring the Spirit from Saul to David. Most significantly, because of the empowering Spirit, David could accomplish feats like defeating Goliath (1 Samuel 17:31-54), which caused Saul to notice him as a warrior (1 Samuel 17:55-18:5), and “the rest is history.” Now that the Spirit was with David and no longer with Saul, David was much more successful in battle, which won him the favor of the Israelites (later this was instrumental to the Israelites accepting David as king). David’s popularity then caused Saul to become jealous and suspicious of him (1 Samuel 18:6-9).
This became so serious that Saul repeatedly tried to kill David, resulting in David running for his life as a fugitive. David, empowered by the Spirit, was the only one who could consistently defeat the Philistines. By driving David away, Saul had effectively set himself and his three sons up to die in that battle against the Philistines. And Saul’s only surviving son did not have the capability to rule as king. This paved the way for David to take his rightful place as king over Israel.
Before this happened, on two separate occasions (1 Samuel 24:1-22; 26:1-25), when Saul was in fierce pursuit of him, David and the men who were with him had the opportunity to kill Saul. But David refused to do so on both occasions, going against the wishes of his men who were risking their own lives for him. Under the circumstances, David had every right, humanly speaking, to take Saul’s life in self-defence and claim the throne.
This is not all. In Saul’s final battle, to avoid capture and torture after a crushing defeat, Saul asked his armor bearer to kill him (1 Samuel 31:1-6). When his assistant was too afraid to do it Saul committed suicide. An Amalekite who witnessed what happened reported Saul’s death to David (2 Samuel 1:1-27). But he distorted the story and lied that he had killed Saul, thinking that David would reward him. Instead of rejoicing and commending the Amalekite David mourned, wept and fasted and had the Amalekite executed on the basis of his own testimony. This shows that David indeed loved Saul as himself.
The narrative also makes it clear that David did not usurp the throne after Saul’s death. God instructed David to go to Hebron in Judah, one of the cities of David’s own tribe. Then the men of Judah came voluntarily to anoint David as king over Judah (2 Samuel 2:1-4). Ishbosheth, Saul’s remaining son, became “little more than a puppet king” (Alter 1999: 203) over the rest of Israel (2 Samuel 2:8-10). He was assassinated by two of his own commanders, who then brought his head to David in anticipation of a reward. But David executed them upon their own testimony (2 Samuel 4:9-12). This shows that David consistently repudiated “that wrongful means of acquiring the throne” (Gordon 1986: 222).
Then all the other tribes came voluntarily to David in Hebron affirming that he was one of them (2 Samuel 5:1-3). They then “acknowledged that, even when Saul was king, David had been Israel’s foremost military leader” (Gordon 1986: 225), thus indirectly revealing that David’s success in battle was instrumental to their accepting him as king. They also acknowledged that God had said to David that he would be king over Israel. So all the elders of Israel made a covenant with David and anointed him as king over all Israel. David later moved his capital from Hebron to Jerusalem after capturing the city from the Jebusites (2 Samuel 5:6-10).
We now turn to consider the most glaring case of David failing to love his neighbor as himself: his infamous adultery with Bathsheba and his failed attempt to cover-up, which drove him to murder her husband by deliberately getting him killed in battle (2 Samuel 11:1-27). If God had not sent the prophet Nathan to confront David of his secret sins we may never have known about them (2 Samuel 12:1-15). God had entrusted David with the power to rule His people with justice and mercy. But God was not ashamed to let the whole world know that His own handpicked servant, a man after His own heart, had abused that power and committed hideous sins.
To his credit, David did God’s will by repenting immediately. His fear of God was unmistakable. To appreciate how incredible this is, we must pause and recognize that David was a powerful king in the ancient world….
God went further than just exposing David’s sins. He also pronounced a judgment: there would be evil against David from within his own household. So we read (in 2 Samuel 13-18) about Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar and the consequent murder of Amnon by Absalom, Tamar’s full-brother. And because David was so heart-broken over Amnon’s death and was thus slow to forgive Absalom completely, the alienated Absalom rebelled and David became a fugitive all over again. When Absalom was finally defeated and killed, David wept bitterly for the loss of another son.
That moment of illicit pleasure was certainly not worth it. David repented immediately from the evil he had committed against the very people he was entrusted and empowered to serve and protect; we even have two psalms to bear witness to his wholehearted repentance (51) and to God’s forgiveness of his sins (32). So why did David still have to suffer that severe judgment?
Normally God’s judgment is not executed through what we call a “divine intervention.” God has created the world such that, at least in the long run if not in the short term, there will be painful consequences to evil deeds (and pleasant consequences to good deeds). This is clearly taught in the book of Proverbs. For how could a holy God do otherwise? It is still God’s judgment because He created this order. And God’s forgiveness of sins does not normally override the working of this created order.
Hence, because of his repentance and God’s forgiveness, David re-established fellowship with God and experienced again “the joy of Your salvation” (Psalms 51:12; cf. 32:5). But he still had to suffer the consequences of the evil he had committed because of the working of God’s created order. In the case of David, the evil against him from within his household, though explicitly a judgment of God, was actually implicitly a consequence of his adultery with Bathsheba.
How then was Amnon’s rape of Tamar related to David’s adultery with Bathsheba? We need to begin with David’s violation of God’s command that the king must not multiply wives for himself (Deuteronomy 17:17). There are painful consequences to violating God’s commands.
Being a God-fearing man, David would be as conscientious about keeping God’s commands concerning sexual morality as he was about keeping God’s other commands if he had not multiplied wives (2 Samuel 3:2-5; 5:13). He would then not have so easily fallen into the temptation to commit adultery with Bathsheba. And given that he was thus not a good example to his sons in this regard, it is not surprising to witness what his eldest son Amnon became. In fact if David had only one wife, all his children would have the same mother and the incestuous rape and its consequences would not have happened.
In other words, David did not get away with violating God’s command against multiplying wives, which was an “occupational hazard” for kings. To be fair, but not to justify what David did, we note that he began practicing polygamy, before he became king, under circumstances that made it expedient for him to do so (1 Samuel 25:39-44).
He was married (only) to Saul’s daughter Michal before he ran for his life without her, whom Saul then gave over to someone else. As a fugitive, with the view of becoming the next king of Israel, David needed political ties with as many groups within Israel as possible as well as to build adequate economic support (cf. 1 Samuel 21:1-6). After all, he had already been anointed by Samuel to replace Saul. In the ancient world the standard means for building such ties was through marriage. This explains why he would take Abigail as wife after the death of her rich husband even though he already had another wife, Ahinoam, with him, and would later reclaim Michal and thus his ties with the royal family (cf. Walton, Matthews and Chavalas 2000: 316). And in the case of Abigail, it was the need for economic support that first brought David into contact with her (1 Samuel 25:2-35).
As a God-fearing man David did not set out to violate God’s command. But he succumbed to the pressure of political and economic expediency through polygamy, deemed necessary then. This laid the trap for him to literally multiply wives beyond the purpose of political consolidation to that of sexual gratification. Consequently, though he was on the whole a God-fearing man, he had little moral defence against a sexual temptation in the form of a naked woman as desirable as Bathsheba. The lesson is that what is expedient for now, even for a good cause, but violates God’s will, may come back to haunt us in a devastating way; even a king, and a God-fearing one, was not spared this out-working of God’s created order.
For the holiness of God ensures that nobody gets away with violating His righteous commands. If a man treats another man unjustly and seems to “get away with it,” the flawed disposition behind that act of injustice, unless there is genuine repentance, will express itself again and again in other unjust acts. One or more of these acts will eventually get him into trouble. Even Paul says, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked, whatever a man sows, this he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7). David’s family woes illustrate this principle well.
As for David’s relationship with God, David not only feared God, he also loved God. This is unmistakable from the psalms attributed to him. In Psalm 8 David recounts an experience he had that would cause anyone to love God. When he looked into the universe and marvelled at the moon and the stars he was over-awed by the majesty of their Creator. And when he recalled the care and concern this awesome Creator had for humanity, he was overwhelmed with what can only be described as love for God. In Psalm 23 David recounts vividly the care and concern he had personally experienced. It needs no further explanation why he desired to “dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
It was due to this desire and his love for God that David eagerly brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and subsequently planned to build a temple to house it instead of the “tent curtains” (2 Samuel 7:2). But God did not permit David to build the Temple because in the line of duty David had killed many people; instead, his successor, who would reign in a time of rest from all enemies, would build it (1 Chronicles 22:8-10). It does not mean David was morally unfit for this holy task (this was before he committed adultery and murder) but he was ritually unfit to build the holy Temple. Recall that holiness is about moral as well as ritual purity.
It was in response to David’s plan to build the temple that God unilaterally made the Davidic Covenant, which promises that, unlike the case of Saul, kingship would never be taken away from David’s family and be given to someone else (2 Samuel 7:8-17). If his descendant violated the Mosaic Covenant and refused to repent, he would be disciplined; he would even be exiled, but the throne would remain in David’s family.
This covenant is the basis for the Davidic Messiah, which we shall see is a prominent theme in the Psalms and the Prophetic Books. We have seen that this was already promised through Jacob as a development of the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 49:8-10; cf. 46:12 and Ruth 4:18-20).
One’s love for God is reflected in how one treats a fellow human being (1 John 4:20-21). In fact loving God is a powerful motivating force in loving human beings made in God’s image. On both the occasions when David refused to kill Saul when he had the opportunity the reason he gave was that Saul was “the LORD’s anointed” (1 Samuel 24:6; 26:11; cf. 2 Samuel 1:16). In other words, since God placed Saul on the throne, David would leave it to God to remove Saul from the throne, to honor God out of love for Him.
Love for God is also expressed through trusting in Him, thereby seeking to obey His commands. By refusing to kill Saul and claim the throne, besides honoring God, David was also trusting in God to protect him till he became king. In a summary of David’s victories in battle as king of Israel, we read that he hamstrung most of the chariot horses that he had captured (2 Samuel 8:4). This is to be understood in light of God’s command that the king must not multiply wives nor horses for himself (Deuteronomy 17:16-17; cf. Joshua 11:6).
This prohibition was to ensure that the king would trust in God and God only for victory in battle, and so honor Him for it (Psalms 20:7). In fact, to love (and trust in) God with “all your heart” is to love (and trust in) God and God only (cf. 1 Samuel 7:3); not trust in God plus idols or any other object of trust, like horses. David not only loved God but did so with “all his heart” as he was never guilty of worshipping (God plus) idols; God Himself testified that David’s heart had been “wholly devoted to the LORD his God” (1 Kings 11:4). This is remarkable in view of what happened to Solomon, his immediate successor, and most of the future kings.
David’s most glaring failure to love God with all his heart by trusting in Him only was in his taking a census of his fighting men to assess his military strength towards the end of his life (2 Samuel 24:1-9). This does not mean taking a census of the fighting men was in and of itself wrong. Moses did it twice on God’s instruction (Numbers 1 and 26). God’s people are to use human means, without which no human being can live, but not to trust in human means due to a failure to trust in God only. In the case of David’s census he had crossed the line from using military strength to trusting in it. This was an issue only because David had the privilege of knowing the living God through the Mosaic Covenant.
To David’s credit he recognized, without the intervention of a prophet this time, that he had sinned, and did God’s will by confessing his sin to God (2 Samuel 24:10). When the prophet Gad gave him three options for his punishment, David replied, “I am in great distress. Let us now fall into the hand of the LORD, for His mercies are great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man” (2 Samuel 24:14). He thus chose pestilence for three days, the option that avoided human agency. Even in accepting punishment from God David would still take “refuge” in Him. David’s love for (and trust in) God shines through even in this situation.
And David’s love for his people also shines through here. For when he saw the people dying from the pestilence he appealed to God that since it was he who sinned, let God’s hand (only) “be against me and against my father’s house” (2 Samuel 24:17). He sought to bear the responsibility of his own failure, which in this case meant the destruction of him and his immediate clan, so that the nation would be spared the calamity.
David, as a king under the Mosaic Covenant who accepted prophetic authority over him and chastisement, is the equivalent of a constitutional government today that on the whole seeks to uphold justice for the nation. Whenever it fails to do so, it is willing to repent and bear the responsibility, with or without the intervention of the media. And when its own failure or lack of competence is destroying the nation, repentance also means the willingness to be removed so that the nation may be spared calamity. Though not a perfect government, would this not be a government after God’s own heart, a model government patterned after God’s model king?