LCN Article
How Was David “After God’s Own Heart”?

May / June 2024

Mark Sandor

From Jeremiah 31:33 and Hebrews 8:10, we know that God, through His Holy Spirit, is writing His laws on our hearts—making our hearts more like His. But do we actually know what it means to have a heart like God’s own?

When we think of having such a heart, we naturally think of King David, as God inspired the Apostle Paul to describe him: “And when He had removed him [Saul], He raised up for them David as king, to whom also He gave testimony and said, ‘I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will’” (Acts 13:22). What an amazing compliment!

If we didn’t know anything about David’s life beyond this brief description, we could easily conclude that it must have contained very little sin. But we do know more about David’s life—and our knowledge can make that compliment seem a little strange, since David’s adultery and premeditated murder are documented in 2 Samuel 11. That chapter is a turning point between the first ten chapters of 2 Samuel, where David is largely rewarded for his righteousness, and the last fourteen chapters, where he faces the many consequences of his sins.

How could “a man after God’s own heart” so fundamentally miss the mark well into adulthood? And considering these sins, how can he still be called a man after God’s own heart? Let’s examine David’s life to unpack what it really means to have a heart like God’s.

The Many Wives of David—and the Consequences

David’s sin with Bathsheba was not his first. Long before David broke several of the Ten Commandments in 2 Samuel 11, he had already transgressed God’s statutes regarding kings and marriage. Deuteronomy 17:14–20 contains instructions for kings of Israel, intended to keep them focused on their reliance upon God. Among these, God inspired Moses to write, “Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away” (Deuteronomy 17:17). While David might not have started out intending to break this statute, he ultimately failed to keep himself from multiplying his wives.

Tragically for all involved, David’s romantic life had many heartaches. The seeds were sown when David killed Goliath, since part of King Saul’s reward for slaying the giant was marriage to one of his daughters (1 Samuel 17:23–25). This blossomed into David marrying Saul’s daughter Michal, who had fallen in love with him (1 Samuel 18:20). However, this young love was not to survive. As Saul persecuted David, David eventually fled without Michal (1 Samuel 19:11–17). It seems unlikely that David understood at the time that this would lead to a decade-long separation from the wife of his youth.

Saul, never one to make things easy on David, gave Michal to a new husband named Palti (1 Samuel 25:44). Scripture does not tell us Michal’s opinion on this marriage or whether it occurred before or after David married Abigail and Ahinoam. 1 Samuel 25 covers the circumstances that led to David and Abigail’s marriage, which Mr. John Robinson covered in depth in his May-June 2023 Living Church News article, “Shear Folly: Lessons from David, Nabal, and Abigail.”

For the purposes of this article, the important detail is that David began to multiply his wives instead of following the instructions in Deuteronomy 17. Why did he do this? Samuel had already ordained him to be the next king (1 Samuel 16), and he had God’s prophets and priests at hand to instruct him in God’s will (1 Samuel 22:5, 20). Did David reason that Deuteronomy 17 did not apply since he was not yet king? Did David quibble that having three wives was not truly “multiplication”? Perhaps he simply sought comfort and companionship at a difficult time in his life. Still, the bad fruit of these multiple marriages should have been hard to ignore.

When Saul died and David grew more powerful, he eventually demanded that Michal be returned to him (2 Samuel 3:13–16). Sadly, Michal’s youthful love of David had long since evaporated. Palti, her new husband, seems to have truly loved her, and Michal’s final interactions with David reveal that she had come to despise the man she once loved (2 Samuel 6:16, 20–23). It appears that Michal died a lonely and bitter woman in David’s harem.

Abigail, despite her stellar introduction, quickly disappears from David’s story; she is barely mentioned after 1 Samuel 25. What happened to this wise, beautiful, and capable woman? 2 Samuel 3:3 reveals that she bore David a son named Chileab. Curiously, and perhaps tragically, Chileab is only mentioned in genealogies (see 1 Chronicles 3:1, where he is called Daniel). His close half-brothers Amnon, Absalom, and Adonijah play significant roles in David’s later years—but Chileab disappears. Commentaries note that this likely means Chileab died young. If so, would it be hard to imagine Abigail entering a depression and withdrawing from David? And with David having at least six wives by then (2 Samuel 3:1–5), did he simply occupy himself with the others rather than comfort his one grieving wife? While we cannot say much for certain, it seems likely that Abigail’s and Chileab’s absence from 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and 1 Chronicles is an indication of tragedy.

Of David’s other wives and concubines, we know even less, and David abandoned any pretense of keeping Deuteronomy 17 as he “took more concubines and wives from Jerusalem, after he had come from Hebron” (2 Samuel 5:13). Somehow, David—the man after God’s own heart—had allowed this area of his life to stray far from God’s statutes.

Deuteronomy 17 warns that if a king multiplies wives, they will turn his heart away. It is easy to think of Solomon in this regard, whose heart was clearly turned away from God because of his astonishing multiplication of wives (1 Kings 11:1–8). David’s heart never turned away from God, as his son’s would—but he also treated this divine directive as ignorable. Is it any surprise that, when he saw Bathsheba, he treated her marriage to Uriah as ignorable, too? Tragically, David gave in to sin. Perhaps even more tragically, he had strayed so far from God by this point in his life that his first reaction was to try to cover up the consequences of his actions by committing more sins. And tragedy did indeed follow.

Called to Account

David’s life would be ravaged by the consequences of breaking God’s laws. His three oldest sons, ten of his concubines, and his entire nation would suffer as his sins came to fruition. Those who think David “got away with it just because he repented” should review 2 Samuel 11–24—the accounts there are filled with the painful consequences of David’s wrongdoing.

Given all of this, in what way was David a man after God’s own heart?

One answer should be obvious to anyone who knows David’s story: In many areas of his life, David showed attributes that proved his godly focus. His psalms, in particular, reveal the profound degree to which David centered his life on pleasing God. David was still an imperfect man, but a review of 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, and 1 Chronicles will show the extraordinarily good fruit of David’s focus. Perhaps most tellingly, David’s heart was revealed when he spared Saul for the first time (1 Samuel 24). When David showed the barest disrespect to God’s anointed, his heart troubled him. We can recognize David’s status as a man after God’s own heart in how submissive he was to government.

David’s heart is again revealed in his response to correction. In 2 Samuel 12, he is publicly called out for his sin with Bathsheba. Nathan the prophet is sent to tell him about an injustice that has taken place in Israel—a rich man has stolen the beloved lamb of his poor neighbor rather than use his own sheep to feed a traveler (vv. 1–4). When David angrily pronounces the death sentence on this fictional rich man, Nathan drops the hammer: “You are the man” (v. 7).

In response to this rebuke, David meekly and candidly replies, “I have sinned against the Lord” (v. 13). This is truly the response of a man after God’s own heart.

Obedience, Repentance, and Acceptance

David’s repentance stands in stark contrast to many other kings who responded with violence, defensiveness, and vanity rather than accepting correction. King Saul tried to find any excuse for his sins to evade personal responsibility (1 Samuel 13:11–12; 15:15–21). King Solomon sought to kill Jeroboam instead of facing up to his own role in causing Israel’s problems (1 Kings 11:40).

But David sincerely and deeply repented. He understood how thoroughly he needed to change. In Psalm 51, he does not complain about God’s laws or his situation. Instead, considering his conduct with Bathsheba, David recognizes that he needs his heart cleansed and his sins forgiven: “Blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me…. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:2–3, 10). David set the example for us of how to be men and women after God’s own heart: When we are confronted with our sins, we repent in utter humility.

David’s heart had been unwilling to rebel against King Saul, as Saul was God’s anointed. Yet, while David surely desired to keep all of God’s laws, he had developed a blind spot regarding his multiplication of wives. As a result, he sinned—as we all do. Yet David did not practice sin. In many ways, his repentance was a further sign that he understood the importance of government; when his rebellion was made abundantly clear to him, he proved himself a man after God’s own heart, repenting deeply of breaking God’s law. He made no excuses and meekly accepted the consequences of his actions, refusing to be a rebel.

What about us? We can often feel that we are so far removed from our biblical heroes of faith as to have nothing in common with them. Yet we see that the life of a man after God’s own heart was a constant and painful battle against sin, much like our lives. If we learn to submit to government, humbly accept correction, and sincerely repent when we fall short, we are following David’s example as our hearts become more like God’s.