How could God call David a “man after his own heart” when he committed adultery and murder?

Q. I always felt sorry for Saul.  God chose him to lead His people, and he did a good job at it.  Saul only made one mistake and God sent David to replace him.  I think David did much worse, yet God said, “He’s a man after my own heart.”

In my first post in response to this question, I looked at why God rejected Saul as king.  In this post I’ll consider how God could call David a “man after my own heart.”

I think much of our difficulty in understanding how God could apply this phrase to a man who became an adulterer and murderer comes from the way we use the phrase today.  For us it means “just the kind of guy I like” or “someone who does what I would do in a situation.”  But that’s not what the phrase means when Samuel uses it to describe to Saul the kind of king God is seeking to establish a dynasty in Israel.

The Hebrew phrase is actually “a man according to God’s heart”—one who is in accordance with God’s wishes for the kingship.  Samuel makes this clear by observing, “You have not kept the LORD’s command,” that is, that the kingship should not be treated as divine or as encompassing priestly powers.

David set an example for all subsequent kings by never acting as if he were a divine king or priest-king.  (Uzziah, by contrast, one of his successors, was punished for going into the temple of the LORD to burn incense, effectively claiming to be a priest-king.  The priests challenged him, saying, “It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD. That is for the priests.”  Uzziah was smitten with leprosy and had to turn over royal power to his son as regent.  “His pride led to his downfall,” the biblical narrator observes.)

David was always devoted to the LORD as Israel’s supreme ruler and he never turned aside after other gods.  This heart of loyalty became the standard by which all later kings were judged.  The Bible says about Abijah, for example, “His heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his forefather had been.”  We might think of a “man after God’s own heart” as one whose heart is fully devoted to God.

King David, St. Martin’s Church, Yorkshire, England

But even such men and women need to be very careful about how they respond to the challenges and especially the disappointments of life.  David committed adultery after his army officers, out of a commendable desire to protect his life, made him stay back in Jerusalem when they went out to war.  For a military commander like David, this idleness and apparent uselessness were hard to bear. One may surmise that he tried to find renewed validation by getting a beautiful woman for himself, Bathsheba.

He should have regarded her as strictly off limits because she was another man’s wife—in fact, the wife of one of his trusted “mighty warriors,” Uriah the Hittite.  But instead David abused his kingly powers and committed adultery and murder to get her.  In a divine judgment, his royal house was torn apart in the next generation.  So no divine approval of David’s actions can be found in the earlier description of him as a “man after God’s own heart.”

But here David provides an example in another way.  Beware, men and women:  even if you are devoted solely to God, you have to flee temptation, recognizing that it will assault you most strongly when you are at your weakest.  (For many men, this comes on the “down slope,” when they’ve held an important position but now are facing some new limitations on their role or reductions in their status, as David was here.  Be especially vigilant under these circumstances!)

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

10 thoughts on “How could God call David a “man after his own heart” when he committed adultery and murder?”

  1. In response to this post a reader recalled hearing it said that the safest place for us is in the middle of God’s desire for our lives—even if that’s the middle of a battlefield. I agree. David would certainly have been a lot safer spiritually in a place where he didn’t have unlimited free time and power of self-indulgence. But we will probably all have to deal with the “downslope” sooner or later in our lives. Over the years I’ve been struck by the way that Christian leaders who are disgraced by affairs typically have this happen when they’ve just lost or left a prestigious position and have uncertain prospects. So the safest place to be is also that place where we’re secure in God’s love and acceptance of us, regardless of our performance or status.

  2. I think David both set a standard for kings to come and his own people as well and was therefore fully devoted to God like you mentioned. This can be particularly seen when the Ark was being brought to the City of David from the house of Obed-Edom. David danced with all his might wearing a linen ephod praising God and the entire house of Israel rejoiced with him (2 Samuel 6:12-15). This passage always makes me smile and I guess when the king himself has that much zeal for the Lord, the people are bound to get convicted and be passionate as well.

    1. Thank you for sharing this perspective. As much as David’s failures trouble us, we shouldn’t fail to recognize his deep and heartfelt devotion to God, which passages such as the one about the ark being brought into the City of David highlight so well.

  3. I have very mixed feelings about David. I understand the good things that he stood for, his repentance after making mistakes (which Saul never had a chance to do) and so on, but David’s last words to Solomon on his deathbed sums it up for me.
    In 1 Kings 2:8 David tells Solomon that Shimei had insulted him (cursed him bitterly) and David gave him “his solemn promise in the name of the Lord” that he would not have him killed.
    In 1 Kings 2:9 He tells Solomon that Shimei mus be put to death.

    In my mind, David was very selfish – concerned only with himself.

    It seems as if we Christians insist on making David more than he was, based on the pretense of him being a man “after God’s own heart.”

    To me, at least, it seems as if we do not understand what that means.

  4. It’s a mistake to say abruptly that King David committed adultery and murder; many people are unaware of the ancient practice of a “war divorce letter” a jewish get that every soldier had to leave for a wife; it’s has always been the norm ortherwise the woman couldn’t remarry in case the husband wouldn’t return home.

    Also Uriah didn’t follow the order of the King to remain home and be as married to Bathesheva; since, he didn’t follow what the king said then he was sent to the front of the army.

    Now, since King David was a real secant of G-d; even though when the woman is considered free when her husband was at war.

    As man of G’d King David should have done better and not been involved with Bathesheva and that why he’s held accountable yet technically as I said every woman was given the “get” divorce.

    Thus, even being the King; he acknowledged that his behavior should have been even more accountable.

    Yet, as King when a soldier doesn’t follow the king’s determination – Uriah could have been sentenced; yet as a King of Israel,
    King David was expected to be even more sensitive and spiritual.
    But, it’s a mistake to accuse a man whose heart pleased the Almighty as adulterer. Even though to a King it wouldn’t be; he considered himself as a sinner and it pleaded G-d. The psalms are one of the most uplifting words of praise one could ever write.

    1. I don’t agree with this interpretation of the story of David and Bathsheba. There would have been no need for such a thing as a “war divorce letter” because if the husband didn’t come home from war, that would be because he’d been killed, and his wife would have been a widow and free to remarry in any event. But even if such a type of letter had existed, it wouldn’t have meant that Bathsheba was technically divorced for as long as Uriah was at war, the letter would only have certified her freedom to remarry if the army came back without him. And it wouldn’t give Bathsheba the freedom to have sexual relations with David if she were not his wife. The Bible says very clearly that Uriah was not sent to the front lines as punishment for disobeying the king’s order, he was sent there, and abandoned there to die, so that David could have his wife after he was killed. Speaking through the prophet Nathan, God tells David in no uncertain terms, “You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.” Finally, we should not believe that a king can have any woman he wants just because he’s the king. That’s flagrant abuse of power and sexual abuse of the people the king is supposed to protect and care for. David was guilty of adultery and murder and the fact that elsewhere he’s called a “man after God’s own heart” does not mitigate this. By comparison with other kings, to his credit, David never worshiped other gods, and that’s what the phrase means. But he brought trouble on himself, his family, and his kingdom through his sins.

      1. King David sent Uriah to the front line of the war to cover his sins. He knew Uriah’s chance of survival was slim. Uriah died and King David thought that his sin with Bethsheba would not be found out, but as Psalm 139 states we cannot cover our sins. or hide from God. So God sent Nathan to reveal the sinful deed against Uriah and King David broke down because he knew Nathan was sent from God himself to point his finger at David and said, THOU ART THE MAN. He was guilty! King David was severly broken and trembled and truly repented. He knew it was God that he sinned against for he acknowledged his transgressions. It is a comfort for me to read about how merciful our God is when we acknowledge our sins against Him, when we are broken, how great and unspeakable is God’s mercy.
        Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness; according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
        Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
        Psalm 51:1-2
        We should rejoice in God’s mercy towards David and to all of us. Didn’t we cry to God and repented of our sins and God forgave us too!
        Create in me a clean heart; and renew a right spirit within me.
        Our God is quick to forgive. King David’s life is a picture of hope, that God’s grace is greater than all our sins.

      2. In Jewish law whenever a man had to go to war; he had to leave a divorce letter, a “get” for the wife; it had always been the way and up to this day if a husband dies or is missing and there is no found body the wife is an “agunah” not apt to remarry in Orthodox Judaism is a long as she didn’t receive the religious “get”.

        This is just a historic fact.

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