Was it a sin for David to have many wives?

Q. My question is in regards to David’s many wives, was that not considered sin? was it something kings shouldn’t do, a recommendation from the Lord, but not going against God’s command? I understand he had plenty of trouble at home because of all the children from different wives. But when he is called a man after God’s own heart, that makes me think his polygamy is not looked at as a sin.

Your question is similar to the one I answer in this post:

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

In that post, I note that God described David in that way specifically in reference to the way David would regard the kingship, by contrast to the way Saul as king had encroached on priestly powers. I say in that post, “David set an example for all subsequent kings by never acting as if he were a divine king or priest-king.” I think the phrase also references the way David always repented when confronted with his own sin. By contrast, when confronted with his disobedience, Saul did not repent but instead insisted that he really had obeyed.

God specifically confronted David, through the prophet Nathan, about his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah, and so, as I also say in that post,”no divine approval of David’s actions can be found in the earlier description of him as a ‘man after God’s own heart.'”

We may say the same thing about David’s polygamy. The law of Moses said specifically about any future king the Israelites might have, “He must not take many wives.” The term “many” is not defined in terms of a specific number, but it seems that David did have “many” wives. Before he became king over all Israel, he was king over the tribe of Judah in Hebron, and he had six wives at that point. The Bible then tells us that “after he left Hebron” to become king of all Israel, “David took more concubines and wives in Jerusalem.”

As you noted, this caused “plenty of trouble at home.” Absalom, the son of the third wife, murdered Amnon, David’s firstborn, the son of his first wife, in revenge for Amnon raping Absalom’s sister Tamar. Absalom later incited a violent rebellion against David and nearly displaced him as king. And even after David chose Solomon to succeed him, another son named Adonijah nearly took over the kingdom instead. Solomon ultimately had Adonijah executed.

This was a culture in which polygamy was accepted, particularly because it was an agricultural society that depended on human labor, and so families simply had to have children. Kings practiced polygamy to be sure that they would have surviving children who could succeed them on the throne. But it must be admitted that royal polygamy went way beyond that need, as kings  married the daughters of other kings to form alliances, and they also had large harems. The law of Moses warned that an Israelite king should not have many wives, “or his heart will be led astray,” and that is exactly what happened to David’s son Solomon. The Bible says that “he had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.” Specifically, the women he married in order to make alliances with other countries wanted to keep worshiping their own gods, and Solomon built temples for them and even joined them in worshiping those gods. For this God punished him by taking most of the kingdom away from his dynasty.

So there seem to have been many good reasons why the law told kings not to have many wives. David was thus not an exemplary king in that way. And so what I say in the other post also applies to your question: “No divine approval of David’s actions can be found in the earlier description of him as a ‘man after God’s own heart.'”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. 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 New International Version (NIV) 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 was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. 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.

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