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!)