Bible Q&A: David – a man after God's own heart?

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.

Question:

Why is King David referred to as 'a man after God's own heart? This really challenges me, as many of his psalms call for God to unleash vengeance and judgement upon his adversaries, as opposed to pleading for him to reveal himself to them in mercy.

Answer:

In 1 Samuel 13.14 the prophet Samuel tells Saul, 'But now your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.' He meant David, who was to rule after him. In Acts, Paul refers to this in a sermon: Samuel 'testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will’ (13.22).

However, while he was a great king, David wasn’t always a good man. Apart from those psalms, he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband Uriah murdered. He was also ruthless in war: when he was living with the Philistines, 'David would strike the land and would leave neither man nor woman alive...' (1 Samuel 27.9).

There are two things here. First, when Samuel described David as 'after God's own heart', David was a young man. At that point, perhaps he was. But he grew up to make some choices that were not remotely godly. We are all responsible for what we do, and it's up to us to choose rightly.   

Second, though, we need to be careful how we read the Psalms. Some of them, whether written by David or not, are terrible – like Psalm 137, which says, 'Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!'

But God does not bless the murder of little children. So we're to look under the surface of words like these. When we do that we see that the Psalmist is often expressing outrage at injustice and fierce anger at those who do it. There's a desire for the scales to be balanced and right to be done, expressed in language designed to shock. The words may not be 'after God's own heart', but the anger at sin and evil is.


Have you got a question about the Bible? Let us know and we’ll do our best to answer it!

This article was written Mark Woods, who is Bible Society's Editor.​

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