The story of David has always seemed a bit confounding. In its reading, we are brought into something of a paradoxical tension where David is everything and nothing we want to be. When we first meet David, he is being anointed king, not for any strength or wisdom, but simply because he was a man after God’s own heart; and yet, as David’s story continues, he seems anything but.
David’s initial exploits seem to begin with promise. He saves Saul and Israel from the Philistines by defeating Goliath and continues winning in battle, encouraging Israel while alienating Saul. Even while on the run from Saul, David’s heart remains with God, for the most part, as he continues to protect certain groups, and later as the king, reclaiming Israel’s territories. I cannot help but feel romantic notions here: “the shepherd king”, “the warrior poet”—is this, as inspirational Christian literature asserts, what a man after God’s own heart looks like?
David’s witness as a man after God’s heart becomes much more complicated midway through his reign. Glimpsing a beautiful, married woman bathing, David sends for her, sleeps with her, tries covering up a pregnancy, has her husband murdered when that doesn’t work, and then marries her. Though he repents and is forgiven, God tells him his house will always be troubled.
This trouble begins in the form of incestual rape amongst his children, Amnon and Tamar, which David does nothing about. Two years later, Absalom, also David’s son, slays Amnon in vengeance and flees to another country. Again, David does nothing. After several years of awkward tension and ambiguous intentions, David and Absalom reunite and embrace, but without repentance from Absalom and no justice dealt by King David; it was merely superficial. Having once executed a man on hearsay, now David won’t even judge the evil in plain view. Absalom later leads a coup to supplant his own father as king and rather than allow the city to be engulfed in a bloodbath, David and his servants flee. After a brief civil war, he eventually returns to Jerusalem as king, but not before losing Absalom, a great deal of countrymen, a close advisor, perhaps an amount of respect from his followers, and much of his resilience.
This isn’t the David we knew; there is no trace of a faithful shepherd, the inspiring shadow of a giant-killer, or romantic visual of a devoted and dancing warrior-king here. He is a broken father and an uncertain king. Is this really a man after God’s heart?
Perhaps the David we try to romantically imagine never was a proper depiction of a human after God’s own heart. In ‘Leap Over a Wall’, Eugene Peterson’s reflection on the life of David, he writes, “The story of David isn’t set before us as a moral model to copy. David isn’t a person whose actions we’re inspired to imitate. In the company of David we don’t feel inadequate because we know we could never do it that well. Just the opposite: in the company of David we find someone who does it as badly as, or worse than, we do, but who in the process doesn’t quit, doesn’t withdraw from God. David’s isn’t an ideal life but an actual life.”
Back when the prophet Samuel anointed David, God told him “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
Every human being’s actual life is going to take on outward appearances and achievements, but it’s the heart that gives shape to all that, a heart that is after God’s. It is, as Peterson says, a God-aware heart for a God-responsive life. There are all kinds of humans, all kinds of hearts; though caring for all, God is looking for the hearts that are after Him. The lives of those hearts will not be ideal and probably not impressive, but they will keep after Him.
David’s heart was never perfect, but it was eventually always open to the LORD’s and what it expected of him. Finding ourselves in the story of David, we find ourselves as humans pursuing the God whom David’s heart was after. If we continue to follow the story, where could this pursuit take us? David’s story puts us on the path of a history priming for a glorious future that will make us both a pursuer and beholder of God’s heart. In David we’re given a man after God’s heart; in his descendant, Jesus the Messiah, we’re given God’s heart, a perfecting fulfillment in humanity’s pursuit of actual life.