Was David “a man after God’s own heart”?

I’ve frequently heard it said that, according to the Bible, King David was “a man after God’s own heart” and that despite his serious moral failures (adultery and murder among them) his heart was, after all was said and done, “in the right place” and this somehow compensated for his major faults. But is it actually true? Does the Bible really say that David was “a man after God’s own heart”?

The text that is quoted in support of this claim is Samuel’s words to King Saul in 1 Samuel 13:14 “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which he commanded you. The Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel for ever, but now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” The story goes on to tell us how David was the man who was chosen to replace Saul as King of Israel, so it’s perfectly natural to read this as meaning David was “a man after [God’s] own heart”.

But the Hebrew doesn’t necessarily read the same way as the English:

בִּקֵּשׁ יְהוָה לֹו אִישׁ כִּלְבָבֹו

The word כִּלְבָבֹו is better translated as “according to his own heart” so the sentence then reads “the LORD has sought a man according to his own heart” (the prefix כ means as, or according to) and a similar expression appears in 2 Samuel 7:21 where כְלִבְּךָ is translated into English as “according to your own heart”, the translators there correctly translating כ as “according to”.[1]

In Hebrew the “heart” is what we would call the “mind” – the seat of thought and intelligence. In other words “according to your heart” means “according to your mind, or will” and “according to God’s own heart” means God has sought out someone in accordance with his mind, or someone chosen by his own free choice.

Interestingly, a similar expression occurs in the Inscription of Nebuchadnezzar where the king refers to himself as “I his eldest son, the chosen of his heart” (column 5, lines 21, 22).

So the point of 1 Samuel 13:14 is that Saul’s successor would be a man chosen by God, by his own free choice, and it says nothing about the moral character or “heart” of the man so chosen.

________________________

[1] The ‘virtually unanimous trend in recent scholarship … understands the phrase “after [Yhwh’s] own heart” in 1 Sam 13:14 as a statement about Yhwh’s choice rather than David’s character’. (Benjamin J. M. Johnson, “The Heart of Yhwh’s Chosen One in 1 Samuel”  Journal of Biblical Literature Volume 131, Number 3, 2012). See also P. Kyle McCarter Jr, I Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary (AB 8; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 229.  Since McCarter very few scholars have followed the traditional interpretation.

6 comments on “Was David “a man after God’s own heart”?

  1. debhurn says:

    well done, Steve. Christian blogs on Twitter has tweeted your article, @godblogs.

    There is a typo you might want to correct…

    ________________________________

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Thanks Deb. You always have a great eye for typos. I’ll have to keep that in mind in future when I’m looking for a good editor!

  2. Thanks, possible, but what is so wrong about David being a man whom God knew would follow him?

    The choice could be in respect of what God knew David would do. So David was a man after God’s own heart in the long run, whatever the exact sense of the “Ke” = as, in that passage.

    David was God’s choice from both angles.

    Anthony F. Buzzard

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Thanks for your comment Anthony. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the idea that David was a man whom God knew would follow him. However, I don’t believe that is the point which is being made here by the Deuteronomistic historian(s). Commentators have noted that the biblical text itself never says David is, in fact, the “man after [God’s] own heart” and the narrator nowhere comes right out and tells us what David’s heart is like or why it was better than Saul’s. On the contrary, a comparison of the texts about Saul with those about David highlight that the writer appears to be making a comparison betwen the men rather than a contrast. For example, after Samuel says that “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7), the historian goes on to say that David “was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” (v.12), giving the same kind of information about David’s good looks as was previously given about Saul.
      Another point of comparison by the historian is that both Saul and David were chosen by God. The text under consideration is not saying that David was chosen by God but Saul wasn’t. On the contrary, it provides a great deal of detail about the choosing of Saul as well and even tells us (twice I think) that the Spirit of God was in Saul.
      There is plenty of room here for further exploration but I should emphasise that the point of my post was not to denigrate David, but rather to review some of our assumptions about him as a result of a misreading of the Hebrew text. We are in a better position to understand what the writer is really saying if we can read the text without preconceived ideas.

  3. […] For a differing opinion on 1st Samuel 13:14:  see here. […]

  4. April says:

    I thought it interesting that you quoted Benjamin Johnson’s paper but disagree with his analysis.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s