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.

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[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.