Was David “a Man after God’s Heart”?
Was David “a man after God’s heart”? The obvious answer to that question is yes (1 Sam 13:14). But what does that mean?
This first veiled reference to David has been popularly enshrined in glowing devotional terms. We usually take it to mean that David was a man who pursued after God’s heart, or that David loved and valued the same things God does. After all, that’s what we mean when we use that expression: “Franklin is ‘a man after my own heart’; he loves barbecue (or grits, or golf, or bass fishing) just like I do.” And with reference to David, the evidence bears this out, doesn’t it? The later narrative of David and the spirit of David’s psalms testifies that he was such a man.
But is what we mean by this phrase what it actually means in its grammatical context? Or have we adopted and adapted a common translation as serviceable terminology to mean something that may be true, but is not the originally intended meaning of that phrase?
When Israel first demanded a king, they wanted one “like” all the other nations (1 Sam 8:5), a king who would rule them “like” all the other nations so that they could be “like” all the other nations (1 Sam 8:20). Literally, “appoint for us [לָּ֥נוּ] a king to judge us like all [כְּכָל] the nations.” The word “like” translates the Hebrew preposition (כְּ) attached as a prefix to the word “all.” Literally, they wanted a king “in accordance with” or “according to” what the other nations had. And that’s what they got—the best Israel had to offer at the time that would be “like” or “according to” all the other nations.
When Saul failed to keep the command of the Lord, however, God announced that his dynasty would not continue. God sought a replacement and commanded that he be captain over his people in place of Saul (1 Sam 13:13, 14). Significantly, this passage echoes the same prepositional prefixes that showed up in 1 Samuel 8:5 (לְ and כְּ). The text literally reads that the Lord sought “for himself” [לוֹ] a man “according to his heart” [כִּלְבָב֗וֹ].
God’s historical-grammatical echo of Israel’s original request reflects an intentional contrast. Israel insisted on a king “for us . . . according to all the nations.” Now, only two years into Saul’s reign (!), God was seeking “for himself a man according to his heart.”
Israel’s desire for a king was not inappropriate. Monarchy was not the problem; God had intended all along to establish a monarchy (cf. Gen 49:10; Deut 17:14–20). What was inappropriate was Israel’s insistence (they demanded a king), timing (they demanded a king now), and motive (they wanted a king who was according to all the nations so that they would be like all the nations). It was a blatant rejection of God’s leadership and, consequently, of God himself (1 Sam 8:7). God acquiesced and gave them the kind of king they wanted. This time around would be different, however; this time God would give them the kind of king he wanted. That’s the meaning and the point of the language of 1 Samuel 13:14.
The problem, in my opinion, is not the traditional translation, which is actually quite literal. The problem is the perpetuated misunderstanding of what that language is intended to signify. Besides the grammatical parallel between 1 Samuel 8 and 13, allow me to offer several additional observations.
That God is not describing David’s character directly seems obvious when you remember that this occurs in the second year of Saul’s reign (1 Sam 13:1), about 1049. How old is David at this point? David is not even born yet. He won’t be born for about another eight years. So, it’s not as if God has been looking around for a replacement and David has really gotten God’s attention. (This renders the HCSB most unlikely: “the Lord has found a man.”)
At least one version understands the grammar in the way that I am suggesting: “The Lord has looked for the kind of man he wants” (NCV). In my opinion, its other faults notwithstanding, the NCV has nailed the grammatical meaning of this verse.
In his OT theology, Eugene Merrill writes of 1 Samuel 13:14, “The Hebrew phrase is best understood not as an approbation of David’s heart, that is, his godliness and other qualifications, but rather as a technical term referring to divine election.” This is important because it indicates that “the election of David to kingship was a matter entirely outside his own merits or machinations” (Everlasting Dominion, 430–31, 436). Merrill sees in that expression a significant theological point about God, not a devotional description of David.
This meaning for this construction is corroborated in 2 Samuel 7:20–21, which duplicates the very same Hebrew construction as 1 Samuel 8:5 and 13:14 (except the pronoun is “your” instead of “his”). David exults in God’s gracious choice of him and his house by acknowledging that “according to your own heart have you done all these things.” Clearly in this context it is God’s act of choosing David, not David himself, that was “according to his own heart (desire).” The parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 17:18–19 says the same thing the same way. Other passages use the same construction with the same meaning (cf. Jer 3:15).
So What’s the Point?
The point of this is not to be novel or provocative or iconoclastic. It is simply an attempt to understand as accurately as possible exactly what God says and how he has chosen to say it. Does this reading rob us of a precious devotional description of David?
To be sure, David could be described as a man “after God’s own heart” in the common and popular sense of that phrase—not because 1 Samuel 13:14 describes him that way (it doesn’t), but because the scriptural depiction of David elsewhere supports that conclusion. “Well, then,” you may ask, “why be so picayune about this?” Because if we mistake what this text says, we become deaf to what it is intended to communicate. What God actually says and means here is even more revelatory of God and more immediately relevant to us than the popular understanding.
So, what is the significance of Israel’s demand for a king according to all the nations (and so they could be like all the nations), and then—after the dismal failure of the kind of king they wanted—God’s announcement that this time he will choose a replacement for himself and according to his heart?
The broad picture includes a lesson to the people of God. Israel had a particular motivation for demanding a particular kind of king. But the ambition of God’s people should not be to be like the nations. When that is the core consideration, the rationale and goal for personal choices or ministry methods, when that is the pattern for building projects or the paradigm for setting church policy or defining success, the inevitable result is spiritual failure and the displeasure of God. Much of the church has long been consumed with this very concern.
We don’t even need to be “like” all the other Christians. We ought to be content—we ought to be insistent—that everything in our lives and homes and churches be appointed “according to God’s heart,” that God be allowed to order our affairs “according to” his will and his timing. The monarchy was part of God’s plan all along, but this was not yet His timing. And they would not have had to wait long to have started with God’s choice in God’s time. What griefs, sins, and rivalries God’s people could have been spared, had they only waited for God to appoint their first king “according to his heart”—“the man of God’s own choosing”—instead of insisting on their timing and their desire for a king “according to all the other nations.” An integral part of the what of God’s will is the when of God’s will. Inseparable from the will of God is the timing of God.
One more question: When Israel demanded a king, why wasn’t God more forthcoming about his own plans? Why couldn’t he have simply said, “I’m working on that. I have my own agenda and timing. Just a few more years and I’ll give you the best king you can imagine”? That’s not how he directs us. He does not lay out all his plans and schedules before us for our inspection and satisfaction. He simply says, “Don’t do this. This displeases me. You are rejecting me. Just trust me, and wait.”
Alas, old habits die hard. Most will, I’m sure, go on using this traditional terminology to describe David. But by explaining (and even translating) this expression more accurately, we lose nothing. Instead, we gain a broader understanding of the passage, of God, and of ourselves, and a more penetrating application than the popular misunderstanding of a well-known text.