Old Testament

David as a Man after God’s Own Heart (1 Sam 13:14)

The Bible says David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14; Acts 13:22). Most people want to take this phrase as a reference to the moral character of David. As such, David was a man after God’s own heart in that he was committed to God’s ways and demonstrated fidelity to God’s Law. However, this viewpoint has a couple difficulties.

On the one hand, David was far from morally pure. He was a murderous adulterer (2 Sam 11). He killed Uriah the Hittite, and committed adultery with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife. Can we say David was uniquely a man after God’s own heart when his actions seem to communicate otherwise?

To get around this potential problem, some people will say that David never engaged in direct idolatry and that is the explanation for saying David was a man after God’s own heart. However, there are a couple other kings who seem to match David in regard to this—namely Hezekiah and Josiah. Both Hezekiah and Josiah put away the high places and reformed worship practice to align with the Law. Yet, neither of them are declared a man after God’s own heart.

Further, Scripture seems to have individuals who have a better track record in living faithfully for God than David. Daniel certainly qualifies. Elijah or Elisha probably does as well. There seem to be individuals in Scripture who are godlier than David and more committed to God’s Law than David.

An Alternative Understanding of a Man after God’s Own Heart

photo of david a man after God's own heart

A different interpretation for “a man after God’s own heart” is likely more appropriate in the context of 1 Samuel. The pertinent phrase from 1 Samuel 13:14 is actually “after his own heart” which grammatically could modify the word man, or it could also modify the verb “Yahweh has sought out.” Many modern commentators understand 1 Samuel 13:14 with regard to the latter. In other words, Yahweh has sought a man in accordance with his own choice (i.e., instead of the choice of the people).

It was always God’s intention for Israel to have a king (cf. Deut 17:14-20). However, it was to be God’s choice (cf. Deut 17:15). Yet when the time came, Israel wanted a king “like all the other nations” (1 Sam 8:5). Their desire to be like the other nations tainted the entire process. God gave them the king of their choice, and it did NOT turn out well. In contrast, after Saul had disqualified his kingship, Samuel related that God would now pick a king “after his own heart” (i.e., his choice).

This understanding also seems confirmed by Akkadian parallels which use similar language to communicate the choosing of a king. For example, in the East India House Inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II, we read, “I, his eldest son, the chosen of his heart…”

Another example is the Babylonian Chronicle which relates to Nebuchadnezzar’s choice of king Zedekiah (not mentioned by name in the Chronicle). After deposing Jehoiachin in 598 BC, the Chronicle reads, “He appointed therein a king of his own heart.”

These Akkadian parallels show us is that it is preferred to take the phrase, “a man after God’s own heart” as a reference to God’s choice of kingship. In other words, David was God’s choice for king. This means the phrase a man after God’s own heart does not relate to moral quality of David in and of itself.

Can We still Say David was Godly?

Although the phrase a man after God’s own heart doesn’t inherently relate to David’s character, it relates indirectly. Because of who God is, His choice of king does relate to character. Saul was disqualified from kingship because of his lack of character and obedience to God (1 Sam 13:13; 1 Sam 15:22-26). On the other hand, David exemplified the character of one devoted to God throughout 1 Samuel.

There is no doubt that up to 2 Samuel 11, David shows himself the complete opposite of Saul in every way. He waits upon the Lord. He seeks God’s will above his own. Even in his sin, David is sensitive to Nathan’s confrontation (2 Sam 12). It is clear that David is a special character is Scripture. So, even though the phrase “a man after God’s own heart” should be viewed as a phrase relating to choice (not character), the choice does relate to character.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

29 Comments

  • April Kinzinger

    Finally! You have this interpretation right! Going back to the Hebrew, God was looking for a man according to His choice, and not the people.

  • Oluwatobiloba Abiodun

    David was not called man after God’s heart during or immediately after his sin. Rather it was at the early days of his right walk with God. After His sin check Psalm 51, He begged God for restoration back to where he was initially with God.

  • Frederick Collins

    Mr. Goeman, I was looking for a discussion of this topic precisely because of the observation you made at the very beginning – that there were better qualified men in terms of the absence of obvious, blatant, and egregious sin. But also demonstrable closeness with God. Wherever did David demonstrate the kind of absolute confidence and trust that Daniel did since he was a youth? And the same for Joseph.
    The only answer is Romans 9. God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. And no doubt will decide who is a man after his own heart. Please note also, for those who see the bible operating in the lives of people today, that in none of the reports of visions of Jesus does he refer to himself as “Son of David.”. He refers to himself always as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Not that these did not commit glaring sins either). God will choose whom he will choose. He is sovereign.

    • Peter Goeman

      I am not arguing for the perfection of David by any stretch of the imagination, but in all fairness, Scripture does talk about David uniquely as one who is a standard of following God. 1 Kings 11:4, 6, 33, 38; 15:5 all provide support that David uniquely was obedient to all the commands of Yahweh.

  • DABOR

    CONCERNING DAVID, THERE WAS HUNGER AND THIRST AND PASSION AND THAT RAW PANTING AFTER GOD – I WAS GLAD WHEN THEY SAID LET US GO INTO THE HOUSE OF THE LORD – DAVID WAS IN LOVE WITH GOD, HE HAD PERFECT LOVE FOR GOD – EYES HAVE NOT SEEN, EARS HAVE NOT HEARD WHAT GOD HAS IN STORE FOR THOSE WHO LOVE HIM – UNLIKE SAUL, GOD ESTABLISHED DAVID’S THRONE FOREVER, SEALED WITH AN EVERLASTING COVENANT OR A FAITHFUL LOVE!

    • Danielle Nicole

      This is the one right here!! David was surly and truly in love with God. David was not perfect but the depths of him was The Lord’s. David is a PERFECT example of a righteous man or woman who is also in love with God in a fallen world. Our Father is not looking for “moral character” He is looking for a pure heart who is after His.

      • Bud Kerr

        God was not looking for perfection or grading men regarding their adherence to the law. God was looking for someone who truly loved Him, dispite their flaws. David certainly wasn’t perfect but he demonstrated his love and honor for the name of God in humility and faith… Of Goliath David said “I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty” as he ran toward the battle line.
        We can theologically try to explain what love means but the answer, simply put, is that David LOVED the Lord, with all his heart.

  • Pursuing Jehovah

    Was David really a man after God’s own heart?

    When I read your post, I must admit I had to pause to think about your argument that David may not have been a man after God’s own heart. You challenged me to re-evaluate something I had taken at face value for decades. I was taken aback because I had never heard anyone make such a claim in my lifetime.

    So, I prayed and meditated, among other things, for many days on the possibility that David may not have been a man after God’s heart but rather, that statement may have meant that David was chosen King “according to” God’s choice.

    After much consideration, I have returned to the conclusion that the verse in 1 Samuel 13:14 indicates that David was a man after God’s heart. Here is my rationale.

    I believe the best way to interpret the Bible is by cross referencing other verses in the Bible to come to a fuller understanding of difficult topics.

    First, I examined the original Hebrew words of 1 Samuel 13:14 and the Greek words of Acts 13:22 and those words do not indicate David was a man “according to” God’s choice but rather, the words “after God’s own heart” is the translation.

    Second, I considered other Old Testament verses about David that might add insight. In 1 Kings 15:3-5, we read:

    “1Ki 15:3 And he walked in all the sins of his father, which he had done before him; his heart was not loyal to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David.

    1Ki 15:4 Nevertheless for David’s sake the LORD his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem, by setting up his son after him and by establishing Jerusalem;

    1Ki 15:5 because David did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, and had not turned aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite. ”

    What a testament about how God viewed David as recorded by the Holy Spirit. According to the verses above, David was loyal to God and he did not turn away from the commands of God except with regard to Uriah.

    Third, it is always God’s choice about who rules over men because He is sovereign, so there was nothing special about God choosing David. In Daniel 2:21, we read: “And He changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings; He gives wisdom to the wise And knowledge to those who have understanding.”

    Finally, I have not mentioned how David regularly sought the counsel of the Lord in his decision making (I do not recall anyone else having done so with the frequency by which David did). Additionally, David was quick to repent when he sinned against God. The 73 plus Psalms composed by David add insight into his desire to serve God with a pure heart even though he sinned and fell short of God’s glory (like the rest of us).

    David was a man after God’s own heart. We would do well to emulate his desire to have a pure heart before the LORD (Psalm 51:10).

    • Monique Ridge Williams

      My thoughts exactly. Let us not ever minimize the beauty of God’s movement in our lives or the lives of the people in His infallible word. The knowing of David being a man after God’s own heart is fantastic, hopeful, and fulfilling in my own life. It paints a beautiful picture of a person seeking the heart of God at every turn in his life and getting answers while deepening that relationship. That makes me shout for joy.

  • St.Cyrus

    1 Sam 13:14 (YLT), “and, now, thy kingdom doth not stand, Jehovah hath sought for Himself a man according to His own heart, and Jehovah chargeth him for leader over His people, for thou hast not kept that which Jehovah commanded thee.'”

    Acts 13: 22 (YLT), “and having removed him, He did raise up to them David for king, to whom also having testified, he said, I found David, the son of Jesse, a man according to My heart, who shall do all My will”.

    In both the references the YLT uses the word ‘according’, rather than the traditional ‘after’. This certainly opens up the consideration that this was an issue more of Gods gracious choosing rather than mans’ holiness. Nevertheless I think that both the issue of Gods’ choice and the character chosen is inseparable implied.

  • Donna S.

    From which Scripture, of our Bible, not quoting pagan religions nations records; do you, Peter claim that Saul was not God’s first choice for King but, Saul that was the people’s choice? Your Bible pages maybe stuck together from chapter 8 through 13? At the end of chapter 8, Samuel had finished explaining to the people per The LORD directions what it would mean for them to actually have a king over them. They answered verse 19b, “nay we will have a king over us;” In verse 22 after Samuel had spoken to The LORD all that the people had answered (and they never spoke of whom they wanted as king.) The LORD answered, “Hearken unto their voice and make them a king. Then in Samuel 9:15 -17 “now The LORD had told Samuel in his ear a day before Saul came saying; tomorrow about this time I (God) will send you a man out of the land of Benjamin and you shall anoint him to be over my people…and when Samuel saw Saul The LORD said to him, “Behold, the man whom I spoke of to you! This same man shall reign over my people.” Samuel continues to make meeting plans with Saul saying, in verse 19 “and I will tell you all that is in your heart” Chapter 9 continues with Saul saying back to Samuel whom he honors earlier by seeking Samuel and as recognizing him as a man of God. Saul in humbleness in verse 9:21 replies “Am I not a Benjamite of the smallest tribe of Irasel and my family the least of,the tribe of Benjamin? Why do you seek to speak to me?” They had the meeting and the meal and Samuel asks Saul in the verse 9:27 to “stand still awhile that I may show you the word of GOD.” None of the people are even around to see in the next verse 10:1 Samuel anoint Saul saying “The LORD has anointed you to captain over His inheritance (His people Irasel). Verse 10:10 finds The Spirit of God coming upon Saul to prophesy and the people are puzzled verses11- 12 As Samuel arrives in verse 17 calling the people together to chose by lot God’s choice for King, Saul in verse 21 and in verse 24 after they found him Samuel, states, “see Saul, whom The LORD has chosen” and then for the first time the people shout, “God save the king!” No where before this did the people ask Samuel to find men for them to choose from; no where did the people ask Samuel to find Saul to make him king for them. Our Bible gives no Scripture to support your article of the people having chosen Saul that it was not God’s choice. Chapter 9:15, 17, 27; 10:1, 10, 21 and 24 all indicate Saul was chosen to be king by God THEN His choice of King, being Saul, was shown to the people.

    • Peter Goeman

      God did select Saul as king for the people, but it was in accordance with what they wanted, not what He wanted. This is obvious from the context–both Samuel and God were displeased by the request of the people. Further, Gen 49:10 makes it abundantly clear that the royal line of Israel was supposed to be from the tribe of Judah. Hence, a king from Benjamin was not a good thing, but God is sovereign and uses it for his glory and to show a contrast with David.

  • Delta McNeish

    Very interesting thoughts. However, I have found through Holy Spirit’s teaching that The term “after God’s own heart” has nothing to do with character or God choice of a king. If one look deeply into OT and NT teachings no one is shown to be intimate with God more than David. This is where the key point is missed. Most humans live and die without not only the knowledge of the experience but the reality.
    It is so painful to realize that intimacy with God is the cry of His heart and yet so many exist without it. Only Holy Spirit can bring one to this reality. It was the crimes that David committed that opened his eyes to the heart that he had for toward God. That drove him to his repentance like no other human.

  • Rick Nivens

    I see several difficulties with your claims here. 1. In 1 Sam. 13:14, Samuel was speaking to Saul, contrasting David’s obedient behavior with Saul’s disobedient behavior (which had just occurred and prompted Samuel’s choice of words). So the salient issue here is “obedient behavior”. 2. This was while David was still young, long before the incident with Uriah and Bathsheba. 3. In Acts 13:22, Paul says: “I have found David” (quoting Psalm 89:20) “son of Jesse” (Paul’s expansion of “David”) “a man in accordance with my heart” (quoting 1 Sam. 13:14); “he will do all my will” (which could be taken as an explanation of the idiom “a man in accordance with my heart”). Clearly, here Paul is using the idiom to describe “a man”, not as an adverbial describing “I have found”. 4. The same Hebrew idiom (“after ___’s heart”) is found in the very next chapter, in 1 Sam. 14:7, where Jonathan’s armor-bearer says “I [am] with you, in-accordance-with your heart”; he’s declaring his commitment to do whatever Jonathan wanted him to do. Since this is the same author, and the subsequent episode in the same text, there can be no question that the idiom has the same meaning. 5. Straw man: Nobody has ever claimed that this idiom meant “sinless”. Not just the NT, but the OT also clearly says that nobody is sinless. 6. Akkadian non-parallel: “chosen of his heart” is not parallel to “in accordance with his heart”. 7. Babylonian Chronicle non-parallel: “of his own heart” is not parallel to “in accordance with his heart”. 8. Argument from silence: The Scriptures never use this idiom to refer to Hezekiah, Josiah, Daniel, Elijah, or Elisha. But neither do the Scriptures say that they were *not* men “in accordance with his heart”. In fact, if this argument from silence were valid, and if the idiom meant what you claim it meant, then you’d be saying that God didn’t choose Hezekiah, Josiah, Daniel, Elijah, or Elisha in accordance with his own choice.

      • A. L. Walters

        I have held the understanding that ‘after God’s own heart” was referring to David’s:
        1. worship of, belief in, and closeness to God (Read his Psalms; see his encounter with Goliath)
        2. obedience and reverence to God’s will in carrying out God’s mandate (his history)
        3. humility before God (see the episode with Naaman)
        4. willingness to repent of sin (see Psalm 51) – indicating a desire to be pure)
        5. understanding of, and ability to demonstrate a ‘shepherd’s heart’ seen in his defense of sheep against beasts and translated to his rule
        6. preparation for the building of God’s temple/ obedience in not building it despite his desire to do so.

        He was not faultless or flawless, but was not arrogant in sinfulness. In brokenness, he repented. As a great king, he was at great risk for idolatry, but he remained with God.

        • Joan Wong

          I agree with your summary. I would only add that David was faithful to create Psalm after Psalm:
          1. Proclaiming the faithfulness of God
          2. Promoting the precepts of God
          3. Processing his experiences with God — the good, the bad and the wonder of grace
          God loves to be praised, to be acknowledged and to respond to those who fully seek Him.
          David has been a wonderful model for us.

          In closing: Jesus, our Lord said in Matthew 10:32
          Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men,
          I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven.

  • Ron Sandison

    Preaching a message on “God is healing the Land.” In this sermon I talk about King David. I love what you have to say about King David, “Man after his own heart is about choices not character.”
    Never thought about it that way.

    Ron Sandison, founder of Spectrum Inclusion and author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom.

  • Eunice Montfort

    What if it means a man who sought God with all his heart. What if it means a man whose primary purpose in life is to get to know God. “You will seek me and find me when you search for me with your whole heart?” What if THE thing that God is looking for in a man or woman is someone who hungers and thirsts to know the living God. “A man AFTER (seeking after) my own heart. “

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