December 11, 2017

David: A Man Chosen According to God’s Heart

Layton Talbert

The Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). This first reference to David in the Bible has been popularly enshrined in inspiring devotional terms.

“A man after his own heart” — we tend to isolate that famous phrase and 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. Certainly the spirit of David’s Psalms testifies that he was such a man. But is this what that clause means in its grammatical context? First Samuel 13:14 seems to be communicating something rather different than what we have come to assume.

When Israel first demanded a king (1 Sam. 8:5, 20), they wanted one “like” all the other nations so he could judge them “like” all the other nations, and so they could be “like” all the other nations. In these verses, the word “like” translates a one-letter Hebrew preposition attached as a prefix to the word “all.” Literally, they wanted a king “according to” what the other nations had.

That kind of king is exactly what God gave to them — the best Israel had to offer that would be “like” or “according to” all the other nations. And we all know how that turned out! When Saul sinned by failing to keep the commandment of the Lord (1 Sam. 13:13, 14), God announced: “Thy kingdom shall not continue. [This time] the Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the Lord hath commanded him to be captain over his people.” The word “after” is precisely the same Hebrew construction as in 8:5, 20. The same prepositional prefix (“like” or “according to”) is attached to the one compound Hebrew word translated “his own heart.” It would be more clearly translated, “the Lord has sought a man for Himself according to His own heart.”

The contrast between Israel’s desire for a king “according to” all the other nations and God’s appointment this time of a man “according to” His heart seems clearly intentional in the grammatical context. In this case, the phrase “after” or “according to His own heart” would not function as an adjective modifying the word “man” (referring to David as a man after God’s heart); rather, it functions adverbially, modifying the Lord’s seeking and appointing a man “according to” His wishes. At least one other version takes the grammar this way: “The Lord has looked for the kind of man he wants” (NCV).

This interpretation is suggested not for novelty but solely out of regard for the Spirit-inspired grammar of the text. But if this is actually the intended meaning here, it would be nice if there were some other corroborating use of this phrase elsewhere, right? In fact, 2 Samuel 7:20–21 duplicates precisely the same Hebrew construction (except the pronoun is “your” instead of “his”), where David exults in God’s gracious choice of him and his house: “according to thine own heart hast thou done all these things.” Clearly here it is God’s act of choosing David, not David himself, that was “according to His own heart (desire).” (See also the parallel passage in 1 Chron. 17:18–19.)

Does this reading rob us of a precious devotional description of David? Not really. As already conceded, David was a man “after God’s own heart” in the traditional sense. But that is not really what is being communicated in the verse from which that cherished phrase is taken. What, then, does the statement that “God chose David according to His own heart” communicate to us? I think it is even more revelatory of God and more immediately relevant to us than the traditional understanding.

The historical picture is much bigger than merely David and Saul. The broad picture includes a lesson to the people of God. We don’t need to be, and shouldn’t want to be, “like” all the nations! When that is our goal, our ambition, our rationale for personal choices or ministry methods, we err. We don’t even need to be “like” all the other Christians! We ought to be content — indeed, we ought to be insistent — that everything in our lives be appointed “according to” God’s heart, that God be allowed to order our affairs “according to” His will, His desires, and His timing.

Israel’s request for a king was not, in itself, wrong. But their insistence (despite the warnings of God through Samuel) and their motive (the desire to be “like all the other nations”) is what displeased God and twisted that request into a rejection of Him (1 Sam. 8:7). Clearly, the monarchy was part of God’s plan all along, but it was not yet His timing. And they would not have had to wait long. Only ten years after Saul was crowned at the people’s insistence, David was born. Samuel was still around when God’s choice “according to His own heart” came along. So why did they need Saul so badly? They didn’t! What heartaches, sins, and rivalries God’s people might have been spared, had they only waited for God to seek out and appoint a man “according to His own heart” to be their king, instead of insisting on their will, their way, their timing, and their desire for a king “like all the other nations.”

Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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