By Dr. Douglas Redford
Being a man after God’s own heart does not mean one always accepts his actions or never questions them.
“The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). This is how David is described when he is first mentioned in the Bible, although his name is not given at this point. The condition of his heart (especially in contrast to King Saul’s disobedient heart) is what matters most. And God himself, the creator and judge of all hearts, makes this assessment. One could not ask for a better recommendation.
What does it mean to be someone “after God’s heart”? How does one determine if he or she meets such a standard? In the case of David, we are privileged to be able to address those and similar questions through a study of the book of Psalms, to which David is the primary contributor. While the Psalms as a whole may be regarded as Old Testament Israel’s “hymnal,” they also provide us with an opportunity to examine for ourselves the heart of David and to see what made it “tick” in time with God.
An Awareness of God
The Psalms tell us that David lived all of his life with a deep awareness of God’s presence. Consider the wide range of experiences from David’s life reflected within the Psalms. Certainly David’s background as a shepherd is seen within the well-loved twenty-third psalm. One may also picture David composing portions of Psalm 8 or Psalm 19 while outdoors watching his sheep and pondering the majesty of God as demonstrated in his creation (Psalm 8:3-5; 19:1-6).
Other psalms arise from situations David faced while king of Israel. In some cases, this is clear from some of the titles that appear with certain psalms. Perhaps the most notable example of this is Psalm 51, which David wrote (as the title states) as a prayer of contrition and confession to God in the aftermath of his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. The title of Psalm 3 indicates its composition during David’s flight from his son Absalom, who tried to seize the kingdom from his father. Psalm 18 is much more confident in its tone, written by David, according to the title, “when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.”
Whether at the height of his success or in the valley of despair, David was able to bring every circumstance to the Lord. Nothing was off limits. Unlike most rulers of the ancient world, David recognized that he was accountable to a far greater King. He understood the uniqueness of the God of Israel and what made him different from (and far superior to) the gods of the nations that surrounded Israel. Only the Lord could (and can) be addressed with words such as these: “When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who know my way” (Psalm 142:3).
An Awareness of Sin
The Psalms also reveal David as someone who wrestled vigorously with the reality of sin in his surroundings. Like Job, David sometimes appears to have struggled to reconcile faith in a sovereign God with circumstances that conveyed the opposite message. How striking that the twenty-third psalm, a source of comfort and strength to countless readers and hearers over the years, is preceded by Psalm 22, which begins with the ominous words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Being a man after God’s own heart does not mean one always accepts his actions or never questions them!
Psalms 36-41 in particular reveal David trying to “connect the dots” between the goodness of God and the seemingly unbridled wickedness of humanity. On some occasions, David felt the impact of this wickedness in a personal and troubling way: “Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me” (Psalm 41:9). But David’s inner turmoil always brought him back to the same conclusion: there is only one source in whom a person can place his ultimate trust, and that is the Lord (Psalm 40:4).
The intensity with which David expressed his zeal for both the goodness of God and the sinfulness of humanity is demonstrated in what are often labeled the “imprecatory psalms”—psalms that express a desire for God’s judgment to fall upon the wicked, at times using some of the most violent language in the Bible. Consider, for example, David’s words in Psalm 139:21, 22: “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.” How can Christians apply such words as these, especially in view of Jesus’ command to love our enemies?
We must remember that David’s understanding of matters such as judgment and the afterlife was somewhat limited because of his living in the Old Testament period. While “our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” as Paul says (Ephesians 6:12), David’s was. He saw his enemies as foes to be dealt with decisively in this life. This desire arose, not so much out of a personal grudge David held, but because of his passion for God’s judgment to be carried out and his righteous cause to be upheld.
Can Christians read such psalms devotionally today? It may be helpful for us to view our enemy today, not as one defined in flesh and blood terms, but as the ultimate enemy—Satan. We know that his doom has been sealed by means of Jesus’ death and resurrection, yet, if we are serious about serving Jesus in this world, we are going to be frustrated at the enemy’s attempts to thwart everything we try to do to advance the Lord’s work. For us, his final judgment cannot come soon enough.
This is not to minimize the presence of flesh and blood enemies who seek to counter and frustrate the committed Christian’s efforts. Any person who desires to be someone “after God’s own heart” will encounter opposition or resistance in the process (2 Timothy 3:12). Those who do must understand who the real enemy is. He is not of this world, because our kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36).
An Awareness of Grace
Without question grace is demonstrated most fully and completely in the New Testament and through the life and ministry of Jesus (John 1:14). But we do the Old Testament a great disservice if we limit grace’s presence to the New Testament. David could have sung “Amazing Grace” with as much fervor as any Christian!
The clearest evidence of grace at work in David’s life is in Psalm 51, written, as noted previously, as an expression of David’s repentance after his illicit relationship with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. Consider also these statements of David in Psalm 18:21-24:
For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I am not guilty of turning from my God. All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees. I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin. The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
One wonders how David could make claims such as these in view of what we know about his “turning.” Some maintain this Psalm was written “pre-Bathsheba.” Even so, the words still smack of self-righteousness and call to mind the tone of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, who lauded his own litany of good works while “praying” over a nearby tax collector with contempt (Luke 18:9-14).
Clearly the Bible does not try to hide David’s sin (see, for example, 1 Kings 15:5). Nor would David want his sin to be hidden, for he would not have wanted the record of his experience of God’s forgiveness hidden. The words of Psalm 18 may be viewed as the words of a forgiven sinner, grateful that the course of his life, while not sinless, had followed a path marked primarily by a “pure heart” and a “steadfast spirit” (Psalm 51:10). Perhaps David’s confidence may be likened to Paul’s assurance of having “kept the faith” and his anticipation of receiving the “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:7, 8). Both of these men experienced the wonders of forgiveness for despicable actions (the taking of human life) and rejoiced in the “blessedness” of finding favor with God (Psalm 32:1, 2; Romans 4:6-8).
A “Heart” Look at Ourselves
It’s humbling to ponder the level of David’s intimacy with God as reflected in the Psalms. For all of this was written more than 1,000 years before the cross and the empty tomb. Think what David’s words of praise and adoration would have sounded like had he lived after those events!
Since we live in the light of those events:
Let our awareness of God acknowledge that he has revealed himself, not only in nature (Psalm 19:1-6) and his written Word (Psalm 19:7-14), but also in the living Word, his Son (John 1:1, 14).
Let our awareness of sin acknowledge that Jesus’ death and resurrection has dealt the death blow to our archenemy, Satan, and made us “more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).
Let our awareness of grace express thanksgiving, in word and in life, for the “indescribable gift” of Jesus (2 Corinthians 9:15).
And finally, let all of this demonstrate itself in lives lived “after God’s own heart.”
Dr. Douglas Redford is a professor at Cincinnati Christian University and freelance writer in Cincinnati, Ohio.
A Devotional Assignment
Do others think of you as a man or woman after God’s own heart? Why or why not?
Let’s consider how we can emulate David’s awareness of God, sin, and grace. This week, take time to create your own psalm. Write it out, or if your creativity is expressed in other ways, draw, paint, sculpt, compose music, give a speech, plant a garden, or build. Whatever talent you have, create your own version of a psalm.
Through this creation process do the following: acknowledge who God is, how he has revealed himself, and how he is moving in the world and in hearts; confess your sins; praise God for his amazing gift of grace.