I have preached many sermons and presented hundreds of lectures on the life and leadership of King David. I am always impressed with the misconceptions that reveal themselves in question-and-answer sessions. Following such a lecture at a major Christian university, a student prefaced his question with, “I know King David was a great Christian leader but . . .”
“Wait,” I said. “Before you ask your question, let’s deal with that part. David was definitely not a great Christian leader. He was not a Christian at all. He lived a thousand years before Jesus. It’s very difficult to be a Christian a millennium before Christ.”
Judging biblical figures by modern rules
I know the boy meant well. I reckon he was substituting the word Christian for the proper word biblical. Knowing that, I suppose I might have let it pass, but I just could not. The distinction is no small matter. Obviously, David was Jewish, not Christian, but that is not the greater point. Superimposing our contemporaneity on the denizens of the past is chronocentric revisionism that borders on arrogance.2 It is not possible to make ancient dancers move to modern music. It dehumanizes them to pluck them from the historical and moral context of their times. Judging historical and, for that matter, biblical figures by squeezing them into our modern world tempts us to be too hard on them and too pleased with ourselves. Furthermore, it is dismissive of the age in which they lived, depriving us of its lessons and insights. The Bronze Age can hardly learn from us.
The question is, can we learn from the past and its more prominent citizens? Must we transform David into a sterilized twenty-first-century super-Christian before we can recognize his greatness? When I was working on the manuscript for David the Great, I made a trip to Israel. With the manuscript stacked neatly to one side, I was attempting some edits at an outdoor picnic table in Tiberias when an Israeli woman asked what the book was about.
“King David,” I answered, expecting a positive or at least interested response.
Instead, she stepped back and said, “Why in the world would you write about that bloody man?”
Her analysis of David as a “bloody man” was not so very wrong. What was wrong was that she was judging the blood on David’s hands from her own perspective as a twenty-first-century Israeli. David was a Bronze Age warlord. He was a man of violence who lived and led in an unimaginably violent era. War and conquests were the rule, not the exception. David was also a polygamist on a fairly impressive scale with multiple concubines as well as wives. David beheaded the first man he ever killed and sometime later circumcised the dead bodies of hundreds of Philistines to pay a bizarre bride-price. David was a bloody man in more ways than one. She was right about that. What was wrong was that she, as a twenty-first-century Israeli, was condemning David retroactively through the values filter of her age rather than his.
Fair analysis and true DNA
To dismiss the great leaders of the past, biblical or historical, because they did not share all our values is just plain too easy. We must, instead, undertake the rigorous task of sorting through their lives in the light of their historical and biblical context. To expect that an ancient warrior chieftain ought to have somehow abided by the modern Israeli Defense Forces’ rules of engagement is patently absurd. To force the Bible onto the procrustean bed of our contemporary and oh-so-American religion is to excuse ourselves from the demanding task of deeper biblical thought and analysis. One preacher recently suggested that contemporary Christians should just cut the reins that keep us “hitched” to the tired and presumably irrelevant Old Testament wagon.
I will not pretend to know all that this brother meant when he proposed such a thing, but on the surface, it is biblically dangerous and intellectually indefensible. For one huge thing, if we lose sight of our deep Jewish roots, the plant above ground may well produce the bitter fruit of anti-Semitism. To lose the true DNA of our faith would be tragic.
By the way, that is a mistake the Old Testament itself avoided at no small cost. Rahab’s sordid past was hardly crucial to the story of King David, and leaving it out would have made David’s DNA seem a lot tidier. Why not just call her an innkeeper? Or leave her out? The story of Ruth could have been told without making a big deal of the fact that she was a Gentile. Among the five female ancestors of David between the conquest of Jericho and his birth, two were Gentiles, one of whom was a former prostitute. The Old Testament, had it indulged in such “unhitching,” would have simply cut the ties between such splotchy DNA and David and, through him, the Messiah. Instead, it included the stories because history and truth are important.
The truth of history
Furthermore, history should not be sanitized. Neither should Scripture. David’s sin with Bathsheba must be dealt with, as should his far more destructive sin, the massively consequential census. The Bible includes such excruciating stories for many reasons, and one of those is reality. David was not perfect. Neither was he a monster. As we study the Scripture, we must steer the barge between the rocks of two equal and opposite errors. One of those errors is to clean it all up, but in so doing, we make gritty biblical and historical reality into frail romantic myth.
The other error is to let the ugly stuff, the stuff we don’t like, invalidate all the rest. We cannot just throw out the Old Testament because it’s complicated and, in places, riddled with dreadful sin and shocking violence. The impulse to just “start with Jesus” is absurd. Without the Old Testament, including such decidedly mixed vessels as David, Abraham, Jacob, Judah, and many, many others, there is no way to fully understand the redemptive story of Jesus. Without David, for example, how can we understand the significance of Bethlehem—or why the New Testament masses called Jesus the Son of David, or why, as Jesus died on the cross, He quoted a psalm of David?
We need the Bible. All of it. We also need all of history. We need the complications, the contradictions, and the inconsistencies. David’s adultery and murderous conspiracy directly cost one man’s life and indirectly the life of David’s baby. Yet none of that obliterates the Bible’s own analysis of David. He was a “man after God’s heart.” That is a bramble bush of a conundrum. Like the Bible, history is full of inconvenient thorns that prick us but do not alter the greater truth. The awkward fact of Sally Hemings3 does not invalidate the genius of Thomas Jefferson. Neither does Bathsheba make King David other than what he was: a man after God’s heart. Shall we erase David from the Bible because of his sins? Certainly not. Neither should we make him into a perfect paragon of virtue.
We need not fudge the truth of history. John Wesley had a bad marriage. Martin Luther wrote terrible things about the Jewish people. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. History is made by people who lived when they lived then, thought as they thought then, and sinned as they sinned then.
On the other hand
David was a mixed vessel, to be sure. There are people who know the phrase David and Bathsheba and do not even know their story is in the Bible. David’s affair with the wife of one of his most trusted and loyal generals, the pregnancy that resulted, and the plot to dispose of her husband are grievous sins. His most destructive sin is less known. In the grip of ego and hubris, David commissioned a census, an action forbidden to Israel. As a result, a horrible plague was unleashed that took the lives of some 70,000 of David’s people. Furthermore, though not precisely a sin, David was not a good father. Despite all the things he did well, family was one thing he did poorly and paid a serious price for.
However, David is still a multifaceted genius in multiple genres that are seemingly mutually exclusive. He was a master military strategist the true founder of his nation—Saul notwithstanding—and the founder of Jerusalem. He was an organizational master who, just before his death, restructured the entire Israeli governmental bureaucracy. He did the same for the religious bureaucracy. He conducted the greatest capital campaign in the Bible and perhaps in all of history. He was a poet whose works have endured the test of time. Even after three millennia, the psalms are still a beloved comfort to millions in two major religions. He was also a musician—a child prodigy, in fact.
On the one hand, the story of David is a cautionary tale. Both of his major moral lapses happened at the peak of his career. David handled lonely, unfair opposition and desperate adversity with patience and admirable faith.
On the other hand, there is much about David to be admired, including his amazing leadership skills, deep faith, trust in God, and his greatest virtue—loyalty. The man after God’s own heart was a complex and deeply conflicted man. David was like Longfellow’s girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When he was good, he was very good; when he was bad, he was horrid.
Perhaps Michelangelo’s statue of David should be hauled down. Should we memorialize such a deeply flawed man as David, let alone call him David the Great? Both Samuel the prophet and, one thousand years later, the apostle Paul called King David a “man after God’s heart.” In fact, Paul says God testified this of David.
What shall we say to all this? First, as pastors, we need some statues to flawed heroes. If we blot out the names of all the failed and fallen in the Bible and remove our monuments to history’s all-too-human heroes, we may become a self-destructive people who come to believe that we ourselves should be hauled down, blotted out, and erased from memory. And that is graceless and hopeless.
Second, and more important, is the story beyond David’s. The story of David is a story about who God is. That God can forgive and use such a person as David gives us hope. We dare not use the failings of biblical and historical heroes to excuse our sins. Yet if we can face their sins honestly and still see the redemptive hand of God upon them, it inspires hope that God can forgive, heal, and use even the likes of us.
1 This article is based on the author’s book, David the Great: Deconstructing the Man After God’s Own Heart (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2018).
2 Chronocentrism is the assumption that certain time periods (typically the present) are better, more important, or a more significant frame of reference than other time periods, either past or future.
3 Sally Hemings was an enslaved woman owned by President Thomas Jefferson, who may have had children born to him.