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David, A Great King, Yet With a Critical Flaw. What is the Lesson for us Today?

January 31, 2012

Of all the great Patriarchs of the Old Testament, David is among the greatest. Warrior and King, composer and conqueror, unifier and organizer, a man after God’s own heart. He united not only the 12, often fractured Tribes of Israel, but, as a kind if priest-king, stitched together the religious faith of Israel with its governance. King among them, he also collected and disseminated the great prayer-book of Israel, the Book of Psalms, composing many of them himself. So great was David, that among the most well known titles of Jesus would be, “Son of David.”

And yet, like almost all the great figures of the Bible, David was a man who struggled and was flawed. His demons would lead him even to murder as he amassed power and wives. And though he brought unity and governance to 12 contentious tribes, his own family was in a ruinous condition: afflicted by a murderous internecine conflict which had David for its much of its sinful source, and which he seemed powerless to stop.

In the end his family intrigues would cause the delicate union of the Israel he had woven, to come unraveled. And in David’s flaws are important lessons for our times as well.

Let’s recall a few details of King David’s life and domestic difficulties and see where things unravel.

David was the youngest son of Jesse, of whom God said, I have provided a king for myself among [Jesse’s] sons (1 Sam 16:1).  Of David it is clear that he was chosen especially by God, for the Lord instructed Samuel to look for him saying, Do not consider his appearance or his height, ….The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart ( 1 Sam 16:7).

Yes, there was something about David’s heart that God loved. Whatever his later flaws, David had a heart for God, and God a heart for David. Upon Samuel’s anointing of David, the Scripture says: And from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power. ( 1 Sam 16:13)

Unifier – Upon the death of Saul,  Ten Tribes from Israel in the north divided against Judah in the South, and war ensued. But through military action, and other more diplomatic efforts, David was successful in reuniting the Kingdom in 1000 BC. He drove out the Hittites to establish Jerusalem as the Capital. He also wove the kingship together with Israel’s faith in order to establish deeper ties among the Israelites. Thus Jerusalem also became the place of the Temple of God, and the Ark. It was during this time that David both collected, and probably wrote, a good number of the Psalms.

Yes here was the great man of whom God said I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will (Acts 13:22; 1 Sam 13:14). But God only seldom (such as with Mary) uses sinless humanity. We carry the treasure of God’s love in earthen vessels (cf 2 Cor 4:7). David’s strength was admixed with weakness and flaws, flaws which cascaded down through the lives of others, and gravely affected the Kingdom he was privileged to set forth.

Trouble begins with the fact that David had eight wives whose names we know: Ahinoam, Abigail, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, and Eglah;  later Michal and Bathsheba. The Biblical text suggests he had other wives as well, upon settling in Jerusalem. From these David had 19 sons. Let the internecine intrigue and blood-letting begin.

Disclaimer – It is true that, as many will hasten to point out, that polygamy was common among the ancient patriarchs. Yes, it was. But that it was common does not shield from the fact that, as the Scriptures consistently show, Polygamy always brings terrible results: infighting, rivalries, and often murderous intrigue. I have written more in this problem here: Don’t Do Polygamy.

God in setting forth marriage in Genesis 1 & 2 prescribed one man for one woman in a stable and fruitful relationship. God created for Adam, only Eve, and not also Jane and Sue and Mary and Ellen and Samantha. And God said that a man (singular) shall leaven his father and mother (singular) and cling to his wife (singular) the TWO (not three or more) of the them shall become one (Gen 2:24).

Diversions from this God-given model bring only sadness and even death. David’s many marriages and sons by different mothers, is no exception, and the flawed family structure will bring real devastation not only to David’s family, but to all Israel.

First Degree Murder – David, already with many wives and competing sons, deepens the trouble when he has Uriah the Hittite killed, and takes his wife Bathsheba. The remarkably wicked act of murder rooted in lust and fear, shows a deep flaw in King David for which he is repentant, writing Psalm 51, the Miserere. But Bathsheba’s inclusion into the royal family only adds to the intrigue in the family, and the royal court. For she later advances the cause of  her son, Solomon, against David’s older sons.

Rape – Even prior to that pot boiling over, tragedy had struck elsewhere in David’s family, among his sons. His eldest Son and likely heir, Amnon grew desirous of, and eventually raped his half sister Tamar daughter of David by his wife Maacah. “Blended families” have a higher degree of sexual abuse for the rather obvious reason that step-relations include less sexual reserve than full-blooded ones.

Weak Father – After the rape, according to Scripture, And when king David heard of these things he was exceedingly grieved: but he would not afflict the spirit of his son Amnon, for he loved him, because he was his firstborn (2 Sam 13:21). This was a mistaken understanding of love. For the love of a Father for his son must include discipline, and insistence on what is right. Amnon had seriously sinned and owed restitution. David remained quiet when he should have spoke and acted.

Resentful Son – Hence, due to David’s inaction, one of David’s other sons (and full brother of Tamar), Absalom, grew furious at what was done to his sister. He thus plotted, and eventually killed Amnon, and then fled to the Land of Geshur. David now had lost two sons and had a daughter who had been raped.

For indeed, though eventually pardoned by his father, King David, Absalom had grown bitter against David and raised an effective rebellion against him. In the war that ensued, Absalom and his rebellion were put down, and Absalom killed.

David seemed well aware of his role in Abasolom’s rebellion and demise. He had said earlier, when one of Absolom’s followers came cursing  him:  If he is cursing because the Lord said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who can ask, ‘Why do you do this?’” David then said to Abishai and all his officials, “My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today.” (2 Sam 16:10-12) Upon Absalom’s death David cried: O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you–O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 18:33).

Court and family intrigue continues right up to David’s death. The now oldest, and likely successor and son of David, Adonijah,  was ousted from succession by David’s wife Bathsheba who, working with Nathan,  promoted her son Solomon, while David lay feeble and largely forgetful. Claiming she had earlier secured a private vow from David regarding Solomon’s succession, she set loose a power struggle between Adonijah and Solomon. In the end Solomon prevailed over  Adonijah,  and, after David’s death Solomon had his half-brother (Adonijah) killed.

Like Father Like Son – Solomon, though a great king in his own right, inherited some of his father’s foibles. He ended with having 1000 wives and as Scripture says of him: King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women…As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. (1 Kings 11:4-6).

The End of the Kingdom – So unraveled did Solomon become, and so disconcerting were his family and foreign intrigues, that shortly after his death, during the reign of his polygamous and expansionist son, Rehoboam.  Israel again broke apart into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. They would never reunite.

How remarkable that King David, so highly regarded, not only by humanity, but by God himself, would have such deep flaws. And how remarkable too that, being as gifted as he was, David also brought such pain and sorrow to his family and, by extension to Israel.

What are the lessons for us? Let’s begin with the negative.

The first lesson is that allowing the family to decay and drift from God’s intended structure and form brings great harm. David’s polygamy, his unlawful and sinful acquisition of Bathsheba, his playing of favorites, and his refusal to correct and punish Amnon for the rape of Tamar, all contributed to serious and deadly consequences. And these deadly consequences expanded far beyond David’s own family, and rippled through all Israel leading ultimately to its break down and demise.

Some may argue that norms for marriage and family were less clear at this early stage of Israelite history, and that we ought not project later norms back on these times. I beg to differ. For Genesis 1 and 2 clearly set for the norms of Marriage as God intends: one man for one woman in a stable fruit-bearing relationship till death do them part. One man clinging to one woman, being fruitful and multiplying through their children. This is God’s plan as set forth in Genesis 2.

The first lesson for us is that our family struggles and modern departure from biblical norms regarding the family also have grave effects that extend beyond merely our own families. As divorce and remarriage, single parenthood, homosexual unions, and (coming soon) polygamy, proliferate in our culture, increasingly grave effects befall us as our children. There is often lack of proper discipline and supervision, and a lack of proper role models, and often gravely dysfunctional settings. As a result,  our whole society grows weaker and more dysfunctional.

As the soil of the family grows ever thinner, we cannot expect to find the taller growths. And when the family is not strong, neither is the community, Church or nation. Birthrates fall and test scores fall, abortion, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, single motherhood and divorce all rise.

Our children are in the balance, and we like David, seem to have little will or ability to change our ways. And though we see destruction, even death all around us, there seems little collective will to repent, live chastely and exemplify biblical marriage. In so doing we act not only sinfully, but also unjustly to our children, our community, our Church and nation.

And, as with ancient Israel, our future is tied to our decisions regarding our families. As our families go, so will the nation go. The Church will ultimately remain, but she is sorely weakened by our collective lack of resolve to restore our families.

This is lesson one.

Lesson twoDespite David’s committing of some pretty serious sins, to include premeditated murder; despite also his flaws and weakness, Scripture clearly attests God’s love for David. God’s himself says of that he is a man after My own heart (Acts 13:22; 1 Sam 13:14). Yes, God had a heart for David, a special place in His heart.

And to be fair, David also had a great heart for God. It is true David was a sinner, and in several ways a very serious sinner. But he knew that, and was repentant (cf: 2 Sam 16:10-12; Psalm 51; 2 Samuel 12:11ff, inter al). He was a great King, to be sure, but also a humble man. In his final words near the end of his life, he advised: He that ruleth over men, must be just, ruling in the fear of God (2 Samuel 23:3). And though David sinned, he had a reverential fear for God rooted in love. He was a man after God’s own heart.

And herein lies the crux of this second lesson: God loves sinners, God uses sinners and flawed men and women. God can write straight with crooked lines, and make a way out of no way. Perhaps God should not have to, but he seems more than willing to use us, even in our brokenness.

Are there consequences to sin? Yes. But does God withdraw his love? Never. Even for those who finally refuse his Kingdom and it values, somehow his love reaches even into Hell. For how else could the souls there live without his sustaining love.

We should never doubt God’s love for us, no matter how deep our flaws or serious our sins. God will never forsake us. He may allow us to experience the consequences of our sins, as he did with David, and seems to be doing with us now, but God never withdraws his love or fails to shepherd us rightly. Whatever our sins, we have but to seek his mercy, like David, and accept his love. We are men and women after God’s own heart.

Painting above: David Repents from Wiki Commons

Comments (38)

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  1. Caeli Francisco says:

    One word: Magnificent! Thank you for a powerful message. May God bless your golden words and give them wings to fly far and wide.

  2. bill wolner says:

    dear msgr. pope- bravo!! well done piece on david’s life and life lessons. is there a movement in the catholic church for intercessory prayer for the united states whether it be adoration or formation of 24/7 houses of prayer for the nation. it is great to hear of defense of the church by its leaders, but what about a call to intercessory prayer to “move the mountains”?

  3. Theresa says:

    Sometimes it looks like there is so much availability of resources to break up and ruin a happy family. A divorced couple leaves many unsettled; not only their children but grandchildren, friends and rest of the family. There is a new trend these days: for holidays or for special occasions former wife/husband, current wife/husband, etc. all get together as if everything is alright and young children are either left confused or so very formed to believe that this is the way of life. I think the younger generation has to be addressed to have strong family bonds and to instil this into their children.

  4. Gordie says:

    Father:

    Your words are a ray of light in the darkness.

    Gordie

  5. John says:

    So, my daughter Julia was asking me today why King David got in trouble with God because he held a census (as described in 2 Samuel 24)? Apparently his sin was so grave that God gave David a choice in what punishment he would receive. He chose pestilence, and 70,000 men died. Some tough love there! “If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!”- St. Teresa of Avila

  6. Dante says:

    I totally agree with that Genesis sets forth the form of marriage: 1 man and 1 woman. What I find strange is that is all the ensuing centuries when God sends prophets to speak all kind of words, warnings and advice they are never given a word about the need to cease polygamy. If it was such a horrible offense against God’s plan and intent for marriage, why does he remain silent about it when he speaks to Israel about all other kinds of things? This has long baffled me.

    • Yes, well in my other post that I linked to (Don’t do polygamy) I consider this point. And what I can only conclude is that God teaches in various ways. In this case it is more inductive rather than discursive. The possible reason for this is that polygamy was likely more rare among ordinary men who could not afford many wives. Hence only the wealthy patriarchs were generally involved in this. But your question is not wholly addressed by my remarks, only ameliorated.

      • Peter Wolczuk says:

        Also mentioned in Deuteronomy 17. In 17:14 the Israelites were given an opening to what they were to do once they took possession of their new home.
        In 17:17 it was stressed that a king was not to take many wives lest…

    • Aaron says:

      Apart from Jacob (who had two wives and two concubines), you really don’t see any examples of polygamy until David. My guess is that it was assumed that a man would only have one wife. If this is the case, it would most likely be an oral tradition that wasn’t included in the Law because it was an extrapolation, and passed down accordingly. Possibly similar to the Tradition concerning unnatural methods of regulating birth: we see the example of Onan, but other than that no explicit condemnation in Scripture. Then, you have the historical evidence that Jews and Christians both condemned unnatural regulation of births, which leads us to realize that such a teaching was considered part of the Law without being specifically mentioned in it.

  7. Ikedi says:

    Honestly, I’ve always had a difficult time accepting David as great due to the very serious crimes he committed later in life despite the faith he received. What the story of King David tells me is how a righteous man can delve into wickedness but still be restored by the mercy of the God. Also, the word “love” is nice but I don’t like it being only for the sake of stirring up soft emotions. God’s love demands justice and David was certainly severely but justly afflicted to make amends for his grievous crimes. If it wasn’t for God’s merciful intervention David could have easily condemned himself.

  8. Brad says:

    May God bless you, Monsignor!

    Oh, David. What the Lord saw in him and approved of, I am not foolish enough to discount. But of David’s flaws, I see lust as preeminent. One man can relate to another, so easily! The original lust was revealed by polygamy, which then simply opened the door to lust for the woman who was not one of his stable of wives, and then to murder. But having many wives was bad enough. The nations were not chosen, had no Law. Couldn’t Israel rise above the fray (rumblings of Matt 5:47)?

    So the sin metastasized in his family and exploded, in my opinion, in Solomon’s worship of Molech. Am I correct that we get our word “molest” from the name of this demon masquerading as a pagan god, upon whose altars the pagans would ritually rape and then slay their own children?

    I wonder if once David began to practice sin, he was still an ostensibly devout man. I’m thinking of some statistics I recently heard on the radio, I think either on Catholic Answers or maybe Women of Grace. The conspicuous faith of a father is crucial for children to grow up and not abandon the faith. If the father is devout, 80% of the children will be devout. If the mother is devout and the father is either lukewarm or (or!) hostile, 20% of the children will be devout. If both the parents are devout, 80% of the children will be devout. In that last statistic, the mother’s faith is apparently a net-zero gain! So we see the power of the everyday St. Joseph.

    King David, saint of the Old Testament, please forgive me for discussing your flaws so openly! Please pray for us! As you recall, this vale of tears is rough.

    • Yes, some good insights here. The role of the Father is more critical that we PC moderns like to admit.

    • Aaron says:

      “I wonder if once David began to practice sin, he was still an ostensibly devout man.”

      We all sin, and can be devout, but I know what you are saying. People often wonder why good people can resort to heinous sin. Why can that holy pastor cheat on his wife (as happened by me a few years ago)? How can that holy and devout priest steal from the parish bank account (just made that one up)? I think it all begins with little sins that we grow accustomed to, and comfortable with. As Mark Shea (whom I don’t quote or read very often) said once; “Sin makes you stupid.” I couldn’t agree more.

      With David, I see his acceptance of the political expediency of polygamy as the beginning of the clouding of his judgement. With a clouded judgement on what it meant to be a king (the whole Abigail and Bathsheba things seem more an example of “Its good to be the king!” than lust…but that is just me), he further disrupted God’s plan for marriage and the family so much so that he couldn’t really see what love truly is. That led to his mismanagement of his family.

  9. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    Lust is a gateway sin.

  10. Aaron says:

    Not to nitpick, Father, but according to Scripture, Michal was David’s first wife, given to him for his service to King Saul. Her ridicule of him as he danced in the procession of the Ark of the Covenant earned her the punishment of barrenness.

  11. David says:

    A ‘difficult’ text which I have never seen addressed (except in a careful self-consciously (non-Mormon) Christian advocacy of ‘polygyny’ (i.e., more than one living wedded wife at the same time)!), is 2 Samuel 12:8, where Nathan relates as the the word of JHWH, God saying in the first-person to David that He had given him many wives (Saul’s widows as wives, apparently) – and would have given him more, if David considered these too few!

    Monsignor, would you consider addressing it, sometime?

    A passage that seems to raise other questions, is 2 Corinthians 6:12-20, where St. Paul uses the language of ‘one body’ and ‘one flesh’ (quoting Genesis 2;24): what responsibilities does (or might) ‘becoming one flesh’ entail? It seems (inescapably) a sort of ‘de facto consummation of marriage’ – creating in fact the most intimate of relationships (with possibility of procreation). In some cases that would be a ‘de facto polygyny’ (though in his example in verse 15 it could also a ‘de facto polyandry (more than on husband)’!). Terrible! But if ‘committed’ as an act, what then in terms of consequent responsibilities? (Does this, then, in part, fall under considerations of divorce, grounds for annulment, etc., in St. Paul’s time and/or later?)

  12. David says:

    Msgr. Pope,

    Your teachings on the Word of God indicate that you are clearly His instrument. Another time that you have imparted great good for The Glory of God, His Son and Holy Ghost by His Truth in your human words. Thanks yet again, Father.

    Benedicat tibi Dominus et custodiat te
    Ostendat Dominus faciem suam tibi et misereatur tui
    Convertat Dominus vultum suum ad te et det tibi pacem

    The Lord bless thee, and keep thee.
    The Lord shew his face to thee, and have mercy on thee.
    The Lord turn his countenance to thee, and give thee peace.
    Numbers 6:24-26 DB

  13. thanks fr. pls am writing my project on david, a man after God's own heart. the theology of divine election...can u help me with any primary source says:

    thank u fr

  14. David says:

    A great article! It’s important to note that God punishes sin, no matter who you are. He is not a respecter of persons, and sin has consequences. Sure, we can repent, but we must still face the consequences of our decisions. As you mentioned, the consequences can extend beyond ourselves, children, families, tribe, country, generations, etc. And great point about how the dysfunctions of society are a result of sin.

    It’s up to God to determine how severe those consequences of our sins are. I imagine our sincere repentance (confessing our sins and returning back to God) may result in a lesser sentence.

    But David summed God’s grace up perfectly in the psalms: His mercy endureth forever (especially to a broken and contrite spirit).

  15. Grace Wilson says:

    Thank you so much for your message. It was enlightening and truthful that will set me and prayerfully anyone who reads it free to walk in the right path.

  16. Susan says:

    So much great information. I am working on a Bible Study Lesson, and this is tremendous help!!

    Thank you

  17. Dave says:

    Msgr Pope-
    Can you recommend a good biography of David?
    Thank you.

  18. David Morgan says:

    Excellent. I love how you mention all David and Solomon’s wives.

  19. Matthew says:

    You did okay until you started opposing God. Why would you fight what God established? You say a lot about plural marriage, yet, you ignore that God saw it as a positive thing. He gave David his wives, and would have given him more if he asked, but David took her. Gideon was chosen because he had many wives. God ordered one of his prophets to give a king TWO wives. Even the New Testament mentions plural marriage and Timothy and Titus were not willing to go as far as you! They restricted the marriage practice for Elders and Overseers – yet, when the subject was in hand, they did not ban it. There is even one passage in the NT that implies that it is perfectly fine! You would have to know the history of marriage to find it, but it’s there.

    NO, you did fine until you started attacking GOd’s decisions. It’s sad that with your mind you cannot refrain from second guessing God himself.

  20. The truth That came home to me after reading your post is that we cannot sin and it not effect others, including those we love and care for. Sinful behavior produces a domino effect.

    • Henry says:

      Dear Preston Gravely, Jr

      very true hence the words: we are all connected one way or the other.

  21. Henry says:

    Dear Msgr. Charles Pope,

    Thanks for these words, I was a soul searching for God’s words when I thought to myself what did great man in the bible do in times of trouble knowing that they too had flaws like lots of us…a thought came in my head and suggested to look king David… and this was the first link I clicked. This message is refreshing especially the lessons at the end.

    We do forget at times in the midst of our flaws that God has love but even better the scriptures tell us :GOD IS LOVE…. and at times that little voice in our hearts calling him when in times of need seems to be so so faint that we can’t hear ourselves even when we call for his help in our weakness.

    I sincerely will give a prayer tonight for all of you,those who have commented and those who will in future as well as those who just read.

    I pray you remember me in your prayers too and let the Lord who knows us all through and through have mercy on us all and shines his light above us…for it is written in God there is no darkness.

    Thank you all in advance.