“How can God describe David as a man ‘after my own heart’ (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22) when he did all of those wicked things that are recorded in the Bible about him?”
That David’s life was considerably flawed, as we view the matter from the lofty mountains of New Testament morality, admits of no doubt. But there are several issues that must be taken into consideration in assessing his life in a balanced way.
(1) David’s life must be viewed, first of all, in its historical context. He lived in that “moonlight” period of the Mosaic dispensation. Those were rugged times, relatively primitive, especially compared to the greater revelation of the era of Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, unfair to judge him by the exalted standard of New Testament ethics.
(2) The biblical record does not attempt to veneer his blunders. It honestly and openly throws the floodlight upon both his triumphs and his tragedies. This impartiality is clear evidence of the inspiration of the sacred Scriptures.
(3) David had periods of egregious weakness (e.g., his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah). He was brutal at times – God forbade him to build the temple because of his violence. Certainly he was less than ideal as a father.
But one thing is certain – he had a soul that could be touched with truth. He was unafraid to admit his transgressions. He broke his own heart by his lapses of spirituality. One only has to read his psalms of penitence (e.g., Psa. 32; 51) to sample the tenderness that adorned his spirit.
It was not so much, then, the nature of his sins (grievous as they were) that is significant; rather, it was what he did about those blemishes when confronted with the crude reality of them (cf. 2 Sam. 12:13ff).
(4) David’s life is not to be judged exclusively in terms of its valleys of failure, but rather the whole landscape must be surveyed. Whatever may be said of some of his awful deeds, it is acknowledged by most that his deportment was one of progress. Even Thomas Carlyle, a bitter critic of organized Christianity, described David’s life in complimentary terms. Of the shepherd king’s psalms, Carlyle wrote:
“I consider [these] to be the truest emblem ever given us of a man’s moral progress and warfare here below. All earnest souls will ever discern in it [the book of Psalms] the faithful struggle of an earnest human soul towards what is good and best. Struggle often baffled – sore baffled – driven as into entire wreck; yet a struggle never ended, ever with tears, repentance, true unconquerable purpose begun anew” (“Heroes and Hero-Worship,” p. 72; as quoted in McClintock & Strong, Cyclopedia. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968, II, p. 699)
In considering the matter of David’s legacy, it might be well for those critics, who negatively assess the great king’s character – 3,000 years removed from the events – to reflect upon how the Hebrews viewed the history of David. The common expressions “city of David,” “seed of David,” “throne of David,” and “house of David,” are testimonies to the stature of the man – in spite of his mistakes. The fact that Jesus acknowledged himself as the “son of David” is, in itself, a commentary on the greater status of the celebrated king (cf. Mt. 22:42ff; cf. 12:23; 21:9,15).
In view, then, of these various aspects of the biblical narrative, it is not difficult to see how David might be judged overall as a great religious leader.