How can we understand God’s testimony of King David as “a man after My own heart, who will do all My will” (Acts 13:22), when we see his failed family example?
God had a destiny for the shepherd boy chosen to be the king to bring expansion to the nation of Israel. The outcome of his life’s walk with God will culminate in his becoming the future millennial king of Israel (Ezekiel 37:24). How do we put into focus his family relationships?
There must have been times as a new father that David rejoiced in a newborn son or daughter. Like us, he no doubt delighted in their childhood. But as a father who had a least eight wives plus “more” and some 20 children plus “other sons,” he could not, as one man, emotionally supply what they all independently needed. Polygamy was not God’s intent. The lesson could have been learned from the patriarchs or the recent example of Saul and his harem. Sadly, culture played its hand with David who, following Saul’s precedent, took on the tragic chain of events leading to the breakup of his family.
Each generation seems bent on having to learn for themselves. The royal harem, with its palace intrigues, could only produce an unequal love from a father. Busy with expanding the kingdom, he may have had little time for children except his favorites, like Absalom. Regrettably, David’s inner character did not rub off on the son he loved most.
Events came to a head in adulthood when his eldest son Amnon raped his beautiful half-sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13). Her brother, Absalom, was outraged, and hatred for his half-brother turned to a burning desire for revenge. If at this point David had punished Amnon, the royal family might not have split asunder so disastrously. But David, though “very angry” with Amnon (2 Samuel 13:21) apparently did nothing. From the sparse biblical record, he seemed unable to discipline his grown children. Is it evidence of a lack of early child training? Proverbial wisdom loudly proclaims, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
Because David failed to act with Amnon, Absalom took justice into his own hands by ordering his servants to murder his half-brother. Absalom then fled to his grandfather, the King of Geshur, and remained in exile. After five years, he was restored to the palace court.
David appeared unaware or unable to prevent this son’s ambition that led to a successful palace coup against him. Here a much-loved son would not return that love to his father. (Is this a type of the Heavenly Father’s love for a sinful, uncaring world?) When David later gave orders before engaging Absalom’s rebel army he said, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” (2 Samuel 18:5). But David’s commanders knew a rebellion could not be successfully crushed if its leader wasn’t executed.
On learning of the death of Absalom, David uttered his heartbroken cry of mourning and grief, perhaps mixed with self-reproach for his tragic inability to influence as a father: “O my son Absalom—if only I had died in your place! O Absalom my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). This depth of emotion is expressed later with Christ weeping over Jerusalem and in Paul’s wish to be accursed for his brethren’s sake. And is it not also true of us? If only we had the power to effect a change of course of errant children or people!
Passion and the “stripes of men”
Lovingly, God forgives sin, as He did David’s. But there is a price to pay—the law of cause and effect. To wayward but repentant children, God converts the effect of our sin into needy purifying. As He dealt with David, so He’ll deal with us. He will forgive, but He may also use the rod (paddle). He will restore us to favor, yet require us to drink the bitterness our sin brings. We learn through David’s family tragedies that, when we choose an action, we also choose its consequences.
David’s bitter harvest started with Bathsheba’s newborn child. An innocent baby died for the sin of its parents and a threefold prophecy unfolded as the prophet Nathan revealed God’s judgment. Because David despised God’s commands by murder and adultery, he was told, “the sword shall not depart from your house… I will raise up adversity against you… I will take your wives… For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel… the child also who is born to you shall surely die” (2 Samuel 12:10-14).
God was not going to allow David’s pagan enemies to conclude His King could have an heir through murder and adultery. All was fulfilled. The “stripes of the children of men” (2 Samuel 7:14, King James Version) was God as Father disciplining His children for sin. God was chastening David, his chosen one, while David’s own children are yet to face future repentance. For David, paying the price unfolded in his inability as a father to lovingly guide a polygamous household.
Even in death, there is failure
The account of David’s dying doesn’t illustrate a loving devoted family hovering around his bedside. Instead, cold-hearted political forces were at work. Adonijah, David’s oldest son, is more concerned about being the next king than about his dying father. He initiates a crowning of himself supported by Joab, the military commander, and Abiathar, the priest. How could a son be so uncaring, so openly ambitious? Perhaps it’s not too unlike family squabbles today over inheritance before on has even died!
There is a poignant bracketed thought. His father had not rebuked him at anytime saying, “Why have you done so?” (1 Kings 1:6). Proverbial wisdom leaps to mind again with, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod [paddle] of correction will drive it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15). And “Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod [paddle], he will not die. You shall beat him with a rod [paddle], and deliver his soul from hell” (Proverbs 23:13-14).
It leaves us with sobering thoughts about the importance of early childhood training. “The rod and rebuke give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother” (Proverbs 29:15), and “Correct your son, and he will give you rest; yes, he will give delight to your soul” (verse 17).
Like many today, David didn’t seem to get much rest from his children during his lifetime. While David’s family life was unsuccessful, he will be the king of Israel in the Millennium—and He truly was a man after God’s own heart. Despite our best efforts, increased child and family knowledge, we may also be thwarted by culture, passion and “the stripes of men” (2 Samuel 7:14).
In the world to come, David will find rest and delight in all his children. And we, too, like him, will share in that marvelous parental delight. Until Christ returns, may we learn the lessons taught through the lives of King David and others to nurture our own healthy family relationships.