A Sinner Like David

By Ira Hall

A prominent Christian leader is revealed to have sin issues that have brought scandal and discredit to what had been a large and seemingly successful ministry. Shock and disappointment ripple through the Christian community, and people who have admired the leader grasp for something to reassure and even soften the sting of sinful hypocrisy. That is when you hear it: “Well, David did some terrible things, but he was still ‘a man after God’s own heart.'”

When it comes to David, we have often almost mythologized him until he becomes larger than life. His early story and successes overshadow the sad years of his moral decline. Even though we have an orthodox theology of man, righteousness, and unmerited grace, we still treat David as possessing something unique that caused God to choose him. Then, having accepted that David’s heart had this special quality, we fill articles, sermons, and devotionals with our efforts to explain what was special about David’s heart, although it means we have to minimize the troubling track record of 2 Samuel. A careful consideration of Samuel’s clear text can help us better understand this single verse on which we have hung so much weight. 

When Israel demands a king in rejection of God (1 Sam. 8:7), God decides to give them what they want. When Saul is selected, Samuel makes clear that Saul is the king Israel wants.

“And to whom is all the desire of Israel turned, if not to you and your whole family line?”

(1 Samuel 9:20b)

Samuel declares in essence that Saul is the man that Israel’s heart is after. He is what they want. The text then goes on to describe a man who is not profoundly corrupt morally, but one who does not know, nor seeks to know or trust God. Saul’s failures seem small on the moral scale, especially compared to David’s. The foolish vows, incomplete obedience, and wrongly offered sacrifice are significant in that they show Saul’s lack of truly knowing God. We would say he did not have faith.

When Samuel announces God’s rejection of Saul as king, we find the key phrase we often quote.

“But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.”

(1 Samuel 13:14)

Here the writer now begins the contrast that will be central to the narrative of Samuel. Saul was the choice of Israel’s heart; David was the choice of God’s heart. This verse tells us nothing of the quality of David’s heart but instead simply tells us that David was God’s choice. 

God is always the central character of the Bible, and David’s history makes this clear.  Throughout his life, when David trusted the God that he knew, things went well. When he trusted himself, things went very poorly. There is no question that David had a tender heart toward God and knew Him. David had faith. He also possessed the same desperately wicked and deceitful heart that is common to man (Jer. 17:9). The choosing of David, just like all God’s choices, was about God, not the man. 

for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls

(Romans 9:11)

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.

(1 Corinthians 1:26-29)

Once we free David from the mythology, we return him to being a man who loved and knew God and trusted him; but over time, as he experienced power, he began to make poor choices. While not negating what God did through him, David brought anguish, division, and sorrow to himself and those around him.

With this Scriptural understanding in mind, we find great irony in trying to reach back to David to try to defend modern leaders who are caught in sin. Our natural human tendency is to want heroes that we can look up to; success stories that we can admire, be inspired by, and aspire to.  When we see a great man who has done great things for the Kingdom, whether it is slaying a giant or founding a successful and powerful ministry, we try to soften the reality of their shortcomings by calling on David as a flawed hero.

There is only one hero in the Bible, and he is Jesus the Christ. The entire Scripture is the story of the fallenness and hopelessness of man and the redemptive hope of the Redeemer. David is a cautionary tale of how a lack of trust and submission to God can derail a leader and cause great destruction to those he has been called to lead.

When leaders we admire and look up to are brought low by sin, we are reminded that sin is particularly destructive in a leader. This should also remind us that pride and power are corrosive on the human heart, and no one is impervious to it. With that in mind, let us consider some implications.

Our modern era has created communication tools that allow teachers to reach a wide audience.  The more gifted the presentation, the further the reach. Coupled with our human tendency for hero-worship, this reach has created a new category of celebrity ministers who enjoy wide name recognition, book sales, conferences, and a “following.” As pastors, we may simultaneously mourn and envy these big names, even finding ourselves in the fan base. We need not stop listening to a Tim Keller or burn all our R.C. Sproul books, yet we must begin by reaffirming the Biblical truth about the nature of the man’s heart and what it means to be a Biblical leader.  Clearly, teaching the Bible’s focus on Jesus as the only hero is vital for our people. We need to take our parishioners beyond the hero stories and teach the whole narrative, which reveals that only when a person puts their trust in God does success come and that success belongs to God, not to man.

We must emphasize that listening to a teacher or preacher is not knowing them and them knowing you. The message of God is delivered most effectively through incarnation rather than information. Paul himself, although known through his writings, had most of his impact on people that he had lived with for a time. His letters are not books to followers but rather relational reconnections with the various churches to whom he had ministered. The heart of the New Testament’s instructions about selecting leaders is deeply embedded in the idea that the life of the leader is known to those he leads.

Consistently and carefully reinforcing the personal aspect of discipleship and the dangers of Christian celebrity can help us address many heart issues: envy, pride, lust, and self-indulgence.  It can help remind our people (and ourselves) that the kingdom of God is not dependent on big talent, big budgets, and mad skills, but instead only on the work of the Holy Spirit. People who compare themselves unfavorably with the great teachers and apologists of the age can be reminded that the love of Christ is shared within the personal connection between believers and to non-believers. 

When a big name becomes a big scandal, instead of being shaken, we and our people can mourn the sin of a brother or sister but remain steadfast. When non-believers mock the fall of such a one, we can respond confidently that the sinfulness and fallenness they are seeing do not negate the truth of the message but rather forcefully prove the message of the only one who is righteous. All any of us can do is accept his gift to us.

Let us no longer try to use David to excuse and explain a great man’s sin, but instead, remember who is the Hero of our story and every story.