Rethinking “A Man after God’s own Heart”

“A man after my own heart” is a very common expression in our culture today, and its meaning is well established: “a kindred spirit – someone who you are in good agreement with.” However, this expression did not originate from man but from the word of God. It was in the 1600’s when men became familiar with this statement in the English bible that became available to all, the King James Version. Soon the statement made its way into extrabiblical communication and remains that way today. I don’t think there is anything wrong with using the expression as it is culturally understood, but it is critical that we mentally separate its cultural interpretation from its biblical meaning, which is vastly different.

The statement is used twice in the scriptures, both in reference to the same person. 1 Samuel 13:14 and Acts 13:22 both record the prophet Samuel saying of David that he is a man after God’s heart. Let’s yield to the context carefully before forming an opinion on the statement’s meaning. These words are spoken when Samuel approached King Saul over the wickedness committed by him in making his own sacrifice to God, which was not according to the Law of Moses. Let’s read the passage:

“And Samuel said to Saul, ‘You have done foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which He commanded you. For now the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.’”

The word “after” in “a man after His own heart”, is the Hebrew preposition Type K, which is translated into English: “according to”. It is not the same word (in either Hebrew or Greek) that would be used to denote a going after or seeking after. So, from a definition standpoint, the statement does not refer to David seeking after the heart of God in devotion, but rather that David was to be appointed king as a matter of choice from God’s own heart. Altogether, it may be rendered this way: “The LORD has sought for Himself a man according to His own heart”. Although the most common opinion of this statement is that David was seeking to capture the very heart of God’s affections, this does not fit the context, nor the definition of the word used by the Holy Spirit. Though it may seem to be the most poetic interpretation, it is still inconsistent with what Samuel is communicating to King Saul. This does not mean that David didn’t have a passion for the affections of God, for in this we can be positive that David did; other contexts of scripture, such as many Psalms, make this evident. However, the context of those scriptures does not supersede the context of Samuel’s words, thus the statement, “a man after His own heart” is not applicable to the sentiment of David’s passion and zeal.

Let’s take a moment to consider the early history of how Israel began to be ruled by a human king. Before the era of the kings, God ruled over the people, leading them through judges. The people were instructed in the will of God by the priests and God’s will was enforced by the elders of Israel. However, when Samuel’s sons turned out to be terrible judges, the elders of Israel wanted a king to lead them instead. God selected for them Saul, the son of Kish. Kish was a wealthy and powerful man in Israel, and as for his son, Saul, he was “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people.” (1 Samuel 9:2). Saul had it all: wealth, power, and an appearance that set him apart from all other Israelites. Saul was precisely what Israel, or any nation for that matter, would find appealing in a king. Although God selected Saul for them, he was the perfect match for the heart of the people, not God’s. In fact, Samuel did not declare that Saul was what God wanted for the people, but that Saul was only what the people sought in their hearts: “Now therefore, here is the king whom you have chosen and whom you have desired. And take note, the LORD has set a king over you.” (1 Samuel 12:13). Hopefully, the people learned a lesson from God in the reign of Saul, “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7). And it was David’s heart that God was interested in. A heart that would do God’s good pleasure is the meaning and message of the biblical expression “a man after [according to] God’s own heart.” Saul was a king in accordance with the mind and will of the people, but David was a king in accordance with the mind and will of God. David had made himself like his God and lived by his trust in the power of God. Being a young shepherd, he certainly did not resemble a king, but he was God’s choice because of the likeness of David’s heart to His own.

To recap in summary, Samuel’s meaning is this: Saul was a man according to the will of the people, and this turned out to be a disaster; David was a man according to the will of God, and this brought Israel extraordinary success and led them into the only “Golden Age” of the kingdom.

Article by Tanner Campbell.