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Everyone who knows the Bible knows that King David was a great man.

And yet everyone familiar with the Bible will also recognize that David did a lot of not-so-great things. Of course, there was the sin with Bathsheba, the murder of her husband Uriah, and the subsequent cover-up. That was not exactly delighting in the law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2). But there was also the ill-advised census motivated by David's pride, not to mention a series of lessons in how not to manage your household well. For being a man after God's own heart (Acts 13:22), David managed to follow his own heart quite a bit.

So with all these flaws, what made David great? One could easily mention David's courage, his loyalty, his faith, his success as a leader, musician, and warrior. But he was great in other lesser-known ways as well. In particular, David was a great man because he was willing to overlook others' sin but unwilling to overlook his own.

David was a gracious man, bearing with the failings of others, eager to give his enemies a second chance. Twice, while his friends advised him to strike down their enemy, David spared Saul's life, (1 Samuel 24; 26). Though Saul opposed him at every turn, David did not rejoice at his death, but wept for the king and his son Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:17-27). David welcomed Abner when he defected from the phony king Ish-bosheth and mourned for him when distrusting Joab stuck him down (2 Sam. 3). David was unnecessarily kind to Mephiboseth (2 Sam. 9) and uncommonly patient with Shimei's spiteful cursing. Later David would pardon those who rebelled against him during Absalom's insurrection (2 Sam. 19:16-23). Time after time David showed himself to be unlike the sons of Zeruiah who lived to hold grudges and settle scores. David knew how to forgive. More than anyone prior to Jesus, David loved his enemies. Like no other Old Testament king, David was willing to welcome rebels back to the fold and overlook the sins of those who had opposed him.

But amazingly, David's kind-hearted attitude toward his enemies did not translate into a soft attitude toward his own sins. Usually, people who are soft with others are soft with themselves, and those hardest on themselves are even harder on others. But David was different. He was gracious with others and honest with himself. I believe David's greatness was simply this: for as much as he sinned he never failed to own up to his sin. I can't find a single instance where David was rightly rebuked for his failings where he then failed to heed the rebuke. When Nathan confronts David for his adultery and murder, David, after he sees what Nathan is up to, quickly laments, "I have sinned against the Lord" (2 Sam. 12:13). When Joab sends the woman of Tekoa to change David's mind about Absalom, he listens. When Joab rebukes David for loving his treacherous son more than his loyal servants, David does what Joab tells him to do (2 Sam. 19:1-8). Joab was often wrong in his advice to David, but when he was right David saw it and changed course. Likewise, after his foolish census, David's heart struck him and he confessed, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done" (2 Sam. 24:10).

David knew how to forgive, and he knew how to repent too. He never blamed others for his mistakes. He did not make excuses based on family history, peer pressure, or the demands of leadership. He did not use passive language, referring to his sin as a dysfunction or a growth edge. He did not lament over his sins simply because of the negative effects they could have over his kingdom and his relationships. He saw his transgressions primarily in their vertical dimension, as an offense against almighty God (Psalm 51:4). He never ran from the light when it exposed his darkness. Instead, he squinted hard, admitted his iniquity and worked to make things right. When we consider how rare it is in our day for athletes, movie stars, and politicians to candidly and clearly take responsibility for their public sins, we should be all the more amazed that the king of Israel, arguably the most famous man in the history of God's old covenant people, was humble enough to listen to the chastisement of those who were beneath him and change accordingly.

David was a man after God's own heart because he hated sin but loved to forgive it. What better example of God could there be? God doesn't just welcome his enemies in, he dies in their stead (Rom. 5:6-11). He is always eager to show mercy, always willing to give traitors a second chance. And yet, God is not soft on sin. He exposes it and calls on us to exterminate it (John 16:8-11; Col. 3:5). But of course, God, unlike David, is never guilty of his own sin. God showed his condescension not by humbling himself before a needed rebuke, but by humbling himself to take on human flesh and take up a cross (Phil. 2:5-8). David was great, but not nearly as much as great David's greater Son.

This article also appears in the January issue of Tabletalk.

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23 thoughts on “What Made David Great”

  1. JOhn says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I so often need to be reminded not to beat myself up after sinning but to confess, repent, and keep going forward.

  2. Tom Cabral says:

    There is so much wisdom needed to be this type of person,”hating sin, but loving to forgive it”. Only when we look into the glory of God’s word on a consistent basis can we see a benevolent God who always does what is right. We all need to pray that we become people who have this attitude.

  3. Rose says:

    I’m not seeing where the passages referenced indicate that David was a man after God’s own heart “because he hated sin but loved to forgive it.” Doesn’t 1 Sam. 13 suggest that it was because “he will do all my will”? Of course, part of doing God’s will is hating sin and forgiving it, so the point stands. I love the imagery in Psalm 85 of truth and mercy kissing. In fact, I love singing all the Psalms, which train my emotions after God’s own heart. It’s a lot easier for me to see how God dwells in the praise of his people when they are singing Scripture. “For thou above thy name adored has magnified thy faithful word.”

  4. Wayne Sage says:

    Great post! It answers a question I have had for years.

  5. Thanks Pastor!

    I admire the qualities you highlight in David’s life. I love how passionate he was in all his pursuits. The honesty of his heart and the combination of bravery and manhood that didn’t prevent him from being vulnerable in the struggles of his soul. His manhood is unquestioned and thus he is free to express his love and longing for God without shame. There is however a passage that puzzles me about him: 1 Kings 2:5-9. How does it fit in David´s character as you describe him here? Why choose these as his last words to Solomon before he died (1 Kings 2:10)

  6. Bill says:

    I just finished reading from Joshua through 2 Kings over the past few weeks. I was reminded of a lot of these things and puzzled over many more. We tend to look for goodness in the characters of the Old Testament, but we rarely find it when we would like. We do however find faithfulness – and that is something quite different.

    There are still some unanswered threads that puzzle me about David. Indeed, he forgave Shimei yet commissioned Solomon to take revenge upon him when he died. This is strange – why would he do that? And Joab and his brothers are equally hard to judge. Who was acting wrongly after Absalom’s death: David for his mourning or Joab for his rebuke of David?

    There are many clearly good things about David and many clearly bad, but I find many more things that just make me scratch my head and ask, “What is that all about?!”

  7. David was a man of true humility. This is why he was a man after God’s heart and why he exhibited the traits you point out. We see this also in another great scene:

    “Then King David went in and sat before the LORD, and he said: “Who am I, LORD God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, LORD God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men. “What more can David say to you for honoring your servant? For you know your servant, LORD. (I Chronicles 17:16-19).

    Just before this, God reminded David, “I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel.”

    I must remember that He took each of His redeemed “from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14).

    We see this in the apostle Paul when he questioned the Corinthians, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (I Corinthians 3:5-7). Don’t boast in us– we’re just the field hands.

    “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.” (Psalm 53:16-17)

    “I will bless those who have humble and contrite hearts, who tremble at my word. (Isaiah 66:2)

    “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (I Peter 5:5)

  8. John Thomson says:

    Good stimulating blog.

    Re ‘sons of Zeruiah’thhey seemed to be too ruthless for David’s taste. Yet he was so indebted to them that he felt unable to personally deal with them… a weakness all to common. The next generation is left to deal with matters that leaders of the previous for one reason or another find themselves too weak or compromised to deal with.

    Another example of David’s ‘man after the Lord’s own heart’ is his desire to build a permament house for God to dwell in’. The Kingdom was won and the battle tent of the Lord now could be replaced by a proper house that God may live in glory among his people.

    David was not allowed to build it. He didn’t take the huff, instead he did all he could to facilitate its building by another. he happily played second fiddle to Solomon. Another mark of his humility. How willing are modern leaders to accept that the big project is not to be theirs yet willingly work in the background knowing kudos will go to another.

  9. Bev says:

    Pastor DeYoung,
    I would like to humbly submit a thought. When looking at David and seeing his overlooking of sins it often appears that it was to his detriment. Example: Overlooking the sins of his children was to their harm and the harm of his kingdom.

    David often spoke against his enemies in the psalms.

    I honestly do not see the over-arching theme of overlooking sins as a virtue that marked David’s life. Nor do I see vengeance as his mode of action either.

    The lesson on dealing with offense I have taken away from David’s life is that when he was wronged on the personal level for the most part bowed to his Lord to right the wrongs, judge justly etc… Rom 12. That is what he cried out for in the psalms.

  10. Fawn Chubbuck says:

    This is such an encouragment to me today. I tend to be encouraged by others failures so seeing David fall and seeing his constant forgivness to those who are against him is a good example. The Lord is kind to have these examples to show how He can work in our lives. My prayer would be to see Christs perfect example for us and strive to be conformed to Hi likeness, and to look forward to the day that we will be perfect with Him in heaven!

  11. David says:

    Dear Kevin,

    Can I get your permission to translate this blog into Chinese with link to your article here? Please let me know. It was a pleasure to meet you last year at Desiring God’s national conference. My wife and I greeted you at the hotel door when you were leaving.

    In Him,

  12. Joy Acaso says:

    Praise God for using you to speak His truth…

  13. Etim George says:

    I always love topics on this man. There is so much about him that would make a great difference in our world today. There is this side of David that interest me the most. It was his fear of the lord. His respect for the anointing. He would not harm soul because he respected the anointing on soul. He would not even as much as speak an evil word about soul or to soul. This comes from his love for God and that which is of God. This is an example to believers today. The greatest commandment Our lord Jesus gave to us is “to love the lord with all their heart and with all thy strength and with all their might”. If we love God thus, we will love all that is of God, that is even the sinful ones for it is for these that Jesus died.
    Davids greatness was derived from the fact that he loved God and
    God was ever ready to make light even his grieve offenses and turn every thing to his favor for it is written “all things work for good to them that love God”.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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