November Reverend Reflections

Hello First Presbyterian Church,

Chances are probably pretty high that you have heard David described as “a man after God’s own heart.” It is a designation that comes from 1 Samuel 13:14 where Samuel informs the then-king Saul, “Your kingdom shall not continue. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” God was going to take the kingdom from Saul and give it instead to a man “after his own heart.” That man turned out, of course, to be David.

But what does it mean that David was “a man after God’s own heart?” How does David prove himself to be worthy of such a description? It certainly wasn’t that David always acted righteously. He was a passive father and his family was highly dysfunctional as a result. He was a warrior with blood on his hands, so much so that God would not allow him to build the temple in Jerusalem. He was even a murderer and a rapist. Just ask Uriah the Hittite. And yet, despite all these things, David retains the title of “a man after God’s own heart.” How can that be?

I was asking myself that very question one day while reading through 2 Samuel, when I stumbled upon a story in 2 Samuel 16 that made me think “this has something to do with it.” The story in 2 Samuel 16 is one of shame and defeat for David. His son Absalom had staged a coup against his own father and in 2 Samuel 16 David is fleeing for his life from his own son. It was a disgraceful and painful event for David on its own, but then along came Shimei. While David was fleeing from Jerusalem in sorrow, a man named Shimei began walking alongside David cursing and throwing stones at him. The text says that Shimei “cursed continually,” saying things like, “Get out, get out, you man of blood, you worthless man!” It was incredibly cruel treatment of a man who was already down. But it was David’s response to Shimei that caught my attention and made me think “this is why (at least partially) David is a man after God’s own heart.”

As you can imagine, the response to Shimei among David’s fellow travelers was pretty cold. In fact, a man named Abishai asked David, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and take off his head.” But David, surprisingly, did not grant Abishai the permission he sought to silence Shimei. Instead, David welcomed Shimei’s cursing because of the possibility that perhaps what Shimei said is what David needed to hear. Maybe Shimei is right. David told Abishai, “If Shimei is cursing because the Lord has said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who shall then say, ‘Why have you done so?’”

David, for all his many faults, was always ready to repent. He was always listening for God’s voice calling him into repentance. After his crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah, Nathan told him, “You are the man!” and David immediately confessed, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Perhaps Shimei too was cursing at God’s request. Who knows? Whether or not he was, David was ready to receive Shimei’s cursing as though he was speaking for God. He heard Shimei calling him to repentance. And so the story goes, “David and his men went on the road, while Shimei went along on the hillside opposite him and cursed as he went and threw stones at him and flung dust. And the king, and all the people who were with him, arrived weary at the Jordan.”

David’s penitent posture is part of what has earned him the title of “a man after God’s own heart” despite his multiple, serious failings. His failures did not define him, but his penitence did. This should be encouraging to every one of us. We are not measured by our failures or our successes. If that was the case we would always come up short. Instead, we are measured by the success of Christ on our behalf—a success that covers a multitude of sins. But will you be found in Christ when he returns? The calling of the Christian life is to abide in Christ, which requires penitence. A penitent heart will keep you from wandering from your savior, ignorant of your failures. A penitent heart will earn you the designation of a man or woman after God’s own heart.

All it takes is keeping your eyes and ears open for God calling you back to himself. A call to repentance can come in the most unexpected form—an off-handed comment that cuts you to the heart, a disturbed conscience that keeps you from sleeping, a pandemic or some other affliction that reveals your priorities, a talking donkey (see Numbers 22). The question is, will you be open to the possibility that it’s God’s voice you’re hearing? Will you welcome it as David welcomed the curses of Shimei? Let them have their effect and come back to God.

In order to begin cultivating a penitent heart, here is a prayer from one of the “David psalms” to memorize and start you on your way:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
See if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!”
(Psalm 139:23-24)

Grace and peace,
Jonathan +