The modern books of 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel were originally just one book, Samuel, but the first Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures (called the Septuagint) divided it into the books of 1&2 Samuel that modern-day Christians see in their Bibles. (One site I read said that the reason it was divided was that the scrolls being used at the time weren’t big enough to accommodate the entire book of Samuel, so it was purely a logistical thing.)
Overall, the book of Samuel is focused on King David, where:
- 1 Samuel is focused on the lead up to David’s kingship, with Saul becoming king and then David going on the run when Saul begins to persecute him, and
- 2 Samuel (this book) focusing on David as king
When modern-day Christians think of King David we often think of the stories from his youth (such as his defeat of Goliath) that are captured in 1 Samuel, or we think of the phrase a man after God’s own heart. And this is valid: that phrase “a man after God’s own heart” comes from the Scriptures. (See 1 Samuel 13:14, where Samuel tells Saul that he’ll be replaced as king by a man after God’s own heart, as well as Acts 13:22 where Paul quotes the same passage.) In addition to these quotes we have quite a number of the Psalms that were written by David throughout his life; it seems that David was always seeking his God, whether he was in trouble or in good times.
The Bible is also quite clear, however, that David had his flaws, and makes no attempt to hide them from us. When the modern Christian thinks of David’s flaws we usually think of his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah. As I went through 2 Samuel, however, I was struck by how much of the book is driven by David’s flaws! Yes, there was the incident with Bathsheba—and David’s repentance after that act is another good example of why he’s a man after God’s own heart—but he was also a terrible father, and the effects of that ring through much of the book.
When I say terrible father, I’m referring to things like:
- One of David’s sons, Amnon, rapes one of David’s daughters, Tamar, but David doesn’t do anything about it
- Another of David’s sons, Absalom, kills Amnon in revenge for Tamar, but David doesn’t do anything about that, either
- Absalom later decides to rebel against his father and set himself up as king, and I can’t help but think that he feels entitled to do it because he knows his father won’t properly put down the rebellion
- If that is what Absalom thinks he’s right, because David doesn’t. David’s men eventually defeat Absalom’s men, and Joab (the commander of David’s army, off and on) puts Absalom to death, but David is more worried about mourning his son than being grateful to his men for preserving his kingdom
Speaking of Joab, this is another theme that keeps recurring throughout 2 Samuel: David does not like Joab, and would really like to replace him as commander of the army, but Joab is so good as commander of the army that David feels that he can’t do it. To me, this also feels like a sign of weakness: if he really should be getting rid of Joab—and it’s true that Joab flat-out disobeys David’s orders on multiple occasions—but is afraid to do it because Joab is so effective, then isn’t this lack of faith on David’s part? If Joab needed to be replaced, shouldn’t David have done it and trusted in the LORD? Or was there no need to replace Joab, and David simply had some weird bad blood with him that he should have gotten over?
My point in all of this is not to disagree with the notion that David is a man after God’s own heart. He is. But we can sometimes fall into the trap of reading stories about David’s life as object lessons: David beat the giant, and that shows that you can do anything you put your mind to! (Which is the opposite of what that passage teaches us.) And there is validity in looking at the good aspects of David’s life and trying to emulate them; I hope I never do anything as horrible as what David did in committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband, but if I ever do, I hope I repent the way that David did! (And when I commit lesser sins, I hope I do the same!) As mentioned, David wrote many Psalms, and those should also serve as a model for me. But when we read the Bible as a whole, the message isn’t, “be like King David,” the messages is, “even the best of us, even a man revered for having a heart for God, is sinful and needs to be redeemed—and that’s what Jesus came to do.”