Did you know that David lived, grew up, and developed a relationship with the Lord in obscure sheep fields? How do you suppose he cultivated an ability to trust in and focus on God by watching sheep? Could the sheep he led have taught him not to fight back or seek revenge?

David was gifted, perhaps a genius. He was a musician, poet, athlete, military strategist, ethicist, statesman, leader, and king. He is one of the most prominent figures in the history of the world and the most famous ancestor of Jesus, who is called the Son of David. No Bible character offers such a full range of human successes and failures as David.

The highlights of David’s life are recorded in 1 Samuel 16 through 1 Kings 2:11 and in 1 Chronicles 10:14 through 29:30. There we learn that this man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) allowed sin in his sons without correcting them. That he loved God passionately yet had an affair with a married woman. That he was a loyal soldier and beloved military leader who betrayed one of his finest warriors and closest friends.

David’s life falls into three phases: his years of preparation for leadership, the successful years of his reign, and the years of difficulty following his moral failure. Fewer chapters record his successful years than record the events of his preparatory or difficult years.

We often think that as soon as David got past his training under the discipline of Saul, his successful kingly career began and continued for a long time. But Scripture indicates his successful years were limited and that trouble, adversity, and embarrassment awaited him in his latter years as a result of his moral failure, not correcting his sons, and trusting in the flesh.

Obscurity Is No Problem for God

When Samuel visited Jesse’s home in search of the next king for Israel, Jesse overlooked David. If this is any indication of the family’s posture toward David, it is clear that the family had little regard for the youngest son. Assuming that David wrote the 116th Psalm, he refers favorably there to the formative example of his mother. “Truly I am your servant, Lord; I am your servant, as was my mother before me; you have loosed my bonds of affliction” (Psalm 116:16). Though disregarded by his father and his brothers (who followed Jesse’s example), David was nevertheless encouraged by his mother’s love for God.

We do not know how many years (or how many months in each year) David spent alone, watching the sheep. His references in the psalms to his sheep-watching responsibilities suggest that shepherding was a major part of his young life. In any event, he used those hours well, worshipping, developing the performing arts in his musical abilities, and practicing with his sling, killing a bear and a lion. He may have taken his weapons, a sling and club and a small harp with him to the fields. Most importantly, he used the contemplative opportunity to develop his personal philosophy of life as we can see in Psalm 23. In the lonely valleys near Bethlehem, God built Israel’s most famous and beloved king.

I am a runner. In mid-2005, I ran my regular early-morning ten kilometers numerous times in Bethlehem, just down the hill from the traditional home of Jesse’s family. I waved greetings to young shepherd boys watching their sheep in the fields on those hills and valleys. The ample rocks (Ha! There are many!) and barrenness suggested to me that David had plenty of unoccupied hours during which any shepherd would gladly seek profitable pastimes provided he possessed imagination. David evidently did.

David was like Moses as a leader-in-training. Moses was banished from the king’s court in Egypt and fled for his life. David was disregarded by his family and assigned to watching the sheep. Both leaders developed while watching sheep in obscurity and in due time were discovered and brought into public leadership.

You may think you live in obscurity and no one knows you even exist. That is a wonderful place to be, because God knows exactly where you are. Be content, and do not waste the valuable training time God is giving you for contemplation, prayer, and self-development. Obscurity is not a problem for God. If you sulk in your obscurity you may remain there. Instead seek God and prepare yourself for greater service. God found Moses, and God found David. He will find you too.

Jesse neglected David, but God did not. He helped Samuel find him as we see in 1 Samuel 16. “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chronicles 16:9). While you’re waiting for Him to discover you, what are you doing to develop yourself?

The Basis for Confidence

Jesse sent his son David with instructions to take food supplies to three soldier brothers (Eliab, Abinadab, and Sammah) serving in Saul’s army. When he arrived, his brothers scorned him rather than welcoming him. “When Eliab, David’s oldest brother heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, ‘Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle’” (1 Samuel 17:28). David was not discouraged by this treatment, however. Perhaps he was used to receiving it from Eliab. He pursued his interest in the battle, Goliath, and God’s reputation.

Later, as David approached the giant, Goliath cursed him by his gods. David ignored the giant’s disdain and his slanderous remarks, and replied with his own surprisingly mature statement of his philosophy of war—indeed an amazingly confident declaration for a young man:

You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give all of you into our hands” (1 Samuel 17:45–47).

Goliath was formidable, but David placed his faith in God and His power, and he won the victory.

When David went before the giant with his sling,
Goliath laughed at such a little puny thing.
But David knew his faith in God would stand the test,
He flung the rock; God did the rest
If you believe, you shall receive.
There’s not a trouble or care the good Lord can’t relieve.
Oh, He is just the same today,
All you have to do is trust and pray,
Believe, you must believe.

David’s God-focused philosophy of war was right on target. It enabled him to fight successfully for many years.

Submitting to God’s Training Program

Samuel secretly anointed David to become king. Only David and his family knew of the incident. But soon after that, God began the developmental process through which He prepared David. At Saul’s invitation, David became Saul’s harpist and began to observe life at the king’s court. Imagine the first-hand opportunity to observe the comings and goings of life in the throne room of Saul, Israel’s first king. After evidently returning to his home, presumably because of Israel’s war with the Philistines, David’s father sent him to his brothers at the battlefront with cheese and foodstuffs.

Jealous Saul was a difficult mentor. David escaped the king’s spear twice and his army twice. But through adversity after adversity at the hand of Saul, David learned to not fight back. He refused to oppose God’s anointed.

Many years later David fled from Jerusalem when his own son Absalom, an illegitimate and self-proclaimed leader, entered the city and took possession of it and the kings palace and even the king’s concubines. He left his home rather than remain in Jerusalem and fight and see a civil war destroy Jerusalem. As they walked away from Jerusalem, even against the silly and powerless fool Shimei, David would not fight as is recorded in 2 Samuel 16:10–14.

The imprecatory Psalms, which include cursing against enemies, are sometimes misunderstood. But when we realize that David trusted God to defend him rather than taking revenge himself, we can appreciate the high ethical standard David maintained. David, the ethicist, held to a higher level of behavior than Moses had taught. Moses had instructed that one should limit one’s vengeance to repaying in kind only the amount of treatment of the original offender. David committed the situation to God rather than seek his own revenge.

If we do not fight for ourselves but rather let God do our fighting for us, we will have learned a valuable lesson from David.

David Was a Wise Leader of Soldiers

David’s victory over Goliath catapulted him into a successful military career. He had victories everywhere he turned. “David was so successful that Saul gave him a high rank in the army” (1 Samuel 18:5). “In everything he did he had great success, because the Lord was with him” (1 Samuel 18:14). “David met with more success than the rest of Saul’s officers, and his name became well known” (1 Samuel 18:30).

Later, at Nob, as he fled from Saul, David sought direction from God, relying on the priests there to assist him. “Ahimelek inquired of the Lord for him” (1 Samuel 22:10). Still later Saul learned of the priest’s assistance and became extremely angry. Ahimelek responded to Saul, “Was that day the first time I inquired of God for him? Of course not” (1 Samuel 22: 15)! Saul had eighty-five priests killed that day. This did not stop David from inquiring of the Lord often.

Because he habitually sought the Lord, God gave David military intelligence for his protection many times. At Keilah, as he continued to flee from Saul, “he inquired of the Lord saying, ‘Shall I go and attack these Philistines?’” (1 Samuel 23:2). “Once again David inquired of the Lord” (1 Samuel 23:4). “Again David asked, ‘Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me and my men to Saul?’ And the Lord said, ‘They will’” (1 Samuel 23:12). David was protected time and time again.

When David became king, the Philistines invaded Israeli territory, “so David inquired of the Lord, ‘Shall I go and attack the Philistines? Will you deliver them into my hands?’” (2 Samuel 5:19). The Philistines attacked again, “so David inquired of the Lord, and he answered, ‘Do not go straight up, but circle around behind them and attack them in front of the poplar trees. As soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the poplar trees, move quickly, because that will mean the Lord has gone out in front of you to strike the Philistine army’” (2 Samuel 5:23–24).

Little wonder David could say, “With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall” (2 Samuel 22:30).

David’s guiding principle of continually inquiring of the Lord, coupled with his faith in God as the source for military victories, was the reason for his repeated successes. What if you and I were to apply that policy to the work we do for God? What difference would it make in our homes, businesses, careers, churches, communities, nations?

David’s Heart Was toward God

One has only to read David’s psalms to find ample poetic evidence of his strong desire for the Lord.

The celebrative manner in which David directed and participated in the procession to Jerusalem with the ark is just one example of his public and private passion for God (2 Samuel 6:1–11). David was not ashamed of his zeal for the Lord, as evidenced by his scorning the ridicule that his wife, Saul’s daughter, gave to him. “David said to Michal, ‘It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor’” (2 Samuel 6:21–22).

David’s penitence after his sin with Bathsheba and against Uriah also reveals David’s love for God.

Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. . . . Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. . . . Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. . . . You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offering. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. (Psalm 51:4, 7–8, 10–12, 16–17)

Let us too have a heart toward God. This is not always perfectly easy! There is competition. We naturally want approval from other people. But David gives us the example of passionate love for God.

Beginning Well Is not Enough

David was Israel’s greatest king and the founder of the dynasty in which Jesus Christ was eventually born years later, yet only nine chapters record David’s triumphant years. For seventeen chapters he was in training, for nine chapters he was a triumphant king, and these are followed by fifteen and a half chapters that record his sin, its consequences, and his constant struggle against various difficulties until he died.

We conclude this study by observing David had three major strengths that were offset later in life by three major failures.

David’s three major strengths were 1) David’s dependance on God in battle, 2) David’s heart toward God and 3) David’s habit of enquiring of God.

David also had two other minor strong points that served him well: 1) he was kind and 2) he was generous. We see these in his normal treatment of people with whom he had dealings.

David’s three major mistakes were: 1) David did not correct his children properly. 2) David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murderous cover-up that followed, and 3) David numbered his soldiers near the end of his life which shows that he wanted to boast about his army rather than trust in and give all the glory for his military victories to God.

Three other minor failures of David’s can be identified. 1) He did not give proper attention to the northern tribes of Israel when he was welcomed back to Jerusalem after putting down Absalom’s rebellion. Sheba stepped into what he saw as a leadership vacuum and another civil war erupted. 2) He also did not act on his promise to place Solomon on his throne as quickly as he should have. This time Adonijah stepped into what he saw as a leadership vacuum and an opportunity. 3) He did not punish Joab when Joab killed Abner. David should have had Joab executed. Later Joab also murdered Amasa and this would have been avoided if David had had Joab executed the first time he murdered a competitor.

One may well wonder what would it have been like if David had used all his strong points to compensate for his mistakes and failures. If he had consistently used any one of his strengths, he could have avoided all three of the following failures:

1. David did not correct his children. David was soft on the sin in his own family. He failed to discipline his sons, three of whom most certainly should have been punished: Amnon, Absolom, and Adonijah. Amnon raped his sister Tamar. Absalom revolted against his father and tried to take the entire kingdom. When David did nothing about it, Joab took matters into his own hands, killed Absalom, and eventually rebuked David. Just prior to David’s death, Adonijah also tried to usurp the throne. Scripture says, “His father had never rebuked him by asking, ‘Why do you behave as you do’” (1 Kings 1:6)? David did not discipline his sons; Israel suffered shame as a result. You would think he would have learned from Eli and Samuel who did poorly in raising their sons. No. David was also soft on most of his children. Possibly he eventually took time to train Solomon because Solomon refers to his father’s instruction.

2. David sinned with Bathsheba and murdered Uriah. Some Bible scholars believe that when David sinned with Bathsheba, he should not have been in Jerusalem in the first place, but rather on the battlefield. As a soldier and leader of soldiers, the sin of David murdering one of his mighty men is unconscionable. Having Uriah, his loyal soldier, mighty man, and faithful friend killed in a cover-up scheme was a worse sin than David’s adultery with Bathsheba.

3. David showed his dependence on human strength by numbering his army, contrary to God’s Word. David’s final major mistake was to trust in the power of his own army rather than trust in God. God had told Israel through Moses not to count soldiers, which was a way of expressing the need to trust God, not the arm of flesh. Yet David insisted, against Joab’s advice, on enrolling the fighting men. Where now is the God-directed faith David displayed as he ran toward Goliath as a youth?

David’s major strengths that could have been utilized against those failures were:

1. He believed in God for military victory. Why did David not trust God for victory toward the end of his life? Earlier he had inquired of the Lord regarding military questions and gained numerous victories. Could God not give him further victories without relying on a strong army of many counted soldiers? Could God’s strength in battle not also have helped David raise obedient children?

2. He inquired of the Lord regarding military matters. Why didn’t David inquire of the Lord regarding his children’s disobedience? Why not ask the Lord what to do with the problem of the woman in his neighborhood bathing within view of the royal palace? Could he not have inquired of the Lord regarding the decision to number Israel’s army?

3. He had a passionate love for God. If David loved God so intensely, why did he allow disobedience in his family? How could he have an affair with a neighbor’s wife? Uriah was David’s friend and a dedicated soldier even unwilling to go to his house and sleep with his wife when he could have but didn’t because his fellow-soldiers were on the field of battle. How could he send Uriah to his death? How could he trust human military might and disobey God’s command not to number his army?

It seems the older David grew, and the more comfortable he became as king, the more his moral and spiritual strength declined. His faith in God’s power to deliver, his policy of regularly seeking God’s counsel, and his love for God were in operation only selectively later in his life. This can be a lesson to help us avoid becoming too comfortable—and less dependent on God. David did not finish as well as he might have. Will you?

The Bible tells the story the way it was. Sins are not covered over. Faults are not hidden. Victories are celebrated. Good examples are appreciated. Next time you read through I & II Samuel in your Bible reading, notice these strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps you will find more than are listed here. May the Lord richly bless your continued study of the life of David.