And when [God] had removed [Saul], he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, “I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will” (Acts 13:22).
I have long been struck with the description of David as a man after God’s own heart. We know all too well David’s sin, and yet he remains exactly that—a man after God’s own heart. What does that mean? While there are many answers to this question, I want to focus on two in particular, which suggest themselves in Psalm 17.
The first indication that David is a man after God’s heart is his righteousness. Or, to say it more precisely, David’s claim to be righteous. Hear David’s claims: “Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit!... you have tested me, and you will find nothing… my steps have held fast to your paths, my feet have not slipped.” We must be careful here, because one’s assessment of his own righteousness can be evidence of self-righteousness, or pride, as is the case in Jesus’ account of the man in the temple, full of pride in his own religious activity, and therefore full of disdain for his neighbor (Luke 18:9-14). But it need not be so. We don’t consider an athlete intent on Olympic Gold proud when he determines to stay free from ice-cream and potato chips. In fact, we might say that his resolution reflects humility, in that he understands his limitations. Paul uses the analogy of an athlete to describe his own resolution to know Christ. Acknowledging that he does not know Christ as fully as he desires, Paul writes “one thing I do—forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). Likewise, David knows his weaknesses, at least in part (see Psalm 139:23-24 in particular), but above all he is a man who genuinely wants to know God, and therefore is determined to walk righteously. From his testimony in Psalm 17, he has done so.
The second indication that David is a man after God’s heart is David’s desires. David’s enemies are those who appear to be blessed, and that with good gifts: children and treasure. And yet David sees even these as being “of this life.” That is not to say that David himself did not enjoy precisely these good gifts—he had children and riches. But in the end, David’s greatest desire was God. He concludes the psalm: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.” The implication? David knows that the very best things in this world—in this case treasure and family—cannot satisfy him. He can ultimately only be satisfied with God himself. The simple question for the one who seeks to be a man or woman after God’s heart is this: do I desire God above all else? Above the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh and the pride of life (1 John 2:14-16), and even above the good gifts of God, like wealth (Matt 19:16-30) and family (Matt 10:34-39)? This is not a question to take lightly, or to pass off as something unattainable. This is the question of the disciple, and one that calls forth the internal battle he must fight if he would know God.
The question can be answered by looking at our lives, for righteousness and desiring God are related. Unless somehow compelled, our desires determine our actions. What we want will be evident in what we do—who we spend time with, the kinds of things we lay our hands to, how we spend our time and our money, what we think about when we have space to ourselves, how we related (or don’t) to our neighbors, what we watch, listen to, or read. The life of a man after God’s own heart will bear testimony to what he wants most—to know God. It will be evident to others, and perhaps even to himself.