Hebrew Corner 6: "God's Own Heart"
by John H. Walton
In previous entries we have noted how a word used in combination with other words must be studied in that combination, not just as an individual unit. A good example of this is found in our study of 1 Samuel 13:14, where the NIV reads, “The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart.” The translation is nearly identical in the NLT, NASB, God’s Word, NRSV and ESV. The issue is not the translation, but the interpretation. This statement is often understood as a comment on David’s spiritual devotion or piety. As such, it often raises troubling questions, such as, “How could such a godly and devout man possibly commit some of the crimes recorded of David” (adultery, conspiracy to murder, mass murders as a Philistine mercenary, etc.)?
When we look into this Hebrew phrase, however, we will find that it points us in a different interpretive direction. Rather than indicating David’s spirituality it indicates the fact that David meets God’s criteria for kingship. He is a man of God’s choice. This stands in immediate contrast to Saul who met the criteria that were established by the people.
How do we know that the interpretation should go this direction?
By other uses of similar phrasing. One should particularly note the usage of Jeremiah 3:15, but also Psalm 20:4 (Hebrew, v.3). In addition we would find that this is standard rhetoric in the ancient Near East as a reference to covenant alignment when a king replaces a rebellious vassal with one who will be more compliant and cooperative. Likewise Mesopotamian gods such as Enlil and Shamash are said to install kings of their own choosing using a similar phrase. (Commentaries offering more information include K. McCarter’s Anchor commentary on 1 Samuel and the forthcoming Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament.
Finally it should be said that this interpretation does not eliminate every aspect of David’s loyalty to Yahweh. Indeed, his loyalty and alignment are the most likely criteria referred to. But that should be differentiated from our common understandings of piety, devotion and spiritual maturity. It is our careful study of Hebrew usage—supported by background information—that helps us to arrive at this interpretation.
John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).
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