In Acts 13, during Paul’s first homily to the Gentiles, in Pisidian Antioch, he explains some Jewish history. At one point (Acts 13:22), he says:
After removing Saul, He made David their king. He testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse a man after My own Heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’
And sure enough, in 1 Samuel 13:13-14, the prophet Samuel warns Saul,
“You acted foolishly,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. 14 But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.”
But calling David a man after God’s own Heart is a strange statement. This is the same David was responsible for much bloodshed both before and after becoming king, had a number of wives (1 Chronicles 14:3) and concubines (2 Samuel 5:13), and in the most notorious incident, impregnated Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, then had the soldier killed in the line of duty to cover it up (2 Samuel 11). We’re left without question that God rebukes David for this, and punishes him and his household (2 Samuel 12).
So why did God refer to this rash and often sinful king as a man after His own Heart? Fr. Arne Panula, my spiritual director, explained it to me last Friday. As part of punishment upon David (2 Samuel 12:11-12), God permits David’s eldest son Absalom to usurp the throne, causing David to flee into exile (2 Samuel 15:14). Absalom then sleeps with David’s concubines, just to spite him (2 Samuel 16:21-22) and plans to kill his father (2 Samuel 17:1).
David ultimately organizes an army to retake Jerusalem, but he instructs his men, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake” (2 Samuel 18:5). As it happens, Absalom gets caught by the hair in the branches of an oak tree, “leaving him hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going” (2 Samuel 18:9). The original soldier who finds him remembers that he’s not to be harmed (2 Samuel 18:12), but Joab, David’s commander, takes three javelins and spears him, and then his men finish killing him (2 Samuel 18:14-15).
Meanwhile, messengers are running from the battlefield back to David. The first one, Ahimaaz, immediately ran to notify David that Absalom was captured, without waiting around to find out what happened to him. After Absalom was killed, a Cushite messenger followed to deliver the bad news. Pay close attention to King David’s reaction, and what it tells us about God’s own love for us (2 Samuel 18:28-33):
Then Ahimaaz called out to the king, “All is well!” He bowed down before the king with his face to the ground and said, “Praise be to the LORD your God! He has delivered up the men who lifted their hands against my lord the king.” The king asked, “Is the young man Absalom safe?” Ahimaaz answered, “I saw great confusion just as Joab was about to send the king’s servant and me, your servant, but I don’t know what it was.” The king said, “Stand aside and wait here.” So he stepped aside and stood there.Then the Cushite arrived and said, “My lord the king, hear the good news! The LORD has delivered you today from all who rose up against you.” The king asked the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom safe?” The Cushite replied, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man.”The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you — O Absalom, my son, my son!”
And that’s why he’s a man after God’s own heart. God knows what it’s like to have rebellious sons, to have sons who act like they hate Him, and who try to take everything that rightly belongs to Him. And like David, God will secure His rightful throne. But He doesn’t do so out of hatred for sinners, but always with a concern for their well-being and salvation (just as David handicapped his men, by ordering them to retake Israel without harming Absalom). Ultimately, David acts the most like God when he’s willing to die in the place of his sinful son, just as Christ died for our own sins.
Just as Absalom (who, I should note, was David’s heir, as his eldest son) wanted his inheritance early, Jesus describes Heaven as our inheritance (Matthew 25:34), and in the parable of the prodigal son, He uses the image of a son who demands his inheritance early to represent those who seek earthly pleasures over the joys of Heaven (Luke 15:12). The parallel between God and us, and between David and Absalom even extends to names. Absalom’s name means “Peace is my Father,” or “Son of Peace.” Meanwhile, Christ is prefigured as the “King of Peace” by Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:1-3). So all who are followers of Christ, and are sons of the Father, are “sons of Peace” just like Absalom. And God’s message is that He’d gladly die in our place to avoid us the pains of eternal death. And then He did so.
At this point, Fr. Arne pointed to a copy of this photo on his wall:
It’s Pope John Paul II visiting Mehmet Ali Agca in prison to comfort him. Agca, if you don’t recall, was the man who had tried to kill the pope. The would-be assassin and his would-be victim sat alone and talked intimately for some time, and the pope refused to reveal the contents of what the two men had said:
“What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me,” the Pope said as he emerged from the cell. “I spoke to him as brother whom I have pardoned, and who has my complete trust.”
We do know that the pope left him a rosary, and that years later, Agca announced his intention to convert from Islam to Catholicism.
This paternal love for a man who makes himself your enemy is the love modeled by King David, by Pope John Paul II, and best of all by Jesus Christ Himself. We should all strive to be men (and women) after God’s own heart, by loving and caring for our enemies in this way.