As we would expect from a man God proclaimed to be after His own heart, David did some things as a father very well. In our previous article, we looked at how he loved his children unconditionally and taught them about God’s ways. Despite his love and his instructions, however, at least some of David’s children made some horrible and tragic mistakes. Amnon forced himself on his half-sister Tamar. Absalom killed Amnon out of revenge and later tried to steal the thrown from David. Adonijah attempted to take the thrown over Solomon against David’s wishes. Solomon, even with all his wisdom, allowed himself to be led astray by his many wives. What went wrong?
Before we look at David’s mistakes, it must be noted that ultimately David’s children did what they did because they exercised free will. What David’s sons did, they did as adults. Ultimately, the responsibility for what they have done falls on their own heads. There are many people who look at parenting kind of like programming a child. You do this, this, and this and your child is going to be faithful and turn out how you want. It is not so simply a matter. You can’t just program how someone is going to turn out. Everyone, sooner or later, has to make a choice whether or not to serve God.
Proverbs 22:6 tells us: “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.” This verse encourages us to get our children used to living in a godly way and most will continue on that path. Remember, however, the proverbs speak in generalities, not guarantees. Many parents have tortured themselves needlessly wondering what they have done wrong when they may not have done anything wrong at all. Some children simple will not listen to their parents or allow themselves to be trained (Proverbs 13:1, 17:21, 30:11). Even the best training cannot instill wisdom, it can only encourage the choice to seek it. If the child is neglected or left untrained, though, there is little hope they will choose the right path.
When it came time for David’s children to make their choices, several of them chose paths of wickedness. While they were responsible for their own choices and they would face the consequences for them, there were problems in David’s life and parenting that almost certainly contributed to these poor choices.
First, David was not a one-woman man
David practiced polygamy. Each of the first six sons of David recorded in the Bible had a different mother. Although God did not forbid polygamy under the Old Law, it was never His plan. Jesus pointed this out in Matthew 19:4-6. Life always goes better when we live according to God’s plans. Polygamous relationships in the Bible didn’t turn out well. There was always strife caused from such relationships: jealously, envy, gossip, and fighting. It is not hard to imagine that the mother’s of these children played a role in what was going on in seeking high positions and vying with one another.
While polygamy is probably not a problem for us, there is still a lesson to be learned from David’s situation. A good father is a good husband first. Sadly, the marital relationship is often ignored in the issue of parenting. The husband and wife need to be able to stand on a united front to be the best they can as parents. This means our eyes must not wander, but be wholly devoted to our wives (cf. Job 31:1, Psalm 101:3). This means we need to love and cherish our wives (cf. Ephesians 5:25-33, Colossians 3:19, 1 Peter 3:7). When we do our part as husbands, we will be more successful as fathers.
Second, David might have been lax in his discipline
After David hears of Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar, most translations says simply say David was very angry (2 Samuel 13:21). There is, however, an alternate reading based on the Septuagint that has some merit. This alternate reading can be easily found in the NRSV which reads: “When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn.” The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls backed up this reading. It is quite likely, this was meant to be in there. If so, the Scriptures are faulting David with not disciplining his son. The legal punishment for Amnon’s crimes was to be “cut off in the sight of the people” (Leviticus 20:17). In other words, Amnon should have been exiled, but he wasn’t because he was next in line for the throne. Also, in 1 Kings 1:5-6, it is very clear that Adonijah was not disciplined by David. At this point in David’s life, he is old and tired and perhaps didn’t feel up to the task. Nevertheless, David was his father and could have at least spoken to him. David perhaps didn’t discipline the way he should have.
There is a popular notion today that discipling is more about training and encouraging than it is about corrective punishment. There is a lot of training and encouraging to be done, but David did this (at least with Solomon), but it was not enough. He needed to correct his children as well. We must devote ourselves to the training of our children. We need to instruct them, encourage them, and when necessary correct them. It can be exhausting, we will grow tired, and it is easier to simply do nothing, but a failure to train our children can be devastating. David lost three of his sons because of these problems.
Third, David set a poor example for his children
What David’s sons did is an eerie echo of David’s own actions. David committed adultery with Bathsheba and Amnon struggled with extra-marital relationships as well, but even worse. David killed Uriah to cover up his own sin, and Absalom seems to see no problem with killing others to get what he wants. Perhaps they were thinking: Dad did this so it must be okay if I do it. This is a scary thing to think about as a father. When we think of David, the general course of his life was good and faithful. He is described as a man after God’s own heart. Yet, his children seemed to pick up on what he did wrong and run with it. We need to strive to set as good an example as possible in our speech, our conduct, our love, our faith, and our purity (cf. 1 Timothy 4:12). Let us set the bar high and struggle to reach it all of our lives, not only for ourselves, but for our families.
Many consider to David to be a bad father, but it isn’t up to us to decide if he was a good father or a bad father. We can, however, learn from what we know about David. We should strive to keep from making the mistakes he did. We need to be concerned with keeping our marriage relationships pure, disciplining our children, and setting a good example for them. Fatherhood is a difficult task. Even David, the man after God’s own heart, struggled with it and perhaps failed in some regards. We should not take it lightly or ignore or responsibilities, we must do the best we can for our children.
by Jeremy Sprouse
Jeremy Sprouse has been married to Erynn since 1999. They have six children. Jeremy preaches for the Patrick St. Church of Christ in Dublin, TX and is the author of To Train Up a Knight.