Although King David left an indelible impact on all of human destiny, we can see that he essentially “missed the boat” in one specific area of influence where he should have focused his attention. In this one arena of life — his parenting skills, well actually, his lack of them — David teaches us a number of lessons the hard way.
The Bible records that David fathered at least nineteen sons and one daughter through his nine legitimate wives. We are left no record of the offspring from his concubines, and we know that he kept at least ten such mistresses. We know the life stories of six of these progeny, and each story spins a tragic yarn.
Let’s begin by looking at the illegitimately-conceived son born from David’s illicit relationship with Bathsheba. Even before its very first breath, the child was marked for death through Nathan’s prophecy. Yet, the great king fasted and prayed for several days as the baby lingered in the balances between life and death until finally the death angel snatched the child’s soul away and David conceded in his battle for his life. This baby’s short lifespan painted the picture that the Apostle James described centuries later: lust conceives sin that ultimately produces death. (verse 1:15) David’s lust for Bathsheba produced the sinful acts of adultery, deception, intrigue, and murder with the end product of the baby’s death.
The next son we should study would be Amnon who became lovesick for his half-sister Tamar. When David visited his son after having heard of his illness, Amnon asked that Tamar be sent to her brother’s apartment to serve him dinner in bed. The Bible records a horrid story of how Amnon was actually feigning the sickness as part of a plot to get more than dinner in bed from his unsuspecting sister. Each time I read this story, I think of a magazine ad that shows a pre-teen lad with a rather challenging look on his face and the wording:
LEAVE ME (Okay, it may seem like I hate my parents, but I’m really demonstrating what a therapist would call “asserting my identity,” so I can grow up to be a well-adjusted individual. Sure, I say I want freedom, but without parental supervision, I’m much more likely to smoke pot and stuff. I hope my parents don’t try to act like my friends. What I really need is parents.) ALONE.
The message it intends to communicate is that parents need to learn to read between the lines of what their children are saying. David failed to do this. He heard what the young man said with his lips, but he failed to hear what he was saying with his emotions. It would seem that only the dullest man would not discern that something much more involved than a simple plate of food must have been on the son’s mind. How would a meal by any certain cook have any effect on the boy’s malady? Certainly, the father could see that there was testosterone involved and that the young man was up to no good. David failed to pick up on whatever signals the son was sending and fell right into the lad’s plot by directing the girl to bring the food.
When Amnon followed through with his sordid plan, the young girl’s life was ruined forever, but the father seemed insensitive to the whole situation. Certainly, he could not undo what had happened, but he could have done something to prove that he cared for the girl and that he disapproved of the son’s action. Instead, he seemed to ignore the problem in hopes that it would go away. However, as all humans — and especially parents — should know, problems don’t just go away by being ignored.
David, with his nation to run, failed to stop long enough to raise his own children. In doing so, he failed in two of the greatest requirements of parenting: he did not give Tamar respect, and he did not involve himself in the life of either Tamar or Amnon. It is too easy for parents to see their children as just kids and fail to realize that they are complete human beings — just like anyone else. They are no less due respect and attention than any adult, even the important people who would frequent the office of the nation’s monarch. As his children, Tamar and Amnon needed and were entitled to their father’s special mentoring and care — not just his provision and position.
The story of Tamar’s assault doesn’t end with just the half-brother who abused her; it spreads throughout the family as Tamar’s full brother Absalom determined to avenge her rape. He waited a while to cover up his motive and to conceal his plot. Finally, the proper time to execute his scheme presented itself, and the vengeful brother staged a great party as a ploy to entrap his sibling. Next, he approached his father requesting that all his brothers be directed to attend the festivities. When David declined that request on the account that it would be too expensive for Absalom to host all seventeen of his brothers, the unknown siblings by the concubines, and their guests, Absalom responded by insisting that Amnon be sent even if no one else could attend. Again, David revealed his lack of discernment by not realizing that something was awry when Absalom singled out as his special guest the one brother against whom he had been waging a cold war. Certainly this request was an ominous harbinger of calamity to come, yet David walked full tilt into Absalom’s snare just as he had done with Amnon’s trap.
The short version of the long story is that Absalom murdered Amnon — but the crime was left without proper closure by the dysfunctional father. David’s reaction was that he distanced himself from the murderous son by banishing Absalom from Jerusalem for three years. When he finally did allow him to return to the city, it was with the stipulation that he would not be permitted to see his father — an alienation that continued for the next two years. This isolation was a dramatic display of his desire to punish the son but at the same time a glaring demonstration of his inability to correct him. David failed to recognize the major difference between punishment and correction: the former condemns the sin, while the latter reforms the sinner. David’s refusal to see or even receive communication from his son was a rather flagrant statement of condemnation; whereas, a willingness to receive his son and mentor him through a rehabilitation process would have been an affirmation of his role and responsibility as a loving father.
The wounds in Absalom’s soul and spirit become glaringly evident as we follow the story as it is spun in the scripture. One of the first clues that he has never fully healed from the scars of Tamar’s abuse is that he named his own daughter after his beloved sister — a sign that this injury is always fresh in his thoughts. His attempt to seize the throne away from his father is the most blatant sign of the turmoil and hostility raging inside his unsettled soul. One especially flamboyant act in the coup seems to herald the full message; when Absalom invaded his father’s palace, he had a pavilion erected on the roof and made a public display as he copulated with all ten of his father’s concubines. In an act of retaliation for the assault on his sister’s virginity, Absalom tried to even the score with the man who had done nothing to correct the injury to her. This blatant act of disrespect was also a headline statement to the father who had not shown him acceptance, love, respect, and guidance.
Because David failed to properly handle his sons’ criminal actions, he lost one of his sons at the bloodthirsty hands of the other and then lost his own concubines and almost lost his kingdom at his hands as well. With Amnon, David failed to punish his sin at all; with Absalom, he failed to correct rather than punish; and with both sons and the daughter, he failed to heal the injuries resulting from the wrongs inflicted and the punishment imposed.
In the chaotic moment after Absalom was executed, David wailed and clamored dramatically that he would have rather died than to see his son killed. How tragic it is to see this sudden revelation of the soul of the king. Buried inside the heart of this seemingly utter failure of a father was a deep-seated love for his son. The ironic thought is that even though he would have been willing to have died for him, he had never demonstrated a willingness or ability to live for him!
Dr. Lester Sumrall used to say that success is not a success until it produces a successor. If this is the case, we see again that David was a failure as a father. Although there seems to have been a private understanding between the king and Bathsheba that their son Solomon was to succeed him on the throne, no acknowledgment of this arrangement was ever established as part of public record. This failure to establish a formal last will and testament resulted in the demise of another of his sons. When David was old and in rapidly deteriorating health, his son Adonijah staged an attempt to take the kingdom by having himself named to the throne. When this news reached David, he gave the directive from his deathbed that Solomon was to be proclaimed as the next king. He later followed up with a public coronation of the chosen son. The scripture records that David stood up on his feet at the ceremony, suggesting that it was an almost heroic act considering his frailty. In those last few hours of his life and with the last ounces of strength he could muster from his worn-out body, David conveyed his vision and the responsibility of the position as king to his son. He then challenged and commissioned Solomon to fulfill them. Certainly, this was a noble conclusion to his long and extensive political career; on the other hand, it was a pitiful comment on his career as a father. He had waited until the last minute of life to impart himself into the life of the son whom he should have been mentoring every day of his life.
Two points from the life of Solomon seem to indicate the impact that this last-minute father-son quality time had upon him. The first is positive — although it seems to be a counteractive attempt to the lack of mentoring during his formative years. Solomon not only personally instructed his son, but also authored the book of Proverbs that records the instructions he gave him concerning practical daily living. It also contains chapters of wise counsel concerning the role he was expected to fulfill as king and gives instructions concerning the responsibilities associated with the position. Apparently, the short lessons David gave him in his dying moments awakened Solomon to what he had missed during his developmental years and inspired him to a lifetime of instruction for his own son. The second result in Solomon’s life was very negative — his turning to idols. David, it is said, was a man after God’s own heart — but this heart attitude was something he could not pass on to Solomon in a few short sessions together. Although David was able to communicate some instructions to his son in those last fateful minutes together, he was not able to impart his heart to him. (I Kings 11:4) That’s something that takes a lifetime of living together, not just a few minutes of classroom time together.
Adonijah, even though he was deprived of the throne, still had an ambitious design to gain some bid at the crown. By asking permission to marry the Shunammite woman who had cared for David in his old age, he felt that he might gain some leverage to displace Solomon — a scheme that ended in his execution. Because his father had failed to give this son direction and guidance, his life was doomed to failure. This tragic demise could have been averted if David had properly parented his sons and taught them throughout their lives how to share and to work together rather than against one another. The whole scenario could have been short-circuited if the father had instilled into his sons his personal vision and will for their personal lives and their places in the kingdom he had built.
It has been said that the beauty of the Bible is that it presents its heroes with their warts and all. In the story of David, we are certainly able to see, as Dr. Lester Sumrall loved to say, that even great men have clay feet. This great champion failed as a parent in many ways: discerning the needs of his children, involving himself in their lives, giving them proper respect, administering correction and healing rather than simply punishment, providing guidance and direction, establishing a successor, imparting his very heart to them, and — in general — being there for them. The baby he fathered with Bathsheba was unconnected; Tamar was unprotected; Amnon and Absalom were uncorrected; Adonijah and Solomon were undirected. However, in spite of his personal failures, David did have an insight into the importance good parenting. Notice his comments in the book of Psalms:
We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done. (Psalm 78:4)
Now also when I am old and grayheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come. (Psalm 71:18)
Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate. (Psalm 127:3-5)
Our children are our future to direct. God has given us His Word as a sword for our present hand-to-hand conflicts (Ephesians 6:17); but for future, long-range combat, He has also given us our children as arrows. However, arrows must be aimed if they are to secure victory; therefore, it is our responsibility to carefully train them for their godly destinies. In II Kings 13:14-19, we read an interesting story that teaches an important principle concerning the direction of the arrows God has placed in our quivers. The prophet Elisha called King Joash to his bedside just before he passed out of this earthly life. “Take bow and arrows,” the old prophet commanded, putting his hand on top of the king’s hand as he aimed the arrows. Next, he directed the king to shoot the arrows out the open window, proclaiming, “The arrow of the LORD’s deliverance.” Then he directed the king to take the arrows and strike the ground. When the king struck the ground three times, the prophet rebuked him, reprimanding him for not striking five or six times to symbolize total destruction of his enemy. Similarly, godly parents are required to direct their children as arrows toward the target and then do everything in their power to propel and empower them toward their goals in life. The king’s final visit with his mentor the prophet proved to be bittersweet. Victory was ensured, but there was no guarantee for total peace. We must realize that our children can be a reservoir of joy or a source of sorrow (Proverbs 23:24, 17:25), and we must never stop short of “striking the ground” with them, anticipating the very best.
Solomon is often spoken of as the wisest man in history. The Bible specifically says that he surpassed all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom (II Chronicles 9:22) and that his wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country and all the wisdom of Egypt (I Kings 4:30), and Solomon himself confessed that he exceeded all that preceded him in Jerusalem (Ecclesiastes 1:16). In fact, the scripture goes so far as to declare that God gave Solomon wisdom that exceeded the sand on the seashore. (I Kings 4:29) Every Sunday school child can tell the story of how Solomon asked for wisdom rather than riches or power when God have him the opportunity to ask for anything that he desired (II Chronicles 1:10-12) and the story of the visit of the queen of Sheba who was overwhelmed with his exceeding wisdom (I Kings 10:4-24, II Chronicles 9:3-23). Solomon made at least seventy-nine direct references to wisdom in the writings that we still have preserved today, and we have no way of knowing how much more he might have said in the literature that has been lost over time. (I Kings 4:32, 11:41) He unambiguously declared that he desired wisdom more than rubies (Proverbs 8:11) and gold (Proverbs 16:16) or military strength (Ecclesiastes 9:16) and weapons (Ecclesiastes 9:18). However, there is one aspect of Solomon’s wisdom that is often overlooked — it’s source. Solomon was actually instructed to seek wisdom by his father, King David. First Chronicles 22:6-19 records the story of how David passed the vision of building the temple to his son with the words, “Only the LORD give thee wisdom and understanding, and give thee charge concerning Israel, that thou mayest keep the law of the LORD thy God.” (verse 12) Actually, David gave some very significant teaching on wisdom that became the foundation for his son’s proverbs (Psalm 49:3, 51:6, 90:12, 104:24, 105: 22, 111:10, 136:5), with Solomon actually quoting one of his father’s maxims verbatim (Psalm 111:10). The impact of this solitary father-son discussion led Solomon to repeatedly admonish his own son to diligently seek wisdom. (Proverbs 3:21, 5:1)