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King David’s Parenting—Triumph Despite Tragic Failure

mentorKing David had many children by various wives and concubines. According to the following two passages, he had 19 sons, and the accounts do not list daughters.

II Samuel 3:2 lists the sons born to David in Hebron: “his firstborn was Amnon . . . his second, Kileab, the son of Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel, the third, Absalom. . . the fourth, Adonijah. . . the fifth, Shephatiah, the sixth, Ithream.

I Chronicles 14:4-7 states that in Jerusalem more sons and daughters were born to David. “These are the names of the children born to him there: Shammua, Shobab, Nathan, Solomon, Ibhar, Elishua, Elpelet, Nogah, Nepheg, Japhia, Elishama, Beeliada, and Eliphelet.”

David as a Father

Though David does not have a good reputation as a father, we can perhaps view him a bit more kindly considering the challenge of parenting so many children while also firmly establishing Israel as a nation. Not much is known about most of his sons, however, the eldest, the third, the fourth, and the tenth—Amnon, Absalom, Adonijah, and Solomon—feature prominently in the biblical accounts. We see a glimpse of David’s parenting style when the biblical account describes Adonijah who, like Absalom, conspired to be king: His father had never rebuked him by asking, “Why do you behave as you do?” (I Kings 1:6a) David was a permissive parent.

David’s Failures

After David sinned with Bathsheba, the prophet Nathan told him, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’” (II Samuel 12:11-12)

Lesson #1

Here is the first important lesson: Our secret sins can come with serious consequences. Anyone in close proximity to adultery will attest to the far-reaching ripple effect infidelity can have for years to come. However, the Lord did not leave David in this mess without hope. When Solomon was born, Nathan the prophet brought word that “the Lord loved him.” (II Samuel 14:24-25) Another passage states that the Lord chose Solomon to be David’s successor.

Calamity

The first family calamity to strike David came through Amnon, the first born. Amnon pined after Absalom’s beautiful sister, and taking the advice of a devious cousin, pretended to be sick and asked her to come tend him, whereupon he raped her though she pleaded with him, “Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.” To make matters even worse, he then called his personal servant to forcibly remove her from the premises even though she protested saying, “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.” Heartlessly, he had her put out and the door bolted after her. Then “Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornamented robe she was wearing. She put her hand on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went” (II Samuel 13:16, 19). Absalom tried to comfort her and took her in. The Bible says that Tamar “lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman.” (II Samuel 13:20b)

When Kind David heard about this scandal he was furious but did nothing. Absalom, however, “never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar.” (II Samuel 13:22)

Lesson #2

Why did David do nothing? Did his own guilt with Bathsheba somehow weaken him, keep him from the inner fortitude needed to discipline? Why did he not force Amnon to marry Tamar? According to Deuteronomy 22:28-29 the law stated, “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.” David may not have had the heart to place his daughter in what he knew would be an intolerably abusive situation. He does not confront Amnon in any way however. David’s own past indiscretions and his permissive parenting style must certainly have played a role in his passivity. Sin weakens moral confidence and strength to act appropriately.

Calamity Breeding More Calamity

Imagine what it was like for Absalom to live with his inconsolable sister, whom he appeared to love deeply. II Samuel 14:27 mentioned the children born to Absalom which included a daughter, Tamar (presumably after his sister), who grew up to be a beautiful woman. The inclusion of this detail shows how deeply Absalom was impacted by his sister’s violation. His controlled rage demanded revenge. Two years later, Absalom devised a scheme to kill Amnon which succeeded. On that day, King David lost two sons—Amnon, because he was dead and Absalom because he had to flee and was never truly restored to the king again. The Bible says that “After Absalom fled and went to Geshur [the king of Geshur was his maternal grandfather], he stayed there three years. And the spirit of the king longed to go to Absalom, for he was consoled concerning Amnon’s death.” (II Samuel 13:38-39) Absalom was exiled for three years in Geshur, but even after Joab, David’s general, brokered a return to Jerusalem, David refused to see his son for two years and only after Absalom pushed the issue. Was David’s refusal to give his son an audience an attempt at punishment?

Consequences of Inaction

I Chronicles 18:17 tells us that “David’s sons were chief officials at the king’s side.” Without being allowed access to his father, Absalom was most likely in Jerusalem with no job and no place. It’s easy to see how this bred more resentment and rebellion. Absalom soon began a popularity campaign designed to wrest the kingdom out of his father’s hands. And then came the greatest calamity: Absalom stages a coup forcing David and those loyal to him to flee. David was devastated that “my son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life.” (II Samuel 16: 11). We know how the story ended. During the battle, Absalom’s hair catches in a tree, and he is struck down and killed. Despite the fact that Absalom wanted to take his life, David is so overcome by grief when his son is killed that he can hardly go on.

Lesson #3
David’s parenting played a role in his son’s deaths, however, they made choices as adults that cannot be blamed on their father. In the end, Amnon and Absalom did not have a heart after God and showed poor character. We, as parents, must take responsibility for our sins and weaknesses; however, we must recognize our adult children’s free moral agency and be careful to not blame ourselves for everything.

What David Did Right

How can a parent go on after losing a child? Attending to responsibilities is helpful in the grief process. David had a kingdom to rule and was not allowed to give way to grief as a hard word from Joab reminded him, “I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead. Now go out and encourage your men. I swear by the Lord that if you don’t go out, not a man will be left with you by nightfall. This will be worse for you than all the calamities that have come on you from your youth till now.” So the king got up and took his seat in the gateway. (II Samuel 6b-8a). Doing the right thing under such circumstances must have required enormous inner strength.

David’s relationship with the Lord must have surely helped him to go on. By old age he thrives. He must have found much consolation in his project to prepare for the temple Solomon was to build.

In I Chronicles 22:5 David said, “My son Solomon is young and inexperienced, and the house to be built for the Lord should be of great magnificence and fame and splendor in the sight of all the nations. Therefore I will make preparations for it.” So David made extensive preparations before his death.

Preparations

King David determined the building site, drew up plans, ordered materials and appointed stone cutters. He organized and prepared for everything such as the division of priests and their duties as well as the responsibilities of “the singers.” He even organized a fundraiser for the temple (I Chronicles 29). He threw himself into preparing for everything so that Solomon would have a good beginning. By that time he had a large, organized army and had secured Israel’s borders.

Another Disaster Brewing

Rather than choose the eldest living son for a successor, David obeyed the Lord who had promised, “Solomon your son is the one who will build my house and my courts, for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father. I will establish his kingdom forever . . . (I Chronicles 28:6-7) It must have been well known that Solomon was to be David’s successor because when Adonijah (by now very likely the eldest surviving son) followed in Absalom’s footsteps and tried to make himself king, he excluded Solomon from the guest list for the celebration banquet. When Nathan the prophet heard about the conspiracy, he enlisted Bathsheba to alert the king and so save herself, her son and the king.

Decisive Action

This time David acted immediately. He appeared to have learned from his previous hesitations when it came to his children, and he was not about to fall into that trap again. He outwitted Adonijah by proclaiming Solomon’s kingship to the whole city before Adonijah’s party ended, and the bloodshed of a civil war was avoided. We may wonder why David had not crowned Solomon earlier. I believe it was because Solomon was still young and inexperienced (remember he was son #10), and David wanted to give him as much time to mature as possible. Also, it may not have been customary to do so because in none of the accounts of kings do we see a son succeeding his father until after his father’s death.

Finishing Well

David’s preparations for Solomon were far-reaching. We even see him lobbying for his successor during the temple fundraiser: He says to the assembly, “. . . My son Solomon, the one whom God has chosen, is young and inexperienced. The task is great, because this palatial structure is not for man but for the Lord God.” I Chronicles 22:17-18 says, “Then David ordered all the leaders of Israel to help his son Solomon. He said to them, “Is not the Lord your God with you? And has he not granted you rest on every side? For he has given the inhabitants of the land into my hands, and the land is subject to the Lord and to his people.”

Mentoring

David appeared to have invested extensively in Solomon. Much of his encouragement to his son sounds like Moses encouraging Joshua. “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished (I Chronicles 28:20). David passes on the spiritual legacy as well. “And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever (I Chronicles 28:9).

Triumph

By the time Solomon was acknowledged as king a second time with the official anointing by the priest before the whole assembly, David had succeeded in securing everyone’s support. I Chronicles 29:23-24 states, “So Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king in place of his father David. He prospered and all Israel obeyed him. All the officers and warriors, as well as all of King David’s sons, pledged their submission to King Solomon.”

Lessons From What David Did Right

  • Despite overwhelming tragedies, King David did not become stuck in grief. Instead, he found strength in the Lord and eventually channeled his energies into preparations for Solomon. This gave him purpose and meaning. What can we learn from this? Even in deep disappointment, tragedy, and loss, we too can draw our strength from the Lord, trusting that he will help us find a way to go on.
  • David did not let failure cause him to give up. No matter how we may have failed as parents, the question to ask is, “What can I do that would make a difference now?
  • Despite his failures, David remained devoted to the Lord. We, too, must not let failure drive a wedge between us and the Lord. We have a gracious God. The Lord chose Solomon as a sign of forgiveness and redemption of past sins. He promises beauty from ashes for us, too.

The Last Words of David
It is astounding that at the end of his life David could say, “Is not my house right with God? Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part? Will he not bring to fruition my salvation and grant me my every desire?” (II Samuel 23:5)

Isn’t this encouraging? If God could bring David through all those tragedies and failures to a “fruition of salvation,” is there not hope for you and me, too?

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