Why was King David so special to God? In Acts 13:22, God called David “a man after my own heart”. What was it about this imperfect man that made him a man after God’s own heart and also made him a great leader, qualified to become the second king of Israel?
You may think of things like virtue, honor, and the ability to make a great speech as being good leadership characteristics, but what follows are five characteristics of David in the Bible that, to God, are more important than any of those.
The Five Surprising Leadership Characteristics of David in the Bible:
David’s life wasn’t perfect, but the story of David should inspire us to seek deeper humility.
Coming from humble beginnings as a young shepherd boy, he was secretly anointed the next king of Israel.
As the youngest son of Jesse, he was not the sibling Samuel expected to anoint. As he pointed Samuel to the shepherd boy, God had to teach Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 ESV)
Clearly, God saw something in David’s character right from the start. After Samuel anointed David king, the Bible says the Spirit of the Lord was with David from that day forward. God’s Spirit helped shape David into the kind of man who would lead Israel well.
We can see how most of the rest of David’s life is marked by his humble heart, from his refusal to hurt God’s anointed kings to his ability to suck up whatever pride he’d accumulated and repent of sin.
2. Willingness to follow God
This isn’t normally something we put on a poster of “great characteristics of leaders”, but a willingness to follow God is a characteristic of all great leaders of faith. A leader who is willing to be moved and changed by God will be obedient to what God asks, even when it’s hard.
When Israel’s first king was plagued with an evil spirit, one of the young men suggested David, saying “Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the Lord is with him.”’ (1 Samuel 16:18 ESV)
This small speech lists many characteristic of David: he was a talented musician, a wise young man, a great warrior, but, most importantly, the Lord was with him. Not only was God with David, but David was willing to follow.
For example, in the first book of Samuel, chapter 23, David put his life on the line by obeying God and protecting the city of Keilah from the Philistines. He was then betrayed by the people he had just saved, but he simply inquired of God what he should do next, then did it. David’s example displays an amazing willingness to follow God, even when it didn’t turn out as expected. This is one of the reasons he was God’s choice for king and became known as a man after God’s heart.
We can take this to heart in our own lives, knowing that if David could trust God through all his years of being chased by Israel’s King Saul and irritated Philistines, we can trust God with our lives as well. A leader who trusts God will be more patient when things go awry.
3. Trust in God
When Goliath challenged the Israelites to single combat, King Saul trembled in his boots. As the king, he should have been the one to go fight Goliath. But he trusted only in himself, and he knew he couldn’t win against Goliath.
Young David, however, knew this wasn’t his fight. It was God’s fight. David had great faith in God. He knew he had the only real, living God on his side, as proved by his experiences as a shepherd. David’s trust came with good reason, as he shared when he said to Saul, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” (1 Samuel 17:37 ESV) David knew God had helped him before and would help him again.
Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.” (1 Samuel 17:45–47 ESV)
David had immense trust in God, and because of that trust, he dared to face an insurmountable enemy. And, in case you don’t know the end of the story, he won.
Throughout his life, David’s greatest triumphs came when he trusted God, and his greatest failures came from the times he trusted only in himself or the ways of the world.
For example, when he tried to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, he originally relied on his own judgment. He followed the example of the Philistines and put the Ark on a cart for transportation. When an ox stumbled and the cart tipped, a man put his hand out to steady it and died because no one was to ever touch the Ark. Spooked, David refused to bring the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. Finally, he trusted in God’s original rules about transporting the Ark, and had 6 priests carry it (using poles) into Jerusalem. This time, it all worked out wonderfully and the Ark was safely through to Jerusalem and placed in a new tabernacle. (You can read the whole story in 2 Samuel 6.)
The best leaders are those who trust in Someone greater than themselves. Instead of pushing their selfish agenda forward at every opportunity, a leader who trusts in God and God’s plan will have the humility and strength of spirit to persistently serve others well.
4. A heart of worship
You wouldn’t think a heart of worship would make someone a good leader, but it is intertwined with the other characteristics of David in the Bible. Someone with a heart of worship trusts in God, is humble (because they know God is the ultimate authority), and is willing to follow God.
David’s heart of worship is legendary. He wrote 73 of the Psalms and worship-danced so ferociously when the Ark of the Covenant came to Jerusalem that his wife was alarmed. This attitude of worship is part of what is being referred to in the book of Acts when God calls David “a man after my own heart.”
5. Willingness to admit sin
In the past few years, we’ve seen so many Christian leaders brought low because they refused to admit and repent of their sin. This is not a new problem, because both David and the king that preceded him committed sins that were called out by a prophet of God.
In the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel, we read about the moment God decided that King Saul wasn’t the man for the job anymore. Saul hadn’t followed the prophet Samuel’s instructions or God’s commandments. Instead of truly repenting, Saul blustered through an excuse and without a true heart change. In his pride, he thought he knew better than Samuel, God’s anointed prophet. As a result, God chose to take the kingdom from Saul and give it to someone who would admit and repent when he’d done wrong. From then on, Saul was tortured by an evil Spirit. (You can read the whole story in 1 Samuel 15)
In contrast, after becoming king, David lusted after a beautiful woman: Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. He commanded her to come to him, using his power to force himself on her. When he discovered she was pregnant, he had her husband killed and made her his wife. Lust, rape, and murder were the order of the day, but when the prophet Nathan confronted him, David recognized and repented of his sins. (You can read the whole story in 2 Samuel 11-12, and David’s prayer of repentance in Psalm 51.)
It’s not fun to admit to sin, but Saul and David’s stories show how much God values a humble and contrite heart. Saul had his kingdom taken away, and David was promised a kingdom that would never fade. (2 Samuel 7:16)
What the characteristics of David mean for you and me
These may not be the only marks of a true leader, but so many Christian leaders have fallen into scandal because they lacked humility, weren’t willing to truly follow and trust in God, lacked a heart of worship or were unwilling to admit their sin. These five surprising characteristics of David in the Bible are the mark of a truly godly leader: one who humbles oneself before God and is willing to grow and trust that God’s way is best.
As we read earlier, God sent the Holy Spirit to be with David, which means that he wasn’t exhibiting any of these amazing leadership characteristics on his own strength. Similarly, we can take heart from David’s story, trusting that, as Christians who are saved by Jesus Christ, we have also been promised the Holy Spirit to help us. If you’re not experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit growing your character in daily life, I encourage you to read this article on the fruit of the Spirit!
As well, if you’re a parent or grandparent and want to explore the life and faith of King David, check out my mother/son devotional book that goes through the life of David in 52 weeks.