Scripture really has no heroes apart from God himself. Sure, there are characteristics and patterns that can be emulated, but no character is without serious flaws. Let’s take David as an example. What was commendable about him?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently in light of (1) a sermon I preached and (2) reading through the historical books. David’s family in particular has stood out to me as particularly violent and broken, and yet he is the gold standard as far as biblical “heroes” go.
The issue with Bathsheba and Uriah immediately comes to mind, but David’s life is often characterized by violence and retaliation. A friend recently pointed out how in 1 Kings 2, when David is on his deathbed …
David basically tells Solomon, ‘And don’t forget about that punk Shimei … you know what to do.’
It is then striking to read these words in 1 Kings 9:4, where God tells Solomon:
And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules …
I think the wording “with integrity of heart” (בְּתָם־לֵבָב, ἐν ὁσιότητι καρδίας) is striking. Did David literally do everything that God commanded and keep God’s statutes and rules perfectly? No, of course not. Perhaps integrity of heart is the core issue.
Similar language is used in 1 Kings 11:4:
For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father.
This time, David’s heart is said to have been “wholly true” (שָׁלֵם), and it’s noteworthy that the Septuagint wording is τελεία, whole, complete, mature.
Jesus’ Call in the Sermon
This is the same language Jesus uses in Matthew 5:48. Often this verse is misleadingly translated “Be perfect.” The word is τέλειος, the same word we find characterizing David in 1 Kings 11:4. In the context of Matthew 5, Jesus is calling people a wholeness of person that unites their inward thoughts and feelings with their outward actions.
In the Sermon, Jesus says that it isn’t good enough to just not kill people. He wants us to be whole on the inside, as well. So if you hate and curse someone on the inside — even though you don’t sneak into their apartment, grab an axe, and murder them — that isn’t the goal. Even if you don’t commit adultery — but you do live in lust on the inside — that’s not the goal. The goal is to be complete and whole, inside and out.
The call and requirement isn’t to never make a mistake; it’s to a type of integrity that is more attainable and more important than perfection.
I can see what Jesus means by τέλειος in the Sermon, but what exactly is “integrity of heart” (תָם־לֵבָב) and wholeness (שָׁלֵם) in David’s life? It is easier for me right now to read the historical books and see the brokenness of the characters. In it’s own way, it’s comforting to see that even the best characters are broken as I know I am. What is there to emulate? Integrity and wholeness seem to be a part of the answer. It’s definitely not perfection.