For Men: A Matter of the Heart

The hardest course I ever took in college had to be Astronautical Engineering: the study of the way physics operates in three-dimensional space. The complexity of the mathematics was manageable, but I found my understanding of the dynamics of the variety of forces of bodies in space to be extremely difficult if not impossible to envision. I think a C was all I managed. Yet, there was one idea I took away that became be a life lesson, that of trajectory. A few years later, when I played babysitter to 50 Minuteman missiles aimed at precise points on a map thousands of miles away, I often thought about this. The smallest alteration in angle, thrust, or weight at the outset of launch had the potential to change the landing point by several yards, even miles. Small differences in the beginning can profoundly impact the ending. That’s a matter of the heart.  

I was thinking about this again recently when reading the story of King David and how he was identified as the king while still a teenager—the king from whom the line of the King of Kings would emerge. God’s first pick for the throne, Saul, had failed and the old prophet Samuel was dispatched to tell him this saying, “Your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.”[1] God came looking for a man after His own heart and who did He find but a boy, the youngest son of Jesse, a shepherd, not a warrior or a scholar but a mere boy, whose leadership training so far had been watching out over sheep. Even Samuel was fooled when he interviewed Jesse’s sons and thought the older, taller ones had to be God’s pick. When finally David was summoned from the mountains, he did not fit Samuel’s job description for a leader. Yet, God confirms that this is the one He has picked: “The LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”[2] What God saw in David was not simply a feckless teen but a young man whose life was on a trajectory to become a man after God’s own heart. But immediately this raises two questions: (1 what shaped David in those early years such that God saw he would become the one he was looking for when he became a man in full? then, (2 knowing the full story of David’s life as God must surely have beforehand, how could this future moral failure and murderer be called someone after His own heart?

               For now let’s examine the first answer. We’ll take up the second later. If we begin with the end, where the trajectory of David’s life took him, this is how David was seen in scripture when he was about to speak his last: “Now these are the last words of David. David the son of Jesse declares, the man who was raised on high declares, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel.”[3] To paraphrase, his legacy was as the king, selected personally by God, who from his youth onward became known as the sweet singer of Israel. How David impacts most of us today stems less from his legacy as a king but more as an artist, the composer of the songs that have remained “hits” for three thousand years. This musician gives voice to every possible emotion of all of us who live complex lives before the eyes of God.

Jewish tradition has David portrayed as a musicologist who designed and played lyres or harps. Much like the modern guitar, the lyre was played with a pick and could be used to calm the soul as David did with Saul, or to sing the spirited folk tunes of Israel, or to praise, thank, and appeal to God in sung prayer. Of the 150 Psalms, half were written by David. Most of us by the time we reach the latter years have some of these psalms carved in us, words that are now touchstones to recall for our life’s most joyous and besieged moments.

Where David began this mastery of the lyre and began composing tunes most certainly was as a boy in the wilderness guarding the sheep. It is also there that he learned the courage that emerged as the slingshot warrior who faced down Goliath, then led Saul’s armies, and later forged his own to victories over Israel’s pagan enemies. What God saw in the earliest stages of this young man’s life trajectory was the orientation of his heart such that he could see the ending of the story, the full plant in the seed. He saw that David possessed two seemingly contradictory yet complementary bents in his life.

The first was courage, literally embodying the Latin for heart, cor, the seat of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual/moral discernment and activity which led him to stare down fear in order to do what was right when his sheep were threatened or later, his people. Here, our picture might be of someone who is tough as nails, a Navy Seal or a rodeo bullrider.

In stark contrast, the second image suggests a young man who is sensitive, who loves the beauty of music and poetry, who sings to himself or to the surrounding trees and hills and who has a tender heart for the things of God's creation. The modern picture that emerges is at best one of a mild fellow, the guy who prefers soft jazz to rap, ballads to raucous rock, John Denver not JayZ.

Tough and tender.

To me, even at three quarters of a century of life, there is something thrilling, challenging, aspirational even to still seek to be a man after God’s own heart, and I persist in that with hope, but I’m also nearing the end. To younger men, I see clues in David’s life, clues God has embedded there for us to discern at the beginning of the trajectory of life, heart lessons in becoming a man. I don’t have all the answers, but a couple of thoughts are suggestive I’d share.

Make sure your picture of the man you want to become is the one God has of a real man after his own heart, that of His own Son, the descendant of David, who was the only one who fulfilled that vision to perfection. Seek to be like Christ as Paul says in Philippians 2:1-11. Here we see Jesus as that perfect combination of tender and tough. On the one hand he was humble, not driven by ego or ambition, willing to serve others though he had amazing power. On the other hand, he faced down the scariest enemy we know—death, death by torture and public shame as well as ultimate abandonment. We are not simply to emulate him, but to allow him into the heart of our life so that we can become more and more like him. We do this not by gritting our teeth but surrendering, receiving the gift of His new life.

Then we build the man on that foundation as David says in the great Psalm 119,[4] by answering the question: “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The inspired answer David gives us is this: “By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” This was not simply an obligatory nod David gave to God’s word, but likely a heart lesson he’s passing on to us that began in his younger years with the sheep and a lyre—that if we are really seeking after Him with our whole hearts, to be reshaped into Christlikeness, then we must learn to obey out of love by enshrining God’s word in the deepest places it can reside—in our hearts and minds. We get the sense this, too, was what God saw in the young David, a man of thoughtful reflection on scripture that informed his musical compositions. It’s a good place to start. We’ll take up David’s failure (and ours) next. Any thoughts or suggestions, please share them for the good of the order. God’s grace and peace.

Heartwork (not homework): Try taking Philippians 2:1-11 and do some heart inventory, then commit some of it, or all, to memory so you can reflect when you’re alone walking in the woods or listening to some good, heartening music.



[1] 1 Samuel 13:14, ESV

[2] 1 Samuel 16:7, ESV

[3] 2 Samuel 23:1 NAS

[4] Psalm 119:9-11, ESV