King David was a shepherd boy who became Israel’s third and most important king. He’s the most frequently mentioned human in the Old Testament, and the second most frequently mentioned human in the entire Bible (only Jesus Christ is mentioned more).
David is a main character in the Old Testament books 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Chronicles, and 2 Chronicles. He’s also mentioned in several other books, and nearly half of the Psalms are attributed to him. Today, David is most famous for being the boy who defeated a giant with a slingshot. In fact, the famous narrative of “David and Goliath” has been so prolific in literature, art, and culture that it’s become a common trope for describing other stories about underdogs. But what makes David such a significant biblical figure is his role in establishing God’s earthly headquarters in Jerusalem.
Despite his glaring flaws, the David is described as a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22). David was far from perfect, but his faith and zeal made him the standard against which all Israel’s future kings would be measured against.
So who was King David? What do we know about him? In this guide, we’ll cover the basic facts about who he is and what the Bible says about him.
Who was King David?
The Bible gives us a lot of information about King David. Between 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, Psalms, and 1 Chronicles, you could practically write his biography! (Don’t worry, it’s been done. Many times.)
Here are some of the things we know about David.
1. David was from the tribe of Judah
The 12 tribes of Israel descended from Jacob’s 12 sons, and with the exception of Levi, each tribe controlled a specific territory within the nation of Israel. Judah was the son who “prevailed over his brothers” (1 Chronicles 5:2), and while Saul—Israel’s first king—was from the tribe of Benjamin, Judah became the tribe of kings.
Judah’s territory included the city of Jerusalem. When David became king, he established Jerusalem as the nation’s capital and God’s headquarters, permanently altering Judah’s importance in Jewish life and culture. David’s line ruled in Jerusalem for about 400 years, until King Nebuchadnezzar captured the city and broke the line of kings.
2. David was Ruth and Boaz’s great grandson
The Book of Ruth is a story of love and redemption. It uses the relationships between a man named Boaz, a woman named Ruth, and her mother-in-law, Naomi, to paint a picture of God’s compassion for Israel.
David is directly descended from Ruth and Boaz. Several passages record his lineage, and they all point out that he was the son of Jesse, who was the son of Obed, who was the son of Boaz and Ruth—making him the great grandson of this significant couple (1 Chronicles 2:12).
Redemption ran in the family. Over the course of his life, David was frequently the vehicle God used to display his compassion and redeem his people. After his death, he became a symbol of God’s unique relationship with Israel and the redemption that was still to come.
3. David was the youngest of seven sons (or he had seven brothers)
After he finished the work of creation, God rested on the seventh day and made it holy (Genesis 2:3). As a result, the number seven came to represent completion and perfection in every facet of ancient Jewish culture. We see that in the Feast of Tabernacles, which occurred for seven days on the seventh month. The year of Jubilee—when debts were forgiven and property returned to its original owners, among other things—took place after seven cycles of seven years.
The biblical authors present slightly different representations of David’s immediate family: he was either Jesse’s seventh son, or his eighth (1 Chronicles 2:13–14, 1 Samuel 16:10–11). Scholars debate whether this represents a contradiction or if one of David’s brothers was simply omitted, but that’s not the point. David was not the firstborn son—a privileged position in Judaism—and the authors were intent on working in the number seven, associating David with holiness and God’s perfect plan for his people.
4. David was from Bethlehem
Today, most people associate the little town of Bethlehem with the birth of Jesus. But centuries before Jesus, another savior came from this unassuming town. The Gospel of Luke refers to Bethlehem as “the town of David” (Luke 2:4), because it was well-known that this was David’s old stomping grounds, and it was where Samuel anointed him king of God’s people.
While modern readers tend to focus on Jesus’ birth in a manger, it’s important to consider the implications that this manger was in Bethlehem—a town the Jewish people associated with one of the biggest announcements in their history, where their most important king had his humble beginnings.
5. David was God’s “anointed one”
Most people have heard Jesus described as the messiah. But he wasn’t the only person to hold this title. In the Bible, “anointed one” and “messiah” are synonymous. God’s anointed one was the person he chose to lead and save his people. When the Israelites wanted a human king, the prophet, Samuel, anointed Saul to show that God had set him apart for this special role:
“Then Samuel took a flask of olive oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, ‘Has not the Lord anointed you ruler over his inheritance?’ —1 Samuel 10:1
Years later, when Saul disobeyed God, God rejected him as king (1 Samuel 15:26). And it was time for God to choose someone else. So he sent Samuel to Jesse of Bethlehem, telling him “I have chosen one of his sons to be king” (1 Samuel 16:1).
Samuel thought he would know whom God had chosen by their appearance, and assumed the oldest, Eliab, was clearly the chosen one:
“When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.’” —1 Samuel 16:6
But God told Samuel that he doesn’t use the same factors as people when it comes to choosing kings:
“‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” —1 Samuel 16:7
Earlier, Samuel had prophesied to Saul, “the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command” (1 Samuel 13:14). And when Samuel laid eyes upon Jesse’s youngest son, the shepherd, David, the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”
When Samuel anointed David, it didn’t instantly make him king, but it did signal that he was the Lord’s chosen one, and “from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David” (1 Samuel 16:13).
6. David was a shepherd
Before he was a king, David was a shepherd. This was why he wasn’t with his brothers when Samuel came to anoint the next king (1 Samuel 16:11). And when the Philistines (and Goliath) invaded, David was torn between his duties as Saul’s musician and his responsibilities for tending his father’s sheep (1 Samuel 17:15).
As a shepherd, David didn’t merely feed and lead his father’s sheep. While a shepherd may seem like an inconsequential position, it was still dangerous. David killed bears and lions alike to defend his father’s sheep. In fact, David cites his experience as a shepherd to convince Saul why he can defeat Goliath:
“Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.” —1 Samuel 17:34–37
In his confrontation with Goliath, David would care for Yahweh’s flock—the people of Israel—and once again defend “his father’s sheep” from harm. This time, the Lord would rescue him from a foe that Saul and his entire army were terrified of (1 Samuel 17:11).
Later, David used his experience as a shepherd to create one of the most powerful portrayals of God’s relationship with his people, foreshadowing “the good shepherd” Jesus (John 10:11):
“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.” —Psalm 23:1–6
7. David was a musician
Many years before Samuel anointed David and the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, Samuel anointed Saul, and the Spirit of the Lord came upon Saul (1 Samuel 10:1–6). When David was anointed, the Spirit of the Lord left Saul, and an evil spirit began to torment him (1 Samuel 16:14).
Saul’s servants believed a musician would help soothe Saul whenever the spirit came to torment him. And it just so happened that David was a talented musician. So Saul had him brought in, and made him one of his armor-bearers.
“Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.” —1 Samuel 16:23
From this point on, David’s duties were divided between watching his father’s sheep and playing music for the king.
8. David was a giant slayer
Perhaps David’s biggest claim to fame was his legendary showdown with the Philistine giant, Goliath. The Israelite and Philistine armies lined up on opposing hills, Goliath taunted the Israelites and challenged them to decide the battle with a duel: him against one of them (1 Samuel 17:8-11).
Nobody wanted to take him up on the offer. But David came to the Israelite camp to play music for Saul, and he heard Goliath’s taunts. He also overheard the Israelites talking about what Saul would give to the person who defeated Goliath (1 Samuel 17:23-27).
Goliath wasn’t just taunting the Israelites. He was defying God himself on God’s own turf. Every day Israel declined Goliath’s challenge, they conceded that their God was no match for the gods of the Philistines. David wasn’t going to let this go on any longer. After convincing Saul to let him challenge Goliath, David chose five stones and went out to meet him.
Goliath mocked him and cursed him. And then David famously replied:
“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”
David killed Goliath with a single stone, hurled from his sling. He beheaded Goliath and took his weapons as trophies.
The story of David and Goliath has been told so many times through literature and art that David, Goliath, and their confrontation have all become cliched symbols for underdogs, brutal antagonists, and stories of overcoming impossible odds.
But in the Bible, this isn’t an underdog story. It’s a story of faith. David’s faith would become one of his defining characteristics, and it led him to overcome countless enemies after Goliath.
9. David was a great warrior
Defeating Goliath marked the beginning of David’s life as a warrior. Wherever Saul sent David, God went with him, and he was successful. And the more successful David became, the more responsibility Saul gave him:
“Whatever mission Saul sent him on, David was so successful that Saul gave him a high rank in the army. This pleased all the troops, and Saul’s officers as well.” —1 Samuel 18:5
But then people started to see David as greater than Saul. After the Israelites defeated the Philistines, women danced and sang:
“Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands.” —1 Samuel 18:7
Understandably, this made Saul feel threatened by David. As David’s fame as a warrior grew, Saul feared him more and more. This fear led Saul to drive away his greatest asset. He attempted to kill David on multiple occasions, and became his constant enemy.
After Saul died in battle with the Philistines, David warred against Saul’s commander Abner, and Saul’s last son, Ish-Bosheth, whom Abner had made king of Israel.
Eventually, David became king (more on how that happened in a moment), and continued his legacy as a great warrior.
10. David was Israel’s greatest king
Despite being anointed to rule God’s people, David had a long and arduous path to kingship. Even after Saul died in combat, those loyal to him weren’t just going to hand over the kingdom to David. Remember, Saul was anointed, too. And David had been living with and fighting for the Philistines—the Israelites sworn enemies.
When Saul died, the tribe of Judah anointed David as their king (2 Samuel 2:4), but Abner son of Ner, the commander of Saul’s army, made Saul’s son Ish-bosheth king over all Israel. So there were two kings and two kingdoms: Ish-bosheth became the second king of Israel, and David ruled Judah.
Unfortunately for Ish-bosheth, his reign was short-lived. And while he and Abner were at war with David the whole time he was in power, Ish-bosheth didn’t die by David’s hand.
Both Ish-bosheth and Abner were murdered. Abner was murdered out of revenge, and David cursed his killers and mourned his death. Ish-bosheth was murdered by Israelites who seemed to be trying to earn David’s favor. When they came to David with their “good news,” he had them executed for their crime.
With Saul’s family out of the picture, Israel’s elders met with David and anointed him king over all of Israel when he was thirty years old (2 Samuel 5:3-4).
During Saul’s reign, Jerusalem was captured, and the Ark of the Covenant was in Judah. When David became king, he retook the fortress of Zion (which became known as the City of David), conquered Jerusalem, and returned the Ark to the city.
As king of Israel, David won numerous battles and made Israel a formidable nation, expanding its territory and military might, all while pointing his people to God.
11. David committed adultery with Bathsheba
When his armies were out waging war without him, David walked along the roof of his palace and saw a beautiful woman bathing. He sent someone to find out about her, and learned she was married to Uriah the Hittite—one of his best soldiers (2 Samuel 23:39).
Now, this was hundreds of years before Jesus said looking at a woman lustfully was committing adultery in your heart (Matthew 5:27-28), but at this point it was pretty clear to David that this was not a relationship he could pursue. The Torah had a thing or two to say about adultery (Leviticus 18:20, Deuteronomy 5:18, Exodus 20:14), and it was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 22:22, Leviticus 20:10).
David knew all that, but he sent for her anyways, slept with her, and got her pregnant (2 Samuel 11:4-5). When David learned she was pregnant, he hatched a scheme to hide his sin: since her husband Uriah was away at war, David had him brought back home. If Uriah slept with her, then no one could say he was the one who got her pregnant.
But it didn’t work out that way. After David’s repeated attempts to get Uriah to spend time with his wife, Uriah told him:
“The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my commander Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open country. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and make love to my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!” —2 Samuel 11:11
So, to hide his sin, David committed another one.
12. David plotted to have Uriah killed
David killed a lot of people in battle. He killed a lot of prisoners after battles. And he executed plenty of criminals. But one killing in particular “displeased the Lord” (2 Samuel 11:27). When David couldn’t get Uriah to sleep with his wife Bathsheba (and therefore conceal David’s adultery), he plotted to have Uriah killed in combat.
“In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, “Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.”
So while Joab had the city under siege, he put Uriah at a place where he knew the strongest defenders were. When the men of the city came out and fought against Joab, some of the men in David’s army fell; moreover, Uriah the Hittite died.” —2 Samuel 11:14-17
In order to have Uriah killed in battle, Joab had to sacrifice some of David’s other men, and Joab feared David would be angry for the waste (2 Samuel 11:20). But David was rather indifferent. He told Joab’s messenger:
“Say this to Joab: ‘Don’t let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another. Press the attack against the city and destroy it.’ Say this to encourage Joab.” —2 Samuel 11:25
The lives of God’s people were simply collateral damage in David’s effort to cover up his sin.
Once Uriah was dead and Bathsheba had time to mourn him, David married her, and she gave birth to a son.
Later, the prophet Nathan rebuked David for his sin. Nathan told a story about a rich man who stole a prized lamb from a poor man. David condemned the man in the story, unaware that it was a metaphor for what he’d done to Uriah with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:1-10). Nathan told David that “the Lord has taken away your sin” (2 Samuel 12:13), but he also cursed him, and the son who came from David’s adultery died.
David committed a grave sin. But after his encounter with Nathan, David wrote Psalm 51, which reflects his humility and sincere repentance for what he’d done.
13. David was a man after God’s own heart
Before he anointed David, the prophet Samuel rebuked Saul and warned him “the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). David is the only person referred to this way in the Bible. But the Bible doesn’t explicitly tell us what Samuel meant by this. It’s possible that he simply meant David cared about the things God cared about. It’s also possible that we learn something of the character of God through the character of David.
In Acts 13:22, Paul appears to give an explanation:
“After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’”
It appears that Samuel called David “a man after God’s own heart” because of his obedience. But it’s also worth noting: God forbid David from building his temple because he had shed blood (1 Chronicles 28:3). So there seems to be some discrepancy between David and God’s heart.
14. David lived around 1,000 BC
The Bible doesn’t explicitly say when David lived, but many scholars believe he existed around 1,000 BC. A stone inscription known as the Tel Dan Stele dates from the late ninth or early eighth century BC, and it refers to the “House of David.” Another inscription from around 840 BC (the Moab Stele), may refer to David as well. Parts of 1 and 2 Samuel were written as early as the seventh and sixth centuries BC, likely using earlier accounts as sources.
15. David had (at least) eight wives
David had numerous wives and concubines. The Bible names eight wives, but it’s possible he had more. They are:
- Ahinoam of Jezreel
- Abigail (the widow of Nabal of Carmel)
- Maakah daughter of Talmai king of Geshur
- Michal (daughter of Saul)
The Bible doesn’t give a comprehensive list of David’s wives, but 2 Samuel 3:2-5 tells us the names of his sons as well as six of his wives, and he marries Michal (1 Samuel 18:27) and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:27) in other passages.
16. David wrote about half the Book of Psalms
David was a talented musician. But he also put his God-given creativity to work as a songwriter. Throughout the Old Testament narrative, we see David write laments and songs to commemorate important moments and express deep emotions, such as when he learns that Saul and Jonathan died (2 Samuel 1:19-27).
According to the Masoretic Text (based on ancient Jewish tradition), David wrote 73 out of the total 150 Psalms. The Septuagint (an early great translation of the Old Testament) and the Latin Vulgate (a fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible) include additional Psalms, and bring the number attributed to David closer to 85.
While Psalms is often (mistakenly) assumed to be the biggest book of the Bible, David actually didn’t write that much of the Bible in comparison to authors like Moses, Ezra, Luke, Jeremiah, and Paul. They each wrote at least 32,000 words, and the entire book of Psalms is only 30,000!
Here are the 73 Psalms attributed to David, according to Jewish (and Protestant) tradition:
|Psalm 3||Psalm 4||Psalm 5||Psalm 6||Psalm 7||Psalm 8||Psalm 9|
|Psalm 11||Psalm 12||Psalm 13||Psalm 14||Psalm 15||Psalm 16||Psalm 17|
|Psalm 18||Psalm 19||Psalm 20||Psalm 21||Psalm 22||Psalm 23||Psalm 24|
|Psalm 25||Psalm 26||Psalm 27||Psalm 28||Psalm 29||Psalm 30||Psalm 31|
|Psalm 32||Psalm 33||Psalm 34||Psalm 35||Psalm 36||Psalm 37||Psalm 38|
|Psalm 39||Psalm 40||Psalm 41||Psalm 51||Psalm 52||Psalm 53||Psalm 54|
|Psalm 55||Psalm 56||Psalm 57||Psalm 58||Psalm 59||Psalm 60||Psalm 61|
|Psalm 62||Psalm 63||Psalm 64||Psalm 65||Psalm 68||Psalm 69||Psalm 70|
|Psalm 86||Psalm 101||Psalm 103||Psalm 108||Psalm 109||Psalm 110||Psalm 122|
|Psalm 124||Psalm 131||Psalm 133||Psalm 138||Psalm 139||Psalm140||Psalm 141|
|Psalm 142||Psalm 143||Psalm 144||Psalm 145|
Most of the Psalms David wrote are laments, giving us intimate portraits of his darkest moments. But David also wrote Psalms of praise and thanksgiving, and frequently declared his trust in the Lord in spite of his circumstances.
An imperfect messiah
It’s fitting that David is such a prominent figure in the Old Testament. Because as an imperfect human, anointed by God to save and rule his people, David lays the foundation for Jesus Christ—the only sinless human, whom God would use to save and rule all of humanity.