Making Sense of King David’s Polygamy

King David seems like a mystery at times.

At least to me he does. On the one hand, he is a man after God’s own heart. He was the “Lord is my shepherd” guy. God was so pleased with David that he made an everlasting covenant with him, promising him that one of his descendants would be on the throne forever. Spiritually speaking, David had everything going for him.

On the other hand, David had some pretty nasty flaws. He seduced Bathsheba and murdered Uriah. He would have killed Nabal if Nabal’s wife, Abigail hadn’t stepped in. Then, after Nabal died David decided to marry Abigail. Which seems like a happy ending until you remember that David already had a wife. By the end of his life David actually had several wives.

So what’s the deal? Why did God allow David to have multiple wives? Why didn’t God punish David for his polygamy? Did God approve of David’s polygamy? These kind of questions can make the Old Testament seem really confusing.

In his book, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, Paul Copan makes a very helpful point in this regard. He says:

…the Biblical authors often don’t comment on such actions [such as polygamy] because (at least in part) they assume that they don’t need to. In other words, is doesn’t mean ought; the way biblical characters happen to act isn’t necessarily an endorsement of their behavior.

In other words, just because it is in the Bible doesn’t mean that it’s good. In Genesis 1-2 we see God’s ideal: a marriage between one man and one woman. In Deuteronomy 17:17, God says to the future kings of Israel: “And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.” God never intended a king, or anyone else for that matter, to have multiple wives.

The reality, however, is that God patiently works with sinful men and women who live in a sinful world. God stoops to our level and works with us in spite of our flaws. David was king during a time when there would have been pressure to make marriage for political reasons. Did God approve of this? No, but he worked within the framework of David’s world and he extended grace to David.

On a side note, it is interesting to note that every time multiple marriages happen in scripture, strife occurred. God didn’t necessarily punish polygamy, but he didn’t bless it either. God’s grace works in mysterious ways.

I’m grateful we serve a God of grace. I’m sure that hundreds of years from now people will look back on the church and see many obvious flaws and much obvious fruit. Because God is gracious, and he meets us where we are.

  • Josh

    To me, it's always encouraging to see God greatly use people with major flaws.

    Also, I think that God didn't really need to punish the polygamy of the Old Testament saints because polygamy has punishment inherent with it. Every time we see polygamy in the Bible it always comes with a side of heartache and suffering.

    Just my two cents. :-)

  • Paul C

    It would also be good to remember that because of David's transgressions (despite his repentance) God promised that the sword would never depart from his house. And it happened… Still, descriptive (polygamy in this case or Noah's drunken spell) are not prescriptive, as someone said.

    As a side note, I used to be a missionary in Kenya, far out in the bush where we pastored a small church. One of the brothers had 2 wives. One wife started coming to church with him… One day the other wife came to church with a knife to hurt (or kill) the other wife. Thank God we had a good service, and she had a change of heart – for that day at least. Polygamy, no matter where or when, is never a good thing.

  • Ross D

    I'm not at all trying to pick a fight, but this is an issue that still confuses me. The explanation above made sense to me until I was reading 2 Samuel 12 today where Nathan confronts David. In that passage, the Lord speaks to David through the prophet saying:

    8 And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.

    A plain reading of that verse seems to indicate, from the mouth of the Lord, that David's multiple wives (or at least the wives of Saul) were given to him, and the context seems to fit those wives into the category of a gift or blessing, and in a sexual manner ("into your arms").

    Am I understanding this incorrectly?

    • Phil C
    • jay

      I’m sorry to say but the bible said that you should mutiple wives but it never say you shouldn’t have more than one wife. Reread Deut 17:17. We cannot multiply wives but the lord can. The scriptures states that David was right in all his doing exept Uriah’s wife. Not just David but Abraham and Jacob had more than one wife the bible even give instructions not to treat the favorite better than the not do faviote wife. These sre fact. People are going to say he allowed but there is no such language in thr bible.

      • jay

        I meant you shouldn’t multiply wives…

  • britg89

    I think it should also be stated, BECAUSE so many try to use the bible an excuse, that those in the bible who commited polygamy, repented of it. David for example, put away all his wives, and was no longer a polygamist during the later parts of his life. If we read the psalms, we can see where david’s heart was on the issue-monogamy, which is obvious in his Psalms, and in the wisdom he passed on to his son on the issue-Proverbs 5:18. Men of God, who truly walk after Yeshua(Jesus), will not only have the desire to
    walk in purity, but in healthy relationships, especially with their wife(singular). David eventually became a man, and learned from his mistakes and had the
    heart for monogamy. He had a heart that sought to do what was right. To say that he had a heart for polygamy and didn't repent of it, is like saying that a believer in Messiah can have a heart for murder, and God will not punish them for it.
    Matthew 5:28-it all starts in the heart." and God gave David saul's wives to watch over, not take for his own.

    • jay

      Just because his heart left his other wives don’t make it right. Abandoning what the lord gave him is another sin. Weak point. Jacob aka Israel had 4 wives and they are the choosen onr the learn originally came for.

  • David52

    David was most assuredly a polygamist. Ck out 1 Chronicles 3- he had seven wives who each bore him children. The situation with Bathsheba. was taking another mans wife and arranging his death to cover up the pregnancy from David and Bathsheba's adultery.
    There is no record of David putting these wives away.David put his ten concubines away after his son Absalom was with them sexually.
    Polygamy in the OT was tolerated by God: Abraham- Sarah & Hagar-later Keturah probably while Hagar was still alive. The prophet. Samuel's father had two wives. Jacob had two wives and two concubines. Gideon also named Zerubabel is recorded as having many wives and seventy sons. Interesting to note that after the death of David and Bathsheba's illigitamet child they were allowed to stay together as man and wife; she was the mother of Solomon. The only prohibitions laid out by God in the OT for polygamy was marrying idolaters and neglecting one wife vs.another. In the NT Jesus commands. Gods original. plan that two not twenty become one flesh

    • adamrussell

      Please reference chapter and verse where Jesus himself commanded that.

    • jay

      God said that the whole church and him shall br one. Just because two become one twine the new testament never say its wrong but actually give parable like the 10 virgins. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. Too many people just see what they want. It written clearly. Stop trying to find your beliefs in the bible just believe the bible over any pastor.

  • adamrussell

    Solomon had hundreds of wives. Im not sure where you even got the idea that polygamy is a sin. The only thing I have ever seen was in the new testament where it is said that leaders of the church should have only one – so that they would be above reproach. Even that doesnt read like it is claiming it is a sin. And that didnt come from God or from Jesus – it was in a letter. If it doesnt actually say it in the bible, are you saying that God told you personally? Serious question. Are you?

    • jay

      You are so correct that letter from Paul is the only verse that says that and it was only for the bishops

  • pee_jay

    The Bible clearly states that the ONLY PERSON that say I AM THE WAY is JESUS (John 14.6), not David, not Solomon, not Abraham nor any other person. So who should we follow?? Also God in HIS infinite made a wife for Adam and the two became one (Gen 2.22-24). I think sin comes only when we keep God away from our lives. As a husband I will do everything possible to love and cherish my WIFE so that I can present her to myself (Ephesians 5.25-33) just as Christ is doing for the CHURCH (a bit mysterious so let God be in control).

    • jay

      The start was like that but the very next generation there was polygamy. Jesus never once said polygamy was wrong and there was a lot of people who practiced while he was alive. Where is the condemnation? No where because it was against our Saviour’s commandments. Look at history the jews practice polygamy until 1917 when a rabbi decided that they shouldn’t practice it. Stop trying to justify your hate for polygamy. Nobody is trying to hate on monogamy.

  • Phil C
  • tshegofatso

    No body can know God completely, not one can claim that I know him without reproach. God deals with every man according to his will,grace and the mans faith. God gave David rights that many of us do not have, he even allowed him to loot and kill all other nations while he resided in philistine country (ziklag)1 Samuel 27v8 but he defended him when the same was done to him. So, we do not have an Idea of what God thought of David’s polygamy except in 2 samuel chapter 12. Let us allow the holy spirit to lead us to God’s personal will for our personal life and if the holy spirit is involved there is Grace. And yes, the times that we live in do not allow for multiple relationships with many wifes. We are with jesus now and we are all his wifes and he calls us one body because he sees us as one with him but relates to us individually. Each with his/her time with the Lord and I am completely happy, there is no strife.

    • jay

      Thats your belief but there is no commandment in the bible prohibiting polygamy. Good can do what he did in the old testament. He did change the law but fulfill it. And that one didn’t need to be fulfilled because there is nothing wrong with it. Don’t blind yourself with your beliefs just believe the bible

  • questioneverything

    "…the Biblical authors often don’t comment on such actions [such as polygamy] because (at least in part) they assume that they don’t need to. In other words, is doesn’t mean ought; the way biblical characters happen to act isn’t necessarily an endorsement of their behavior…"

    However Biblical authors are usually quick to condemn things that are against God's will. This is a weak argument in my opinion and is extrapolating too much. Considering that polygamy is still present in the new testament and is still never directly condemned, except when referring to church leaders, I would say it is pretty silly to think that the Bible is taking advantage of our common sense on this issue. If memory serves, it was the monogamous pagan Romans who looked with disfavor on polygamy among the Jews.

    • jay

      Great response! Just like some church have pagan ways.