King David: A Permissive Father


In reading 2 Samuel, we see how David caused himself and his family unspeakable trouble and grief by his sins. Through his own behaviors, David was a poor father to his sons. But David was a poor father in other ways, too. He did not discipline his own children when it was needed, and this loose attitude toward discipline was a contributing factor to his sons’ sins, as well.

We have two examples of this. First, in the story of his son Amnon’s assault of his sister Tamar, we read a very telling comment. In most of our Bibles, we read that after Amnon had brutally assaulted Tamar, his father David heard about this and he was furious at Amnon’s actions (2 Samuel 13:21). This is a natural and noble reaction. David appears blameless in this incident: a naturally frustrated father at his son’s outrageous behavior.

However, there is more to the story. In several important and very early manuscripts of the Bible, we read an additional comment, which we can find in the footnote to this verse in the ESV. This statement reveals that David was afraid to discipline his son properly, and this was the reason for Amnon’s rebelliousness. Here is how it reads: “but [David] would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, since he was his first-born.” In short, David spoiled his son. He was afraid to confront his son about his behavior, and he suffered serious consequences because of it.

This was not an isolated case. We also read that David did not properly discipline his son Adonijah. Here is what the Bible says in 1 Kings 1:6: “his father had never at any time displeased him by asking, ‘Why have you done thus and so?’”

In two separate cases, we have exactly the same fault highlighted from David’s parenting style: he did not discipline his children. In the case of Amnon, it was because he loved his son, and he confused permissiveness with love. Since disciplining his son would cause him anger or sadness, David thought that this would show that he did not love him, so he was permissive instead. In the case of Adonijah, the text literally reads, “David did not displease his son by asking him, ‘Why do you do thus and so?’”

We can learn two things from this example in David’s life. First, we must learn well the lesson that we cannot discipline our children without displeasing them once in a while. That’s because our children are sinners, just as we are, and sometimes they must be made to suffer consequences for their wrong actions. Being a father is not a popularity contest; sometimes good fathering requires that we make unpopular decisions, that we do indeed interfere with our children’s lives. We need to interfere to protect them from self-destructive behaviors. We need to interfere when they hurt others. We need to interfere when they displease God.

A second lesson we can learn from David’s life in this area is that parenting is not just something that fathers leave to their wives to do. It is very interesting that the great King David, the mighty warrior who killed Goliath and so many others, is held responsible for disciplining his sons. The Scriptures do not say that these sons went wrong because David’s wives were not good mothers. No, they went wrong, at least in part, because David was not a good father. He did not step up and take the responsibility that was his: to provide the proper limits to his sons’ behavior. His position as king did not excuse him from stepping in and disciplining his children.

May God grant us all the grace to discipline our children in proper ways, with equal portions of firmness and love. May God especially grant us fathers the grace to meet our obligations in these matters.

Dr. David Howard
Professor of Old Testament



  1. Pray that we would faithfully parent and grandparent our families and those the Lord puts in our lives.
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