The Best Leaders Are Followers: 3 Qualities of King David

Take a look at how Joshua followed Moses, Ruth followed Naomi, Paul followed Jesus or we follow Jesus. Or start from the beginning.

Saul did not earn David’s dedication. Saul was contentious, back-stabbing (literally!) and unpredictable. Sounds like some politicians. Actually a lot of politicians. But first let’s take a look at the progression of Israel’s first king:

untitled-design-1.pngContrary to God’s direction, the people of Israel demanded a king. So God instructed the prophet Samuel to annointed Saul in the 11th century B.C. (I Sam 10:1).  Although God has our life mapped out (his perfect plan), so often we think we have a better one. God allows us to follow our path (his permissible plan) until we find our way back to him. It’s like when our kids want to spend their chore money on candy. We know that’s not the best use of their hard-earned cash, but we allow it. We know eventually the tummy ache will set in and hopefully a better lesson will have been learned. So a king (like all the other nations had) was the Israelites’ candy. Several books of the Bible are dedicated to the consequential stomachache.

Saul began his rule with honor. The Spirit of God moved with power in his life and he saw success in his defeat of the Ammonites and gave God the glory (I Sam 11:6-13). Unfortunately it didn’t take long for pride to take hold of Saul’s heart. His first act of disobedience was to perform an offering to God instead of waiting for Samuel. His excuse? Samuel was long in coming and he saw his men deserting during the delay. He wanted to speed up the process (I Sam 13:8-14). This is the first we learn that Saul (and consequently his line) would be replaced. Later, after several more mishaps Samuel finally threw down the gauntlet:

“Rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft, and stubbornness as bad as worshiping idols. So because you have rejected the command of the Lord , he has rejected you as king.” 1 Samuel 15:23 NLT

Untitled design (4)Saul was king for 27 years when Samuel anointed David as king, but David didn’t take the throne right away. In fact David served under Saul’s rule for seven years before he is forced to flee for his life. He spent another eight years running from Saul before he finally took the throne. Saul suffered from raving jealousy. He was bent on removing David as a threat, both to his kingship and to his reputation. We may not have employers, officials or teachers plotting our demise (although it may seem like it) but many leaders simply do not deserve our loyalty nor to be followed. However, for nearly 20 years David modeled followership in some of the worst circumstances.

1.) David Serves his Leader
rust king iron bronze“Whatever Saul asked David to do, David did it successfully” (I Sam 18:5). David knew his role. He began as Saul’s personal musician, playing the harp when Saul was depressed then advanced to his personal armor bearer (I Sam 16:16-23).  Before long David was leading Saul’s army.  David was strong, handsome, successful and the people loved him. At least in Saul’s eyes, David was outshining him. Saul’s envy turned to resentment then to hate. After a victorious battle Saul heard his people praising David: “‘Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands'” (I Sam 18:7). He couldn’t stand David getting more credit. Even though they were on the same team, Saul was threatened. And from that point on he kept a “jealous eye” on David. I’ve been in positions where I felt in competition with a team member. We were working toward the same goal, but somehow the threat of being eclipsed caused a huge rift. Suddenly the work environment became toxic, tense, intolerable. I was tempted to throw up my hands and walk away. But I stuck it out. While I was respectful in public, my heart boiled with anger and frustration. My thoughts were, well let’s just say “not kind.” Eventually we got through the project and even had a chance to talk out the issue. While I can’t say I handled it poorly, I could have handled it better. I definitely didn’t turn it all over to God.

Eventually Saul’s mental state declined and David, despite his full-time job as a soldier, took time to play the harp which soothed Saul’s nerves. Nothing seemed to matter. In a fit of rage, Saul launched a spear at David. The Bible tells us David escaped “twice.” I take this to mean this happened on two occasions. David remained dutiful in his role even though he had to dodge deadly projectiles! It takes “love your enemy” to a whole new level. If we are to model David’s followership we will fulfill our roles with excellence, even with contentious leaders. It takes integrity, resolve and a total submission to God to serve leaders who, frankly, don’t deserve to be followed.

2.) David Defends his Leader
cave near trees“So David restrained his men and did not let them kill Saul” (I Sam 24:7). After several schemes to murder David don’t pan out, Saul finally stationed troops outside David’s home with orders to kill on sight. David’s wife, hearing of the plan, warned her husband. David finally fled. He became a wanted man, hunted by a madman.  Some time later Saul happened on a cave (which apparently doubled as a urinal) where David and his men were hiding out. David had his opportunity. Saul was at his most vulnerable. David’s men encouraged him, claiming:

Today the Lord is telling you, ‘I will certainly put your enemy into your power, to do with as you wish.’ I Sam 24:4 NLT

How many times have you had this kind of advice? Tips from well-meaning friends who know the terrible treatment you’ve endured at the hands of a despicable leader. A jealous boss who takes credit for your hard work. A tyrannical teacher who continually criticizes your assignments. An egocentric pastor who never seems to appreciate your sacrifices. The first opportunity to take revenge, to overcome, to expose the leader’s weakness might seem like a gift from God. David certainly had every reason to take action. He crept up on Saul in the dark of the cave.  But instead of attacking, he cut a corner of Saul’s robe, showing he had the opportunity, but restrained himself. Even then he was moved with guilt saying “I shouldn’t attack the Lord’s anointed one, for the Lord himself has chosen him” (I Sam 24:6). So here we come to it. Regardless of behaviour, leaders are chosen by God. Is God’s arm to short to allow the bad boss, teacher, pastor, mayor, senator, president, to be where they are? It is not our place to put our leaders in theirs. The apostle Paul says it this way in Romans 12: “Bless those who persecute you” (14) and “Do not repay evil for evil” (17). We leave the vengeance to the Creator of the universe (who also created our dishonorable leaders). Only he knows their hearts, the situation and the remedy. He’s working a bigger plan and our desire to “get back” at someone only gets in the way.

3.) David Submits to his Leader’ Position
Untitled design“David came out and shouted after [Saul,] ‘My lord the king!’ And . . . David bowed low before him” (I Sam 24:8). Imagine the President of the United States has marked you for death and is personally pursuing you. While he’s indisposed you see your opportunity. But instead you not only spare his life, but address him with respect and reverence. Could you do it? I might not be up for killing, but I doubt I would show respect, I definitely would not be kind. It’s quite a speech, but pay attention to how David addressed Saul:

I will never harm the king—he is the Lord’s anointed one. Look, my father, at what I have in my hand. It is a piece of the hem of your robe! I cut it off, but I didn’t kill you. This proves that I am not trying to harm you and that I have not sinned against you, even though you have been hunting for me to kill me. May the Lord judge between us. Perhaps the Lord will punish you for what you are trying to do to me, but I will never harm you. As that old proverb says, ‘From evil people come evil deeds.’ So you can be sure I will never harm you. Who is the king of Israel trying to catch anyway? Should he spend his time chasing one who is as worthless as a dead dog or a single flea? May the Lord therefore judge which of us is right and punish the guilty one. He is my advocate, and he will rescue me from your power! I Sam 24:10-15 NLT

David didn’t grovel or manipulate or flatter Saul. He didn’t give Saul credit for his fine leadership skills, bravery, discernment or wisdom. He addressed Saul with reverence calling him king, the Lord’s anointed one, even father. But he “tells it like it is.”  Without addressing Saul’s faults, David did question his motives. Then he turned it over to God. Submitting to leaders doesn’t always mean agreeing with them. It doesn’t mean overlooking their mistakes or mistreatments. Being called to follow doesn’t mean we don’t defend ourselves, even walk away from an abusive leader. But we do it with the respect for what the position has earned, even if the person is undeserving. We submit to God if our role is under someone with less-than-stellar leadership skills.

Following a good leader is encouraging, satisfying, even fun. Following a mediocre leader is tiring and discouraging. Following a bad leader feels downright hopeless. But God sent Jesus to die for all of us. Including your inept boss. As a follower of Jesus, we are called to follow others well, no matter how bad they are at leading. Who knows, the respect, mercy and grace you show your leader might be just what opens their eyes to what true leadership looks like.


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