The David we find in 2 Samuel 11-20 is a man who loses focus, loses his leadership ability, and ultimately loses both his kingdom and much of his legacy.
Unfortunately, as Paul Harvey would say, there’s “the rest of the story.” David remains a perfect icon for emulation throughout the account in 1 Chronicles, but the author of 1-2 Samuel is not averse to telling the whole story. The David we find in 2 Samuel 11-20 is a man who loses focus, loses his leadership ability, and ultimately loses both his kingdom and much of his legacy.
What lessons could a president ”or a pastor or other leader ”learn from David’s decline?
1. Never think you’ve “arrived.” After David had consolidated his kingdom, defeated enough enemies to establish “homeland security,” organized his government bureaucracy, and settled in his capital, he appears to have grown complacent. “At the time of the year when kings go out to war,” we read in 2 Sam. 11:1, “David sent Joab” to lead an ongoing battle against neighboring Ammon, “but David remained in Jerusalem.” In the ancient Near East, a king’s first priority was to lead the army. Instead of fulfilling his accustomed duties, however, David remained behind, taking naps in his rooftop veranda and ogling his neighbor’s wife as she bathed in the inner courtyard of their home. Whether president or pastor, any leader who decides that he or she has “arrived” and starts to coast is bound for trouble: there are many distractions to lead us astray.
2. Don’t lose your moral compass. Somewhere along the way, being right and doing right fell from the top of David’s priority list, and self-satisfaction took their place. David’s sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah (2 Sam 11) grew from the seed of his failure to focus on the task at hand, and flowered with his abandonment of a previous commitment to upright living. While David told his co-conspirator in Uriah’s death not to “let it seem evil in your eyes” (11:25), the narrator is careful to point out that “the thing that David did was evil in the eyes of Yahweh” (11:27b).
3. Don’t play favorites. After the prophet Nathan condemned David’s actions and predicted that violence would never depart from his house, things began to fall apart. David’s oldest son, Amnon, raped his half-sister, Tamar ”but David did nothing. Tamar’s full brother, Absalom, then murdered Amnon ”but David did nothing (2 Sam 13). Allowing his sons to get away with both rape and murder set a poor example for David’s followers. When justice becomes so lopsided as to become injustice, all moral authority is lost, and chaos will reign.
4. Don’t trade courage for self-pity. Absalom ultimately led a full-fledged rebellion against David and unseated him as king when David and his closest followers fled Jerusalem for the trans-Jordanian retreat of Mahanaim. When Absalom led his large but untrained army in pursuit of David, the small veteran army that remained with him won the victory, but it was clearly their doing, and not David’s (2 Sam 14-18).
5. Don’t lose interest in your supporters. Successful leaders are devoted to the well-being and success of their followers or supporters. David, however, became so self-absorbed and so stricken by the death of Absalom in the battle that he demoralized his own army. As the soldiers returned from battle in victory, they found David sitting atop the gate, weeping loudly over Absalom, causing his own soldiers to feel ashamed and slink into town as if they had lost the battle and retreated in disgrace. Ultimately, David’s army chief had to give him a kick in the royal rear and insist that he stand up and honor the troops who risked their lives for him, lest he lose them altogether (2 Sam 19:5-7). People know if their leader cares for them ”or not. And they don’t follow someone who has no interest in or appreciation for them.
6. Don’t lose your respect. Despite Absalom’s death, it was not automatic that David would return to the throne. He had to be invited by the elders of Israel and Judah to reassume his position of leadership. David, however, showed no initiative in making that happen. While the elders of Israel and Judah argued among themselves over who should get credit for bringing David back to the throne, David remained silent, like a puppet pulled between the two factions (2 Sam 19-20). He appears to have lost all respect, and when respect is lost, so is leadership. No president, pastor or company CEO can lead effectively if he or she has lost the respect of the people.
7. Don’t lose your joy. David came on the scene as a joyful young man who sang and danced and led others with an infectious joie de vivre. In the narrative account of 2 Samuel, however, that joy of living faded away and was replaced by hard-hearted cynicism. David died an old and bitter man, according to 1 Kings 1-2, more interested in settling scores with old foes than with setting the stage for a peaceful transition of leadership. Rivalries among emerging leaders set the stage for future troubles that would be played out long after David’s departure.
I sort of doubt that either of our presidential hopefuls is looking to David for lessons on leadership ”but for leaders of any stripe or measure, wisdom is there for the taking.
Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today. This column appeared previously on his Baptists Today blog.
David’s Advice for Presidential Candidates: Part One