In Hans Christian Andersen’s classic children’s story, The Emperor’s New Suit, a leader is surrounded by advisors and a kingdom full of people who refuse to tell him the naked truth. Motivated by their desire to appear urbane and sophisticated, advisors and citizens alike lavish the emperor with compliments on his outrageously expensive, custom-tailored suit. Of course, only people who are qualified for office or particularly intelligent can see the suit. No one wants to be thought of as inept, so all praise the look, the tailoring and the fit of the emperor’s new clothes.
The emperor is proud of his expensive new clothes. On the suggestion of his closest advisors, the emperor decides to wear his clothes and march in a parade through town. As he marches in the festival followed by maids holding the train of this imaginary garment, the crowd all comments on how wonderful the garment looks.
The story comes to a fitting end when a child in the crowd speaks out with integrity about what he sees. Without the pretense of sophistication or the desire to curry the favor of the powerful, the child simply declares, “The emperor has no clothes!” Without even thinking of the “politically correct” answer, the child pierces the emperor’s illusion with a blinding glimpse of the truth.
For any leader with eyes to see and ears to hear, this story from the 1800s continues to speak loudly of the danger of depending on the counsel of yes-men. For when “the lie” is shattered by reality, the leader is left standing naked and exposed before the world.
1 Kings 22 records that Ahab, the King of Israel, had a similar approach to leadership. He surrounded himself with prophets who told him what he wanted to hear. More cheerleaders than advisors, their counsel would result in the death of the King.
“He said to Jehoshaphat, “Will you go with me to battle at Ramoth-gilead?” Jehoshaphat replied to the king of Israel, “I am as you are; my people are your people, my horses are your horses.” But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, “Inquire first for the word of the LORD.” (1 Kings 22:1-5)
Three years of peace had passed between Israel and Syria (20:34) but Ahab decided that it was time to go to war over Ramoth-gilead, a city in the Transjordan whose possession was in dispute. Ahab’s decision to go to war was quick and not subject to discussion or debate.
War is not always a hard sell for political leaders. It was probably very easy for Ahab to stir the nationalistic pride in the hearts of his people. He would challenge them to rise up and reclaim the land that rightly belonged to Israel. There is no indication in the text that Ahab stopped to consider the cost of this aggression in human life or property. He had made up his mind to go to war.
Jeff Scott is senior pastor at Colonial Avenue Baptist Church in Roanoke, Va.