Society & Politics

Leadership Lessons from the Life of David - Part 2: A Leader After God's Own Heart


Preston Manning, Senior Fellow

This article is the second in a series by Preston Manning on leadership lessons from the life of the biblical David. A member of the Canadian House of Commons from 1993 to 2001, founder of two new political parties—the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Allianceand the Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000, Preston works with the MI on the development and communication of faith-informed approaches to political leadership and public policy.

But the Lord said to Samuel,“Do not consider his appearance or his height … The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
(I Samuel 16:7)

To understand and learn from the personal journey of another, particularly a journey at the interface of faith and politics, it is important to understand the historical context in which that journey began and unfolded. So let us now briefly review the context which shaped David’s relationship with the priest and prophet Samuel and within which David’s personal journey from the sheep pen to the throne began.

From Theocracy to Monarchy

Since the days of Moses, the Hebrew people had lived under a theocratic form of government. The role of spiritual and political leadership was combined, first in the person of Moses, then Joshua, and later the “Judges” of which Samuel was the last.

Under Samuel’s predecessor, Eli, the priesthood, and therefore the theocracy, became corrupt (I Sam. 2:17-36). And although Samuel himself was a godly priest and a just administrator, his sons (like Eli’s) engaged in immoral practices and the people rejected them as Samuel’s successors (I Sam. 8:1-8).

The children of Israel longed for a warrior-king: “Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles” (I Sam. 8: 19-20). Eventually they got their wish, and the story (I Sam. 8-10) of Israel’s transition from a theocracy to a monarchy – a transition in which faith and politics are inextricably intermingled – is one of the most fascinating and instructive portions of the Old Testament scriptures for anyone operating at the interface of faith and politics today.

The transition occurred, without bloodshed, under Samuel’s direction but against his better judgement. It had a profound impact on his personal relationship (and those of future priests and prophets) with Israel’s future kings, especially Saul and David. It raised the issue – highly relevant to faith-oriented political leaders today – of what to do when the will of the people conflicts with the leader’s faith-based understanding of the will of God.

For Samuel, who firmly believed that God Himself was Israel’s King, the people’s request for an earthly king was sacrilegious rebellion (I Sam. 12:12-19). But to his immense credit he resisted the temptation to “leap to judgement” based only on his own convictions and assessment of the situation. Instead, he took the request and the issue to God in prayer – no doubt agonizing prayer, as prayer over major issues with implications for hundreds of thousands of people invariably is.

Jehovah’s response must have shaken Samuel to the core, for if acted upon it would turn his political and spiritual world upside down: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you: it is not you they have rejected but they have rejected me as their king. ... Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do” (I Sam. 8: 7-9).

Reluctantly but faithfully Samuel obeyed this instruction. He had brought the issue to God in prayer – always the first step in trying to decide how to act on an issue at the interface of faith and politics. He had waited for a reply, not responding or acting in haste on his own initiative. Then he was told to hearken in this instance to the people’s voice but to explicitly do so under protest and to make clear with prophetic insight what the long range consequences of their actions would be. This he did also, and Samuel’s warning about the expansionist and dictatorial tendencies of human government when looked to for national salvation is as relevant today as when it was given centuries ago:

This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth[1] of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves (1 Sam. 8:11-17).

Finally, Samuel again asked the people whether, in the light of his warnings, they still wished to proceed. When they answered “yes” he repeated their answer to the Lord who replied, “Listen to them and give them a king” (I Sam. 8:20). Samuel then proceeded to identify and anoint Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, as Israel’s first king.

Samuel and Saul[2]

Like David later, Saul came from a humble background, “from the smallest tribe of Israel and … the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin.” When we are first introduced to him, he is hunting, not for fame, fortune, or power, but for some lost donkeys. His search leads him to inquire of Samuel, not for spiritual or political guidance, but for information on where he might find the donkeys. Humble beginnings indeed.

The record continues, “When Samuel caught sight of Saul, the Lord said to him, ‘This is the man I spoke to you about; he will govern my people.’” Apparently Samuel finds this quite believable as Saul is “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others.”

Samuel then proceeds to give Saul “a message from God” – that he is to be anointed leader over God’s people and that in preparation for this role the Spirit of God will come upon him and he will become a changed man.

All this comes to pass, and Saul is presented by Samuel to the people: “‘Do you see the man the Lord has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.’ Then the people shouted ‘Long live the king.’”

Sadly, notwithstanding this auspicious beginning, King Saul becomes perhaps the most tragic figure in all of the Old Testament, just as Judas Iscariot is the most tragic figure of the New Testament.

At first Saul is successful in discerning and accepting God’s direction and in fighting Israel’s battles, particularly with the Philistines and the Amalekites. But then on two successive occasions he fails to heed God’s specific instructions given to him through Samuel. He fails to wait for Samuel to offer the sacrifice before an engagement with the Philistines, taking on the priestly role himself. And he fails to totally destroy the Amalekites and their property as he had been instructed to do, holding on to a portion as the spoils of war.

On both occasions, Saul is deceptive in explaining what he has done (or not done) and in attempting to justify his behaviour to God and to Samuel. Samuel tells him he has acted foolishly and his professed repentance is insincere and unacceptable.

As a consequence, God announces to Samuel – who conveys the news to Saul – that He has rejected Saul as King. Saul and Samuel part company, and “until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again.” The spirit of the Lord “departs” from Saul and he is increasingly tempted and troubled by “an evil spirit.” (It is during this period that David enters Saul’s service as a minstrel and a soldier – more on this later.)

Saul who was once self-effacing and “small in his own eyes,” erects a monument to himself and his questionable victory over the Amalekites. But then bereft of access to Samuel’s guidance and God’s favour, Saul descends into murderous paranoia, spiritual despair, and madness – not exactly a healthy role model for the future king, David.

Character as a fundamental qualification for political leadership

In a future study we will look at lessons to be learned from David’s long and tortuous relationship with Saul before succeeding him. But long before Saul’s demise, Samuel is told by God to stop mourning for him and to go and anoint a successor – “a man after God’s own heart” – from among the sons of Jesse of Bethlehem (I Sam. 16:1). 

In Samuel’s search for the successor to Saul there are at least two great lessons for us as we seek to identify, recruit, and support suitable candidates for political office in our day.

1. Outward appearances – background, physical attractiveness, knowledge, skills, experience – important as they are, are not the most important qualifications.

In our age of image-politics, where being telegenic and having excellent communication skills are considered the most important prerequisites to political success, this is extremely hard advice to take seriously. It seems so counter-intuitive as to be almost foolish.

Even Samuel, in assessing the suitability of the various sons of Jesse for the kingship, almost repeated the same mistake he had made in assessing Saul’s qualifications, i.e., putting too much faith in an impressive physical appearance. When Eliab, Jesse’s first-born son and apparently an impressive figure, appeared before Samuel, his immediate thought was, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here” (I Sam 16:6).

But the Lord said to Samuel,“Do not consider his appearance or his height … The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 
(I Samuel 16:7)

To be clear, we are not being taught that such characteristics as background, physical attractiveness, knowledge, skills, and experience are unimportant, any more so than they were unimportant in David’s case.  David had a winsome and charismatic persona. “He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features” (I Sam. 16:12). His background as a rugged outdoorsman (which is what shepherds were) would serve him well as a soldier and during his years in exile as a hunted fugitive. The Psalms evidence an impressive knowledge of the law and of the reality of God, which he likely acquired at an early age.

But important as all these characteristics are, the lesson from Samuel’s experience in recruiting David as the future King of Israel under God’s direction is that they are not the most important qualifications.

2. Character – the inner condition of the human heart is not only something most important to God, it is the most important qualification for political office.

So what did God see plainly – and Samuel only dimly at first – when He looked at David’s heart?

He saw a caring heart. David was not simply a hired hand (John 10:13) who “cares nothing for the sheep.” Nor was he one of those self-serving and exploitive shepherds (leaders) denounced by Ezekiel: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves. Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock” (Ezekiel 34:2-3).   

God saw a servant heart, a self-sacrificial heart. David faithfully served his father, his king, and his people. He is frequently referred to in the Scriptures as “God’s servant” (e.g., Psalm: 78:70). He was prepared to lay down his life for his flock, his king, his country, and his God – like “the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15). Many centuries later the “son of David” would also demonstrate these qualities of heart, declaring, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).

When God looked at David’s heart He saw a courageous heart, courage that enabled him to defend his flock from the bear and the lion and his people from their enemies. He saw an honest heart, an integrity of heart which would enable David to be honest with himself and with God, unlike Saul who was deceitful and duplicitous. In David, God saw a faithful and loyal heart capable of intense and prolonged loyalty to his flock, his friends (Jonathan), his king, and his Lord. And God saw a patient heart – the heart of a man who would “wait on God” – the posture which David frequently assumes in his Psalms – rather than rush ahead impetuously on his own initiative as Saul was wont to do.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when God looked at David’s heart he saw a spiritually sensitive heart – a man who could see and sense God’s presence everywhere (Psalm 139:7). He saw a teachable and obedient heart – a man who was willing to be under authority and learn to lead by first learning to follow.


You may feel that we are presenting too idealistic a picture of David and his character, and perhaps we are. David certainly had his faults, and many of these admirable heart-characteristics which became evident later in his life would have been very hard for Samuel to discern in the teenage shepherd. But the main point is that in looking for spiritual and political leaders, look at the heart as God does – for character.

In seeking to identify, recruit, and support suitable candidates for political office in our day – a responsibility of democratic citizenship – of course, let us not ignore the importance of physical attractiveness, background, knowledge, skills, and experience.

But above all, let us look for evidence of those even more important characteristics of the heart – a heart that is caring, serving, self-sacrificial, courageous, honest, faithful, loyal, patient, spiritually perceptive, teachable, and obedient.


  1. Samuel in effect predicts that Israel’s government under its king will take at least 10% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. Today the Israeli government appropriates over 45% of Israel’s GDP.
  2. Read I Samuel 9-16 to study the story of Samuel and Saul in detail.

Source: Marketplace Institute

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