Society & Politics

Leadership Lessons from the Life of David - Part 3: The Subordinate Leader


Preston Manning

This article is the third 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.

David in Subordination to Saul

We resume the story of David’s development as a political and spiritual leader at the point where God has abandoned Saul as Israel’s King (I Sam. 15) and instructed Samuel to go and anoint David, “a man after God’s own heart,” as Israel’s future king (I Sam. 16).

Shortly thereafter, when Saul is troubled by an “evil spirit,” one of his servants tells him about David, describing him as someone “who knows how to play the harp … a brave man and a warrior … (who) speaks well and is fine looking…. And the Lord is with him” (I Sam. 16:18).

David is consequently invited to enter the service of Saul on a part-time basis as a musician and an armor bearer – a rather unusual combination of responsibilities – while “going back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s sheep at Bethlehem” (I Sam. 17:15).

Saul apparently has many musicians and armor bearers and pays little attention to his personal attendants. He appears soon to forget who David is and that David is in his service – that is, until a most memorable event brings David forcibly to the attention of Saul, the army, and all Israel.

That memorable event is, of course, the famous encounter between the shepherd boy and the giant Philistine warrior Goliath (I Sam.17). David declares that “it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hands.” Empowered by his faith and against all odds from a human standpoint, David slays the heavily armed giant with a stone from his sling. The Philistine army is routed and David is hailed as a national hero, the women dancing and singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”

Because of David’s popularity with the army and the people, Saul is obliged to retain David in his service and to promote him. Even Saul’s own son and heir to the throne, Jonathan, has become a close friend and supporter of David’s. King Saul, however, becomes increasingly jealous and paranoid. He resolves to destroy David, muttering darkly to himself, “They have credited David with tens of thousands … but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom” (I Sam. 18:1-8)?

Living in Subordination to an Ungodly and Unstable Leader

Let us now reflect for a moment on the potential for serious personal, spiritual, and political tension and conflict inherent in the employment situation in which David finds himself.

Saul has been rejected by God as Israel’s king, but in the eyes of Israel and of David he is still “the Lord’s anointed,” Israel’s legitimate ruler. David has been told by Samuel that he, David, is now “the Lord’s anointed” and destined to succeed Saul, but David has joined Saul’s household and has become Saul’s employee and subordinate. How is he to conduct himself? Does he faithfully serve King Saul, whom God has rejected and whose behavior is increasingly erratic and malevolent? Should he stay, but start to work from within to undermine Saul until the right moment for a coup d’état? Should he just leave, and if so, how and when? Are there other alternatives?

What About You?

As a Christian who has committed his or her life to God, have you ever found yourself in a subordinate employment position under the authority of a Saul – someone who apparently has legitimate and recognized authority, but is ungodly, erratic, and malevolent? How do you conduct yourself? What do you do?

Suppose, for example, that you are politically inclined. You become a member of a political organization, a party, or an interest group. You feel that you not only have something to contribute but also an ability to lead, and you aspire eventually to do so. But you find yourself under the authority of the present leader who is a Saul – unbalanced, malevolent, and increasingly suspicious of you, your potential, and your aspirations.[1] What do you do? How do you conduct yourself personally, politically, and as a Christian?

The School of Suffering

The life and experience of David during the first half of his life shed much light on these questions, not only for would-be political leaders who find themselves in untenable subordinate positions, but for anyone in similar circumstances in any organization, whether it be a company, an NGO, a university department, or a church. The commentary on this period of David’s life which has been most helpful to me is that contained in a small book by Gene Edwards entitled A Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness.[2]

As Edwards observes, the God who “looks at the heart” (I Sam. 16:7) and seeks leaders and followers “after his own heart” (I Sam. 13:14) employs at least two very different ways of revealing and testing human hearts, including the hearts of potential or would-be leaders.

Sometimes he confers outward power and authority on an individual, such as that conferred on Saul, and “outward power will always reveal inner resources, or the lack thereof.” Certainly this was the case with Saul, who was outwardly clothed with spiritual and political authority, but by his actions eventually demonstrated a total absence of the life of the Spirit within.

However, God reveals and tests David’s heart and prepares him for his future role as king by a very different method. David is divinely enrolled in what Edwards rightly calls “the School of Suffering,” suffering primarily inflicted upon him as a subordinate under the authority of King Saul.

For example:

  • David is repeatedly given life-threatening military assignments by Saul in the hopes that he will fail and be killed. “I will not lift a hand against him,” says Saul. “Let the Philistines do that” (I Sam. 18:17).
  • Saul wreaks havoc on David’s marriage and home life, seeking to use David’s wife (Saul’s daughter Michal) as an instrument for David’s destruction.
  • David cannot rest or be secure for a moment in Saul’s presence, since on several occasions Saul hurls a spear at him. Leaders like Saul are good at throwing spears.
  • Saul seeks to turn David’s best friend Jonathan (Saul’s son) against him, ordering Jonathan to kill David and reviling Jonathan when he refuses (I Sam. 19, 20).
  • Saul seeks to undermine David’s source of spiritual support, accusing the priests who aid David of treason and ruthlessly slaughtering them and their families (I Sam. 21).
  • David is made an outlaw and an exile – forced out of the king’s court, the army, “polite society,” and his own country. He is forced to wander in the desert and to live in caves and forests, while Saul ruthlessly co-opts or oppresses anyone who befriends him (I Sam. 22-24).
  • Three times Saul even uses “spiritual bait” to attempt to lure David into his clutches. On one occasion, he swears an oath not to harm David. On yet another, Saul professes to repent of his homicidal intentions and even acknowledges God’s will that David succeed him, only to break his word and resume the murderous pursuit of his subordinate (I Sam. 19, 24).

Lessons from David's Responses: The Downward Path to the Top

How does David respond to all of this? His responses are instructive for us if and when we find ourselves subordinate to a Saul.

David constantly refuses to retaliate or to take advancement to the throne into his own hands. When spears are hurled at him, unlike most of us, he does not hurl them back.

David does not decide on his own to leave Saul’s company. He stays and endures until he is driven out by Saul’s decisions and actions. He leaves the king’s court and the army and allows himself to be driven into exile – “until I learn what God will do with me” (I Sam. 22:3) – rather than fight for his legitimate rights and position.

On two occasions (I Sam. 24, 26) David is in a position to take Saul’s life and graduate on his own initiative from the School of Suffering. He is strongly urged to do so by his companions, who quote Scripture to him in support of their advice, saying, “This is the very day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish’” (I Sam. 24:4). But David refuses to take Saul’s life.

David decides to leave the details and timing of his succession to the throne in God’s hands. When one of his fiercest and most loyal warriors, Abishai, believing it to be God’s will, asks David’s permission to assassinate Saul, David responds, “Don’t destroy him! Who can lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless? … The Lord himself will strike him; either his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. But the Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed” (I Sam 26:9-1).

Divine Guidance While in the School of Suffering

Throughout this entire period of his suffering under the unjust and malevolent authority of Saul, David continues to seek the Lord’s guidance, and the Lord appears to give it to him. He gives guidance sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly through the agency of others, even through David’s enemies – but always just one step at a time and not (that we know of) in the form of some grand revelation of the path to the throne.

While on the run from Saul, David inquires of the Lord whether he should fight the Philistines at Keilah, and the Lord says yes (I Sam. 23:1-4). He inquires again whether the Keilahites will betray him to Saul, and the Lord says, “They will” (I Sam. 23:12). So he flees to the desert again. He inquires of the Lord whether he should attack the Amalekites after they have ransacked his encampment and carried away his wives and children. The Lord says, “Pursue them” (I Sam. 30:8), and David does so successfully.

This is not to say that during this period David was incapable of being misguided and misled. When the Carmelite Nabal insults him by calling him a runaway slave, David’s warrior instinct takes over and he plans to slaughter Nabal’s whole household. He is only restrained by the timely intervention of Abigail, Nabal’s wife, and realizes that “the Lord has kept me from doing wrong” (I Sam. 25).

Finally, however, after years in the School of Suffering and with no apparent release in sight, David succumbs to despair. In self-reliance he “thinks to himself” about “the best thing I can do” and concludes: “One of these days I will be destroyed by the hand of Saul. The best thing I can do is to escape to the land of the Philistines. Then Saul will give up searching for me anywhere in Israel, and I will escape out of his hand” (I Sam. 27:1).

Thus, in desperation and despair, with no end to his persecution by Saul in sight, and without any recorded “seeking the Lord’s will” as on other occasions, David and his men go over to the Philistines – Israel’s greatest enemy, the people of Goliath. David even marches with the Philistines against his own people (I Sam. 29), a course of action which, unless constrained or reversed by divine providence, will forever preclude him from the kingship of Israel.

But God in his mercy intervenes, using the unlikely instrument of the Philistine military leaders. They deeply mistrust David because of his past actions against them and expressly forbid him to join their forces in the battle of Mount Gilboa, the battle in which Saul’s sons are slain and he himself, the Lord’s anointed, falls on his sword. He is brought down not by David and his men but by the hand of the Philistines (I Sam. 31).

Like Jesus

There is much instruction for believers from the early life of David on how to act and endure if we find ourselves in a subordinate position under a boss or leader after the order of King Saul. Accept, refuse, seek, prepare, and persevere. Accept that your “King Saul” may be in his or her position of authority, and you may be enrolled in the School of Suffering, by divine appointment and for reasons you don’t yet see. Refuse to retaliate (do not throw back spears thrown at you) in word or in deed. Treat your experience and suffering as a subordinate as preparation for advancement but do not take advancement into your own hands. Leave the details and the timing up to God. Seek God’s guidance one step at a time and persevere. Do not be discouraged if God does not show you the big picture and master plan. Do not give in to despair and join the enemies of your King Saul in their efforts to destroy him.

These same lessons are taught to us as Christians by the example of Jesus, the Son of David, centuries later – an example we are enjoined by Paul and Peter to emulate:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place (to the throne)…(From Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:5-9).

… fear God, honor the king. ... submit yourselves to your masters…, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. … To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly (from Peter’s first epistle to the churches, I Peter 2:17-23).


  1. I have only very briefly been in this particular situation myself. As a young man I became increasingly disillusioned with the leadership of my country’s major political party leaders and therefore avoided putting myself under their authority at all. But when I became the leader of a new party founded by myself and my friends, I certainly had others under me who were discontented with my leadership – sometimes legitimately so – and aspired to replace me. This is a situation that occurs over and over again in many political organizations, companies, NGOs, and churches. As the present leader, how do you conduct yourself in such circumstances, especially if you profess to be a Christian? What are the alternatives to acting like a Saul to those who want your job and may be prepared to go to great lengths to get it (I’ll have more to say in answer to these questions in a later article.)
  2. Gene Edwards, A Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness, Tyndale House Publishers Inc. 1980, 1992.

Source: Marketplace Institute

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