Society & Politics

Leadership Lessons from the Life of David - Part 5: The Leader Stumbles


Preston Manning

This article is the fifth 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 Alliance—and 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 and Bathsheba

The story is a sad one and one oft repeated since. A political leader at the peak of his political success and known for his professed faith in God stumbles morally. David enters into an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, wife of one of his top soldiers, Uriah the Hittite. When Bathsheba becomes pregnant, David initiates a cover-up – a cover-up that, like all cover-ups, brings even more grief than the misdeed it sought to cover. David summons Uriah back from the front where the Israeli army is engaged with the Ammonites in the hopes that Uriah will sleep with his wife. The pregnancy will then be attributed to Uriah and all will be well. But Israeli combat units had a rule of no sexual relations before a battle, and loyal Uriah puts duty first. He refuses to go home to Bathsheba, even when David gets him drunk. So David sends him back to the front with a letter to his commander Joab: “Put Uriah in the front line where the fighting is the fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.” Joab does as he is told. Uriah is killed and Bathsheba mourns for her husband. “And after the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son” (II Samuel 11).

Revelation and Accountability

David had everything – materially, politically, and spiritually. But now he has plunged himself into a personal, family, and religious crisis by violating five of the ten commandments he had sworn to live by – coveting Uriah’s wife and then committing theft (stealing her), adultery, murder, and bearing false witness (“explaining” Uriah’s death as an accident of war).

“But,” and it is an ominous “but,” “the thing David had done displeased the Lord” (II Samuel 11:27). Fortunately for David, however, God has placed a man in his inner circle who is prepared to hold him morally accountable for his actions and who is not afraid to speak truth to power. (Would God that every politician had such a person.) It is the prophet Nathan who is sent to confront David.

Through Nathan God reveals the evil inherent in David’s actions in an unusual way. Nathan reports to David that a “traveller” has come to visit a rich man – a man who has everything, including sheep and cattle in abundance. But instead of taking one of his own sheep to satisfy the traveller’s desire for a meal, the rich man steals a little ewe lamb from a poor neighbour who has nothing except the lamb, which is his pride and joy.

Upon hearing this report, David becomes incensed and declares that the rich man should make four-fold restitution for his merciless theft. Nathan replies, “You are the man.”

Judging Morality

By whose standards should the morality of a leader’s actions and behaviour be judged? By the general moral and cultural standards of David’s day and age, when women had few rights and were treated like property, and when kings had absolute power to do as they pleased, it would strike many of David’s contemporaries as unusual that he should have any moral qualms at all or be called to account about what he had done.

And if David’s actions are judged from the distant perspective of the general moral and cultural standards of our day,[1] it may strike us as unusual that Nathan’s initial revelation of David’s immoral actions focuses most heavily on the fact that he has committed theft, rather than that he has also committed murder and adultery – offences which in our time and culture both the secular and the religious would judge to be the more serious.

A more reliable standard for judging the morality of a leader’s actions and behavior is the standard set by a moral being superior and exterior to ourselves and independent of the general moral and cultural standards of either David’s day or our own. We find that more reliable standard in the unchanging morality of our Creator as revealed in different ways and in different circumstances to successive generations. From a moral standpoint, whether David’s actions and behaviour pleased or displeased his contemporaries – whether his or our own actions please or displease us and our contemporaries – is not the point. What is important is whether or not they please God, and in David’s case they did not.


In any event, David’s immoral acts are laid before him by faithful Nathan. Then comes the inevitable question, Why? David had everything. Why would he risk it all on an illicit love affair and the attempt at a cover-up which followed it?

“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and the house of Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes?” (II Samuel 12:7-10).

The same question has been asked a thousand times since of political and religious leaders who appeared to be at the pinnacle of their careers and influence, and then risked losing it all through an illicit sexual affair – US President Clinton, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, four star General David Petraeus, and Ted Haggard, mega church pastor and president of the U.S. Association of Evangelicals, to name only a recent few.[2]

There are numerous modern explanations of this phenomenon, rooted, for example, in evolutionary psychology and social exchange theory.[3] Other explanations include permissive sexual attitudes generally, dissatisfaction with current relationships, unrealistic assessments of the chances of being caught, the arrogance of high office that says, “I’m the king and I can do as I please,” the loneliness and busyness of high office that erodes the ties between the leader and his own spouse and family, and the peculiar boredom of those who reach the top and, having “no more worlds to conquer,” seek temporary thrills through risky sexual adventures.[4]

But the explanation that I find most believable and most conducive to prevention and remedial action is a spiritual one: we human beings, including leaders, despite modern protestations to the contrary, are morally flawed creatures as a result of a broken relationship with the ultimate source of our being, our Creator. This deficiency in our very nature leads to thoughts and actions which, carried far enough, will mar and destroy all other relationships –with the physical world, with other human beings, and even with ourselves. Even those, indeed especially those, who recognize the spiritual roots of their own inclinations to evil and seek spiritual protection and deliverance through adherence to religious rules and observances, are vulnerable to the desires and dictates of that nature.

And thus it was that David, the Lord’s anointed, “sinned” and sinned grievously.

Repentance and Forgiveness

So what can and should David do? He could deny his sin and continue to “cover it up” even from Nathan and the Lord. But David is wise enough from past experience to know the futility of this course of action.

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away
Through my groaning all the day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said ‘I will confess
My transgression to the Lord’
And you forgave the guilt of my sin.
(Psalm 32:3-5)

The book of Samuel records this simple exchange between David and Nathan: “Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ Nathan replied, ‘The Lord has taken away your sin…” (II Sam. 12:13) “But…;” sadly and inevitably, there will be consequences (more on this later).

David acknowledges his transgressions to Nathan, but more importantly he confesses them to God. Psalm 51 is his great prayer of confession and a model prayer for all those seeking divine forgiveness and healing for offences against him. Note the nature of his admissions and petitions:

Against you, you only, have I sinned[5]
And done what is evil in your sight…
Surely I have been a sinner from birth…
Surely you desire truth in the inner parts…
You do not delight in sacrifice,
or I would bring it…
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise….
Have mercy on me, O God,
According to you unfailing love…
Wash away all my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin…
Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean,
Wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me…
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
And grant a willing spirit to sustain me.
(Psalm 51)

David also prays, no doubt thinking of the fate of his predecessor King Saul, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51:11: c.f. I Samuel 16:14). This raises the question, why was David’s confession of sin accepted while Saul’s was not? Why was David’s violation of God’s will forgiven while Saul’s was not?

When Samuel (like Nathan) confronted Saul with the fact that he had disobeyed God’s commandment respecting the destruction of the Amalekites, Saul at first attempted to excuse himself, but then admitted, “I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the people and so I gave into them. Now I beg you, forgive my sin … but please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me so that I may worship the Lord your God” (I Sam. 15: 24, 30).

The difference between Saul’s confession and David’s would appear to be that of frankness and sincerity. David readily acknowledges his sin without excuse, whereas Saul does not. David does not try to shift the blame onto someone else, whereas Saul implies “the people made me do it," this being the second time[6] he has cite "political expediency” as a rationale for disobedience. David does not request Nathan to assist in providing a public cover for his transgression, whereas Saul seeks such a cover from Samuel.

Genuine and open confession of sin is particularly difficult for public figures who put doing the “expedient thing” ahead of the “right thing” and who are often more concerned with the appearance than the substance of their actions. Saul’s confession and repentance, marred by these factors, proves unacceptable to God whereas David’s more sincere and open confession and repentance are accepted and rewarded with forgiveness and healing.


If the Biblical story of David were a fairy tale, it would end, notwithstanding the Bathsheba affair, by declaring that he and his family “lived happily ever after.” But the David story is not a fairy tale. The sad reality of real life is that sin – the violation of right relations with God and other human beings – invariably has consequences that confession, repentance, and forgiveness may ameliorate but do not erase. So it is with us, no matter what our station in life; so it is with public figures today; so it was with David.

When David says to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord,” Nathan replies “The Lord has taken away your sin” (II Sam. 12:13). It would appear that God had forgiven David even before hearing his prayer of confession and repentance. But Nathan immediately goes on to declare what the consequences of David’s sin would be:

  • The son to be born of his illicit liaison with Bathsheba would die (i.e., the innocent would suffer from David’s sin notwithstanding David’s remorse and prayers that the child’s life be spared) (II Sam. 12:14, 15-22).
  • The sword, which David had used indirectly to murder Uriah, would not depart from David’s household (i.e., David’s own offspring would resort to violence as a means of addressing anything that threatened them) (II Sam. 12:10; 13:23-33).
  • Open sexual immorality would also plague David’s household (i.e., just as David had secretly violated another man’s wife, so his wives would one day be violated openly by “one who is close to you” (II Sam. 12: 11-12; 13:1-21; 16:20-23).

Sadly, all of these predicted consequences of David’s sin come to pass. The first son born to him and Bathsheba falls ill and dies despite all of David’s remorse, fasting, and prayers. His oldest son Amnon rapes Tamar, the sister of Absalom, another of his sons and a potential successor to the throne. When David does nothing to discipline Amnon, Absalom takes matters into his own hands and murders Amnon in revenge (II Sam. 13). And Absalom eventually leads a rebellion which nearly topples David from his throne (more on this in a later article). During this rebellion Absalom briefly occupies the palace in Jerusalem where “he lay with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel” (II Sam. 14-18).

Lessons for Leaders from David and Bathsheba

1. On Moral Authority

Leaders – whether they are political leaders or leaders in a business, a church, or a home – need “moral authority” to be effective, i.e., they need authority that comes not from their position or title but from their character and the morality of their actions. In the political world it is particularly important that those of us who make the laws, proclaim the laws, and administer the laws should keep the laws, or else we lose our moral authority to legislate and to govern.

In David’s case, perhaps the most far-reaching consequence of his sin is the loss of his moral authority within his own family and with the commanders of his army. How could he insist on high moral standards for his sons and daughters with respect to their sexual behavior after the way he had conducted himself with Bathsheba? How could he teach them to be open and truthful when he had engaged in such a notorious cover-up? How could he urge them to refrain from violence when he had unjustly and malevolently employed the sword to dispose of one of his most loyal soldiers? And how could he insist on honesty, faithfulness, and loyalty from his army officers, when they knew how they had been used to betray and murder Uriah?

In addition to the obvious spiritual reasons for avoiding immoral personal behavior, there is an additional pragmatic reason for doing so. Since real leadership requires moral as well as legal authority, any personal action that erodes personal moral authority must be scrupulously avoided.

2. On Safeguards

This is not the place for a thorough description and discussion of safeguards which might better protect political leaders from stumbling morally, especially through sexual temptations and indiscretions of the type that marred David’s leadership and testimony. Nor am I qualified to provide a thorough discussion of such safeguards. But let me make two relevant points.

First, there are some simple, practical guidelines for minimizing sexual temptations and exploitations – especially by those engaged in public life – which can be helpful if they are actually practised. These include:

  • Putting the maintenance of right relationships with God and your spouse ahead of all other relationships. This includes faithfully petitioning our heavenly Father to “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13).
  • Avoiding long periods of absence from your spouse and family and being at loose ends on your own after intense activity during those periods. (This is a matter of disciplined scheduling.)
  • Employing, as close associates and staff, people of impeccable moral character, and distancing yourself from those of “loose morals.”
  • Avoiding potentially compromising situations, especially with members of the opposite sex. (Billy Graham’s advice to pastors about never being in a room alone behind a closed door with a parishioner of the opposite sex is relevant to politicians as well.)
  • Refraining from excessive use of alcohol or any substance or practice that significantly impairs your judgment.
  • Recognizing that sexual harassment is an illegal[7] and immoral activity to be scrupulously avoided.
  • Being alert to the possibility that unscrupulous opponents, opportunists,[8] and lobbyists[9] may deliberately seek to engage you in morally compromising situations and exploit any perceived cracks in your personal integrity.

Second, on a broader societal level, it seems to me that we need to frankly acknowledge that neither the religiously rooted, Victorian ethic of “thou shalt not” nor the “do as you please as long as it doesn’t appear to hurt anyone” ethic of the modern sexual liberation movement has proven sufficient as a framework for governing the ethics of sexual behaviour in our time. The former has too often led to a hypocritical denial and unhealthy suppression of human sexuality, while the latter has facilitated global epidemics of sexually transmitted diseases, the commodification of sexual relations, and an ever-expanding global market in pornography and sexual services for money.

What is needed is a more effective ethical framework for guiding sexual behaviour in the 21st century– including the sexual behaviour of political leaders – and teaching conducive to that inner transformation which makes adherence to those ethics a reality in practice. In this regard, the Christian expositor whose teachings on this subject I have found most helpful, and which I commend to others, are those of Dr. Charles Price, Teaching Pastor of The People’s Church in Toronto.[10]

3. Grace that is Greater

I once heard a New Year’s sermon by a New Zealand pastor named Lloyd Crawford based on David’s 23rd Psalm. Crawford explained how God himself is the Great Shepherd who would lead us in the paths of righteousness, restore us when we fall or go astray, and protect us in the presence of our enemies, even in the shadow of death. But working with the Great Shepherd and faithfully following behind the flock are his two great sheep dogs, “goodness and mercy.” If we will follow the Shepherd, they will follow us all the days of our lives until at last we dwell safely forever in the house of the Lord.

Whether David, in the days immediately after his disastrous affair with Bathsheba, sought comfort in the words of the Shepherd Psalm which he had penned years before, we do not know. But what we do know is that, despite his sin and its tragic consequences, he was never abandoned by the Great Shepherd or his two faithful sheep dogs, goodness and mercy.

The repentant and chastened King retained his throne and both his life and his reign knew God’s continued favour and blessing. He remained devoted to Bathsheba and was eventually succeeded by their son Solomon. Centuries later, Jesus himself was not ashamed to be described as the Son of David.

There is goodness and mercy for all of us who have stumbled morally, no matter who we are or what our position, if we will trust in the grace (unmerited favour) of the Great Shepherd of our souls.

The words of the Apostle Paul, written to the believers in Rome, could also have been spoken by Nathan the prophet to David the king. “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20). And David the Psalmist, had he been able to peer far enough into the future, could have joined with us in singing:

Marvellous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin!


  1. Note the danger in doing so. It was the African adventurer and author Laurens Van Der Post, reluctant to judge the morals of the ancient African bushman by the moral standards of his own day and culture, who observed: “Perhaps one of the most prolific sources of error in contemporary thinking is precisely from lifting history out of its proper context and bending it to the values of another age and day.” From The Lost World of the Kalahari, Laurens Van Der Post, Hogarth Press, London, 1958, p. 42.
  2. I am personally acquainted with several Canadian examples of this same phenomenon, such as the divorce rate among members of our House of Commons – divorces often rooted in unfaithfulness by the politician – being higher than the national average. While I am not at liberty to discuss the personal details of the lives involved, suffice it to say that whatever immediate excitement or satisfaction may have been generated by such temporary liaisons, the consequences for all concerned are invariably tragic and long lasting. One former member of the House, Erik Nielsen, the long-time MP for the Yukon, had the courage to frankly disclose his own experience in this regard in a memoir entitled The House is Not a Home, Macmillan of Canada, 1989. See especially Chapter 12, p.160-164 in which he describes the devastating effects of an extra-marital affair, including the tragic suicide of his wife. Nielsen concludes his narrative “by offering some advice to those who aspire to elected office. The morals and personal conduct of those in public office must always be above reproach…. Do not become a commuting politician; do not tolerate separation from your family. If you do, you will lose them and learn, too late, that the House is not a home.”
  3. For a contemporary discussion of this phenomenon from a behavioral-science perspective see Sex Scandals in American Politics, edited by Alison Dagnes, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011. See especially chapter 3 by James Griffith - "The Psychology of Risky Sexual Behavior: Why Politicians Expose Themselves." For a broader perspective which strongly emphasizes the importance of character and integrity as essential qualifications for public office, see Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates by Stanley A. Renshon, Routledge, 1998.
  4. A related question, worthy of further discussion, is one raised by the following observation: There are/have been a significant number of world leaders globally who are female. Can we think of one who has had an affair in office? Angela Merkel, Dilma Roussef, Cristina de Kirchner, Michelle Bachelet, Laura Chinchilla, Park Guen-hye, Erna Solberg are all currently heads of state and we never see anything in the media about their involvement in illicit sexual affairs. Historically, we know a great deal about Margaret Thatcher, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Gloria Arroyo, Julia Gillard, Helen Clarke, etc., and nothing of this sort has ever been reported concerning them. Of all the female cabinet ministers and provincial premiers in Canada none to my knowledge have got themselves into trouble on the sexual affair front. Why do we think this is?
  5. While Psalm 51 is a model prayer of repentance in most respects, it is curious and somewhat disturbing that David says, “Against you (God), you only, have I sinned.” In this prayer he does not acknowledge at all that he has also sinned grievously against Bathsheba, Uriah, and the soldiers he has implicated in Uriah’s murder. Later, of course, he does comfort Bathsheba (II Sam. 12:24) and ultimately honours her by ensuring that their son Solomon succeeds him as king (I King 1: 28-29).
  6. See 1 Samuel 13:11-12.
  7. The Canada Labour Code (Part III R.S.C. 1985, c. L-2 s. 247.1) defines "sexual harassment" to mean any conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature (a) that is likely to cause offence or humiliation to any employee; or (b) that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion. Such harassment is expressly prohibited by the Canadian Human Rights Act (R.S.C. 1985, c. H-6 PART I, s. 14).
  8. In most capital cites there are likely to be a few unscrupulous lawyers who monitor dismissals of political staff, particularly cases where a female staffer has been dismissed by her political employer. These staffers are then approached and asked whether there was ever any situation during their employment which might possibly be represented as “sexual harassment” and used to damage the reputation of the political employer. If there has been such a situation (even if the representation would be untrue and require the former staffer to perjure herself), the political employer is then threatened with court action and damaging publicity unless an out of court financial settlement is agreed to, the proceeds from which are split between the lawyer and client.
  9. I recall the story of a lobbyist from Texas who came to Canada to lobby members of the Canadian Parliament and the Alberta Legislature with respect to the financing of the original TransCanada PipeLine project in the 1950s. When a young Canadian colleague suggested that it was important to research the policy positions and voting records of the members they were trying to influence, the lobbyist laughed and said, “Son, you don’t understand human nature. All I need to know about an elected official is whether he has an alcohol problem, a financial problem, or a skirt-chasing problem, and I’ll know how to get to him.”
  10. See Dr. Price’s six-part series on Gender and Sexuality, available at

Source: Marketplace Institute

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