Society & Politics

Leadership Lessons from the Life of David - Part 6: The Leader Challenged Domestically


Preston Manning

This article is the sixth 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, A Natural Leader

It would appear from the scriptural record that David was a “natural leader” whose leadership was readily accepted by those around him. After his victory over Goliath and his initial military successes against the Philistines David was soon accepted as a leader by the Israeli military (I Sam. 18:5). During the long years during which he suffered persecution from Saul he became the natural rallying point around which all those disenchanted with Saul’s reign gathered in increasing numbers (I Sam. 22:1-2). After Saul’s death, the tribe of Judah immediately accepted him as Saul’s successor (II Sam. 2:4) but the rest of Israel did not and a civil war broke out. Because of how David conducted himself, it was not long until the rest of Israel came to the conclusion that they too should accept him as their king (II Sam. 5:1-4).

Nevertheless, every leader will eventually face challenges, especially from those who aspire to be leader themselves. In David’s case, these challenges came late in his reign and primarily from within his own family, in particular from his sons Absalom (son of his third wife Maacaa of Geshur) and Adonijah (son of his fourth wife Haggith).[1]

David and Absalom: Father and Son

The earliest mentions of Absalom in the Scriptures reveal deep personal tensions between a son and his father. These tensions occur within the context of what today might be called a dysfunctional family,[2] of which David is the head. Because the father is a political leader and the son has political aspirations, their conflict eventually has serious political ramifications, culminating in the ultimate political disaster of civil war. In order to understand David’s succession crisis it is therefore necessary to examine the family context and personal tensions between Absalom and David which lay at its roots.

As discussed in an earlier article,[3] one of the most tragic consequences of David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba, and his attempt to cover it up by having her husband Uriah murdered, is his loss of moral authority within his own family. The prophet Nathan sadly predicts (II Sam. 12:9-12) that both sexual immorality and the violence of the sword would now plague David’s own household – a prophecy that soon comes true with Absalom as a major instrument of its fulfillment.

When Amnon, David’s oldest son and his logical successor, rapes Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom, David is furious but apparently does nothing to discipline Amnon. So, Absalom takes matters into his own hands, fulfilling the role that he believes his father should have filled. He invites the king and all his sons to join him at a sheep shearing. David declines to come but gives his blessing to the event and orders all his sons, including Amnon, to attend. When Amnon is “in high spirits from drinking wine” Absalom orders his men to kill Amnon. All the remainder of the king’s sons flee the scene of the crime, but it is erroneously reported to David that they too have been killed. For a brief time, David likely believes that Absalom has staged a bloody coup.

By the time the truth comes out, Absalom has fled to his grandfather Talmai’s court at Geshur where he lives in exile for three years. David apparently comes to understand that his failure to address Amnon’s crime is the cause of Absalom’s action and longs to be reconciled to him. But again he does nothing, and the rift between father and son deepens (II Sam. 13).

Eventually Joab, David’s military commander, knowing “that the king’s heart longed for Absalom” and employing a devious strategy, secures David’s consent for Absalom to return to Jerusalem. But David insists, “He must go to his own house; he must not see my face.” So Absalom lives an additional two years in Jerusalem without seeing the king. His family and political status having been in limbo five years, Absalom appeals to Joab to serve as an intermediary between himself and his father. Joab at first refuses, so Absalom sets fire to Joab’s barley field, which is adjacent to his own. This brings Joab to Absalom’s house where Absalom confronts him with these words: “Look, I sent to you and said, ‘Come here so I can send you to the king to ask, “Why have I come from Geshur? It would be better for me if I was still there.’ Now then I want to see the king’s face, and if I am guilty of anything, let him put me to death” (II Sam. 14:32).

Fathers and Sons

At the root of the eventual political and military contest between David and Absalom is the tension between a son and his father. While I realize that there is vast literature on the subject of father-son relations, and that I am not an authority in this area, a book which has helped me better understand my relationship with my own sons and the flawed relationship between David and Absalom is entitled From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality[4] by the Franciscan Richard Rohr, founder and animator of the Centre for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Rohr makes three observations directly relevant to the relationship between David and Absalom as father and son.

First: “Much of the human race experiences an immense father hunger. It is felt by women but even more so by men. It seems that the same sex parent has a unique importance in a child’s life, and (my emphasis added) his or her absence leaves a huge gaping hole inside that is never really filled."[5]

Second: “Father hunger often becomes a full-blown father wound … the woundedness in a man’s psyche that results from not having a father – whether it is because the father has died or left the family, because the father’s work keeps him absent from the scene most of the time, or because the father keeps himself aloof from involvement with his children. In any event, the result is a deep hurt, a deprivation that leads to a poor sense of one’s own centre and boundaries ….”[6]

Third, Rohr concludes: “Without the father’s energy, there is a void, an emptiness in the soul which nothing seems able to fill. All of the predictable wounds of failure and rejection wound deeply…. As we grow older, we just get deeply sad. It is sadness but it shows itself as anger.”[7]

Father hunger and the father wound that manifests itself in alienation and anger are very much present in the case of Absalom and David. In their case it is further aggravated by the complexities of a patriarchal family with multiple wives, concubines, and numerous children by different mothers.

As an active political and military leader, David is no doubt very busy and absent much of the time. He fails to stand up for Tamar, Absalom’s sister, when she is raped by David’s oldest son Amnon, a failure that Absalom bitterly resents (II Sam. 13:21). When Absalom throws the sheep-shearing party to which he specifically invites his father, for whatever reason David declines to attend (II Sam. 13:23-26). When Absalom flees into exile after compensating for David’s failure to discipline Amnon by having him murdered (II Sam. 13:37), the alienation of the son from the father is further deepened. And although we are told that “David mourned many days” for his absent son and that “he longed to go to Absalom,” David apparently fails to communicate any of these feelings to Absalom or to act on them (II Sam. 13:37-38;14:1).

Although the Psalms would indicate that David is capable of feeling the full range of human emotions in his relationship to God, perhaps his long years as a soldier experiencing the horrors of war and personal combat have hardened him to the point where he is almost totally insensitive to the feelings of other human beings, especially those of other men. I have observed this phenomenon myself among political people (myself included) whose defense against personal attacks has been to develop a “thick skin.” In time this skin can become so thick that personal, emotion-charged attacks from opponents are unable to penetrate it. Sadly, even emotion-based messages from loved ones and friends now fail to “get through.”

As Rohr once again observes: “I suspect that non-weeping (i.e., insensitivity to feelings and an inability to express them) is a price that the male has had to pay for centuries of going to war. … You have to split, deny, and repress your feeling world to survive such ordeals. In effect, we have chosen the survival of cultural and nationalistic pretenses over the survival of the male soul. Yes, men are often warlike, but they have been bred like dogs to do it, over-developing some qualities like detachment and stoicism, and repressing others like feeling, empathy, and vulnerability.”[8]

Returning to our story, finally, after five years in which father and son have never even spoken to each other let alone sought reconciliation, David summons Absalom to the palace. Absalom bows low to the king and the king kisses him (II Sam. 14:33). But the attempted reconciliation of father to son is too little, too late. By now the father-hunger and father-wounding of the son, compounded by his growing political ambition, has deepened into an anger and rebelliousness which will soon manifest itself politically and shake the kingdom to its foundations.[9]

Concluding Lessons

What can we learn thus far from the story of David and Absalom about the nature and appropriate handling of the succession issue within a political, religious, or business organization?

As a political leader I find it highly instructive to realize that succession issues and conflicts over leadership within modern political, religious, and business organizations are often akin to “family feuds,” with the political party, church, or company being the “family” and succession involving replacement of an old and established leader (the father figure) with an ambitious up-and-coming member of the younger generation. Various other officials of the organization may also play the “mother role,” some seeking to maintain peace in the family by trying to reconcile father and son, others seeking to maintain the authority of the father to whom they are wedded, and yet others seeking to advance their preferred successor (as did Rebekah, in the case of Jacob, and the mother of James and John in Jesus’ time).

What this analogy suggests is that beneath and behind the functional relations among the members of any organization, including those who lead it or aspire to lead it, lie the human and personal relationships, or lack of them, between the main characters involved. If those relationships are flawed, broken, or non-existent, succession will still occur. The old leader will eventually be replaced by a new one. But the process may well leave behind a trail of injustices, resentments, and wounds which will haunt and cripple the organization and the interpersonal relations of its key members for years to come.

Thus we are driven again to the conclusion that so much of the life of David illustrates – indeed it is the main message of the Bible – that “right relationships” between ourselves and God, between ourselves as human beings, between members of a family, between members and leaders of an organization – are the all-important thing. How to achieve and maintain such relationships ought to be the primary concern of any leader if organizational success and peace, including an orderly and positive succession, are to be achieved.

In David’s day, acceptance of the authority of law – God’s Law – was seen as the key to achieving and maintaining such relationships. But as we have seen, there are limits to what laws and rule making can achieve in terms of establishing right relationships even within a family, let alone a kingdom.

The day would come, however, predicted by the prophets of Israel, when a future “son of David” would open the way to that inner transformation of human beings which writes the law of God on human hearts rather than in statute books, and whose spirit has the potential to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). This son of David could say what Absalom could never say, “I and (my) Father are one” (John 10:30) – providing a model of father-son relationship vastly superior to any modeled in the Old Testament. And to those aspiring to be “chief” in his kingdom he would say, “let (such) be the servant of all” (Matt. 20:25-28) – transmuting by his teaching and example the self-serving ambition of his politically motivated followers into self-sacrificial service.


  1. Note that David had seven wives, the seventh of which was Bathsheba, who bore him a son Solomon and three other children. He also had nine children by his concubines (I Chronicles 3:1-9).
  2. It is disturbing to note the extent to which inter-personal tensions and father-son conflicts seemed to plague the most prominent families of the Old Testament, despite their faith commitments. Cain the first son of Adam and Eve kills his brother and becomes permanently estranged from his family. Abraham and Sarah, despairing that they will ever have a son as God has promised, agree that he should father a child through Sarah’s maidservant Hagar, resulting in conflict between Sarah and Hagar and the eventual expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham’s household. Abraham’s promised son Isaac, married to Rebekah, also presides over a divided household, Isaac favoring his firstborn son Esau, Rebekah favoring younger son Jacob, the latter deceiving his father to obtain his blessing and alienating his brother by stealing his birthright. Jacob is in turn deceived by his father-in-law Laban (tricking Jacob into marrying Leah when he thought he was marrying Rachel), and by his own sons when they sell Jacob’s favoured son Joseph into slavery. And then there is the tension in David’s household, culminating in Absalom’s rebellion and efforts to kill his father. None of these families provides an admirable faith-based model of parent-child or father-son relations.
  3. See "Leadership Lessons from the Life of David - Part 5: The Leader Stumbles"
  4. Richard Rohr, From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005).
  5. Ibid., 65.
  6. Ibid., 75.
  7. Ibid., 83.
  8. Ibid., 83-84.
  9. To be discussed in the next article in this series.

Source: Marketplace Institute

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