This article is the seventh 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 Absalom: The King and Would-Be King
In this article we return to the theme of The Leader Challenged, in particular the challenge to David’s political leadership by his son Absalom. At some point in time, we are not told exactly when, perhaps while he is brooding in exile from the kingdom and the king’s household, Absalom decides that the old king (his father David) should be replaced by himself. So, upon his return to Jerusalem he begins to undermine David’s authority. He does so, not by presenting himself as a warrior and military leader equal or superior to David, but as a leader who is particularly interested in domestic affairs – an area which David may have tended to neglect given his preoccupation with national security.
Absalom gets up early every morning and positions himself on the road leading to the city gate. Whenever anyone has a complaint, especially a complaint against the king and the government, he acknowledges it. He laments the fact that “there is no representative of the king to hear you,” and adds: “If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or a case could come to me and I would see that they received justice” (II Sam. 15: 1-4).
Justice! Justice in personal and domestic affairs. Justice that the king is slow or lax to provide. Absalom could no doubt speak with fervor on this theme. Had not he himself experienced first-hand the king’s failure to provide justice for his sister Tamar? And had not the king treated Absalom himself unjustly?
Moreover, Absalom combines the offer of “justice for Israel” with personal charisma and attractiveness. He is a campaign manager’s dream: “In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him” (II Sam. 14:25). And as for employing the campaign tactic of kissing babies, Absalom goes one better: “Whenever anyone approached him to bow down to him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him and kiss him. Absalom behaved this way toward all the Israelites who came to see the king for justice, and so he stole the hearts of the people of Israel” (II Sam. 15:5-6).
Absalom also understands the value of covering his political ambition with a devotional and religious veneer (an essential in a theocratic kingdom like ancient Israel). He still professes to be David’s “servant” and informs the king that he has “made a vow to the Lord” while in exile, that if the Lord should ever return him to Jerusalem he would “worship the Lord in Hebron.” The king gives his blessing for Absalom to go to Hebron to worship, saying, “Go in peace.”
“Then Absalom sent secret messengers throughout the tribes of Israel to say, ‘As soon as you hear the sounds of the trumpets, then say, ‘Absalom is king in Hebron’.… And so the conspiracy gained strength, and Absalom’s following kept on increasing. A messenger came and told David, ‘The hearts of the men of Israel are with Absalom’” (II Sam. 15:10, 12-13).
Thus four years of planning morphs into conspiracy, and the conspiracy ripens into outright rebellion – a full-scale effort by Absalom and his supporters to topple David from his throne and crown Absalom the Just as his successor.
Two Paths to Power
As noted in an earlier article, the commentary I have found most helpful and true to life on the complex spiritual and political relations between Saul, David, and Absalom is that provided by Gene Edwards in his book entitled A Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness. Much of what follows here is a summary of Edwards’ insights.
Before dealing with David’s reaction to Absalom’s insurrection, Edwards draws our attention to the similarities and differences between David and Absalom and their respective approaches to becoming king.
When Absalom rebels against his father, David is about the same age as King Saul when his reign came to an end and Absalom is about the same age as David was when Saul was trying so hard to kill him. Both are driven by their respective circumstances into exile from the kingdom and the king’s household; both are noticeably handsome and charismatic; and both are increasingly recognized by others as potential successors to the throne.
But here the similarities end. Whereas in his rise David has a spiritual mandate from the priestly prophet Samuel, there is no record of Absalom’s seeking or receiving such a mandate. Whereas David is constantly respectful of King Saul’s position as “the Lord’s anointed” and never seeks to undermine his authority no matter how many injustices Saul perpetrates against him, Absalom devotes at least four years to assiduously undermining David’s authority. Whereas the discontented element in the kingdom gradually come of their own volition to David, Absalom purposely seeks out the potentially discontented and deliberately cultivates their discontent. Whereas David seems to know instinctively that to foment rebellion against Saul, Israel’s first king, would split the kingdom spiritually and politically, Absalom seems to have no such inhibitions. And whereas David’s greatest preoccupation is in defending Israel from its external enemies, Absalom’s focus is on persuading his countrymen to believe that their greatest enemy is within.
Most importantly, David steadfastly resists the temptation to kill Saul and take the kingdom by force even when urged by his closest associates to do so. By contrast, when Absalom’s counselor Ahithophel presents him with a plan with the specific objective of “striking down only the king…. This plan seemed good to Absalom and to all the elders of Israel” (II Sam. 17:1-4).
David's Reaction to this Challenge to His Leadership
So how will David respond to this challenge to his leadership from Absalom? Is he going to treat him as Saul treated David – hunt him and his associates down and if at all possible kill them? In other words, must David become a Saul in order to retain his position? Or is there another way –a way consistent with how David ascended to the throne in the first place?
What was that way again? Accept that it may very well be God’s will that you be replaced and that Absalom, yes, even wicked Absalom, may be God’s instrument for achieving that purpose. Perhaps once again you are being enrolled in God’s “school of suffering” for reasons you do not yet see. Treat your experience and suffering as preparation for whatever the future may hold, leaving the details and the timing up to God. Refuse to go on the offensive against your adversary (do not throw back spears thrown at you). Continue to seek God’s guidance one step at a time and do not be discouraged if God does not show you the big picture or master plan. Prepare for every eventuality the best you can with the resources God has provided, including defending yourself if and when attacked. And do not give into despair but persevere through whatever circumstances and along whatever path you are led until the situation is resolved.
So how does it all work out in practice? When David is advised that Absalom is marching on Jerusalem, David the warrior king who has fought a thousand battles does not go out to meet him. Instead, “David said to all his officials who were with him in Jerusalem, ‘Come! We must flee… we must leave immediately, or he (Absalom) will move quickly to overtake us and bring ruin upon us and put the city to the sword…’ So the king set out, with all the people following him.… The whole countryside wept aloud as all the people passed by … and moved on toward the wilderness” (II Sam. 15:14, 16, 23). David is again headed to the wilderness, driven there this time by his own son as once before he was driven there by Saul.
Is David one hundred percent convinced that he is in God’s will and Absalom is not? No! He instructs Zadok the priest to take the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s earthly presence in Israel, back to the city where Absalom is now in control, with these words: “Take the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the Lord’s eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again. But if he says, ‘I am not pleased with you,’ then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him” (II Sam. 15:25-26).
On the road to the wilderness he is confronted by Shimei, a man from Saul’s clan who has never accepted David’s kingship and who curses him with these words: “Get out, get out, you murderer, you scoundrel! The Lord has repaid you for all the blood you have shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned. The Lord has given the kingdom into the hands of your son Absalom. You have come to ruin because you are a murderer” (II Sam. 16:7-8).
When one of David’s fighting men offers to remove Shimei’s head, David restrains him saying: “My son, my own flesh and blood, is trying to kill me. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will look upon my misery and restore to me his covenant blessing instead of his curse today” (II Sam. 16:11-12).
While David does not directly retaliate against Absalom, nor is he certain what the Lord’s will is respecting this challenge to his throne. He is not passive in the face of this threat to himself and the kingdom. His entourage includes all his fighting men, including Joab, former commander of the army. His intelligence advises him that his former counselor Ahithophel has joined the conspirators, so David prays, “Lord, turn Ahithophel’s counsel into foolishness” (II Sam. 15:31).
David also instructs one of his most trusted confidants, Hushai the Arkite, to join Absalom’s council. Hushai does so and is accepted even though Absalom suspects his loyalty. When Ahithophel counsels Absalom to mount an immediate attack on David and his forces, Hushai counsels delay until Absalom can organize a larger force including all Israel (II Sam. 16:15-23; 17:1-13). After receiving this conflicting advice, “Absalom and all the men of Israel said, ‘The advice of Hushai the Arkite is better than that of Ahithophel.’ For the Lord had determined to frustrate the good advice of Ahithophel in order to bring disaster on Absalom” (II Sam. 17:14).
The crisis then moves swiftly to its climax. David musters his forces and sends them out under three commanders, Joab, Abishai, and Ittai. He offers to march with them, but the troops insist that he must not endanger himself so he remains behind. “So the king stood by the gate while all his men marched out in units of hundreds and thousands. The king commanded Joab, Abishai, and Ittai, ‘Be gentle with the young man Absalom, for my sake.’ And all the troops heard the king giving orders concerning Absalom to each of the commanders” (II Sam. 18:4-5).
Meanwhile Absalom has crossed the Jordan “with all the men of Israel” under the command of Amassa whom he had appointed over the army in place of Joab (II Sam. 17:24-25). The battle takes place in the forest of Ephraim where Absalom’s troops are routed by David’s men with over twenty thousand casualties. When Absalom tries to flee on his mule, his hair becomes entangled in the thick branches of an oak tree and he is left hanging in mid-air. One of David’s soldiers witnesses this and reports the situation to Joab who rebukes him for not killing Absalom on the spot. The soldier reminds Joab of David’s charge to “be gentle with the young man Absalom, for my sake,” but Joab is unmoved. He plunges three javelins into Absalom’s heart while he is hanging from the tree. Ten of Joab’s armour bearers then finish the job and the body is thrown into a pit in the forest and covered with rocks (II Sam. 18:6-17).
Two messengers run to bring David news of the battle. The first brings the good news, “All is well! Praise be to the Lord your God! He has delivered up those who lifted up their hands against my lord the king.” And when David asks, “Is the young man Absalom safe?” the messenger professes not to know. But when the second messenger arrives and is asked the same question, he declares, “May the enemies of my Lord the King and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man” (II Sam. 18:19-32).
So David is still king, delivered from the most serious rebellion ever to threaten his reign. But David the less-than-perfect father who never really knew how to relate to his son “went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went he said, ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you – O Absalom, my son my son!’” (II Sam. 18:33)
What can we learn from the story of David and Absalom about the nature and appropriate handling of the succession issue within a political, religious, or business organization?
For me as a political leader, one of the most important lessons is that for the person of faith, there is an alternative to the route followed by Saul and Absalom – the approach which comes most naturally to the natural man. Saul’s approach is to defend his kingship to the death employing whatever means possible – from deception to murder – to destroy his potential successor. Absalom’s approach is to pursue the kingship by whatever means possible – from deception to murder – to destroy the present king and seize his throne. Saul even seeks the aid of the occult to plot his course; Absalom uses superficial religious observances as a means to achieve his political ends; neither feels accountable to God for his position or his actions, or seeks his counsel.
In contrast, as discussed above, “David’s Way” both to becoming king and to retaining his kingship is completely different and rooted in his belief that the kingship is ultimately in the hands of God to dispose of as He sees fit. As Gene Edwards observes, sometimes God confers executive power upon unworthy persons – for reasons we do not understand but perhaps to thereby reveal the true character of the person holding the office. David’s role is simply and constantly to seek God’s will for himself and for the kingdom, regardless of what personal advantage or disadvantage that role confers upon him.
David would have concurred, as should we, with the declaration of the prophet and political leader Daniel, made many years later to the king of Babylon, that at the end of the day, “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Daniel 4:25).
- My own experience as a political leader and the succession issue, while not to be compared in spiritual or political significance to that of David and Absalom, occurred in the context of Canadian federal politics from 1987 to 2004. Its proper interpretation would require explaining the details of the politics and personalities of that period which is beyond the scope of this article. Briefly, however, it involved the creation of a new political party of which I became the leader, mainly by default as few others wanted the job. This was followed by a major effort to broaden our base through the creation of two successor parties, each of which became the official opposition in the Parliament of Canada and with the last becoming the governing party. In the first transition I lost the leadership to a provincial cabinet minister from outside our original group who in turn lost the leadership to one of my younger parliamentary colleagues who had also served as my first Policy Chief. He in turn became Prime Minister of Canada in 2006. For a detailed description of these events and the succession issues they entailed, see my Think Big (McClelland and Stewart, 2002) and Tom Flanagan’s Waiting for the Wave: The Reform Party and the Conservative Movement (McGill-Queens University Press, 1995) or Bob Plamondon’s Full Circle: Death and Resurrection in Canadian Conservative Politics (Key Porter Books, 2006).
- His choice of Hebron, in Judah, is significant as it is the place where David’s kingship began.
- "Leadership Lessons from the Life of David - Part 3: The Subordinate Leader."
- Gene Edwards, A Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness(Tyndale House Publishers Inc. 1980, 1992).
- See "Leadership Lessons from the Life of David - Part 3: The Subordinate Leader."
- This is David’s only recorded prayer during the insurrection. Note that it is not a prayer for victory or for the destruction of Absalom but simply a prayer for “foolishness” on the part of Absalom’s advisors.
Source: Marketplace Institute