Society & Politics

Leadership Lessons from the Life of David - Part 8: Last Works of a Leader


Preston Manning

This article is the eighth 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.

As David entered his latter years, his two major works both focused on preparing for the future – a characteristic of good leaders who, even as the sun sets on their personal careers, look ahead rather than back. One of these last major works was political and involved David preparing for his son Solomon to succeed him as king. But the other, and the one to which he devoted the most attention, was spiritual: making extensive preparations for the building of a “dwelling place” (a temple) for the God whom he had served all his life.

So what can we learn from the last works of David, a leader who operated at the interface of faith and politics throughout all of his adult life?

Political Preparations for the Future

At some earlier point in his career, David had promised Bathsheba – perhaps out of guilt over how he had used her and murdered her husband – that their son Solomon would succeed him as king (I Kings 1:30), despite the fact that David’s oldest son Amnon was the natural heir to the throne. But apparently nothing was done to formalize this commitment since at the time of Absalom’s rebellion there appears to have been no clear leading or plan for the orderly and peaceful succession of David as king. Not so, however, toward the end of his life. In one of his last major addresses to the officials and people of Israel, David declares: “Of all my sons – and the Lord has given me many – he has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel” (I Chronicles 28:5).

However, this declaration of Solomon’s right of succession is not unconditional. David goes on to address Solomon, saying, “And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever” (I Chronicles 28:9).

Notwithstanding the clarity of God’s direction with respect to the succession issue, David faces one more challenge with respect to its implementation: another rebellion fomented by yet another of his frustrated and ambitious sons, Adonijah. What makes this rebellion particularly dangerous is that this time it is supported by David’s long- standing military commander Joab.

“Now Adonijah, whose mother was Haggith, put himself forward and said, ‘I will be king.’ So he got chariots and horses ready, with fifty men to run ahead of him. (His father had never interfered with him by asking, ‘Why do you behave as you do?’ He was also very handsome and was born next after Absalom.) Adonijah conferred with Joab son of Zeruiah and with Abiathar the priest, and they gave him their support” (I Kings 1:5-7).

Although by now David is old and declining in strength and perception, he is rallied one more time by Nathan, Bathsheba, and those of his military guard still loyal to him. He orders Solomon to be crowned king in his place, these orders are carried out swiftly and dramatically, Adonijah’s support evaporates, and Solomon succeeds David as the third King of Israel (I Kings 1:11-53).

The Succession Challenge

Of all the challenges facing political leaders, planning and providing for a peaceful, orderly transition to a qualified successor is perhaps the most difficult. For example, if the leader of a democratic political party and the party itself ignore or neglect preparing for succession, they run the risk of a future leadership deficiency or crisis. But if the leader openly seeks to cultivate and prepare an “outsider” or the most promising of his younger colleagues for the job, that will invariably be resented by all the other “aspirants to the throne,” especially the most ambitious.

Hence there are benefits for any organization of having clearly understood and accepted rules governing succession of the leader. In the case of monarchies, succession is generally based on laws or conventions of heredity which provide that the oldest living offspring of the present monarch is to be the successor. In the case of businesses, especially public companies, the selection of the next CEO is the primary responsibility of the Board of Directors, subject to ratification by the shareholders. In democracies, party constitutions provide for leadership reviews and selection and/or election by caucuses or party members, their choice ultimately subject to acceptance or rejection by electors.

But for those engaged in the leadership and work of God’s kingdom on earth, there are two overriding questions to be answered with respect to leadership succession. Who does God himself desire to lead, and how is his will in the matter to be ascertained? In my experience, the answers to the first of these questions is rarely clear, although there will always be those with various motives who will claim to know with certainty. The emphasis, therefore, must be put on carefully and prayerfully seeking God’s will for ourselves and for the organization, recognizing that his ways are not our ways while acting to the best of our ability on whatever light we are given, and ultimately trusting in the scriptural declaration that “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Daniel 4: 25, 32).

Spiritual Preparations for the Future

From the days of Moses to those of David, the most important physical symbol of God’s presence in Israel was the Ark of the Covenant. There the tablets of the law given to Moses were kept under the watchful supervision of the Levitical priests (Exodus 25:8-22; Deuteronomy 10:1-8). During the priesthood of Eli the ark was captured by the Philistines. But its presence among them “brought devastation upon them,” so the Philistines hurriedly sent it back to Israel during the time of David’s spiritual mentor, Samuel (I Sam. 4-6). For a time, it was kept at the house of Abinadab in Kiriath Jearim (I Samuel 7:1) but was neglected throughout the reign of King Saul (I Chronicles 13:3). When David became king he decided to restore its place in the worship of Israel by bringing the ark to the royal city of Jerusalem. This he accomplished after some initial mishandlings (I Chronicles 13). Amid much thanksgiving and celebration, the ark finally came to rest in Jerusalem “inside the tent that David had pitched for it” (I Chronicles 15-16).

But “after David was settled in his palace, he said to Nathan the prophet, ‘Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of the covenant of the Lord is under a tent.’ Nathan replied to David, ‘Whatever you have in mind, do it, for God is with you’” (Chronicles 17:1-2). What David has in mind is nothing less than the construction of a house for the Lord to dwell in – a temple fit for the great God of Israel who had so guided and blessed him and his people throughout his life.

While well-intended and spiritually motivated, David’s plan to build a house for the Lord is not exactly what God himself has in mind. David explains this in one of his last addresses to his people:

“Listen to me, my brothers and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house as a place of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, for the footstool of our God, and I made plans to build it. But God said to me, ‘You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a warrior and have shed blood.’

“Yet the Lord, the God of Israel, chose me from my whole family to be king over Israel forever. He chose Judah as leader, and from the house of Judah he chose my family, and from my father’s sons he was pleased to make me king over all Israel. Of all my sons – and the Lord has given me many – he has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel. He said to me: ‘Solomon your son is the one who will build my house and my courts, for I have chosen him to be my son, and I will be his father….’”

Then David gave his son Solomon the plans for the portico of the temple, its buildings, its storerooms, its upper parts, its inner rooms and the place of atonement. He gave him the plans of all that the Spirit had put in his mind for the courts of the temple of the Lord and all the surrounding rooms, for the treasuries of the temple of God and for the treasuries for the dedicated things. He gave him instructions for the divisions of the priests and Levites, and for all the work of serving in the temple of the Lord, as well as for all the articles to be used in its service. …

“All this,” David said, “I have in writing from the hand of the Lord upon me, and he gave me understanding in all the details of the plan” (I Chronicles 28:2-6, 11-13, 19).


There are at least three major lessons we can draw from David’s experience as a political and spiritual leader determined to build a “dwelling place” for God.

First, there may be aspects of our political work which regrettably preclude us from carrying out certain types of spiritual service.[1] Success in our political calling, even if God-directed and blessed, does not automatically qualify us to do whatever we “have a mind to do” to advance the kingdom of God. In David’s case God says to him, “You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a warrior[2] and have shed blood” (I Chronicles 28:3).

For faith-oriented political leaders the fact that your role in the kingdoms of men may impose limits on your service in the kingdom of God is a sad truth and hard to accept. In David’s case, however, it is God’s declaration of this reality which turns him toward making extensive preparations for others to perform the spiritual work that he himself is not qualified or authorized to perform.

Second, when it comes to the initiation of spiritual enterprises (work), David’s experience reminds us again that the direction and initiative for such work must come not from ourselves but from God himself. Building a “dwelling place” for his presence in our homes, organizations, and society is ultimately the work of his Spirit, in which God invites us to join, not our work (however spiritually motivated we may be) in which we ask God to join.

As David himself writes, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). This too is a hard lesson for leaders to accept, as two of the distinguishing characteristics of a leader are the willingness and ability to give direction and to take the initiative.

Third, and providentially, it is a combination of these two unpalatable truths – that David’s military work precludes him from building the temple and that its construction is to be done at God’s initiative and not his own – that give David divinely inspired direction as to what he personally is to do both spiritually and politically during the sunset years of his life. Once he seeks God’s direction, he is clearly instructed to focus on preparing for the future – to make preparations for his son Solomon to succeed him and to equip and mandate Solomon to build the temple.

Here then is yet another example of the scriptural principle that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Its relevance for those who seek God’s will for the latter portions of their lives today is the assurance that God can tell them what their past experience qualifies or disqualifies them to do in his service and what preparations they are to make for the continuance of his work among the next generation.[3]

Second Thoughts?

Active people nearing the end of their careers, including those who have pursued political careers, often reflect on “what might have been” had they followed a different path. Whether David engaged in such reflections we do not know, but if he did he might well have wondered whether he should have focused more on the spiritual guidance of Israel than on its military and political guidance. After all, as a young man his role model for a godly leader had been the saintly Samuel, a judge and an administrator to be sure, but much more a priest and a prophet. During David’s lifetime, it was the prophet Nathan who had been a constant and reliable conduit between God and himself, and David might well have wondered whether he could or should have served God better had he himself been more of a prophet and less of a soldier. Or given his obvious gifts for poetry and music, should he, like his fellow psalmist Asaph, have devoted himself entirely to the ministry of the arts rather than to the darker arts of war and politics?

Others with both spiritual and political commitments – like the British parliamentarian William Wilberforce – have struggled with whether they have arrived at or maintained the right “balance” between the two. More often the fear is that they have erred on the side of allowing the demands and urgencies of the political to supplant and gradually crowd out what they might have achieved spiritually.

I have had similar thoughts myself. When I was in my early twenties, my father was still Premier of Alberta (a political role) but also the Director of Canada’s National Back to the Bible Hour, a national evangelical radio ministry calling on Canadians to place their faith in Christ. During the 1960s, in preparation for celebrating Canada’s 1967 centennial as a nation, he promoted the idea that the centennial reflections and celebrations should include explicit recognition of Canada’s spiritual heritage and the need for its revitalization. A young colleague of mine and I went on an extensive national speaking tour (not unlike an election campaign tour) promoting this concept. Genuine spiritual revival is of course the result not of human effort but of a moving of God’s spirit. But I have nevertheless wondered since whether, if I had continued to promote and work for spiritual revival in Canada to the same extent and with the same energy that I later gave to promoting political reform, this might have been the better and more God-honouring path.

My conclusion is perhaps the same one that David might have come to if he had engaged in such retrospective reflections:  there is no point in second-guessing God or yourself on the balance to be achieved between the spiritual and the political if you genuinely believe that you have been led to work at the interface between the two. Better to trust that you have been in God’s plan however imperfectly you may have understood it or followed it.

In David’s case, if he erred during his career by being overly preoccupied with his military and political role in Israel, he is given a God-directed opportunity during his latter years to restore the balance by putting the majority of his efforts into preparation for the building of “a dwelling place for God” – the last and most enduring of David’s “works.”

The lesson? Solomon his son put it this way: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).


  1. For example, a modern political leader with a faith commitment, even if successful politically, will have alienated certain segments of the community who disagree with his or her ideology, policies, decisions, or actions. That alienation limits the effectiveness of that politician in personally representing the claims of Christ to those groups, since having decided that the leader is misguided politically they will tend to assume that he is also misguided on other matters including the spiritual. In my own case, while my secular advisors were always worried that my religious views and commitments would alienate potential political supporters, I was always more worried that my political positions and commitments would alienate potential believers from investigating the claims of Christ.
  2. Just a listing of David’s military exploits gives us an idea of the extent to which he was first and foremost a warrior and “shedder of blood.” They included numerous battles and victories over the Philistines, beginning with his defeat of their champion Goliath in man-to-man combat (I Sam. 17; II Sam. 5,8, 21, 23); his pursuit and destruction of an Amalekite raiding party which attacked his camp and abducted his wives and possessions (I Sam. 30); his military defeat of the forces of the house of Saul after Saul’s death (II Sam. 2-3); his defeat of the Jebusites when he and his forces attacked and conquered the city of Jerusalem (II Sam. 5:6-7); and military engagements and victories over the Moabites, Arameans, Edomites, and Ammonites as David expands Israel’s territory and secures her borders (II Sam. 8,10).
  3. In my own case, after a period of uncertainty at the end of my active political career, I became convinced that I should devote my efforts to assisting in strengthening the knowledge, skills, ethics, and leadership capacities of the next generation of participants in Canada’s political processes, including providing some guidance based on my own experience of “navigating the faith political interface.” These activities I have carried out through the work of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, the Manning Foundation for Democratic Education, and my role as a Senior Fellow of Regent College’s Marketplace Institute.

Source: Marketplace Institute

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