This article is the last 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.
Do not cast me away when I am old;
do not forsake me when my strength is gone. ...
Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God,
till I declare your power to the next generation,
your might to all who are to come.
(A Petition of David, Psalm 71:9, 18)
The last words of leaders to their intimates and followers tend to reveal what is weighing most heavily on their mind and heart as they look back over their careers. And it is often in these last words that they emphasize what they consider most important to pass on to the next generation. So it was with David.
We have already noted that in his last recorded address to the officials and people of Israel (I Chronicles 28) David’s entire focus is on preparation for the future, both spiritual and political. He declares, “I had it in my heart to build a house” for God (the temple), but God shows him he is not the one to do so. Rather he is to appoint his son Solomon to succeed him and make all the preparations for him to establish the spiritual edifice which David himself had hoped to build.
It is also worth noting that his last major address to Israel ends fittingly in a prayer, David being ever not only the king but also the psalmist of Israel. In his prayer, David acknowledges that the kingdom and all its resources belong to God, not men; he acknowledges that God continues to test the hearts of those who serve him, and that God is “pleased with integrity.” He specifically prays that God will shape and inspire the future desires of the people of Israel. “O Lord God … keep their hearts loyal to you” (I Chron. 29:10-20).
David's Words to Solomon - Harsh Words
David’s last recorded words to his family are almost entirely directed to Solomon and again are focused on preparation for the future (I Chron. 28; I Kings 2). Much of this final advice is positive and God-honouring, but it must be acknowledged that David’s political advice is of a different spirit.
He is particularly worried that his former military commander Joab and the household of Saul will never accept Solomon as king and will seek to overthrow him. And so he instructs Solomon, “Deal with Joab according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to the grave in peace.” And with respect to Shimei of the household of Saul, who had welcomed Absalom’s rebellion and cursed David as he fled from Jerusalem, “You will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood” (I Kings 2:6, 9).
While we may be disappointed that David’s last words would include such malevolent advice, they serve to remind us that the Biblical record is remarkably candid in how it reveals and records, for our instruction, not only the virtues and accomplishments of God’s servants but also their weaknesses and failures. David is a “man after God’s own heart,” a just and able ruler, and an inspired psalmist, but he is also a man of his times, a politician desirous of retaining power for himself and his successors, and “a warrior who has shed blood.”
The story of David’s long relationship with Joab, ending in his advice to Solomon to have Joab killed, is both tragic and instructive. It raises some very tough questions for leaders operating in the rough and tumble world of realpolitik while also endeavouring to live in accordance with God’s will and standards.
David and Joab were together for more than forty years. They fought side by side in innumerable battles against David’s and Israel’s enemies. Joab risked his life protecting David from Saul and his army. David appointed him the head of his own army because Joab was the first to attack and conquer the Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem to make it David’s royal city. It was Joab who carried out David’s orders to have Uriah killed so that David could possess Bathsheba. It was Joab who defended David against the most serious threat to his kingship, the armed rebellion led by Absalom. It was Joab who gave David sound advice to prevent the army from deserting when David showed more grief over Absalom’s death than he did appreciation for the army’s victory. And it was Joab who cautioned David not to invoke God’s wrath by conducting an unwarranted census of Israel’s fighting men.
Yet Joab was treacherous and violent to excess. He not only shed blood in fighting Israel’s wars but he shed “innocent blood.” Against David’s wishes, he murdered Abner, King Saul’s general who sought to make peace. Also against David’s wishes he murdered Amasa, the commander of Judah’s army. And it was Joab who struck down David’s son Absalom in defiance of David’s order, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.”
So the question arises: Does a morally upright leader like David nevertheless need a Joab – someone who, in order to protect or advance the interests of the leader and the kingdom, will do the things that the leader’s own conscience and convictions will not allow him to do himself? Did Elizabeth the First need a Walsingham, her principal secretary and spymaster, to eliminate her dangerous enemies, by fair means and foul, in order to secure and empower her reign? Did Abraham Lincoln truly need the services of those unscrupulous political henchmen who bribed and bullied unscrupulous congressmen into voting for the constitutional amendment which abolished slavery in the United States?
When Joab does what David cannot bring himself to do personally for conscience’ sake, murdering Uriah and eliminating Absalom as a threat to the throne, is not David morally culpable for Joab’s actions on his behalf?
Surely the answer to this question is yes, the leader is morally responsible and accountable for the actions of his or her subordinates in such instances. And if those actions are immoral and contrary to one’s understanding of God’s will for human conduct, then the sooner the better that those persons are removed from positions of influence rather than continuously relied upon. Perhaps David eventually came to this realization, although late in the day. Unless Joab was removed from his position of influence, his capacity for treachery and violence would ultimately destroy Solomon and the kingdom. Hence David’s harsh advice to Solomon, “Do not let his gray head go down to the grave in peace.”
David's Words to Solomon - Godly Words
To his credit, however, most of David’s last recorded words to Solomon constitute positive and godly instruction (I Chronicles 28:8-21; I Kings 2:1-4).
They include the command to build the temple in accordance with all the plans and preparations that David had made. “Consider now, for the Lord has chosen you to build a temple as a sanctuary. Be strong and do the work” (I Chron. 28:10).
But the primary emphasis of David’s last words to Solomon is twofold: First, take care of the spiritual condition of your own mind and heart.
Acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind…. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever. (I Chron. 28:9)
And second, like Moses in his last charge to Israel, David calls upon Solomon to adhere to the Law of God as revealed to Israel. The future king of Israel, who will make and enforce laws, is himself to be under the law.
Be strong, and show yourself a man, and observe what the Lord your God requires. Walk in his ways and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and that the Lord may keep his promise to me….” (I Kings 2:2-4)
There are seven verses in the second-last chapter of the second book of Samuel which are announced as “the last words of David: the oracle of David son of Jesse, the oracle of the man exalted by the Most High, the man anointed by the God of Jacob, Israel’s singer of songs” (II Sam 23:1-7).
In these verses David attributes his words to the Spirit of God speaking through him. He declares that a ruler will be a blessing to his people when he rules in righteousness and the fear of God. He also asks in the negative a question I will reframe in the positive. It is a question which all of us, whether we are thinking of the welfare of our own lives and homes or the welfare of a city, province, or nation should ask and answer for ourselves: “Is my house right with God?” Once again, as throughout his lifetime, the necessity of right relationships – positive and peaceful relations which David rarely achieved within his own household but strove to achieve within the kingdom – was foremost on his mind.
Learning from David
As we close this series of lessons in leadership from the life of King David, it is appropriate for each of us to ask what aspects of David’s experience are most relevant and meaningful to us personally.
Is it the evidence of “providential leading” in David’s early call into God’s service and the encouragement that comes from knowing that God can take a shepherd boy from the sheep pen to the throne of a kingdom if that is God’s will?
Is it the importance that God attaches to character, the inner condition of the human heart, as a qualification for service in his kingdom and in the kingdoms of this world? If God attaches such importance to character in recruiting spiritual and political leaders, should not we do the same?
Is it the realization that for the man or woman “after God’s own heart” there is a “downward path to the top” – a path that may well involve years of subordination to cruel and unjust superiors and lead through “the school of suffering,” but which in the end fully prepares us for self-sacrificial service to God and to others?
Or is it the revelation of David’s inner life and personal relationship to God as expressed in his poems and hymns that is most meaningful and relevant to our lives? Does not David’s example strongly encourage us to pour out our innermost thoughts and feelings to the shepherd of our souls and to devote more of our attention to the cultivation of our inner lives?
Since none of us is without sin – all of us falling short of God’s moral standards – is it the sad but instructive story of David’s moral failings with respect to the Bathsheba affair that speaks most directly to our own condition? Is there not both instruction and encouragement for us in David’s acknowledgement of his failings, his heartfelt repentance, and his subsequent experience of forgiveness, cleansing, and grace?
Or is it the lessons in relationships, exemplified and taught by David’s life, that stand out for us as we contemplate his life and ours? What importance and priority do we attach to “getting right” our relationship to God, our families, and other human beings?
And as we approach our sunset years and the temptation to retire into self-indulgence, does David’s use of those years to prepare his family and his people for what lay ahead speak most critically and powerfully to those of us of the self-centered “me” generation?
Last Words to You - A Reflection on Psalm 143
In my case, as much as I have studied and profited from the lessons taught by David’s political career, it is his psalms and the revelation of his inner life which I find most inspiring and instructive. One psalm in particular, Psalm 143, has been a source of comfort and guidance, especially in my post-political years.
It begins with a petition for God’s help and a frank acknowledgement of our moral imperfections, including those of us who are in positions to impose legal and moral demands on others:
O Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief.
Do not bring your servant into judgment,
for no one living is righteous before you. (Psalm 143:1-2)
Next follows an admission of need and a cry for relief from spiritual and mental depression, the immediate cause of which is not disclosed but which those of us who have suffered personal or political reversals know all too well.
The enemy pursues me, he crushes me to the ground;
he makes me dwell in darkness like those long dead.
So my spirit grows faint within me;
my heart within me is dismayed. …
I spread out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.
Answer me quickly, O Lord; my spirit fails.
Do not hide your face from me
or I will be like those who go down to the pit. (Psalm 143:3-4, 6-7)
But finally this most inspirational psalm ends with a list of six profound petitions which, if granted, will restore God’s servant to spiritual health and well-being no matter what circumstances he or she may be called upon to endure.
Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love,
for I have put my trust in you.
Show me the way I should go,
for to you I lift up my soul.
Rescue me from my enemies, O Lord, for I hide myself in you.
Teach me to do your will, for you are my God;
may your good Spirit lead me on level ground.
For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life;
…. for I am your servant. (Psalm 143:8-12)
Is not this the great Lesson from the Life of David most applicable to ours? He chose to put his trust in God, to lift up his soul to Him, to hide himself in God, and to claim Him as his own. As a consequence, the morning truly did bring him word of God’s unfailing love. He truly did receive knowledge of God’s will and the way he should go. He was time and time again delivered from the “enemy” of his soul. And in the end, notwithstanding all the ups and downs of his political and spiritual life, he was guided by God’s spirit onto personal, spiritual, and political “level ground.”
- See Leadership Lessons from the Life of David - Part 8: Last Works of a Leader
- I Chron. 11:6; II Sam. 11:14-17; II Sam. 18:6-14; II Sam. 19:1-8; II Sam. 24:2-4.
- I Kings 2:31-34; II Samuel 3; II Sam. 20; II Sam. 18:5.
Source: Marketplace Institute