Part I — Fear God, Treat People Rightly
Reflections from I and II Samuel —
The political machine is in full swing in America, with a wide diversity of characters vying to be the next President of the United States. It will be interesting to see how Americans vote, what qualities people look for in their next president. Qualities like charisma, experience, courage, compassion, and integrity typically rise to the top. The one who garnishes more of these qualities than his/her opponent, and who gets the financial backing required, generally comes out on top.
In contrast to the American political process, and the vying of candidates against one another, is God’s process of selecting leaders for His people. In the books of I and II Samuel, the subject of leadership is a major theme. In these historical accounts, the author provides elaborate detail on God’s selection process for the first two kings of Israel–Saul and David. He also gives us a detailed account of the performance of these two men. From these valuable pages, we have tangible examples of leadership, good and bad, from God’s perspective. God’s successive selections of Saul and David, and the dramatically different results of their respective reigns, constitute a valuable lesson for the church. We should look carefully God’s objectives, His criteria for the selection. We should seek to understand how these two men ultimately panned out. What went right? What went wrong? What was it about these guys that proved to be the difference? What are the attributes that all leaders of the church should aspire to obtain?
In II Samuel 23, we have the memoirs of David, arguably the greatest leader, of all time. In his final words of wisdom, David shares with us God’s prescription for the kind of leader He desires. Notice what the Lord says:
“He who rules over men righteously, who rules in the fear of God, is as the light of the morning when the sun rises….The worthless will be thrust away because they cannot be taken in hand…” — II Samuel 23:3-7
From these simple words, we see that humility of heart is essential. A good leader must possess a heart that is not conceited, that does not seek its own gain, but rather fears God, and treats people rightly.
To fear God is not to cower in terror as before a cruel tyrant. Practically speaking, fearing God means living every day as if God actually exists. To fear God to recognize His presence and to honor Him in daily decisions, habits, and lifestyle. As David writes, “the fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.'” (Psalm 14:1). On the contrary, the wise man is the one who lives as though God exists. God desires leaders that live this way. Good leaders acknowledge His presence in their daily life, and that base their daily decisions on what pleases Him.
To treat people rightly is to be considerate of the needs of those around you, to be self-sacrificing when necessary to meet those needs. God loves leaders who do not lead to satisfy their own selfish ambition or need for significance, but who effectively look after those under their charge.
It is noteworthy that God does not mention zeal, charisma, or charm as important characteristics of a leader. He doesn’t list good administrative skills nor the ability to communicate effectively. He certainly doesn’t require good looks, bravery, confidence, or appeal. God’s simple prescription for anyone aspiring to lead is to fear Him and treat people rightly. God wants a leader with a soft heart toward Him and His word, and He wants someone selfless enough to look after the welfare of the people He loves.
In this entry, we will take an in-depth look at the selection of Saul and his poor performance as king. In the second part of this series, we will look at David, and examine his more positive example of leadership.
From a worldly perspective, Saul had many desirable attributes of a king. He was a tall, handsome man, the son of a warrior. It was never in doubt that Saul was God’s choice for a first king of Israel. God carried out an elaborate plan for His prophet, Samuel, to find and anoint Saul (I Samuel 9:1-10:1).
However, it is not long before red flags appear. From the beginning, we see evidence of a fearful, self-seeking heart in Saul. After being publicly anointed king by Samuel, Saul returns to his home and speaks to his uncle, to whom he amazingly neglects to mention the monumental event that has just occurred to him, if not the most important news in Israel’s history (I Samuel 10:16). Later, when Saul is publicly announced in the hearing of a great crowd, we find him cowering behind the baggage train (I Samuel 10:22) and shrinking back when his kingship is challenged (I Samuel 10:27).
These incidents may appear innocent, but they suggest a serious character flaw. Saul’s awkward shyness was more than nerves — it demonstrates contempt for God’s calling on his life. That contempt would soon grow to fruition in the form of outright rebellion.
In I Samuel 13, Saul is in a quandary. Samuel had departed on a seven-day journey; his last words to Saul were to do nothing until he returned. But in Samuel’s absence, disaster struck. The Philistines, the sworn enemy of Israel, invaded the land. Saul’s troops were deserting in droves. Growing impatient, Saul presumptuously offered the burnt offering, a ritual he was forbidden by law to perform. It is clear Saul knew he was violating God’s requirement (“I forced myself…”, I Samuel 13:12), but he rationalized his actions in his own mind and didn’t take God’s command seriously. When Samuel finally returned, he rebuked Saul for his foolishness and impertinence, and uttered a condemning message that summarizes the first failure of Saul’s leadership:
“The Lord has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart, and over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” — I Samuel 13:14
Saul’s presumptuous act may have been overlooked. But in I Samuel 15, he repeated his folly and only partially did what God asked of him. God had commanded Saul to completely wipe out the Amalekites, but Saul was persuaded by the people to keep some of the spoils. In this way, Saul feared men, not God. He let popular opinion slur his judgment. He wanted to be everyone’s best friend, so he conceded to them rather than fully obey God. He had an unhealthy interest in winning the approval of his peers. I am particularly prone to this. My desire for respect and popularity–my need to be liked–often clouds my vision and distorts the black and white truth of God’s word. The fear of God and the fear of man do not mix. Sometimes, they are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum. To fear God sometimes means we need to disappoint a person or two.
We all sin, and God sees every sin, no matter how well we hide it. When He confronts our sin, the best thing is to own up–agree with Him and ask forgiveness. We have a merciful God who loves a broken heart and is quick to forgive (Psalm 51:17, I John 1:9). When Samuel confronted Saul for his sin, Saul first denied guilt (I Samuel 15:13), and then deflected blame (I Samuel 15:21) to others. Rather than owning up to his sin, Saul downplayed it. He had so little respect for God, he couldn’t see his sin even when it was right in front of his face. Only after Samuel delivers the searing verdict does Saul finally acknowledge his fault (I Samuel 15:24).
Saul did not take God’s command seriously, and when he was confronted about his sin, he denied, deflected, and downplayed it. The lesson of Saul is this: good leaders fear God. They respect God’s word. In Isaiah 66:2, God says, “to this one will I look, to him who is humble and contrite in spirit, and who trembles at My word.” I think it’s pretty awesome that God so clearly tells us what kind of person He looks for, those He is crazy about. A leader God loves is one whose mind is affected by God’s word. It dictates his actions and decisions. And when he violates God’s word, and is confronted, he softens. He owns his sin. He doesn’t deny, deflect, or downplay it. These are the marks of a man who fears God. These are the marks of a godly leader.
So we see that Saul violated the first of God’s two requirements for a godly leader: He did not fear God. Sadly, Saul woefully failed to meet the second requirement as well.
Responsibility tends to bring out the best and worst of people. In Saul’s case, responsibility exposed the true nature of his heart. His poor decision-making reflected fear — suspicious, protecting, and lacking concern for God’s people. In almost all of Saul’s relationships, we see him mistreating people. He is often given to jealousy and sudden outbursts of anger. He hurled spears at his son (I Samuel 20:33) and most capable commander (I Samuel 18:11), had 85 priests murdered in cold blood (I Samuel 22:17-19), and ordered the genocide of the Gibeonites (II Samuel 21:2), with whom Israel had sworn allegiance. People were scared to death under Saul’s reign. He was harsh, inconsiderate, and cast a shadow of fear over the land.
We rarely see God regretting a decision in scripture, but His appointment of Saul as king is one of them (I Samuel 15:11). God is looking for leaders who treat people rightly. In Jeremiah 21:12, 22:13-16, He tells leaders to administer justice and righteousness–in other words, treat people rightly. It is a practical righteousness that every leader should strive for.
Practical righteousness of this kind is going beyond what is legal and doing what is loving, which is exactly what God did when He overlooked our sin and redeemed us (Romans 3:21-26). In God’s eyes, dealing rightly with the people around you is extremely important. Jesus said that to “love your neighbor as yourself” is the second greatest commandment behind loving God. There are a whole bunch of laws governing how we ought to treat others in the Bible, but Paul made it clear that if you love your neighbor, you’ve fulfilled all those other laws anyway (Galatians 5:14). Jesus went as far to say it’s more important to Him that we mend a broken relationship–ask forgiveness of a brother we’ve offended–than it is to maintain our daily prayer ritual (Matthew 5:23-24). Paul writes that you can have faith to move mountains, give all your possessions to the poor, or speak with the tongue of angels, but if you don’t have love, you are nothing. How we treat people is important to God, and it should start and end with loving them.
All Christians should practice this kind of righteousness–we should not just be law-abiding; we should be loving. By law, I keep my stuff in my yard and do not transgress the boundary between my lot and my neighbor’s. In love, I bake fresh cookies, walk across the boundary, and give them to my neighbor for no other reason than their enjoyment. This is righteousness.
Saul is an example for every leader in the Christian community of what a leader should not be. Leaders in the church need to pay attention to themselves–watch for disregard for God’s word. Look for signs of denial, deflection, and downplaying of sin. Be wary of insensitivity, lack of concern for the welfare of those under authority, and an unhealthy interest in gaining approval of men. Watch for these signs. Confess them. Submit to the Lord and in His power, correct them. Leaders have power over people–power which can be used selfishly to their own advantage, or to truly help the people under their charge. Leaders are given the special ability to make things happen, to release bonds of oppression, to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, to keep promises. Fear God and treat people rightly. This is God’s desire for leaders.
In the next entry, we will look at David, the man after God’s own heart. In him, we will find a leader that God longs for.