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More like David, less like Saul? 

What was different about two men who were so similar at the start - and how does this relate to us today?

The first blog of a new series about leadership, by Terry Young. The five part series will examine aspects of David's life


In the run up to Christmas, my wife and I were reading 1 Samuel and wondered if this was the best fare for Advent. As we heard of magi undertaking their grand tour or shepherds making a snap decision to scout the town, we were watching two kings – one in post, one in waiting – moving warily around each other.

Most of us identify with David who succeeded, while Saul’s line collapsed after a single reign. When we decide to forgive ourselves for something ghastly, we think Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) not Amalekites (1 Samuel 15); when seeking spiritual refreshment, we reflect on David and the Psalms not Saul and the prophets (1 Samuel 10 [& 19!]); for unlikely victories, we look to Goliath (1 Samuel 17) rather than the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11).

Yet, if we’re honest, we are more often like Saul than David. I guess there are more Sauls in ministry than Davids and it’s easy to see why. Saul’s style and intuition matched the expectations of those around him. He was shrewd with enemies, marrying his main competitor into the family to keep an eye on him in case he needs to eliminate him (grab a smart device for details). Saul may even have been the better father.

Like the wheat and weeds they were similarly retiring members of their clans. Both were big: Saul was taller than anyone else (1 Samuel 10) and David could get into Saul’s armour (1 Samuel 17). So how did things go so wrong for Saul and so right for David?

Let’s avoid two pitfalls: let’s not pretend there was a single, transformative moment for each, from which one got steadily better and the other grew worse; but let’s also avoid the opposite view, that Saul was always going to do badly, and David was always going to do well, turning them both into cardboard cut-outs instead of real characters.

What was different about two men who were so similar at the start? Reading 1 Samuel in Advent, it was clear to us that the mature Saul and the young David saw the world from almost opposite directions: although both inspired loyalty, David’s men couldn’t understand him, while Saul’s troops were always clear about what he wanted and why.

It’s probably easier to note the differences than to explain them, so let’s start there. As a new monarch, Saul slices up a yoke of oxen and sends the pieces across the land with a message to join him for battle. It’s a grand gesture, a confident signal (I’m serious about winning) and a threat (you’re dead meat if you stay behind). Saul is consistent in his big picture leadership, with sacrifices ahead of battle, consulting the Ark of the Covenant, and even a fast in the middle of victory. David is also public in acknowledging God when he takes on Goliath, so what’s the difference?

This question is much better than any answer I can give, and you may do well to stop reading and spend the rest of the day thinking about it. Whatever the difference, it led to different places. When the Ziphites tell Saul where David is hiding, he blesses them in God’s name and sets out to annihilate his enemy. When David has chances to kill Saul in his sleep (and David’s men see God’s hand in this), he holds back.

My reading is that Saul has an undeveloped faith (like most of us) and David has a faith that matures into something few of us fully acquire. Saul and those around him share an almost magical faith that God is on their side and God’s main job is to bless them. As leader of Israel, God’s main job is to bless Saul and Saul’s main job is to keep the big gestures going – the fasting, the sacrifices. Thus, Saul and the people are usually on the same page: they want Saul to lead them to success, and Saul focuses on being the successful leader they need.

David grasps – and for most of his life, clings to – a radical alternative, namely that God comes first, however that affects David. When Bathsheba’s first child dies, those around cannot make sense of his behaviour – if he was distraught before the child dies, why doesn’t he mourn in earnest once the child is gone? But, as David explains, it’s the other way around: once the punishment has fallen it’s time to move on and worship. In breath-taking insight, he notes (2 Samuel 12:23), ‘I will go to him, but he will not return to me.’

Of course, it’s possible to get so used to seeing things differently that you disregard the rest entirely. David’s fixation over Absalom, for instance, nearly trashes the country but, on the whole, his judgement holds.

David’s disgraceful episode with Bathsheba is a watershed in his reign and he never seems to recover from the loss of moral authority as his heirs move into rape and slaughter. It’s an awful story, but it isn’t the whole story. Like Samson’s hair, David’s faith grows once more in desperate adversity, and he focuses on the grandest project of all: the temple that his son will build. The contrast between outward failure and inward renewal is spectacularly developed in the two narratives we have of his latter reign from 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles.

More than ever, David’s life is a parable of our time, as we look to secular leadership models of how to make our mark and what the congregation expects. Meanwhile, lives of ministry are routinely wrecked by evil episodes – is there no route to recovery?

In the next four blogs, we will look at four aspects of David’s life: loyalty, communicating with God, how he makes decisions, and a neglected theme today: our successor.

These stories are old, but our needs are new each day: let’s press on in hope!

Image | VineyardLC | Church Media Drop 

Professor Terry Young is an author and member of a Baptist church. He set up Datchet Consulting which combines his experience in industry and academia.

This is part of a series on leadership through aspects of David's life:


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