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Loyalty and loving kindness 

For David, loyalty was a difficult but essential practice. What lessons are there for Christian leaders or leaders in training? 

The second in the series on leadership by Terry Young 


Two pieces of David’s puzzle that are hard to connect are the diffident king-in-waiting and the decisive monarch.  Years elapse from when Samuel anoints him (1 Samuel 16) – a teenager? – to when he takes the throne of Judah at 30 and then of all Israel seven years later (2 Samuel 5).

Those years should have been the prime of his life: if you were going to make your move, that was the time! Yet, after an early introduction at court, David’s star wanes under a cloud of suspicion and hostility until he flees the palace. At the height of his powers, he is an outcast leading a band of vagabonds.

Reconstructing that interval is not easy: the minstrel, the avenging hero, the rising star, the general, the royal son-in-law, the outlaw. Saul’s relationship with David seems desperately inconsistent, punctuated by bouts of spear-throwing, favour, adulation, threat and exile. What is astonishing is David’s consistent loyalty.

Despite a fractured and volatile relationship with the king, David forges a friendship with the Crown Prince, Jonathan (read through 1 Sam 18-20 & 23). In the culture of the day, this seems more significant than his marriage to Saul’s daughter, Michal. As Saul’s reign tips into terminal decline, Jonathan believes that David will become king and that he will be second in command.

Throughout, David will fight for Saul but not against him, he will run but not revolt. It puts his parents in peril and involves extraordinary alliances, but David holds a delicate line under enormous pressure. His elegy to Saul and Jonathan after their last battle is genuine, haunting, and reveals layers of grief where we would have expressed relief or, worse, elation.

We have noted how out-of-tune David was with those around: his punishment of those who claimed to have killed Saul and his reward of those who rescued Saul and Jonathan’s remains are further examples. He waits seven years while Saul’s house finally folds and his elevation of Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth to the royal table also shows a deep respect for the departed monarchy.

But why does this matter, and what lessons are there for Christian leaders or leaders in training? We could go in so many directions from here. We might, for instance, question the quality of Christian leadership in our day or ask whether we expect Christian leaders to hit their peak at the same time as their peers in public life, commerce or industry. These questions are important, but let’s sidle up to them, rather meet them head-on.

Because David has God’s promise that he will be king one day, he can afford to wait. He has time to help out on the farm, to compose his psalms, and to play soothingly to an agitated monarch. The bonds he forges on the run turn into his networks in power. His time in waiting makes him depend on God and perfect that precarious balance in making decisions that match survival with service to God.

Saul never had that chance, pitched as he was from obscurity to overnight acclaim. His first victory was a gamechanger and suddenly the relentless oppressor looked vulnerable.  For the first time in generations, sustained independence from the Philistines looked possible. Anyone who could do that could do no wrong, which left him with a fragile mantle. For an entertaining take, watch Prof Dennis Tourish: Dysfunctional leadership in corporations.
Saul, then was driven by a need for success and he only found the forward gears. That mysterious R on his gearstick – reverse, repentance – never got used. Twice we read that he started to wait for God’s intervention but had to press on to the urgency of battle.

If God’s promise gave David time to develop, it also gave him a perspective beyond the royal court. Had David and Saul found themselves on a desert island they would probably have been good friends, hunted and collected great food and built fine houses together, for they had a lot in common. But they weren’t on a desert island: they were in a cockpit, surrounded by courtiers taking private and public bets on who would come out alive.

In this environment Saul is unable to recover from early mistakes, especially in ignoring Samuel’s advice, and his instincts harden into jealousy and a murderous reflex. It is worth asking if these dynamics surface in church, and I’ll leave that question with you. What we can say is that the news is full of despots who are both aggressors and victims of the expectation of their crowd.

For David, loyalty was a difficult but essential practice. He learned to be a loyal follower before he became a leader able to reward the loyalty of others. He wasn’t a sycophant or a flatterer and put his life on the line with Goliath, not to mention his many victories that enhanced Israel’s security.

David also survived the jealous rages of the chap in charge. Most Christian leaders find themselves on one side or the other of such a struggle at some stage, at different times they may experience both sides! The message from 1 Samuel is to look to God for a new perspective and to watch the crowd with more care and less concern.

David is generous in victory and thoughtful in his loyal gestures. I think it is sad how little time we spend thanking people in Church who serve quietly and consistently for decades. Ten minutes in a service once a year, maybe 20 minutes at their funeral, and that’s it. How about lunch every week for the rest of their lives?

Finally, David can afford to be loyal because of God’s lovingkindness to him. Apparently, the key Hebrew word doesn’t really have an English counterpart, so we improvise, but it occurs over and over again in The Psalms. One of the most famous – Psalm 23 and attributed to David – ends in hope of being hunted down… by what? Why goodness and lovingkindness, of course!

Image | Korney Violin | Unsplash


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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