“Behold the Lord’s anointed!”
Quite a day for the life of that young man, wouldn’t you say? Then do you find it strange that this most remarkable event led the young man, not to the throne, but to a decade of hellish agony and suffering? On that day, David was enrolled, not into the lineage of royalty, but into the school of brokenness. — Gene Edwards’ A Tale of Three Kings
I once worked for King Saul.
He was tall. Full of charisma and charm. Also, full of himself and prone to occasional bouts of rage and spear-chucking. He was, a leader of leaders for his generation. And, like King Saul of the Old Testament, chosen and anointed by God to lead — in this case — a global enterprise. He, like Saul, was given to prophesying when the Spirit came upon him. Like his OT counterpart, his hot bursts of anger were calmable (but certainly not by music which he considered “divisive” within the Body of Christ).
In this real-life storyline, I was David. A young, naïve shepherd boy from poor missionary parents. Who grew up, not in a palace somewhere as a “blue blood,” but rather in one of the poorest nations in our hemisphere. A despised minority who, nonetheless, loved his childhood and the horse who galloped him into fantasies of Cowboys and Indians, racing down tropical mountainsides at breakneck speed, or to swinging vines, à la Tarzan.
At some point during the final decade of the last century, a friend whose identity I can’t verify to this day, gave me a book he thought sounded like my situation. Gene Edwards’ A Tale of Three Kings taught me that my survival instincts were right-on. That dodging spears was far more David-like than allowing them to pierce and kill me.
But this is not a book about self-protection from toxic leaders. Rather, as the subtitle explains, it is a study in brokenness. So, while I found a simpatico and highly relatable emerging leader victimized by a senior and dangerous leader, I was also confronted by Edwards’ thesis: God desires to exorcise the Saul from all of us, replaced by a broken spirit and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17). Those traits in David were the result of choices: non-retaliation (not “re-gifting” the thrown javelin, or much later, twice choosing not to exact revenge by killing a vulnerable monarch).
What this is, is a book that uses biblical examples of three types of leaders: abusive, servant-hearted and ambitious.
King 1: Abusive leader.
King Saul fit every category of an increasingly deranged toxic and dangerous leader. Read my previous blogs on any number of problematic leaders. Saul fits each description. But add to a long list: mad with jealousy, somehow sensing that David was a serious threat to his dynasty. Even when Saul’s manic episodes were calmed by David’s Spirit anointed music, the spear was never far from his grasp.
You’ll recall, the young (former) shepherd-turned-giant killer, had become very, very popular. So when in the privacy of the palace, the King attempts to murder the young upstart, David learns to dodge the spears without retaliation.
The author asks, what should David have done when the anger, threats and spears hurtled his way? First of all, he must pretend he cannot see spears. Even when they are coming straight at him. Secondly, he must also learn to duck very quickly. Lastly, he must pretend nothing at all happened.
The lesson is this: you can tell those who have been wounded or injured by abusive leaders’ spears by the deep shade of bitterness that results. David’s dodging and darting survival skills, undoubtedly honed by endless hours tending Dad’s sheep, are what kept him un-wounded, and thus, not bitter. It’s why God later tells us that David was a man after his own heart.
In this fictionalized version of true biblical events, Edwards puts these thoughts in young David’s heart, Better he kill me than I learn his ways. Better he kill me than I become as he is. I shall not practice the ways that cause kings to go mad. I will not throw spears, nor will I allow hatred to grow in my heart. I will not avenge. I will not destroy the Lord’s anointed. Not now. Not ever!
Let’s be clear. Saul was chosen by God for leadership. He had all the earthly qualifications: tall, handsome and anointed. (hmmmm!) But he was not a godly leader. Saul exercised a form of external power — there was little or nothing internal (in his spirit) that relied on God. By denying the internal work of God’s spirit, Saul missed the very opportunity for a dynasty that was given to David instead.
King 2: Servant Leader.
As a consequence of these events and his reactions to them, David was uniquely prepared to rule with a polar opposite heart-mentality. The servant leader David, was honed in the breaking process — not a physical deconstruction; not even a mental one. But rather a spirit that faced down selfish ambition, pride, opportunism or any of Saul’s other toxicities. The broken spirit and contrite heart learned to do the right thing, no matter what. No matter how painful. Or unfair.
David’s brokenness came from subduing and harnessing his “old self.” A miracle performed exclusively in cooperation between the True North leader and God’s Holy Spirit. This brokenness doesn’t require mending or repair. No. In fact, it’s God’s plan for the submitted leader whose trust is so wholly in Christ alone that the pain along the pathway to exorcising the Saul in us, is worthwhile. In the temporal and eternal perspective.
Why is David so capable of facing down Saul’s demons? Is his spear-dodging a sign of weakness? Or, like too many of today’s leaders, did he claim “victim” status over circumstances or colleagues? Or, did he whine and complain filling his followers’ lives with dismay and annoyance?
No. David trusted God. Fully. With his whole life. Don’t forget, David was a warrior king. He killed wild animals and a nine-foot giant as a young man. He led mighty men of valor into battle after battle, consolidating a kingdom that hadn’t truly existed before his military prowess was mustered. He didn’t require vengeance. His compassion, humility and temperance provide today’s True North leaders with an example of how to lead when we understand who’s truly in charge.
King 3: Ambitious leader.
So if Saul was tall and handsome — important qualities in a leader, even today, Absalom, David’s oldest son and presumed heir to the throne, was all that and more. Samuel’s praise was off the charts, Now in all Israel there was no one as handsome as Absalom, so highly praised; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no defect in him. (II Samuel 14:25)
As if that weren’t enough, Absalom was smart, clever, politically manipulative — cunningly crafty. Highly persuasive (he was a prince, after all), he was universally beloved and charming. Oh. And he was rich. If that isn’t the perfect formula for success in our world, what is?
And, to make the story even more dramatic, David learns of Absalom’s brewing coup d’état. Yet he does nothing. Doting father? Spoiled son? Was David naïve to his son’s machinations for the throne?
Perhaps all the above. Clearly, David didn’t exercise any version of tough love to help rein in his son’s growing rebellion. He didn’t lead his first-born to reach his full potential. And somehow (as is often the case today), the father’s spiritual maturity was lost on the heir.
Absalom’s real problem? He was devastatingly ambitious. And, as it turned out, a scheming murderous avenger. Samuel’s second book details the story of his sister’s rape by a half-brother and Absalom’s devious plot to extract revenge. After the revenge murder, he spent four years in exile. It was then Absalom plotted a conspiracy against King David which ultimately led to the infamous battle in which his luxurious locks of hair were caught up in a tree, leaving him defenseless against one of David’s soldiers. He died a victim to his beauty, ambition and betrayal.
Which king are you?
This tale of three ancient Israeli monarchs provides us with a sobering tapestry of leadership gone wrong. From Saul’s strong start but weak finish. To David’s humble start to heart-broken father but redeemed sinner. To Absalom’s silver spoon beginnings to tragic death.
What is the True North leader’s takeaway?
For me, it’s the three king reminder to guard my heart. So many toxic, weakened and fallen leaders have succumbed to overwork, busyness, stress and yes, temptation. Ask either of my children what was the single most important life lesson I’ve tried to instill in them. They’ll both answer without hesitation, BALANCE.
Let God’s Holiness, which literally lives inside your body, guide your heart and mind and body to find the fullness of His presence which leads to spiritual, professional and personal equilibrium. Then, live in that peace.
Dr. Mintle holds an earned Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. He has served in executive positions across a broad range of media organizations and as a dean in two universities. This and previous blogs now provide conversation fodder for a group of True North Leaders online. Join us at True North Leadership on Facebook.