Of all the leaders in ancient Israel, the greatest are Moses, whom we have already discussed, and David, who is the subject of this article. David’s father was Jesse, the son of Obed and descendant of Boaz, a wealthy landowner. His ancestral lineage was through the line of Judah, a ruler among his people. David was Jesse’s youngest son, a shepherd boy, without the obvious potential of his older brothers. Nonetheless, David had a heart after God, and that enabled him to become the greatest king of Israel.
Israel had been ruled by judges for hundreds of years since conquering the Promised Land. Eventually, the people grew tired of local government and wanted a king to rule over them. Their choice was Saul, a man of the central tribe of Benjamin who was remarkable primarily for his good looks and his height (1 Samuel 9:2). The story of his rise to power in 1st Samuel is somewhat bizarre, but God gave him every chance to succeed. Unfortunately he had major flaws as a king and the Lord rejected him (1 Samuel 15:22-28). God sent Samuel to anoint a new king of His own choosing, sent him to Bethlehem to the house of Jesse, and here David, the unlikely leader, entered the stage.
David was anointed as a youth, probably in his early or mid teens, and provides a good example of a man who grows into leadership. As mentioned before, his first and most important qualification is that he loved and served the Lord with all his heart. Second, in a culture and era when battle was constant, David had developed excellent martial skills while defending the sheep against predators. These two facts were the most important in his life, and this God-given preparation served him well in the decades to come. Musically inclined, David was given the opportunity to play the harp for Saul, thus receiving an open door into circles of power (1 Samuel 16:18-23). While in Saul’s service, David befriended Jonathan, Saul’s eldest son and a good and valiant man. This friendship saved David’s life more than once and taught him much about leadership and valor.
The Israelites mortal enemy to the west, the Philistines, challenged Israel to a one on one battle of domination. No one in the Israelite army dared fight their champion but David, the unarmored teenage shepherd boy with a determination to protect God’s glory stepped forward to fight. The battle seemed so unequal as to be hopeless, and would have been had David not had, in addition to a love for his Lord, outstanding fighting skills. David acted boldly in his area of strength and God gave him a great victory.
David’s love for the Lord had given him direction in his life, and his skills of music and combat had opened the first doors. He had not, however, learned how to lead men. Saul provided this opportunity by giving David a command in his army (1 Samuel 18:5). He learned quickly, gaining military victory and, in part because of his accessibility to the people, earned their respect and love (1 Samuel 18:13). Later in life, David would nearly be overthrown because his rebellious son, Absalom, did the same (2 Samuel 15:2-6).
David and Saul had a falling out and David lost his honored position, becoming a hunted (and in some places hated) man and the leader of a band of rapscallions (1 Samuel 22:2). Nonetheless, he learned how to lead even this group and eventually they became his most loyal of followers, even increasing in number (1 Samuel 23:13). David also learned to discern good from bad advice.
In his early twenties, David now had the key strengths that would enable him to attain great things in Israel, military prowess, musical skill, and the ability to lead men. When he was 30, Saul and Jonathan were killed in a catastrophic battle against the Philistines. David became king of his own tribe, that of Judah, while the other tribes remained with the house of Saul. Again we see God developing David step by step, starting his reign over a group of people likely to support him wholeheartedly, his tribal kinsmen. Civil war between David and the house of Judah and Ish-bosheth and the house of Saul ensued, and David’s forces, though outnumbered, gradually prevailed.
Throughout his early life, David showed remarkable respect, one can almost say chivalry, for his enemies. Though having many opportunities to kill Saul, his persecutor, David never did. When Saul finally died, David did not rejoice but mourned at this great calamity in Israel. When the opposing general, Abner, was assassinated and when the opposing king, Ish-bosheth, was murdered, David was sad and angry. In all three cases he executed the murderers, although belatedly in the case of Joab, Abner’s murderer. David also reached out to his enemies, showing grace to the tribes that opposed his kingship after he defeated Saul’s house (2 Samuel 5:3).
After attaining the highest post in Israel, he led successful military campaigns, expanding the borders and bringing all of the surrounding nations under his influence. David was at his pinnacle of power. Sometimes, however, accomplishing one’s greatest desires can be the worst thing to happen to a man. The later part of David’s life was, unfortunately, not as virtuous as the first. In his early 50s he caught himself in a scandal of adultery and murder and never seemed to regain the power, faithfulness and decision of his younger years. David grew into greatness as a leader but may have stopped growing in his last decades.
To live is to grow, and to stop growing is to die. This is the rule in the natural universe and is the rule in the spiritual realms. So many people complete their education, start their career in their chosen field, and never pick up another book. The demands of life, work, family and church can seem overwhelming but every child of God must designate time to keep growing in Him and in the task He has called us to do. Simultaneously, some people spend so much time training that they spend little actually doing. The child of God must avoid that as well. Fundamentally, we must keep our attentions focused on the Lord so that we are able to hear Him and willing to do what He calls us to do.
A heart after God was David’s secret for success. Despite the difficulties of his youth and the failures of his maturity, David kept loving God, glorifying Him and trying to know Him better. This enabled him to serve his Creator fully and will do the same for us.