Leaders set the tone

Here’s another article dug up from the old Faithroots sight which I think is particularly poignant for now. I’ve seen memes about the many pressures on pastors at the moment and they are true. Church leaders have faced their own personal battle stories in coronavirus. Then there are the challenges of responding to the events following George Floyd’s death.  It is a challenge but we have a responsibility for how we lead, how we speak and how we serve to set the right tone. At times I’m not sure we’ve got it quite right. We have fallen into two camps, the rose tinted spectacles camp gets excited about online viewing figures and announces revival missing the hardship people are going through. The pessimistic crowd talk about judgement and discipline and at times it sounds a little bit grumpy and a little bit like we as leaders are cross at the church and think it’s their fault we are where we are without putting up our hands to our own responsibility. I guess that both responses reflect that we are frail and finite, we are human and I hope that people bear with us with grace and patience. However, this article looking at David’s response to Absalom’s death challenges us to get the tone right as leaders.

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King David’s army have just won a great victory. It looked like the king was down and out, exiled from his capital, betrayed by his court, usurped by his son Absalom.  Then his men fought back. Absalom’s army was defeated, now the king could return in triumph – but where was he?

David was hidden away in his room mourning for his dead son, Absalom. Joab found him and rebuked him. Did David not realise that his army had won a great victory but were retuning in shame. Did David not get it that Joab had done him a favour by dealing with Absalom? Did David not realise that his behaviour was endangering the hard-won peace? It was time to return and to celebrate.

Who was right? David or Joab? On the one hand, Joab’s advice was probably wise and correct, David was in danger of losing the people. Joab has been incredibly loyal, often doing the king’s dirty work for him, so on a personal level, he was maybe entitled to expect some loyalty, recognition and favour in return. Joab speaks directly to the king showing that he is not a yes man and the result is demotion.

But then, there is David. He had good reason to mourn:

  • His Son was dead
  • His commander had disobeyed clear orders
  • The consequences of his sin had now been worked out in terrible tragedy

One of the challenges we have with this passage, as we have seen is that we risk second guessing what is right and what is wrong here. The author doesn’t explicitly judge between David and Joab at this point. There may be a couple of clues. First of all, we have seen that David hasn’t been in a good place, he is not infallible in his judgement. However, secondly, we will continue to see through 2 Samuel that Joab has his own agenda, he is willing to kill for it and one day he will get his comeuppance.  So, I’m inclined to be wary of just assuming that Joab was in the right.

This means that we need to be very cautious about jumping to make application here.  However, I do think that it is possible to make one observation.

David Firth notes in his commentary that here we see the complex relationship between David as a private figure and David as a public figure. Suddenly, the focus is on David the private man and it is this that endangers his public role. Integrity means that our private life shouldn’t be out of sync with our public persona.[1]

So, on that basis, here’s a tentative observation. David is not wrong to mourn his son. This is nothing less than a tragedy for the royal household. A son has been lost. The problem is that David has not thought about his responsibility to the people. I want to suggest that what David could have done was to publicly recognise both that:

  • A great victory had been won, the kingdom had been rescued
  • There was real sadness because the circumstances were sad. Absalom was not a foreign enemy but one of their own.

It would have been possible then for the people to respond in a dignified way, to express both relief and joy at victory even as it was tempered with the death not just of Absalom but of their Israelite brothers who had sided with him.

This is what leadership is about. Leaders have a responsibility not just to lead heroically from the front but to be with their people in the ups and downs. Leadership means helping people to know, and respond to the situation appropriately. Leadership is about setting the tone.

For church leaders, our responsibility is not simply to deliver a message on a Sunday or to propose plans at the members’ meeting. We have a responsibility to help people discover and respond to the tone as well. Is it a time of celebration or sadness? Maybe it is a time for both.  It is important that we help the church to respond appropriately.


[1] See Firth, 2 Samuel, 481-482.

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