Leaders at risk

These reflections were prompted by a conversation with my dad who has been reading through 1 Samuel over the past few weeks.  We were talking about Saul and his response to David’s popularity, his jealousy when David is praised for killing more Philistines than him.

On one level, there’s some practical questions.  How should a leader respond when someone turns up who seems to be better gifted than them? What about when they seem more popular.  The reality is that most leaders, if they are honest, will have to battle a level of nervousness and even jealousy.  However, outstanding leaders tend to welcome the person.

Why?  Well, from a pragmatic, general view, a leader should be able to recognise two things, first that they are only a leader for a temporary and fixed period of time, one day their leadership will come to an end and so their aim should be to raise up and develop others.  Secondly, for as long as they are the leader, it’s because they have their own specific skills and calling.  This becomes more important when we think about Christian leadership. I’m gifted and called by God for as long as he wants me to do this work for him and for his glory.

There’s something else going on with Saul though.  We need to remember that David’s rise happens as Saul comes under judgement.  His jealousy of David and fear comes coupled with guilt and shame.  He knows he has sinned, he knows that God is going to remove the kingdom from him.  Yet, his response is not to repent.  Instead, he lashes out at the Lord’s anointed, just as many lash out at Christ.

I believe that what we see with Saul is that he never really truly grasped what his calling was, that he was never secure in it and this reflects on a lack of knowledge of God’s grace.  We see that in a number of ways through his reign.  Right at the start, as God’s chosen king, he is found hiding.  Then he makes rash oaths in battle that put his son in jeopardy.  He will also offer sacrifices, usurping Samuel’s role out of fear he will lose advantage in battle and lose the people.  He will try to acquire for himself possessions that should have been devoted to the Lord.  All of these things betray a lack of trust in the Lord.

Then, there’s the battle with the Philistines when David comes to prominence.  I’d tended to see Saul’s offer of his armour to David as altruistic. However, was his primary concern really David’s safety? It strikes me that Saul was the one who should have gone out to meet Goliath. He is the giant/champion’s counterpart. He is himself physically tall, head and shoulders above the people.  He has been called and anointed for this very role of being Israel’s defender.  Goliath would have expected Saul to come out to meet him. 

So, when Saul says “go in my armour.” He’s really saying to David “you go as me.” He wants David to go as his substitute, his representative.  Now, some of he cartoon portrayals of David at this stage picture him as a small kid, drowning in Saul’s oversized armour. However, there is no reason to assume this. David’s responses to Saul show him to be physically fit and strong.  The issue is that he isn’t used to the armour. The expectation seems to be that it will fit him for size.  So, I wonder if Saul hoped that not only would David be representing him but that he might even be mistaken as him. 

David however will go as Israel’s representative and substitute. He goes as God’s man. However, he will not go as Saul’s stand in. He goes as himself. 

Finally, we have Saul, knowing that God is no longer speaking to him. So, what does he do? He tries to bring Samuel back from the dead.

When leaders are at risk, when they feel threatened, it points to something deeper than a lack of self-confidence. Of greater importance is our awareness of God’s grace, God’s calling, God’s equipping.  As soon as we think that it’s all about us acting in our own strength, then not only are we at risk ourselves but we become a risk to others too.

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