That David was imperfect was no secret. Yet, after being exposed as a murderer and adulterer deep into his reign, David had genuinely repented, had borne the consequences of his sin, and had turned back to God. In spite of his imperfections and possibly, because of the way he handled them, David was seen as "a man after God's own heart."
David's had been a turbulent life. As a young boy, he was famously pressed into the service of the often faithless, vain, insecure, and certainly neurotic Saul, the first king of Israel. David had felled the daunting champion of the Philistines, Goliath of Gath, with a sling, a rock, a sword, and his reliance on God. Later, David the musician, composer whose songs still inspire, soothed the depressed Saul with his psalms for God.
In his adult years, David, clearly marked by God to become Saul's successor, aroused the king's anger. For a time, he was forced to run like a hunted animal from Saul, perpetually in fear for his life. Yet, convinced that Saul was God's choice to lead His people, David refused several times to take Saul's life when he had the chance to do so.
Eventually, David became the leader of an army that augmented the efforts of Saul and his forces in the fight against the Philistines.
The Philistines were a people who occupied a swath of coastal territory hugging the Mediterranean, in an area later to be incorporated in what we today call Israel. So far as we know, the Philistines were descended from seafaring people from the island of Crete. (In fact, the Old Testament sometimes refers to them as "the people of the sea.") They had tried to invade Egypt during the reign of the Pharaoh, Rameses III, but were repelled. That was when they migrated to the spot they occupied when the people of God, promised this land, entered. There ensued a struggle for control that lasted a long time.
Seemingly a fierce and pre-literate people, the Philistines harassed the Israelites. Under Samuel, the last of the Israelite judges and under Saul, too, Israel achieved some military victories over the Philistines.
But it was under David that the Philistines were fairly subdued. That's why, to borrow Bruce Springsteen's phrase, "the little pretties" yelled, "“Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” (First Samuel 18:7)
This only enraged Saul more and David continued to live on the lam, hiding out in a cave at Adullam. But he wasn't alone there. First Samuel 22:2 says, "Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him; and he became captain over them. Those who were with him numbered about four hundred."
Yet, under David's God-dependent leadership, this bunch of malcontents and losers were forged into the core of a mighty and disciplined force that did what no Israelite army had ever been able to do, eventually confining the Philistines to a few cities that would ultimately become vassals of Israel. In a mostly disappointing book on leadership types, historian Garry Wills holds David up as an example of a charismatic leader, one who, seemingly without status and certainly devoid of the power of a state behind him, attracts people to follow him and sees them transformed in the process.
That comes through in the first of my favorite Bible stories. It's found in Second Samuel 23:13-17, sandwiched between recitations about the valiant acts of these losers-turned-mighty-ones. It remembers David's fugitive years and how, unable to be in his hometown of Bethlehem, he pines to taste the water from the well at its gates:
Towards the beginning of harvest three of the thirty chiefs went down to join David at the cave of Adullam, while a band of Philistines was encamped in the valley of Rephaim. David was then in the stronghold; and the garrison of the Philistines was then at Bethlehem. David said longingly, “O that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!” Then the three warriors broke through the camp of the Philistines, drew water from the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate, and brought it to David. But he would not drink of it; he poured it out to the Lord, for he said, “The Lord forbid that I should do this. Can I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” Therefore he would not drink it. The three warriors did these things.Imagine the devotion to David of those three unnamed warriors! They risked their lives, breaking through the camp of their enemies, to draw water from the well for which David's homesick heart longed, and then, bring it back to him!
That in itself is moving enough. But what happens next is what often moves me to tears as I read this story: David refused to drink the water these men had offered their lives to secure. "Yahweh forbid that I should do this!" David said.
David recognized that what inspired his followers about him had nothing to do with him and everything to do with God.
This was no doubt why, when, much later in his career, he repented for his sins of adultery and murder, David had begged God, "take not Your Holy Spirit from me." (Psalm 51) David had watched God's Spirit leave Saul as the latter had become self-directed rather than God-led. He knew that his life as a leader would devolve to futility and meaninglessness without God working through him.
Leaders would do well to, in some ways, emulate David in the moment when he poured the water given to him by those three warriors onto the ground. He knew that they were responding not to him, but to the God Who had made his leadership inspiring and useful.
In fact, the very word used to describe David's action echoes that used of Jacob when he had poured a drink offering on a pillar at Bethel. (Genesis 35:14)
In speaking of "the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives," David was saying that it was for God and not for him that these men had actually offered themselves to secure the sweet water for which he'd so longed. And it was to God that He was bound to give this offering.
Reading the five verses of this story is all you need to know to explain the power of David's leadership.
And, I'm convinced, it's the only primer any leader today really needs. Its lesson is simple:
- Glorify God
- Cherish the people you lead