The dynamics of powerful spiritual leadership are hidden from the world and are little known even in the church, especially when her eyes are darkened by leaden clouds of man-centeredness. But chapters 17 to 20 of 1 Samuel set forth in letters of noonday light precisely how God uses those whose hearts are focused on Him to lead His people from defeat to victory.
Second Chronicles 16:9 sets before us a crucial principle of how God chooses victorious leaders for His never-failing purposes: “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him.” While unregenerate mankind always “looks at the outward appearance,” the Lord looks upon the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).
The outwardly impressive Saul was being replaced by an obscure and youthful rural shepherd, whose heart was on fire with devotion to the Lord. A thousand years later, the apostle Paul explained precisely why David was raised up by God to replace hard-hearted Saul: “I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will” (Acts 13:22b). In one of his messianic Psalms, David had said: “I have set the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved” (16:8). That was the key to his rise to power and his effectiveness.
David’s descendant according to the flesh and his Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, in His Sermon on the Mount based the effectual working of His kingdom on this same principle of God-centeredness: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). This seems to violate every “common-sense” principle of successful politics and effective military science. Unaided human reason thinks the strong win and the weak lose, but God’s revealed wisdom tells us something entirely different: “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong” (Eccl. 9:11).
What, then, makes the difference? The mighty emperor of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, after he was humbled by God, found out the heart of the matter: “All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Dan. 4:35). Years later, Daniel explained the lesson that Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s descendant, had refused to take to heart until it was too late: “He [Nebuchadnezzar] was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him … till he knew that the Most High God rules in the kingdom of men, and appoints over it whomever He chooses” (Dan. 5:20b-21).
What makes the difference is the Most High God, and how the potential ruler’s heart is disposed toward Him. But this ultimate truth is from God’s viewpoint, and seems of no consequence at first to human sight; indeed, it seems ludicrous to pragmatic politicians and churchmen. In due time, however, every human government will be leveled before it.
The two books of Samuel, as well as the long history of Israel and the Christian church, graphically exemplify Jesus’ teaching on true leadership, by which pagan thinking (“Put yourself first at all costs”; “Make sure that you get the credit”; “Get the best of others before they can get the best of you”; and so forth) is turned upside down: “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all” (Mark 10:42–44).
It was God’s providential exercise of this spiritual dynamic that brought down Saul and raised up David, “a man after His own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). These invisible, spiritual standards took on flesh and blood as the shepherd boy, David, was granted the courage to win against the giant, Goliath, when King Saul had failed in cowardly fashion. David, a mere novice in warfare, risked everything against a frighteningly huge, trained warrior for one simple, sincere reason (that seemed to mean nothing to Saul and his army): “For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?… I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts” (1 Sam. 17:26, 45).
David’s winning love for God’s holy name was certainly a grace divinely granted to him. As the Spirit of God was coming upon David, He was departing from resistant, rebellious Saul. As an appropriate judgment for his long-term, high-handed rebellion, God not only removed the promptings of His Spirit from Saul, he actually sent evil spirits upon him, and so Saul passed the point of no return.
How humble we should be before “the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). And how earnestly we should listen to the words of the epistle to the Hebrews: “‘Do not harden your hearts.…’ Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:8, 12–13).