Conclusions from Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles
Governance and leadership issues touch all of life. When nations and organizations are governed well, people have an opportunity to thrive. When leaders fail to act for the good of their organizations and communities, disaster follows. The success or failure of the kings of Israel and Judah in turn depend on their adherence to God's covenant and laws. With the partial exceptions of David, Solomon, and a few others, the kings choose to worship false gods, which lead them to follow unethical principles and enrich themselves at the expense of their people. Their faithlessness leads to the eventual destruction of both Israel and Judah.
But the fault does not lie only with the kings. The people bring the woes of tyranny upon themselves when they demand that the prophet Samuel appoint a king for them. Not trusting God to protect them, they are willing to submit themselves to rule by an autocrat. “Every nation gets the government it deserves,” observed Joseph de Maistre. The corrupting influence of power is an ever-present danger, yet nations and organizations must be governed. The ancient Israelites chose strong government at the cost of corruption and tyranny, a temptation very much alive today, also. Other peoples have refused to make any of the sacrifices—paying taxes, obeying laws, giving up tribal and personal militias—required to establish a functional government and paid the price in anarchy, chaos, and economic self-strangulation. Sadly, this continues to the present day in various countries. An exquisite balance is needed to produce good governance, a balance almost beyond human capability. If there is one major lesson we can draw from Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, it is that only by committing ourselves to God’s grace and guidance, his covenant and commands, can a people find the ethical virtues needed for good, long-lasting government.
This lesson applies not only to nations, but to businesses, schools, non-governmental organizations, families, and every other kind of workplace. Good governance and leadership are essential for people to succeed and thrive economically, relationally, personally, and spiritually. Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles explore various aspects of leadership and governance among an array of workers of all kinds. Specifics include, the perils of inherited authority and wealth, the dangers of treating God like a good luck charm in our work, the opportunities that arise for faithful workers, the joys and heartbreaks of parenting, godly criteria for choosing leaders, the need for humility and collaboration in leadership, the essential role of innovation and creativity, and the necessity of succession planning and leadership development.
The books pay much attention to handling conflict, showing both the destructive career of suppressed conflict and the creative potential of open and respectful disagreement. They show need for diplomats and reconcilers, both formal and informal, and the essential role of subordinates with the courage to speak the truth—respectfully—to those in power, despite the risk to themselves. In these books populated with flawed authority figures, the few unambiguously good leaders include Abigail, whose good conflict resolution skills saved her families’ lives and David’s integrity, and the unnamed slave girl of Naaman’s wife, whose boldness in the service of the very person who enslaved her (Naaman) brought peace between warring nations.
The most prominent unambiguously good leader in the books is Elisha, the prophet of God. Of all the prophets he pays the most attention to leadership in daily life, work and economic matters. He restores a city’s water system, capitalizes entrepreneurial economic communities, reconciles nations through medical missions (at the instigation of the slave girl mentioned above), creates an ethical culture in his own organization, and enhances the livelihoods of widows, working men, commanders, and farmers. Bringing God’s word to humanity results in good governance, economic development, and agricultural productivity.
Regrettably, when it comes to the kings themselves there are far more examples of poor leadership and governance than good. In addition to handling conflict poorly, as described above, the kings, conscript labor, break apart families, promote an elite class of civil servants and military officers at the expense of the common people, lay unbearable taxes on the people to support their lavish lifestyles, assassinate those who stand in their way, confiscate property arbitrarily, subvert religious institutions, and eventually lead their kingdoms into subjugation and exile. Surprisingly, the cause of these ills is not failure and weakness on the part of the kings, but success and strength. They twist the success and strength that God gives them into arrogance and tyranny, with the result that they abandon God and violate his covenant and commands. The dark heart of disastrous leadership is the worship of false gods in place of the true God. When we see poor leadership today—in others or in ourselves—a good first question might be, “What false gods are being worshipped in this situation?”
Just as light shines more brightly in the darkness, the failures of the kings highlight some episodes of good leadership. Music and the arts flower under David’s rule. The construction of the Temple in Solomon’s time is a marvel of architecture, construction, craftwork, and economic organization. The priests in Jehoash’s time develop a system of financial accountability still in use today. Obadiah models the good that faithful people can accomplish within corrupt systems and evil situations.
Obadiah is a much better model for us today than David, Solomon, or any of the kings. The kings’ overarching concern was, “How can I acquire and maintain power?” Obadiah’s was, “How can I serve people as God wishes in the situation where I find myself?” Both are questions of leadership. One focuses on the goods needed for power, the other on the power needed for good. Let us pray that God will call his people to positions of power, and that he will bring each of us the power needed to fulfill our callings. But before and after we utter such prayers, let us begin and end with, “your will be done.”
Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre, Lettres et Opuscules, letter 76 (27 August 1811), as quoted by Edward Latham in Famous Sayings and Their Authors (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1906), page 181.