David’s Successes and Failures as King (2 Samuel 1-24)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

No Guarantees (Click to read)

In 2011, Johnson & Johnson made a series of massive product recalls after customer complaints. It seems there are no guarantees that a trustworthy company's past performance will be a reliable indicator of future performance. In "No Guarantees: The 'Fall' of Johnson & Johnson?", David Gill provides some measures leaders can take to avoid a great fall.[1]

The Bible regards David as the model king of Israel, and the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles describe his many successes. Yet even David, "a man after God's own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14), abuses his power and acts faithlessly at times. He tends to succeed when he does not take himself too seriously, but gets into serious trouble when power goes to his head—for example when he takes a census in violation of God's command (2 Sam. 24:10-17) or when he sexually exploits Bathsheba and orders the assassination of her husband, Uriah (2 Sam. 11:2-17). Yet despite David’s failings, God fulfills his covenant with David and treats him with mercy.

David W. Gill, "No Guarantees: The 'Fall' of Johnson & Johnson?", Ethix 74, February 22, 2011, http://ethix.org/2011/02/22/no-guarantees-the-fall-of-johnson-johnson.

David’s Dysfunctional Handling of Family Conflict Leads to Civil War (2 Samuel 13-19)

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Most people feel uncomfortable in situations of conflict, so we tend to avoid facing conflict, whether at home or at work. But conflicts are a lot like illnesses. Minor ones may clear up even if we ignore them, but major ones will work their way deeper and more catastrophically into our systems if we do not treat them. This is true for David's family. David allows conflict among some of his sons to plunge his family into tragedy. His oldest son, Amnon, rapes and then shames his half-sister, Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-19). Tamar's full-brother, Absalom, hates Amnon for that crime, but does not speak to him about it. David knows of the matter but decides to ignore the situation (2 Sam. 13:21). For more on children who disappoint their parents, see "When children disappoint (1 Samuel 8:1-3)."

For two years everything seems fine, but unresolved conflict of this magnitude never fades away. When Amnon and Absalom take a trip into the country together, Absalom plies his half-brother with wine, then has his servants murder him (2 Sam. 13:28-29). The conflict draws in more of David’s family, the nobles, and the army, until the entire nation was engulfed in civil war. The destruction brought about by avoiding the conflict is many times worse than the unpleasantness that might have resulted from dealing with the issues when they first arose.

Harvard professors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky describe how leaders must "orchestrate conflict," or else it will boil up on its own, thwart their goals, and endanger their organizations.[1] Likewise, Jim Collins gives the example of Alan Iverson, who was CEO of Nucor Steel at a time when there were deep divisions about whether the company should diversify into scrap steel recycling. Iverson brought the divisions in to the open by allowing everyone to speak their opinion, protecting them from reprisal from others who might disagree. The “raging debates” that ensued were uncomfortable for everyone. “People yelled. They waved their arms around and pounded on tables. Faces would get red and veins bulged out.” But acknowledging the conflict and working through it openly prevented it from going underground and exploding later. Moreover, by bringing out a variety of facts and opinions, it led to better decisions by the group. “Colleagues would march into Iverson’s office and yell and scream at each other, but then emerge with a conclusion…. The company’s strategy ‘evolved through many agonizing arguments and fights.’”[2] Conflict well-orchestrated can actually be a source of creativity.

Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 101-122.

Jim Collins, Good to Great (HarperBusiness, 2001), 76.

David Learns He Needs God’s Guidance How to Do His Work (1 Chronicles 13)

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In 1 Chronicles 13, David confronts a challenge in his work as king, and gets off to a good start in solving it. He believes that the ark of God should be brought back from Kiriath-jearim where it had been left under Saul’s reign. Nonetheless, rather than strike out on his own, he confers with all his leaders and gains their concurrence. Together they pray to God for wisdom and conclude that they do indeed need to bring back the ark. It is easy for a leader to make the mistake of going out alone, without counsel from God or from others. David does well to recognize the need for both human and divine counsel. He receives a clear “go” for his project.

But disaster strikes. Uzzah, who is helping transport the ark, puts hand on it to steady it, and God strikes him dead (1 Chron. 13:9-10). This makes David both angry at (1 Chron. 13:9-11) and afraid of God (1 Chron. 13:12), which leads David to abandon the project. What begins as a confirmation from God and trusted colleagues to carry out a project suddenly turns into a dramatic failure. The same happens today. Eventually, almost all of us experience a painful setback in our work. It can be deeply discouraging, even tempting us to abandon the work that God has called us to do.

In what seems like a parenthesis, David carries out two successful battles. He inquires of the Lord in each case whether to go ahead, and God sends him out successfully both times. But God’s guidance for the second mission contains a peculiar instruction. God says, “You shall not go up after them; go around and come on them opposite the balsam trees.” God wanted David to go, but he wanted him to go in a particular way. 

After these successes, David reflects on this experience and orders that no one but the Levites may carry the ark of God, because the Lord had chosen them for the task (1 Chron. 15:2). This was written in the book of the Law (Numbers 4:15), but had been forgotten or neglected. After David assembles the Levites to complete the job of moving the ark, he says of the previous failure “Because you [priests and Levites] did not carry it the first time, the Lord our God burst out against us, because we did not give it proper care”(1 Chronicles 15:13). The second time, because they followed the procedure prescribed by the Law, the ark was successfully moved.

This story is a reminder to us in our own work. It is important to inquire of God and gain counsel from trusted people about what we are to do. But that is not enough. God also cares about how we do the work. As David’s failed campaign when neglecting Numbers 4:15 shows, doing things God’s way requires a working knowledge of Scripture.

David’s Disobedience to God Causes a National Pestilence (1 Chronicles 21:1-17)

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David also suffers another failure that, to us in the 21st century, may seem strange. He takes a census of the people of Israel. Although this seems like a prudent thing to do, the biblical text tells us that Satan incited David to do this against the advice of David’s general Joab. Furthermore, "God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel" (1 Chronicles 21:6).

David acknowledges his sin in taking a census against God’s will. He’s given three choices, each of which would harm many in the kingdom: (1) three years of famine, or (2) three months of devastation by the sword of his enemies, or (3) three days of a pestilence on the land. David chooses the third option and seventy thousand people die as an angel of death passes through the land. At this David cries out to God, "Was it not I who gave the command to count the people? It is I who have sinned and done very wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, O Lord my God, be against me and against my father's house; but do not let your people be plagued!" (1 Chron. 21:17).

Like David, we probably find it hard to understand why God would punish 70,000 other people for David’s sin. The text does not give an answer. We can observe, however, that the transgressions of leaders inevitably harm their people. If business leaders make poor product development decisions, people in their organization will lose their jobs when revenues plunge. If a restaurant manager doesn’t enforce sanitation rules, diners will get sick. If a teacher gives good grades for poor work, students will fail or fall behind at the next level of education. Those who accept positions of leadership cannot evade responsibility for the effects of their actions on others. 

David’s Patronage of the Musical Arts (1 Chronicles 25)

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1 Chronicles adds a detail not found in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings. David creates a corps of musicians “to make music at the house of the Lord.”

They were all under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the order of the king. They and their kindred, who were trained in singing to the Lord, all of whom were skillful, numbered two hundred eighty-eight. (1 Chronicles 25:6–7)

Maintaining an ensemble the size of two modern symphony orchestras would be a major undertaking in an emerging nation in the 10th century BC. David does not regard it as a luxury however, but as a necessity. In fact, he orders it in his role as commander in chief of the army, with the consent of the other commanders (1 Chron. 25:1).

Many militaries today maintain bands and choruses, but few other kinds of workplaces do, unless they themselves are musical organizations. Yet there is something about music and the other arts that is essential to work of all kinds. God’s creation—the source of human economic activity—is not only productive, it is beautiful (e.g., Genesis 3:6; Psalm 96:6; Ezekiel 31:7-9), and God loves beautiful handiwork (e.g., Isaiah 60:13). What is the place of beauty in your work? Would you or your organization or the people who make use of your work benefit if your work created more beauty? What does it even mean for work in your occupation to be beautiful?