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  • October 2009
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LEADERSHIP (5): Contrasting Leaders: Saul & David

Christian leadership focuses on Christ. Yet, there are types and shadows of Christ in the Old Testament. David was the typical king who pre-figured the Christ. One of the Messianic designations was The Son of David (Matthew 1:1). While David was far from sinless, there are aspects of his shepherd-leadership as Israel’s greatest king that illustrate the leadership principle Jesus taught to his disciples. That principle is universal in its application. It works in the home; it works in government; it works in business; and, of course, it works in the church. This principle is explicitly stated in the following:

Jesus called them together and said,

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42-45)

Here are two contrasting leadership styles, and Jesus clearly shows which is his. On the one hand are leaders like the Gentile high officials who “exercise authority” and “lord it over” their wards. On the other hand are those who, like Jesus, become great leaders through service to their people.

David, the prototype king of Israel, illustrated one of these. Ironically, Saul the son of Kish, David’s predecessor on the throne, illustrated the other. Each of these men was anointed by Samuel, the prophet-priest, at the Lord’s direction. Each was selected from an unexpected source. Neither began to reign as soon as he was anointed. Each “won” his crown in battle before he was widely accepted as king. Each was filled with the Spirit of God and was numbered among the prophets. There the similarities end.


Saul did not seek to be king, but soon came to like the position. He used more time maintaining his station than in meeting his responsibilities. When the women of Israel lauded David, jealousy led Saul to resent his most loyal subject. When Jonathan (Saul’s son) befriended David, Saul cursed his own son and said, “As long as the son of Jesse lives on this earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established.” Saul even tried to kill Jonathan on this occasion because his jealous anger was so out of control (1 Samuel 20:30-33).

Notice how interested he is in preserving position? Because of this, he spent his energies trying to kill David instead of defending Israel. Consequently the Philistines overran much of Israel during Saul’s reign, though Samuel had subdued this hostile people during his time as Israel’s last Judge.

Even early in his reign, Saul was arbitrary and unreasonable in his demands as king. For example, once he ordered his army not to pause to eat even a morsel of food when they were pursuing the Philistines. As a result, a potentially complete rout of the enemy became just a minor victory. Jonathan, the hero of the day, was almost executed because he, not knowing of his father’s order, ate a bit of honey “on the run.” A rift occurred between Saul and his army. All resulted from Saul’s rash, arbitrary command (1 Samuel 14).

As king, Saul seemed to think there were no limits to his rights and prerogatives. Once he exercised the right of the priest, which belonged to Samuel (1 Samuel 13:8-14). Another time, he took to himself the right of sparing Agag, King of the Amalekites, whom God had told him to “utterly destroy” (1 Samuel 15). Samuel sharply rebuked him on each of these occasions and told him the kingdom would be taken from him because of his rebellion against God.

While Saul ruled, he seemed more and more to see the kingdom as his personal dominion. He would have accepted Goliath’s assessment of the army of Israel: “Are you not the servants of Saul?” (1 Samuel 17:8). Saul was the embodiment of Samuel’s warning to Israel when they had demanded a king. All the evils Samuel predicted were fulfilled in Saul who effectively enslaved his own people (1 Samuel 8:10-18).


David exhibited a different spirit. When Goliath, the Philistine giant, hurled his challenge to the army of Israel, David asked, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Samuel 17:26). When David went to confront Goliath, he did not go in the name of Saul, but “in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel”(1 Samuel 17:45). David did not look to his own strength or cunning for victory, but to Jehovah.

Here is the great difference between Saul and David. Saul believed the kingdom belonged to him to do with as he pleased. David knew the kingdom belonged to God who ruled it through his servant David. Saul thought the kingdom should go to his son Jonathan by right of inheritance. David was deeply humbled when God promised the kingdom would remain in his family forever. He thanked the Lord in this prayer:

Who am I, O Sovereign LORD, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, O Sovereign LORD, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servant. Is this your usual way of dealing with man, O Sovereign LORD?

What more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Sovereign LORD. For the sake of your word and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made it known to your servant. (2 Samuel 7:18-21)

Did you notice the number of times David referred to God as the “Sovereign LORD”? David knew who the real King was.

David was far from being a perfect man. Yet, he always saw himself as God’s anointed servant. He viewed the kingdom as God’s dominion, not his own. To David, the king existed for the good of the realm, not the other way around. Even when Saul was king and was trying to kill David, David refused to harm Saul because Saul was the Lord’s anointed. David’s concept of his place, privileges, and duties was markedly different from that of Saul.

David, when king, was still a man of the people. He demonstrated this when he brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. He danced in the procession bringing the ark in a way Michal (David’s wife and Saul’s daughter) thought was “undignified.” David was willing to be “undignified” because he saw that leading the people in their celebration resulted in their giving him honor and allegiance. Michal seemed to look at the “king” as one removed and separated from the people in lofty dignity. That was Saul’s way, not David’s (2 Samuel 6:12-22).

Isn’t it interesting that people follow someone they identify with much more readily than someone remote from them? The kids love it when Dad gets down and rolls with them on the floor. The teens love it when the preacher steps down from his lofty pulpit and gets tipped over in a canoe while on a wilderness trip with them. While these may be “undignified” behaviors, they help the leader to “bond” with those whom he leads.

David was a leader, not a director. Had he been king when Goliath made his challenge, he would have been in the battle, not in his tent waiting for a champion to appear. Saul could have faced the giant, but he did not. This is typical of the two men’s leadership.

More people will follow when the leaders are out front working than when they are in a room out back “making decisions.” And, the decisions made by leaders will be implemented more readily when the leaders show the way, not just tell others the way they want it done.

Once the young people in a congregation where I was preaching had a skating party with youths from two other area churches. I attended as did one of our elders and the preacher from one of the other churches. We all had a good time and decided to do it again sometime soon. A few days later, we received an invitation to a “meeting” of the elders and preachers of the three churches. The invitation came from the third church (who had no elder or preacher at the skating party). They wanted to talk about the skating party fellowships together. What they really wanted was to draw up a list of “guidelines” to govern the party and any devotionals after it. The list (already prepared) had to be accepted or they would have nothing to do with the proposed activity.

I may have been out of bounds, but I do not think I was, when I observed that what the young people needed was guides, not guidelines. I said that if they would get involved in these activities, , they would not have to depend on paper guidelines to ensure things were done right.

Telling people what to do is not as effective as showing them what to do and how to do it. Seeing leaders doing what they want you to do gives you more confidence in their leadership.

David never moved far from his origins as a shepherd. This colored his concept of God, himself and his subjects. Psalm 23 shows how he saw the LORD as his own shepherd. Psalm 78:70-72 shows that God made David His shepherd for the people, a place David filled with both integrity and skill.


This is why David was called a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel13:14). He made mistakes. He sinned. He did foolish things. But his integrity led him to admit these errors and go on with the LORD’s help.

Saul could never bring himself to do this until he was, as it were, dragged kicking and protesting to the point of making a grudging admission of his sin.(1 Samuel 15:13-25). Contrast Saul’s effort to justify himself with David’s immediate contrition when Nathan confronted him concerning his sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:13). This is why David was a man of integrity. He admitted his mistakes and did not try to evade responsibility for them. Few people are really accomplished in this fine art.

Leadership is not a matter of never being wrong, but of admitting your mistakes, taking the consequences, and learning from them. God’s leaders are not perfect, but are penitent when they sin. God’s leaders always recognize that they serve under Him and for Him.


Every subsequent king of Judah and Israel followed the example of either Saul or David. Some, like Saul, viewed themselves as “divine right” kings with the people as their personal kingdom. Others, like David, saw God as “The Great King” of Israel and themselves as His vassal-kings. It was these who were most successful, for these were the leaders who were first of all servants of God and of the people. Those who tried to be “The Great King” themselves exercised authority and lorded it over the people – as Jesus said the Gentile kings did.

Sadly, too many leaders are more like Saul than David. For them, leadership is a goal in itself – not a means to a greater end. Like the politician whose main objective in office is to be re-elected, this leader views himself as one to be served, not as one to be a servant of God and of God’s people. God’s leaders follow and serve Him so they can encourage others to do the same.


How were Saul and David similar?

Saul was humble in the beginning. How did he change? Why?

In what ways did David act as a shepherd of God’s people?

What lessons for leaders can be learned from Saul and David’s different reactions to being found in sin?

How do leaders today follow the example of Saul? of David?

Why is David more appropriate as an example for Christian leaders?

How would you sum up the essential differences between Saul and David in one sentence?

Is it true that “undignified” behavior can be effective in a leader? What makes it productive? Can you take this too far?

– (6) The Shepherd Model of Leadership
PREVIOUS – (4) Peter: Growing To Glory

3 Responses

  1. Good post. I’m facing a few of these issues as well..


  2. I connect to David ‘s leadership annoiting in jesus’s name🙏


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