Leadership & Integrity
Recently, Christians have agonized over accounts of false devotion to talented but corrupt church leaders. In outwardly successful churches and ministries, leaders have covered up sin, blamed victims, and blocked investigations to protect gifted but fatally flawed pastors and their ministries. To correct our mistakes and restore our integrity, we need the whole of Scripture, including a minor but revealing episode in the life of David that can help us distinguish between wise service to God from foolish service to men.
As the author wraps up his life of David, 2 Samuel 23:13-17 recounts an episode of courageous but misdirected devotion. David’s strength, faith, and skill led hundreds of men to attach themselves to him. Among them, Samuel extols thirty “mighty men” and singles out three, Josheb, Eleazar, and Shammah for a grand but misguided venture.
At the time, Saul was king. David had served Saul in battle and at court, but as Saul fell away, he decided that David was a threat and must be destroyed. Saul's hunt for David forced him to flee to remote desert strongholds. As Saul focused on slaying David, he neglected his kingly tasks and left Israel weak as Philistines pressed deep into Israel. At one point, Philistine soldiers reached the Valley of Rephaim and Bethlehem, David’s hometown, half-way across Israel. This is like Canada invading America and reaching Denver, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. David, perhaps speaking poetically, lamented her plight with a graphic statement of longing “Oh, that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!” (23:15).
Perhaps that well had sweet water; perhaps it meant “home” for David, but the Philistines, taking land with impunity, now held his hometown. The end of the story shows that David wanted more than water. He wanted to stop hiding and wanted his nation to become strong enough to rout the Philistines from his home.
In their devotion to David, his mighty men, Josheb, Eleazar, and Shammah, took his desire for that water literally. They left camp, probably by the caves of Adullam, crossed ten miles of rugged terrain, risked encounters with armed foes, and then slipped into the city to draw water from the well and bring it to David.
What a gift, purchased with two days' labor, at the risk of their lives! But when they brought it to David, he refused to drink it: “He poured it out to the LORD and said ‘Far be it from me, O LORD, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” (23:16-17).
As a rule, when someone offers a costly gift, we express our gratitude and savor the gift, even if it’s unusual. But David understood that we cannot receive every gift. David could not savor water as a trophy purchased at the (potential) price of a life. Gifts and sacrifices, even if well-motivated, can’t always be accepted. Judges cannot receive gifts from plaintiffs. A benefactor once gave Mother Theresa a luxury car. She sold it without looking at it; could she cruise the slums of Calcutta in such a vehicle?
David’s men, likewise, made an unacceptably costly sacrifice, for they risked their lives to fulfill David’s wish. If David had needed water to perform his duties as God’s anointed, a sacrifice might be fitting (cf. 1 Sam. 21:1-6). But he longed for water as a man who lamented the occupation of his town. The sacrifice of the mighty men didn’t serve David as king and David knew he had to reject it. We can imagine their horror as they watched him dribble the water onto the ground, their dismay that David scorned their gift. Yet, in time, perhaps they saw that David’s love and humility drove him to reject a sacrifice that should be rendered to God - and to God’s agents as they served Him.
There is a time to risk life, to give extravagant gifts. We may risk death to preserve a life. And Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, to name just four, risked their lives out of loyalty to God. But when David poured out the water from Bethlehem, he rejected a sacrifice men made for nothing more than his pleasure and approval.
David's men rightly risked their lives in battle at his side, since the Philistines hoped to conquer Israel and despised Israel’s faith, as Goliath demonstrates (1 Sam. 17:43). David was God’s anointed and Israel's defender. His men rightly battled beside him. When they did, they fought for the Lord and deserved renown. Their passion modeled the virtue of following God’s leader and their loyalty to David foreshadows our loyalty to Jesus.
But when David’s mighty men catered to his merely human longings, they erred and he rightly rejected their gift, costly as it was. This is instructive for leaders, who must exercise righteous judgment when gifts come to them. When I first took a leadership post, a mentor told me “Now people will want to do things for you; let them.” I certainly needed to let administrators and co-laborers do things for me, but the counsel wasn’t entirely correct. It is wrong to receive strictly personal help, such as doing laundry or buying groceries. Knowing this, David refused a certain drink of water.
If it is wrong to receive strictly personal services, it is surely wrong to demand them. Sadly, certain Christian leaders accept every gift, however misguided, They also summon loyalty and extravagant or sinful “favors” from fawning but naïve devotees And it is the worst sort of devotion to assist a man who seeks power to build his name or brand, while calling his fiefdom “God’s work.” We may know this without the account of David’s mighty men and their misguided gift. Yet when David disallowed a hyper-personalized form of devotion, it deepens our conviction that distinctions are necessary: It is beautiful to assist a man of God as he does the Father’s work, but foolish serve a mere man and his ordinary human desires. May we have the wisdom to see the difference and to act on it.
Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.