Christless Christian Character Studies

King David, King Jesus, and Correct Leadership Application

by Peyton Hill May 1, 2015

Leadership books and conferences abound due to the current societal push toward success, and within Christian literature in particular many works serve to encourage pastors and church leaders to adopt a business model of leadership for the church. In this model, pastors function as the chief executive officer of their local church, and the congregation’s members serve only as potential leaders. Even for those who find themselves drawn more to a biblical model of Christian leadership, the Scriptures often function only as a compilation of tales of courageous men and women who provide examples for how leaders in the this century should lead their respective churches or organizations. For these, narratives from the biblical corpus, especially the Old Testament, seem to put forth ancient heroes who function as examples for the modern day.

Leadership gurus thrive off of the principles extracted from the lives of men like David, and entire books and conferences devote their teaching to driving themes and principles from the lives of OT characters. However, an examination of the leadership of King David can only provide application when put forth within a biblical theology framework and mediated through Jesus Christ, the greater David. As Christopher Wright states, “The [OT] tells the story that Jesus completes.”[1] The early narratives of the life of David often serve as moralistic examples for leadership gurus, but placing these stories within the metanarrative of Scripture (ultimately pointing to Jesus as the greater David) provides validity for the necessity of Christ and a complete biblical theology to fully understand David’s leadership role.

Many applications for leadership derive from the narratives surrounding David’s anointing (1 Sam 16:1–13), service of Saul (1 Sam 16:14–23), and battle with Goliath (1 Sam 17). A practical application of David’s calling in Bethlehem would be to guard the heart, because the Lord looks at the heart rather than outward appearance (1 Sam 16:7). Also, looking at David’s humble service of Saul, the man occupying his throne, interpreters can be reminded to remain faithful in the small things. A major theme of 1 Samuel 16–17 focuses on David as the Spirit-anointed man, so an application could be to trust in the Spirit to provide the proper gifting. Other themes to apply include the pursuit of humility and resting in the knowledge that the battle is the Lord’s. However, extracting applications from the life of David apart from Christ inhibits the text from having any Christian emphasis at all.

Jesus, the Hero of the Story

The narratives of 1 Sam 16–17 put forth David as the champion who offers his life for the Israelites. Through David’s victory over Goliath, the Lord brings about salvation for all of Israel. To apply the texts appropriately, it must be understood that David’s role as champion in the place of Israel points to the role of Christ in the place of sinners.[2] Many Christian readers might be tempted to identify with David in these narratives, especially in 1 Samuel 17.

However, a close reading of the narrative within the larger framework of the biblical metanarrative shows that the reader must identify with the cowering Israelite army, if anyone. When the giant shouted threats at the Israelite army, “[the Israelites] were dismayed and greatly afraid” (1 Sam 17:11). Yet, once the champion of Israel secured the victory over the giant, “the men of Israel and Judah rose with a shout and pursued the Philistines” (1 Sam 17:52). The passage shows that victory has been declared in the person of Jesus Christ, and Christians fight out of confidence in the victory that has already been won by the greater David.

The early narratives David’s life in 1 Samuel 16–17 do not merely supply leadership principles for Christian leaders, but they point to the champion who has led and fought in the place of sinners. Through this champion, the Christian life becomes one of sanctification because the battle has already been fought and won.[3]

In order to understand the narratives of 1 Sam 16–17 and the leadership principles contained within the passages, Jesus must drive the meaning of the texts. Though principles of courage and humility in service might derive from the passages, any application segregated from Jesus consists of nothing more than moralism. Willem VanGemeren helps to show how the whole Bible must be understood through Christ: “All the acts and blessings of God in any age are thus based on the death of the Christ in anticipation of the new age.” Without a proper understanding of Jesus as the central figure of every text, no proper application can be taken from that text. Jesus is the central figure of 1 Samuel 16–17, and without that understanding any study of the leadership of David is meaningless.

[1] Christopher J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2014), 16.

[2] Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 166.

[3] Ed Stetzer et al., eds., Christ-Centered Preaching and Teaching (Nashville: LifeWay, 2013), 28.