Scripture: 2 Samuel 6:1–15
In 1973, the House of Representatives brought articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon, due to his involvement in Watergate. He was never actually impeached, because he resigned before he could be. It was significant event, and something that had not happened in a long time in our history. The first and only president to be impeached before Nixon was Andrew Johnson in 1868, over a hundred years earlier. But what was a rare event soon became anything but.
- A few years later, Ronald Reagan had an impeachment resolution introduced against him following the Iran Contra affair.
- George H.W. Bush, his successor, did as well.
- Next in line, Bill Clinton was actually impeached, but the Senate did not vote to remove him from office.
- Next, George W. Bush had an impeachment resolution introduced against him as well, but it did not come to a full vote of the House.
- Barack Obama did not have an actual resolution introduced against him, making him the only president in 28 years for this to be the case. That doesn’t mean his political enemies didn’t talk about it…they just couldn’t get it out of the judiciary committee.
- Of course, Donald Trump was actually impeached…twice. But, again, he was not removed from office.
- And finally, impeachment procedures have begun for Joe Biden in the House, but have stalled because they don’t actually have a Speaker, and cannot seem to find one.
To put it succinctly, for the last fifty years, our nation has been embroiled in an intense conversation about what makes a leader viable. Honorable. Good. Clearly, we have not agreed. And also clearly, this question is not going away. We’ll vote in local elections here in a few weeks. We have already begun the 2024 election cycle. We are already debating this question ad nauseam on cable news. And besides that, whomever we elect in 2024, someone in the House is going to begin impeachment proceedings against them, assuming we ever get a Speaker of the House again. This question will remain an open debate in the days and weeks and years ahead: what makes a leader good?
Enter the Bible’s biggest case study on whether or not a leader is good: King David. If Americans have been arguing for 50 years about what makes a leader viable, the people of the Abrahamic faiths have been having the same argument about David for about 3,000 years. I think we can all agree that David’s leadership was…complicated. He is often praised as the best king in the history of God’s people, and even by Jesus’ time, his authority was tied to the fact that he was part of the line and lineage of David. And yet, the stories about him make it pretty clear that he was not a perfect human being: stories of violence, manipulation, abuse, and disobedience of just about ALL of those Ten Commandments that we read a couple of weeks ago. And yet, in the midst of all of those stories, whenever we talk about David’s legacy, one phrase comes back again and again: David was, after all, “a man after God’s own heart.”
Ah yes, the phrase that has excused a million misbehaviors! I would daresay that each of those presidents that we have impeached for unethical behavior has had someone bring up this phrase about David, quoted back in 1 Samuel, and then again much later in Acts. It usually goes something like this. When some politician does something stupid or unethical or even impeachable, someone who happens to agree with his politics will say “sure, but remember that David wasn’t perfect, either, but he was still a man after God’s own heart.” It’s as if everything that that politician did is now excused, because, they argue, everything that David did was excused by this little phrase. David becomes the “Get Out of Jail Free” Card for every failed leader whom we want an excuse to support politically!
But I would argue that that one little phrase doesn’t excuse everything that David did. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the overall message of Scripture is basically anti-King-David, and basically anti-king. There is a fundamental difference between the authority of monarchy and the authority of prophecy. Samuel the prophet tells the people that they don’t need a king because they will do all this horrible stuff to you, and then David does all of that stuff. Nathan the prophet has to get in David’s face for his own personal failings. David’s story spirals further and further down the toilet, as his family drama disintegrates into disaster. And then just about every king after David is judged as a failure, and requires a prophet or three to get in their faces and then remind the people that God told them from the beginning that this is what they were going to get. There is a reason why by the time Jesus shows up, he rejects the monarchy title every chance he gets, and assumes the role of a prophet instead. As a general rule, from Pharaoh to Nebuchadnezzar, from David to Herod, the rule is the same: don’t trust a king!
But then, just when you are ready to throw the whole lot of them out, one of them goes and does something redeemable. Good. Honorable. One of them demonstrates that there are indeed kings out there who care about people. What’s the phrase…“a broken clock is at least right twice a day”? I would suggest that instead of suggesting that we excuse everything that David does because he is a “man after God’s own heart,” it is more helpful to ask “when are the moments that he deserves the title?” We don’t excuse the bad behavior, but we can lift up the good.
And today’s passage has some good. Here is where the David case study points us to what makes a leader viable. Honorable. Good. Let me take today’s passage as a primer for how we might look at our political leaders today. Or for that matter, how we might use David’s “twice-a-day” goodness as a guide to our own behavior. Three moments when David deserved the title of a “man after God’s own heart.”
First: When David chooses unity over division.
At the beginning of Chapter 6, we join the story already in progress. Saul was king over the united kingdom of both Judah and Israel. But, again, he was a king and he did all the things that Samuel warned that a king would do. So, that unity started to splinter into various camps and tribes and alliances, many of whom were loyal to Saul, but many who became loyal to David. In the chapter before, the last of the northern tribes come to David and pledge their allegiance to him in his military capital of Hebron.
But then, David does something rather important. He chooses to move the capital. It would have been more convenient to leave the capital in Hebron. It would have strengthened his image if his capital became the capital, as he gathered his minions to his feet. But it also would have deepened the resentment of the tribes who were joining him. So he did a wise thing: he made a new capital. Not my capital. Not your capital. Our capital. Jerusalem became a symbol of this new unity, instead of the old division and divisiveness. It takes a pretty strong leader to be able to make such a sacrifice, and a pretty wise one to see the long-term value in such a move.
So it will come to no surprise how rare that gift is in today’s world. How often do our governmental and political leaders pride themselves on their divisiveness? Compromise is a dirty word. Unity means failure. The ability to listen to another and understand another’s point of view is seen as weakness. I saw that one of the candidates for the Speaker of the House last week prided himself on being a “chaos agent.” Because we need more chaos? We are short on chaos? What we are short on is leaders who understand how to see the image of God in the other, and fight for unity instead of division. Look for those leaders, and you’ll find one who demonstrates what it means to be a woman or man after God’s own heart.
Two: Notice when David acknowledges his failure, instead of insisting he was right.
If you remember the story of Saul, this is where he starts to get in trouble. He disobeys God, and then Samuel calls him on it, and he right out lies to the prophet of God. Bad move. Beginning of the end. Notice here what David does differently.
Again, at the beginning of the chapter, David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant to the capital. But he hadn’t watched Raiders of the Lost Ark. That thing will straight-up melt your face off. It’s a complicated thing, the Ark of the Covenant, but suffice it to say that you don’t want to be disrespectful of it. Scholar Katherine Schifferdecker uses the metaphor of a power plant; there is great potential there, but you want to make sure you respect the power of the thing, or you will get burned. The people had learned on Sinai that there is a certain way to respect it, and surround it, and even carry it reverently on two special poles. Because the way that you respect this symbol indicated the respect that you have for God.
But David and the people were not showing reverence. They threw it on a cart and let the oxen do the hard work of carrying it. They didn’t announce it properly, but basically used it as a prop for their own party and self-congratulation. Uzzah and David and the whole lot of them acted as though they had invited God to their party, instead of realizing that they were lucky to get invited to God’s party. So, the Ark is bouncing around on this cart, and predictably it starts to fall off, and Uzzah reaches over to keep it from falling on the ground, and God zaps him dead.
Now, this is a moment of truth for David. He could have pulled a Saul and lied about it. He could have blamed down the ladder and said it was poor Uzzah’s fault. But David realized that he and they had all messed up, and failed to respect God’s symbol—and most importantly God—with the correct reverence. So David stopped the party, and said, “let’s leave the Ark right here for a minute” until we get this right. It was a moment of acknowledging failure, and willingness to get it right.
Try to find a leader like that today. There are some. But it is so easy to find someone with the integrity of Saul—deflect…deny…deceive—instead of the integrity of David. No one is perfect, but it takes a wise leader to acknowledge that fact publicly, and take the blame for a shared responsibility. I like what our local leaders have done this year with the large red boulder that has sat on City property downtown for generations. When indigenous leaders came to them and said that it was actually a sacred symbol for the Kaw people, they could have rightly said “Well, we didn’t steal it and it’s been here a lot longer than us, so it’s not our problem.” But instead, they acknowledged that we as a city were wrong, and needed to make it right. An example of good leaders doing what good leaders do.
Finally, a third time David deserved the title: When he emphasizes humility over military might.
The first time that they tried to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, the text says that David marched 30,000 soldiers on military review before the people. An incredible show of strength and power. And arrogance. Again, it was a symbol that they were in charge, and they decided that they would invite God to their military party. It reminds us of so many leaders throughout history who have done exactly the same thing: parade their army around in front of the people in order to show their strength. Wave their military budget around to show how patriotic they are. Brag about the size of armies and tanks and missiles and drones.
Notice what happened after David had a minute to rethink his strategy? He left the Ark at the home of someone out in the countryside on the parade route, until this home began to be blessed and prosper, and David decided maybe it was safe to try again. But this time, no 30,000 soldiers. No military parade. Instead, the people held the Ark with the reverence that it deserved, creating a space of worship and respect and gratitude. They were at God’s party, not the other way around. And to make sure everyone got this point, they stopped to make a sacrifice and worship God, every six paces. Some scholars think that the Ark was 9 or 10 miles away…imagine how long it would take to walk from Stull to our parking lot, stopping every six paces to worship God and offer another sacrifice. David made sure that they people understood it was not by his power that he ruled, but by God’s good grace.
Which brings us to a final point. It is good to think about David’s goodness, and how we should look for the same characteristics in our leaders. But let us not forget that when we proclaim that David is a man after God’s own heart, it really tells us less about “the man,” and more about “God’s own heart.”
For if David was ever able to experience moments of honorable and good behavior, it is because God had showed him the way.
When we or our leaders are able to follow in his footsteps, it is because the Spirit guides us in the way to go.
And when we see these values of unity, of confession, and of humility, you can be sure that God is at work in the hearts of women and men.