Big Idea: We need godly leaders, especially One who will rescue us from our enemies.
We do it a lot. The United States is doing it right now as they prepare for 2024. The City of Toronto is doing it as we look for a new mayor. We do it in government, in business, in not-for-profits, and pretty much in any human organization.
We’re on the lookout for a leader. We want, we need someone to lead us. We know the difference that a good leader makes. If you’ve ever experienced great leadership, you know how amazing it is. But we’ve also all experienced the results of bad leadership, and it’s very, very unpleasant.
We’re going through the story of the Bible this year, and we’re right at the part where the need for a good leader has taken center stage.
God created the world. We messed it up. But God launched a rescue plan through a nation called Israel. He grew them, rescued them, and gave them a land of their own. But they messed up. In last week’s readings, we saw how bad things became. Talk about depressing! The thing we kept reading in the book of Judges is this phrase, found in Judges 17:6 and repeated over and over again: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
Things are in crisis. Israel has no leader. All you have at the end of Judges is Israel in disarray, with rampant evil. You don’t have a unified nation. You have a loosely organized group of tribes living under poor leadership. It’s not even safe to travel between the tribes and villages. You’ve just got a collection of clans and tribes all over the nation with every tribe for itself, and with things in a big hot mess. How is Israel ever going to live faithfully as God’s people in the world?
If I were to summarize 1 Samuel in one word, it would be this: leadership. But here’s the question: What kind of leader do we need?
A Tale of Three Leaders
1 Samuel gives us a portrait of three leaders, each who teaches us something profound about the kind of leader we need. We learn three lessons about leadership from the book of 1 Samuel.
First: We need leaders who are obedient and submitted to God.
Let me introduce you to leader number one. His name is Samuel, and the book is named after him. 1 Samuel 1 to 7 is all about this leader, the last of the judges, supernaturally given by God to Israel.
In chapters 1 to 7, you get the idea that things were still pretty bad in Israel. Let me give you two examples.
The first is Eli, the high priest of Israel, and his two sons. If you want an example of the kind of leader you don’t need, look no further. “Now the sons of Eli were worthless men,” we read in 1 Samuel 2:12. “They did not know the LORD.” They didn’t know God. They were greedy and lazy. They took advantage of their position for personal gain. They treated the offerings with contempt (2:17). And their father was unwilling to confront them. That is exactly the kind of leader that you don’t need.
You also have Israel, which treats the ark of the covenant — the throne of God on earth — as a lucky charm, which gets them nowhere.
But then you have Samuel, raised up by God. Over the course of decades, his entire ministry can be summed up by his devotion and love for God and his care for the people. Let me give you just some of the highlights of Samuel:
- As a young child — “Samuel was ministering before the LORD, a boy clothed with a linen ephod … And the boy Samuel grew in the presence of the LORD.” (2:18, 21)
- A little older — “And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” (3:19)
- Some twenty years later — “And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines … Then Samuel said, 'Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the LORD for you.'" (7:3-5)
- Even later — “Do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself.” (12:20-22)
What kind of leader do we need? We need a leader who is obedient and submitted to God. That’s the same kind of leader that we need today.
It’s interesting that the New Testament teaches us the same thing. Writing to early churches, the apostle Paul tells the churches to appoint elders who are known for one thing: godliness. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 mention character quality after character quality that churches should look for in their leaders. Here’s a summary of what he tells them to look for: godly character. Only once does he mention skill. We need leaders who love God and will back it up with their lives and consistently call people to love and serve God.
I’ve always loved these words by Tim Keller ever since I heard them:
My dear friends, most churches make the mistake of selecting as leaders the confident, the competent, and the successful. But what you most need in a leader is someone who has been broken by the knowledge of his or her sin, and even greater knowledge of Jesus’ costly grace. The number one leaders in every church ought to be the people who repent the most fully without excuses, because you don’t need any now; the most easily without bitterness; the most publicly and the most joyfully. They know their standing isn’t based on their performance.
Do you believe this? This is the consistent message of Scripture from 1 Samuel right through to the New Testament.
What kind of leaders do we need? Godly ones. We need leaders who are tender and submitted to God.
But here’s the next thing to learn:
We’re drawn to impressive leaders, not godly ones.
1 Samuel starts out okay with a godly leader, but by chapter 8 people want more. They want a king. Samuel tries to warn them, but they go ahead and appoint a really impressive leader. They pick a man named Saul. In chapter 9, we meet him. In chapter 10, he’s anointed as king. It was pretty exciting. We read:
And when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward. And Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see him whom the LORD has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.” And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!” (10:23-24)
In chapter 11, Saul defeats the Ammonites. In chapter 13, he defeats the Philistines. Saul’s not all bad. He actually has some good qualities.
But you start to see problems too. In chapter 13, he directly disobeys what Samuel had told him to do. Instead of waiting for Samuel to arrive to offer a sacrifice, he decides to offer the sacrifice himself before going to battle. At a key moment, he decided to trust himself rather than trust God. This begins to set a pattern in Saul’s life. He disobeys God again in chapter 15, so much so that God says, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments” (15:11). 1 Samuel shows us a multi-decade decline of an impressive but ungodly leader, and it’s not pretty.
You can have the most impressive leader, but if that leader is not godly, it’s meaningless. You can have all the charisma and skill in the world, but it means nothing if it’s not submitted to him. As 16:7 says, “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
We need leaders who are obedient and submitted to God, but we’re drawn to impressive leaders, not godly ones. There’s one more lesson we learn in 1 Samuel.
We ultimately need a leader who will deliver us.
So we’ve had an obedient, godly leader. We’ve had an outwardly impressive but ungodly leader. 1 Samuel presents us with one more leader. His name is David, and we’ll return to him again next week.
But let’s just look at just one story, one of the most famous in the Bible, and one of the most understood. Israel is facing off against the Philistines. The entire reason they had a king was for this very reason. Back in chapter 8, they insisted, “there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19-20). And yet here they are once again against the Philistines, with a giant named Goliath taunting them, and their king helpless to do anything about it.
You may know what happened. Young David, who’s already been chosen by God as the king to replace Saul, arrives on the scene. He can’t believe that nobody’s doing anything about this giant who’s dishonoring God.
And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground. (1 Samuel 17:49)
David is the king who went to battle on behalf of his people and delivered them.
Here’s what I always missed about this story. I thought that we were supposed to identify with David in the story. We were supposed to go into battle trusting God and winning great victories.
It was only a few years ago that I realized that we’re not David in the story. We’re the people who need to be rescued. We need someone to go to battle for us. We need a deliverer. That’s the point of the story.
David acts as a substitute for his people. He offers his life and goes in weakness and wins a great victory for his people.
Two thousand years ago, a better king entered Jerusalem with the purpose of offering his life.
God sent the ultimate David, Jesus Christ. He was weak. He was little. He didn’t save us just in spite of his weakness but through his weakness. He didn’t just save us from physical death like David did but from eternal death. He didn’t save us like David did at the risk of his life, but more than that: at the cost of his life. Here’s how he did it. He went into the ultimate valley of death. (Tim Keller)
That’s what 1 Samuel is ultimately about: our need for a leader. David comes along and delivers his people, although, as we’ll see next week, even David disappoints.
We need leaders. We especially need godly leaders, not just impressive ones. But even the greatest leader will disappoint. Our greatest hope is for the only leader who will never disappoint, and whose reign will extend throughout eternity. He is the leader we need.
Father, we pray for godly leaders. We see in 1 Samuel the need for godly, obedient leaders who will serve you and lead others to do the same. We also see the danger of trusting in impressive leaders. Would you raise up godly leaders in our church and in the world who follow you.
But we also realize that even the best human leader will disappoint. We need Jesus. Thank you that he went to battle on our behalf, that he represented us, won a great victory, and conquered our enemy. May we marvel at him as we enter this Easter week. And may we trust him. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.