Leadership Lessons Part VII – The Lesson of Success

The worst thing that can happen to a person is to succeed before he is ready.
-Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones

Thus far, we have seen David learn the lesson of being underestimated, the lesson of submission, the lesson of knowing when to risk and the lesson of authenticity. Now, he will learn how to handle public success in a Godly way. When David kills Goliath, he experiences a very public and very significant success. We can learn much from the life of David, so let’s get going. Our text today comes from 1 Sam 17.54 – 18.9:

54David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem; he put the Philistine’s weapons in his own tent. 55 As Saul watched David going out to meet the Philistine, he said to Abner, commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is that young man?” Abner replied, “As surely as you live, Your Majesty, I don’t know.” 56 The king said, “Find out whose son this young man is.” 57 As soon as David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with David still holding the Philistine’s head. 58 “Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him. David said, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.”

18 After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt. Whatever mission Saul sent him on, David was so successful that Saul gave him a high rank in the army. This pleased all the troops, and Saul’s officers as well. When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres. As they danced, they sang:

“Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”

Saul was very angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David.

David kills Goliath and hangs onto his head – the very sign that he has killed the giant. He takes it to Jerusalem, a fair distance to carry a large head. But he’s understandably proud of his success and carries Goliath’s head as a type of medal.

Saul’s question about David’s lineage is more focused on inquiring about his character and the status of his family’s pedigree than it is about the basic details presented in this text. Saul previously knew about David, but is now learning more about his family and what their connections to the crown, if any, exist.

When David becomes “one with Jonathan”, this is not an indication of homosexuality or even bisexuality, since David clearly had many wives later on:

Sometime after David’s conversation with Saul that concludes chapter 17, Saul’s son Jonathan entered into a covenant with David (v.3). The ambiguous verb “loved” describes the relationship (vv.1, 3). Tom Horner (Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978]) asserts that the relationship between David and Jonathan was homosexual (cf. esp. pp. 20, 26–28, 31–39). But the verb ʾāhēḇ (“love”) is not used elsewhere to express homosexual desire or activity, for which the OT employs yāḏaʿ (“know”), in the sense of “have sex with” (Gen 19:5; Judg 19:22). The latter verb is never used of David’s relationship with Jonathan. Rather, as conveniently summarized by Thompson (“The Significance of the Verb Love” pp. 334–38), “love” has political overtones in diplomatic and commercial contexts. Indeed, “we may suspect that already in 1 Samuel 16:21 [NIV, “Saul liked (David)”] the narrator is preparing us for the later political use of the term” (p. 335). A clear example of the treaty/covenant use of “love” is 1 Kings 5:1, which says that Hiram king of Tyre “had always ‘loved’ David” (appropriately rendered in the NIV as “had always been on friendly terms with David”). To summarize: In vv.1, 3 the narrator probably uses “the ambiguous word love ʾāheḇ because it denoted more than natural affection however deep and genuine this may have been” (ibid., p. 336; cf. also vv.16, 20, 22 [NIV, “like”], 28; 20:17; 2 Sam 1:26). – The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank Gaebelin, Editor, Eerdmans

The act of Jonathan taking off his coat and armor and giving it to David is a non-verbal way of demonstrating that he understands he will not be the next King – and he is giving his “kingship” to David in this act. Jonathan was a great #2, as we’ll see later on.

People always celebrate success and they often don’t care if some in the process are offended or overlooked. Saul is so insecure that he can’t stand it that David is getting more credit than him – even though David clearly demonstrated more courage, skill and leadership than Saul when he killed Goliath. Some believe they should get the glory simply for their position – but the crowds will always follow those who perform. Saul rightly sees that David could take over the kingdom. What Saul never came to understand is that David respects his position so deeply that David will never assert his anointing to be the next king prematurely? Over the next 15 years, David will do everything possible to stay away from Saul while he lives out his natural life. Saul never really “gets it”.

Success has its temptations. For example, when one is successful, he will be tempted to hold on to the power, prestige, money, status, position and so forth that comes with that success. I think this is one of the reasons that people try so hard to be re-elected to Congress: being in the club has its’ perks. Another temptation is to become arrogant: “I’m special……”, or to turn away from God: “I don’t need….”, or to think your success means its’ time to assert yourself outside your calling: “If I can do this, certainly I can…..” Many who become very successful end up disregarding their stewardship obligation to the Lord. They forget what it was like to be poor, so they use the resources God has given them in unwise and ungodly ways.

Very few can handle success. Even when it comes to spiritual gifts, many abuse them. Unfortunately, we wrongly view these gifts through American lens of status – “If s/he has this gift, s/he must be more spiritual…” God’s view is different: gifts are given to accomplish certain tasks – and those gifts are no more or less special than the other gifts that others have. And if you’re a teacher – like me – just remember that the teaching gift is the only gift that will incur a stricter judgment. Some gifts require one to be emptied of self, pride and have a fully yielded heart before you can begin to exercise them.

Godly leadership requires the ability to handle success in a Godly way. In our story, Saul is a picture of one who was given success and lost it all whereas David is a picture of one who was given success and stayed with God. Learning the Lesson of Success Means:

  • Holding the sources of success with an open hand
  • Realizing success is an entrustment: do not measure by American status standards
  • Allowing God to humble you through your success – no gloating
  • Staying focused on your calling

In most people’s lives, there will be times when you will experience success: material, spiritual, relational. It is incumbent on you to:

  • Stay humble
  • Stay connected to God
  • Stay the course
  • Enjoy God’s blessing!

Bill English, CEO