Signs of a Leader – 1 Samuel 17:27-40
By: Northern Seminary
(Part 3 of a study of 1 Samuel 17.)
Through most of my adult life I’ve been in leadership roles: as a pastor; as the head of a large mission organization; as President of Northern Seminary. So I ask myself: did I show any signs of leadership when I was young? Well, I was captain of the second XI cricket team at school. I realize my American friends have no idea if that was a great achievement. It wasn’t. I remember reaching the dizzying heights of a patrol leader in the Boy Scouts. At church I was voted President of the youth group and was made the senior member of a mission team. So, there were some signs of leadership in those days. But they were embryonic. And not everyone would have seen them. My school teachers would have laughed at the idea that I was a leader among students my age. “Not Alistair…” they’d have said.
So, in the early years some signs of leadership are seen; others are hidden. Or, perhaps some people see the signs, and others don’t.
David would become the greatest king Israel ever had, a remarkable leader among his people. Were the signs of leadership obvious in his youth? Did people see his potential? The answer becomes clear in today’s study.
The point we reached before in 1 Samuel 17 was that David overhears that there are rewards for anyone who will take on Goliath, and he wants to know more. At first, his questions get him into trouble.
1 Samuel 17: 27-40
27 They repeated to him what they had been saying and told him, “This is what will be done for the man who kills him.”
28 When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.”
29 “Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?” 30 He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before. 31 What David said was overheard and reported to Saul, and Saul sent for him.
32 David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”
33 Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”
34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”
Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.”
38 Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head.39 David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.
“I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.
David was only a young man. He had no special strength, and was just an ordinary boy from humble origins. The advantages which help make others great were not there in David’s background.
But it was different on the inside. Inside David’s head and heart were clear signs of a strong leader. Five of them can be seen here.
1. Going forward even when misunderstood.
David’s oldest brother, Eliab, was furious with him for even asking about how the king would reward anyone who killed Goliath. His words are scathing: “I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.”
That wasn’t true. David was neither proud nor blood-thirsty. He was concerned for God’s honor, and genuinely appalled that a Philistine – small, medium or large – could ridicule God and God’s people and no-one would do anything about it.
He was concerned, not conceited.
He was angry, not ambitious.
He wanted to be a soldier, not a spectator.
His big brother misjudged his motives.
Maybe that happened because Eliab felt humiliated or guilty. What was Eliab doing about Goliath? Like all the Israelites he was doing nothing except running away. So he looked bad when his little brother showed courage he did not have. Eliab should have been fighting but he wasn’t. Maybe that is why he was so harsh towards David.
But faced with accusations, David did not give up. He did not crumble. He did not cave in.
Nor did Moses when his appeals to Pharaoh in Egypt to let his people go worsened the workload of the Israelites, and Moses’ own people told him he would get them all killed (Ex. 5:21). Or when they had their freedom, and Moses had brought them out to the edge of the Red Sea, and then they saw the Egyptian army pursuing them and they said they’d rather have been slaves in Egypt than be slaughtered in the desert (Ex. 14:11-12). How did Moses keep going when faced with so much misunderstanding and accusation? Answer: because he was a leader, and being misunderstood is part of the price a leader pays.
David was misunderstood, but he still went forward.
2. Willingness to take a bold step.
King Saul sent for David, and David was very clear what he wanted to do: “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him” (1 Sam. 17:32).
I became the senior pastor of a church in Aberdeen, Scotland. After about a year we had the best kind of problem; we were overcrowded. We looked at many options, from enlarging the sanctuary to holding multiple services to planting more churches to sending members to strengthen other congregations. Or we could move elsewhere. During the next year we studied every option, but the only solution was to find another building as our church home. That was never going to be easy:
- The congregation had been in the old building for ninety years, and there was understandable emotional attachment to it.
- Sometimes it didn’t look like we needed to move. There were periods of the year – such as the summer months – when fewer came and there were plenty empty seats.
- Many had never been part of a church that was growing, and changing – especially changing locations – was a completely new experience, and it made them uncomfortable.
- Others simply felt we were rushing forward too fast.
- And moving to a new facility would cost a lot of money, money we didn’t have. Since we could not afford it, how could it be right?
Then a congregation that was closing down offered us their much larger church building for a very small sum. The timing was perfect. The whole congregation went to look at it. It held four times as many people as our old building, and it had several other rooms and a wonderful kitchen and toilets. (To some the kitchen and toilets seemed most important of all!) “But,” one church member said to me, “Being here would be wonderful while we are growing, but what will it be like when we’re small again?” For a moment my heart sank, but deep down I knew we were not going to be small again, that God was in this, and it was time for a step of faith. After a lot of prayer and discussion, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to move. Within months of the change, we’d grown so much again we could not have gone back to the old building even if we’d wanted.
Willingness to take a bold step is the mark of a leader.
3. Refusal to be put off.
David was ready to take a bold step and put his life on the line, but King Saul was far from convinced this was a good idea. “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth” (1 Sam. 17:33).
Maybe Saul was concerned for David. It was a suicide mission for a young man to go up against the giant figure and fierce fighter, Goliath.
But more likely Saul was thinking of the bigger consequence. The deal was that the one-on-one fight would decide which nation became slaves of the other. David had no chance, so to send him out to certain defeat was to sentence the Israelites to be slaves of the Philistines. How could the king allow that?
David was not deterred. He knew already that Goliath was taller, stronger, and fiercer as a soldier than he was. But David also knew he had fought and killed lions and bears when they’d attacked his father’s flock. He was not frightened of Goliath.
Leaders don’t live in a dream world. They don’t deny reality. But they don’t see only one side of a problem. They don’t see only the impossible; they see the possible.
In David’s case, one thing above all made defeating Goliath possible.
4. Knowing the real power lies with God.
David had fought off lions and bears but he knew those victories were not ultimately because of his own strength and skill. There was something more. And that ‘something more’ would be there for him when he went against Goliath: “The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam. 17:37).
David wasn’t the fiercest warrior in either army. He was no master tactician. He had no special weapons and no winning ideas. But he did have God. David, on his own and in his own strength… no chance. David plus God would not only live, but he would triumph over Goliath.
Jehoshaphat was King of Judah many years after David, and Jehoshaphat also faced an overwhelming threat when armies from several different nations came to wage war. Like in David’s time, the forces against God’s people seemed to have all the advantages. Defeat and destruction looked certain. But Jehoshaphat led the people in prayer, and here is how he finished his prayer: “Our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chron. 20:12).
God gave them promises and courage, Jehoshaphat put his praise team right at the front of the army, and out they went. You can read what happened next in 2 Chronicles 20. I won’t spoil the story, but you can guess God gave them an amazing victory.
Very often God’s leaders don’t know what to do but they know a God who does, and they turn to him. I suspect the most common prayer of a leader is: “Oh Lord, help!” It’s often been my prayer. And it’s never failed.
Our fifth and final sign of leadership in David:
5. Courage to be himself.
Saul agreed that David should fight Goliath. Was the king convinced that God would give David victory? Or did he simply have no other idea what to do, and the stalemate of two armies facing each other but never fighting could not go on forever?
I don’t know what Saul was thinking, but he clearly reckoned David needed a king’s help as well as the Lord’s help. He put all his own armor on David. It made sense. David was going up against a giant of a man with very strong armor and weapons. David needed all the help he could get.
David did. But the help he needed wasn’t a king’s armor. It was the power of the King of kings. David politely refused Saul’s armor, and with just his staff, his sling, and five stones he picked up from the stream he approached Goliath.
No armor. No battle weapons. No special skill. What were his brothers thinking? What was King Saul thinking? What was the whole Israelite army thinking? The Philistine army, including Goliath, were certainly thinking David was crazy and this would be the easiest victory in the history of all battles.
David, though, knew who he was:
- A shepherd, not a warrior,
- A young man, not a fighter used to armor and heavy weapons,
- And that he was someone God had protected before, who had won impossible victories against wild animals, and who knew that God would not allow these warring Philistines to insult and defeat God’s own people.
In other words, he was being himself with all the knowledge, all the skills, and all the faith he had. He was not required to be anyone else; just David, the shepherd boy armed with a sling and great trust in God.
For years I’ve had a coffee mat on my desk in my office. There’s a prayer inscribed on it and it includes these two lines:
Believe in God. Believe also in thyself.
In the context of the prayer, it means: Because of everything you believe about God, believe also in everything God can enable you to do.
Believe in God. Believe also in thyself.
I’ve read those words many times, and many times they’ve given me the courage to move forward, to be the leader I can be, with my weaknesses and faults but also with my faith and my gifts. And God has used me.
There is no formula for leadership, and exactly how it works out for one person will be different than for another. But leaders have qualities like those David showed so early:
- Going forward even when misunderstood.
- Willingness to take a bold step.
- Refusal to be put off.
- Knowing real power lies with God.
- Courage to be yourself.
It’s easy to read that list and to acknowledge these things are true. It’s much harder to live them out in tough, challenging times. God calls many people today to get beyond theory and be leaders in the hard realities of life.