Kings and Christian Leadership: True Success
Have you heard about the mighty Omridic dynasty in the ancient Near East? No? Don’t worry. I hadn’t either before completing the readings for my course on the Old Testament book of Kings. And when I say “readings,” I am not referring to my reading of Kings itself. For 1-2 Kings displays almost no interest in recounting the historically well-attested rise of Omri’s house in the northern kingdom of Israel. We meet Omri in 1 Kings 16:16, at his coronation. His time onstage, however, is short. In a handful of narrative verses we are told twice that he sinned in the manner of Jeroboam, doing what was evil in Yahweh’s eyes and leading Israel into sin (16:19, 25-26). In passing another small detail is mentioned, “He built Samaria” (16:24). Interestingly, Samaria rather than Jerusalem was the military and political capital of of both Israel and Judah for decades. In fact, if a historian were rewriting the book of Kings, she would almost certainly describe the Omridic dynasty as Israel’s economic, military and political centre. But this is not so.
We should stop to reflect on the meaning of this. The Omridic dynasty was a powerhouse in the ancient Near East. Yet Kings’ object lesson from Omri - along with each of his descendants - is that he rebelled against Yahweh. So when Kings reviews the period following Solomon (1 Kings 12) up until the exile (2 Kings 24-25), Omri’s very human successes and triumphs are all but passed over. Therefore we learn that the might of the Omridic dynasty was no match for Yahweh’s power. Conversely, fidelity to Yahweh would have ensured military success. Yahweh rewarded fidelity to his covenant. Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh repeatedly demonstrates he is capable to fulfil the promises given to his people, protect his people and powerfully overcome their enemies. But this is hard for proud people to admit—especially the leaders of those people.
Solomon illustrates this struggle well. As we have already seen, paraphrasing Old Testament scholar Gordon McConville: Solomon makes a mockery of Yahweh’s chosen place and power when he turns Jerusalem into the capital of a centralised and self-protecting, self-serving state. As I argued in a previous post, rather than serving the people Solomon made himself into Israel’s centre. Furthermore, he sought comfort and security in his own ingenuity, which is a short step from idolatry. His father David had exhorted him to depend on Yahweh (2:1-4), yet David’s advise was commingled with ruthless and decisive human action to secure the throne (2:5-11). In some ways this counsel set the course for Solomon’s kingship, rather than the kingship charter in Deuteronomy 17. His reign was to be marked by politically savvy and prudent strategising, rewarding his ambition but ultimately derailing his leadership and faith.
Solomon became a self-securing leader. He amassed multiple horses (4:26-27). This isn’t to say he liked horses but rather that he created a military machine. He married an Egyptian princess (3:1), establishing an alliance with the great north African power. While such actions appear historically defensible, not to mention sensible, they imply a wayward faith. As Wray Beal writes in her commentary, “Their military needs are to be met by Yahweh the divine warrior.” Israel possessed the land God gave to them. It remained theirs through Yahweh’s power, as they continued to trust in his promises. Thus, another Old Testament scholar, Gerbrandt, notes that military defence of the land was not the king’s primary responsibility but contingent on Yahweh’s sovereign power.
Solomon is therefore in many ways an ironic Old Testament figure. Under his leadership, Israel became a force to be reckoned with in the ancient near East. Unfortunately, with his rise to power and success came his own spiritual downfall. By securing the kingdom and his own leadership by all the means other than fidelity to Yahweh it is eventually taken from him. All his political posturing and military might cannot prevent the kingdom from splintering. Despite his marked achievements in leadership they were established by human means rather than Yahweh’s. Therefore it all slipped through his hands. To adapt Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem: Solomon’s pedestal read, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” / “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
In conclusion I will quote two of my favourite authors. Firstly, writing about ministry and church leadership, the apostle Paul says, “Let each one take care how he builds,” for “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it…the fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (1 Corinthians 3:10, 13). A few verses on, “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise” (3:18). Secondly, as D. A. Carson writes in The Cross and Christian Ministry, “It is idiotic—that is not too strong a word—to extol the world’s perspective and secretly lust after its limited vision. That is what the Corinthians were apparently doing; that is what we are in danger of doing every time we adopt our world’s shibboleths, dote on its heroes, admire its transient stars, seek its admiration, and play to its applause.” We must aspire to how God measures greatness and success in ministry, his church and among Christian leaders.