While there are plenty of examples of leadership failures throughout Scripture, there are perhaps none more infamous than that of King David. Though a great king and considered—at least one point in his life—a “man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), David failed as a leader in many major ways.
Let’s take a closer look at his greatest leadership failure and three things we can learn from it to protect ourselves from getting caught up in the same temptations and traps.
David’s Greatest Failure
In the time of ancient Israel, kings were permitted to have multiple wives, though according to God’s law, they were not to “acquire many” (Deuteronomy 17:17). At this time in his life, David already had six wives, as well as other concubines (2 Samuel 5:13)—but once he saw Bathsheba, he wanted her, too.
There was only one problem: she was already married (2 Samuel 11:3).
Apparently, this did not bother David. He was king and decided to get what he wanted. While David’s army—Bathsheba’s husband included—were all out fighting a war, David “sent messengers to get her” (2 Samuel 11:4). He slept with Bathsheba, likely against her will, and she became pregnant (2 Samuel 11:5). And after a couple failed attempts to have Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, sleep with her, the king decided to do something extreme to cover up his sin.
David had Uriah abandoned at the front lines of a war, leading to his death, just as David desired. David then took Bathsheba as his wife and acknowledged the child. This plan seemed to work: Bathsheba grieved her husband’s death, and David appeared to get away with his sin.
“However, the Lord considered what David had done to be evil” (2 Samuel 11:27).
In the very next chapter of 2 Samuel, the prophet Nathan confronts David’s egregious sin. He does this by telling him a story. A poor man in a city had a beloved pet: one small lamb that he and his family cherished. A rich man, in the same city, had numerous sheep and cattle and desired to feed a traveler that was staying with him but did not want to use one of his own animals to do so. Instead, “he took the poor man’s lamb” and used it to feed his guest (12:1–4).
Hearing of this, “David was infuriated with the man” and told Nathan that this man deserves to die for what he had done, for having “no pity” (12:5–6).
Immediately, Nathan calls out David’s gross hypocrisy: “You are the man!” (12:7). He proceeds to remind David how God had made him king, saved him from Saul, gave him favor with the people, and would have given him even more. But instead of trusting God and inquiring of him, David did what was evil and would face severe consequences as a result (12:7–12).
In response to Nathan’s rebuke, David confesses, “I have sinned against the Lord” (12:13).
David’s pride, selfishness, and abuse of his power led him to lust, covet, steal, lie, and eventually murder. David was so blinded by his power and position, he could not see that the very things he hated, he had become. What he would condemn in someone else, he himself embodied. His anger burned toward injustice over a stolen lamb, yet he had no sense of justice when it came to the grave offenses he committed against his fellow human beings.
Three Things David’s Failure Teaches
1. First, from David’s failure, we learn that leaders are at their best when they are doing what they’re called to do: serve and protect others. David was hanging back at the palace while his men were in battle. If he had been fighting alongside his people as he should have been doing, this situation never would have arisen. This demonstrates how when we avoid serving and protecting, the floodgates are open for sin and temptation. David’s selfishness led to laziness, which opened the door for greater temptation. David chose to serve himself instead of others and fell into serious sin as a result.
2. Next, we are reminded that leaders are not exempt from God’s law of selfless love. In fact, they should seek to exemplify it while being “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2). In this epic failure, at each turn, David chose his own comfort and pleasure over loving those around him. This is a constant temptation for all leaders, including us today. Had David actually loved Bathsheba, knowing that she was the wife of another man who was out fighting for his kingdom, he would have turned away from her and let her be. Instead, he sent his guards to take her from her own home. When David failed to love others, his lack of love went so far that he ended up murdering someone. Leaders who fail to love end up destroying those they lead.
3. Finally, we learn that leaders do not always get away with their sin just because they have power. Most people are familiar with the quote, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Like many leaders throughout history, David seemed to believe that his status and power would save him from the consequences of his actions. However, in God’s kingdom, that is not the case. After each sinful choice, David had a chance to repent, but instead, he doubled down, trying to cover it up. He did not confess his sin until he was directly confronted by Nathan. Though God always forgives and is willing to restore us, hidden sin will often find its way to the light, and we will always face consequences for it in some form or another (see Galatians 6:7). Yet as they were for David, God’s discipline and the consequences of our sin are ultimately signs of God’s love (see Hebrews 12:6), leading us to repentance and teaching us that sin never leads to joy.
If we desire to be the kind of leaders that God will use to do great things for others, and if we desire to leave a legacy of service rather than selfishness, may we learn from David’s failures and apply those lessons to our own lives and ministries!