With David, we rediscover a familiar leadership journey theme: waiting.
For Joseph, the journey from dream to reality involved a waiting period that included mistreatment, injustice and prison. For Moses, the gap between ambition and realisation was such that by the time God called him, Moses had abandoned his ambition. David had to wait some fifteen years between the time of his first anointing, when he was still a shepherd, and becoming king at Hebron (more time would pass before his anointing as king over all Israel and his reign in Jerusalem).
While in some senses the delay may have been a good thing for David (he may only have been 15 when Samuel anointed him – early to be leading the nation), any difficulty in having to wait would only have been intensified by the fact that David had to spend much of this time on the run while Saul not only tried desperately to cling to a throne which was being taken from him, but also tried to eliminate David whom he viewed as a rival.
During this waiting time David, who accumulates a ragtag bunch of followers along the way, twice has the opportunity to take things into his own hands and assassinate Saul: first, when Saul wanders into the cave where David happens to be hiding, and second, when David’s spies manage to locate Saul in the wilderness.
In the cave incident, it is David’s men who encourage David to make the most of what they suggest is a God-given opportunity. David responds by cutting off part of Saul’s robe, but his conscience is then troubled and he tells his men that he will not do anything to harm the Lord’s anointed. In the second incident, it is David and his men who find Saul. This time David takes the initiative and invites Abishai to go with him to Saul’s camp. Once again the suggestion is made to David that this is a God-given moment to act against Saul. Once again David refuses, stating that the Lord will deal with Saul and David will not lift a hand against him.
In contrast, David waits and refuses to be panicked or persuaded into a rash action.
In the wider biblical picture it was a failure to wait that led Abraham to father Ishmael who was not the son of the promise. It was Saul’s failure to wait for Samuel that contributed to his being discarded as king.
For David (who, let’s face it, did not always get things right) there would have been opportunities to rationalise, had he chosen to sort things out for himself. He was protecting himself from a wild man who was out to kill him. Samuel had said he would be king. And – as his men had told him – was it not God who had engineered these opportunities? In fact, David himself believed that God had given Saul into his hand – although David did not believe that this opportunity was meant to be acted upon.
One of the biggest temptations of this kind of delay is for leaders to take things into their own hands. Leaders are likely to be proactive people. They become leaders because they are seen as people who get things done and make things happen. Waiting without attempting to take control of the outcome does not come naturally to them. It is not how they normally operate. Not being in control of their own destiny, not to mention that of the people they are leading, is the antithesis of effective leadership. Who even wants to follow a leader who just waits for things to happen and refuses to take charge?
This episode in David’s story is not meant to be a justification for procrastinating leaders whose preferred course of action is to kick for touch! Procrastination is likely to mean that some key decisions don’t get made and that people in the organisation suffer high levels of frustration as the procrastinating leader becomes a bottleneck. Leaders do need to lead.
But spiritual leaders need to recognise that there may well be seasons of delay when what they believe is a God-given vision or a God-given call is not realised as quickly as they thought it would be and they are required to refuse to manipulate the outcome for themselves. This kind of crucible experience exposes the leader’s level of obedience to God which becomes the true measure of trust and devotion.