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Integrity: Consistent Executions

“So, you’re saying we should be consistent in our murders?!” My Living Leadership colleague looked at me askance . . . then laughed.

The comment was a reflection on something I shared from 2 Samuel in the opening devotions of our staff meeting. It’s one of those roller-coaster reads, charting David’s story after the death of King Saul. We were focusing on the first four chapters, that I’ll summarise here.

Chapter 1

A young Amalekite comes to David, bearing Saul’s crown and armlet. He claims he killed the former king. It is a lie. Saul actually took his own life after being wounded in battle with the Philistines. It seems the Amalekite hopes that David will reward him for this news. David, however, orders the man’s execution instead, asking “Why weren’t you afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” It’s the same principle David followed in 1 Samuel when he repeatedly refused to kill Saul.

Chapter 2

David becomes king over the tribe of Judah while Ish-Bosheth, son of Saul, reigns over the other tribes. Civil war ensues; David’s armies are led by his nephew, Joab. Ish-Bosheth’s are commanded by Abner. After David’s army is victorious in battle, Joab’s swift-footed brother, Asahel, pursues Abner as he retreats. Abner tries to warn Asahel off, but he won’t be deterred. Eventually, Abner hits him with the butt of his spear, presumably not intending to kill him, but Asahel dies.

Chapter 3

Abner recognises his side is losing, so decides to negotiate peace with David. As he returns home from the negotiations, Joab goes after him, tricks him, and murders him. David curses Joab in strong terms and makes a public show of his own innocence in the matter—gaining favour with the people—yet he does not call for Joab’s execution.

Chapter 4

Two of Ish-Bosheth’s commanders assassinate him and bring his head to David, expecting his approval. David reminds them of the precedent he has set (see chapter one) and commands that they too be executed because they killed “an innocent man in his own house and on his own bed”.

So, these chapters spotlight seven deaths with four different causes:

· Three executions—the Amalekite and Ish-Bosheth’s two killers.

· Two murders—Abner and Ish-Bosheth.

· One suicide—Saul.

· One accidental killing—Asahel.

In our staff devotions, I presented David as a lesson in integrity. Hence my colleague’s quip. Of course, my focus wasn’t on murder, but on consistency, a sign of integrity. There were murders in the story, but David was not responsible for either of them. He was the one who commanded execution twice. But he was inconsistent in letting Joab off with a nasty cursing that was not backed up with actions. In this, David lacked integrity.

I’m glad I don’t have the power to call for executions – not even of cheeky colleagues. Nor do you. At least I hope your code of conduct in ministry doesn’t include that provision! But there is a lesson here. We also need to be consistent in our executions – our “follow through” for want of a better phrase. Integrity means doing what we say we’ll do, and acting consistently with what is true and just.

Was David right to carry out the execution of the killers of Ish-Bosheth and the Amalekite who falsely claimed to have killed Saul? I’ll leave that to you to decide. While the principle of capital punishment for murder is clear in the Law of Moses, we may have questions about the legitimacy of David’s judgement in these specific cases.

Joab’s murder of Abner, however, is a very different case. It’s clear-cut. Abner did not deserve to be executed. He accidentally killed a man who was pursuing him from a battlefield. And he did it through an act of self-defence. Yet Joab murders Abner in a cold-blooded act of vengeance without trial.

David knew Joab’s action was unjust. He cursed him in the strongest terms. Yet David didn’t order his execution. His impressive words were not matched by actions. Why not? I can think of three potential reasons.

  • Joab is the son of David’s half-sister Zeruiah. Is this a case of “blood running thicker than water”? Does David hold back because of family loyalty or nepotism?

  • Joab was powerful and influential. After David curses Joab, we read, “And today, though I am the anointed king, I am weak, and these sons of Zeruiah are too strong for me. May the Lord repay the evildoer according to his evil deeds!” It seems David was afraid of Joab and uncertain that he had the power to have him executed. Is this a case of “fear of man” holding David back from acting justly?

  • Joab was useful to David. Later, David instructs Joab to arrange the death of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, to cover up David’s sin. Had David identified a useful “henchman” to do his dirty work?

All three factors may have played a part in David’s inaction, although the text particularly emphasises his fear of Joab. It is tragic to observe this in a man capable of such greatness. David, who composed such beautiful psalms . . . who killed Goliath . . . whose love for his friend, Jonathan, was legendary . . . who refused to take Saul’s life . . . who waited patiently for God’s promise of kingship to be fulfilled. This same David succumbs to the base human instinct for self-protection. He is enslaved to nepotism, fear of man, and corruption. The sordid tale of chapter eleven (adultery with Bathsheba and Uriah’s murder) will show how far David will fall, but already in chapter three, we see cracks appearing.

Integrity is precious. I have seen many examples of people who, lacking integrity, have reaped devastating consequences. I am sure you have too. The poisonous fruit of compromise often takes time to ripen. Later in 2 Samuel, Joab will murder again, killing his cousin, Amasa, while greeting him with a kiss. Sound familiar? And then he ends up plotting against David over the king’s succession.

David knows this guy is no good, so in his dying words to Solomon in 1 Kings, he tells his son and successor to be sure to get rid of Joab. Solomon does so through a man called Benaiah. How sad that the man who faced down a Philistine giant as a lad would permit this dangerous and destructive man to wreak havoc in his kingdom for so many years. And perhaps sadder still that he leaves Joab’s execution to his son as an inheritance.

God is calling for leaders who will stand on principle. To be sure, we must be careful that our principles are his, but when they are, we must stand firm. God wants people of conviction who have the courage to speak truth in humility. Leaders with backbone. It seems to me that many leaders today tolerate what they should not because of what they call “compassion” or “pastoral sensitivity”. More likely what’s happening is they allow emotion to lead them and they cave in to the fear of man. It seems easier in the short term, but it only hurts more people, and creates more headaches in the longer term. Misguided “compassion” may be one of the world’s most destructive forces.

Integrity can be painful. It may mean you lose out. Confidentiality has a cost. It means you cannot explain yourself. You resign because something is wrong while others seem quite happy to hold on to their position despite knowing what you know. You may suffer loss because of integrity, but it is worth it. Integrity pays dividends in this life—protecting others and gaining trust—and in eternity. After all, one day we will give account to the God of total integrity.

I realise no leader can claim absolute integrity. That certainly includes me. Praise God for his grace which covers us when we confess our sins. We can hope for restoration where we have failed. That may not be fully possible in this life, but it will certainly be perfected in glory. So, if you realise you have compromised your integrity, repent and seek God’s forgiveness. Then act to bring restitution, where you can, to those your failings harmed and to limit future ramifications. It is not enough only to confess it to God. True repentance, as it did for Zacchaeus (Luke 19), spurs us to make recompense.

As you look ahead to this new year and beyond, maintain your integrity. Have the courage of your convictions. Resist nepotism and all other forms of favouritism. Say no to convenient pacts with people of poor character just because they are “gifted” or can offer something to your cause. And do not let the fear of man motivate you to do what is wrong, or to refrain from doing what is just.

Stand strong in God’s strength and for his glory.

If you want to explore the theme of integrity, especially in leadership, I recommend Jonathan Lamb’s book entitled Integrity: Leading With God Watching (IVP, 2006).


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