Servant leadership describes someone who leads from beneath his followers rather than from above them. The quintessential model of a leader who made a wrong choice as to how to lead was King Rehoboam, the son of King Solomon. His story comes from about 900 years before Jesus, but the lessons we can learn from his poor example remain as relevant today as ever.
King David ruled Israel well for forty years. He brought the small nation to world relevance and expanded their territory to a wider place than ever before or after him. He secured peace, power and prosperity for his people. When David, the man of war, died, his son, Solomon took the throne. Solomon, who’s name means “peace and well-being”, reigned in what is called the “Golden Years” of Israel. Even though the wise King made some unwise decisions, he rode confidently through his forty years on the throne with a worldwide reputation of power and prestige.
Maybe it had to do with being a third generation child of an international wealthy success, but Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, did not do so well. When the spoiled twenty year old eldest child took the throne after his father’s demise, he was quite unprepared for what lay ahead of him. Cautiously, he went to his elders and asked their advice on how to lead the nation of Israel.
Their advice to him was this: “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” 1 Kings 12:7 ESV
After receiving that counsel, Solomon went to get the advice of his spoiled aristocratic contemporaries and they countered what their elders had advised. They said, “Thus shall you speak to this people who said to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, but you lighten it for us,’ thus shall you say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s thighs. And now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.'” 1 Kings 12:10c-11 ESV
The advice of his young friends, to rule too down, appealed to King Rehoboam’s ego, and so he decided to forsake his elders’ counsel of being a servant leader. The results of Rehoboam’s choice to lead from the top down are recorded in history as a disaster. The nation that had been in unity for the last eighty years was irreparably split, and Rehoboam went down in history as one of the worst leaders of all time. Let’s hear it again.
“If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.”
Servant leadership flows from a humble heart.
Let’s flip back ninety years to Rehoboam’s grandfather, David, a true servant leader, for a further lesson on the value of leading from beneath our followers rather than from above them. Servant leadership comes from a humble heart. I’ll paste in a portion from my soon to be published book on the leadership style of King David. The story takes place two generations before Rehoboam’s negative experience.
God was looking for a replacement for King Saul, who had repeatedly disappointed him with his self-centered leadership. Thirteen years before Saul finally committed suicide and violently ended his career as king, God set his eyes on Bethlehem. Bethlehem, “The House of Bread”, was yet to be the place where Mary would give birth to our Saviour Jesus, “The Bread of Life”. There was a family whom Jesus had been watching. “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro the whole earth, seeking those whose hearts are truly his.” The father of the family, Jesse, was the grandson of Ruth and Boaz, who’d also lived in Bethlehem.
Jesse and his wife had eight sons. They were a humble and upright family who made their living raising sheep. At God’s direction, when the Prophet and Priest Samuel arrived in Bethlehem, he set up an altar in the middle of town and invited the Elders of the town to come to the sacrifice. Jesse was among those that came, and after the service, Samuel asked him if he could come to his home for dinner.
Surprised, but delighted, Jesse and his wife complied and prepared a feast for their guest.
After dinner, the holy man stated his business. He said that he’d been sent by God to anoint the new king who would replace Saul one day. Then Samuel asked Jesse if he could meet his sons.
Of course Jesse, and Samuel too, expected his eldest, Eliab to be chosen as the new king. Eliab was the son whom would one day receive the family birthright. He would be the patriarch and priest of the family after Jesse died; and besides, he was tall and good looking – and everyone wants a tall and handsome king! Right? Here’s how the story unfolded.
When they entered, he looked at Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:6-7
Then Jesse introduced Abinadab … no, it wasn’t him. And then Shammah … not him either.
Finally after all seven of Jesse’s sons were rejected, little seventeen year old David was brought in from watching the sheep, and chosen by Samuel. The life lesson was that God looks at the heart, when he’s considering future leadership. There are all kinds of attributes that are necessary for a man or woman to rule a kingdom, but the first one is that his heart must be soft before God. When we choose a leader, the first thing we should do is pray and ask God, “Is this the right person?” because only God knows a person’s heart.
Evidence of a humble heart comes as we watch leaders in their approach to the people they lead. Do they direct them from above or beneath? Do they direct from a place of servitude as David did, which says, “I want the best for you”; or a place of dominance, as Saul and Rehoboam did, that indicates a selfish heart, and says, “I want the best for me”. A humble heart promotes servant leadership, which in turn will develop faithful and fruitful followers.