David and Absalom: Authority

Perhaps the greatest difference between the leadership of David and Absalom was in their view of authority. They responded very differently to those in authority over them, and this led to profound differences in their leadership. Their lives illustrate the different ways servant leaders and subversive* leaders see and respond to authority. How did David and Absalom respond to authority?

David recognized authority; Absalom refused authority. How did these two leaders see authority?

During the years that David was fleeing in the desert from King Saul, he consistently referred to the king as “God’s anointed.” David recognized that authority is established by God and that Saul was the legitimate king, even when he was not a good leader. David saw authority as legitimate.

In contrast, Absalom told people coming to see David, “There is no representative of the king to hear you” (2 Samuel 15:3-4). He talked as though there was no legitimate ruler in the land. And he spoke these words within walking distance of King David’s palace! Absalom refused to recognize David’s authority as legitimate.

All leaders exercise authority and all leaders are also under authority. Many leaders expect others to recognize their authority but do not respect the authority of those over them. Servant leaders recognize authority; subversive leaders refuse authority.

David submitted to authority; Absalom subverted authority. How did these two leaders respond to authority?

Because David recognized authority came from God, he was able to submit to the authority of Saul even when the king was trying to kill him! Although he knew he was called by God to lead, he steadfastly refused to take matters into his own hands.

One time his men urged him to kill Saul. The men said, “This is the day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.’” Then David crept up unnoticed and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.” With these words David sharply rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul. And Saul left the cave and went his way (1 Samuel 24:4-7).

Absalom responded very differently. Not only did he refuse to submit to the authority of King David, he actively rebelled against the king. David submitted even to a bad leader; Absalom refused to submit to a good leader.

Many leaders think that if the person over them would be a good leader, they would have no trouble submitting. But servant leaders learn from David and Absalom that the attitude of a leader towards authority is not determined by the one in authority. Every leader chooses how much they will respect and honor the leaders above them. Servant leaders submit to authority; subversive leaders undermine authority.

David inspired loyalty; Absalom incited rebellion. How did these two leaders influence those under them to see and respond to authority?

David’s view of authority inspired loyalty from those who followed him. They did not attack King Saul. Later, they were willing to risk their lives for David and stayed with him even when it was not clear if he would remain in authority.

Absalom’s refusal to recognize and submit to authority seemed to work at the beginning. He was able to quickly gather people around him who were eager to see him become the king. But Absalom’s followers scattered quickly and left him to die alone when the rebellion failed. “They took Absalom, threw him into a big pit in the forest and piled up a large heap of rocks over him. Meanwhile, all the Israelites fled to their homes” (2 Samuel 18:17).

Leading a rebellion is a quick path to leadership since many people have rebellion in their hearts and are attracted to a leader who rebels. As with Absalom, the momentum builds and soon a new leader is recognized. But those who gain influence through rebellion soon find themselves leading rebels! Disrespect only breeds disrespect.


Leaders are influencers and their view of authority will be passed on to others. When servant leaders see rebellion in their followers, they first look closely in the mirror. Servant leaders inspire loyalty to authority; subversive leaders incite rebellion.

Until next time, yours on the journey,

Jon Byler


*Subversive means to seek to undermine or destroy an established system. A leader who is subversive intends to overthrow the established authority to take power for themselves.


For further reflection and discussion:

  • Who are the persons in authority over me in my family, community, church, vocation, and nation? Do I recognize them as legitimate leaders or do I refuse to acknowledge them as my leaders? How is this respect, or lack of it, expressed in my words or actions? Is my attitude towards them more like David or Absalom?
  • Is there any way in which I gained my position or influence by rejecting authority? In what way has this impacted the way I lead?
  • What view of authority do I see in those who follow me? What does this reflect about my own view of authority?
  • What steps is God inviting me to take in response to this reflection on the way David and Absalom viewed authority? When will I take these steps and who should I allow to hold me accountable?

Copyright, Global Disciples, 2018.

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