When a good leader fails, the consequences can be devastating. Because of their position of power and influence, the failures of any leader can do great harm. But this is especially true of otherwise good leaders. Because of the trust people have in them, their failures send out a ripple effect of harm to all who follow and look up to them.
We see this effect in failed political leaders, CEOs of businesses, celebrities, and even pastors. So many people who once looked up to these leaders are left shattered, and those closest to the leaders are left to pick up the pieces. But one of the saddest and most damaging ways a leader can fail is when they fail in the raising of their own children.
The children of celebrities have a reputation for destructive behavior, often bringing embarrassment and even career consequences upon their notable parents. If you’ve ever worked in youth or children’s ministries in a church, pastor’s kids (or PKs) are often the ones who are most often getting in trouble. And very often, otherwise very excellent and discerning Christian leaders, are entirely blind to the folly of their own kin. This is one of the reasons why a qualification for elder is that, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:4–5)
The temptation to turn a blind eye to the sins of our children is common not only to leaders but to any parent. I wonder how many schoolteachers have been regaled by stories from parents about how their precious little Billy could not possibly have pulled Jenny’s ponytail, he is a perfect little angel, after all! Parental love is a beautiful thing, but like all beautiful things when it is elevated out of its proper place, it can become a horrible idol.
In 2 Samuel, we see how David, though an otherwise just king, failed in acting with justice when it was his own children who needed to be punished. And there are principles here for all parents and any affected by the destructive consequences of a leader winking at their child’s sin.
Parental love turned idolatrous is precisely what we find happening in the life of King David in 2 Samuel. Here we see the same David who slew Goliath, who was anointed by God as king of Israel, yet spent his youth on the run from king Saul, has now, after Saul’s death, finally taken his place as king of Israel. And despite skirmishes with loyalists of one of Saul’s surviving sons, David’s reign is off to a great start. David is surrounded by faithful friends, and the people are pleased to have him as their king (2 Sam 5:1–5).
Now, David already had several wives when he began his reign, but after he became king he took even more (2 Sam 5:13). It was David’s accumulation of wives, in express violation of Deuteronomy 17:17, that contributed to much familial strife and a great deal of pain to the people of Israel. But the issue wasn’t with the wives themselves, or even that these wives drew David away to idolatry like Solomon, it was the secondary effects of polygamy that stirred up strife in the house of David. You see, these many wives produced many children for David—sisters, brothers, half-sisters, and half-brothers—and this is where the problems began.
The Violation of Tamar
In 2 Samuel 13:1-22, we encounter three of David’s children, Absalom and Tamar who were full siblings (they had the same mother) and Amnon who was their half-brother. Amnon is seized by a perverse desire for his half-sister Tamar and pretends to be sick so she will take care of him. But when she comes to tend to his illness, he violates her. When this horrible thing happened to David’s own daughter, by one of his own sons, you would expect the king of Israel to respond with a demand for justice. And that’s what Absalom expected too—this was his full-sister after all. But instead, all he got from David was actionless anger (2 Sam 13:21-22). Amnon was left unpunished. This is where we begin to see Absalom’s root of bitterness first begin to bud.
The Murder of Amnon
As the story continues in 2 Samuel 13:23-38, Absalom takes Tamar in to live with him. There she lived with her brother “as a desolate woman” (2 Sam 13:20), a daily testimony to Absalom of the horror of his half-brother’s sin. And for two full years, Absalom watched as David refused to punish Amnon for his crime. So, finally, when the chance arose, he killed his half-brother Amnon. Again, David hears of the matter, and again he is upset. But again, he does nothing about it. He doesn’t punish Absalom for the murder.
Nevertheless, in anticipation of consequences for his sin Absalom flees Jerusalem. He stayed in Geshur for 3 years before returning to Jerusalem. Once he returned, David ignored his son for another 2 years before forgiving him for the murder (2 Sam 14:33). David’s failure to be just, even against Absalom himself, drives the roots of Absalom’s bitterness deeper into his soul. David, Absalom concludes, is unfit to be king.
Absalom Plots for the Throne
David and Absalom are now reconciled, or so it seems. Now, you would think this would have put an end to the matter. Absalom should be grateful for David’s mercy, and glad that he was pardoned from his crime of murder instead of being executed. But in his mind, it was too little too late. Absalom was embittered and to him, this was just one more example of David failing to carry out justice. Thus, Absalom began his plot to overthrow King David. Israel needed a king who did not overlook wickedness, and Absalom decided he would be that king.
First, Absalom needed to win over the people of Israel. He did this by camping out on the path to the city gate with an official-looking entourage and talking to people who came in. In those days people used to bring their cases before the king for arbitration. So, they had to come through the gate on their way in to seek audience with the king. Now, whenever someone would come to see David, they had to go past Absalom and his crew. He would catch them on the way in and have them tell their dispute to him first. Then Absalom would say, “Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice.” (2 Sam 15:4).
It doesn’t take long before the people, who have seen the pattern of David’s injustice in dealing with his children, and no doubt other issues as well, begin to want Absalom as their king instead. So, when Absalom pulls the trigger on his coup de tat, the majority of Israel sides with him. Here, we see the continued consequences of David’s polygamy and his sin with Bathsheba, after which the Lord promised that “the sword would not depart from the house of David” (2 Sam 12:10).
Warned of the impending attack, David’s few loyal followers just narrowly escape the city with him. A massive battle ensues in the Forest of Ephraim in which 20,000 Israelites die in a bloody and chaotic civil war. “The battle spread over the face of all the country, and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword” (2 Sam 18:8). Amidst the confusion in the dense forest, Absalom, separated from his soldiers, happens to run into some of David’s forces.
In verse 9, Absalom’s rebellious coup is foiled not by David or his men (in fact David explicitly instructed his men not to kill Absalom!). It was the sovereign hand of God which stopped Absalom that day in the forest of Ephraim. 20,000 men lay dead and bloodied throughout the countryside and forest, and Absalom, alone on his mule, providentially encounters some of David’s men. Turning to flee it says, “and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak, and his head was caught fast in the oak, and he was suspended between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on” (2 Sam 18:9). Shortly after he is killed.
This ending is poetic because Absalom’s rebellion was an act of pride. The Lord who humbles the proud orchestrated that Absalom would be shackled humiliatingly to a tree branch by the locks of his hubristic head. What’s more, the mule in those days was the steed of royalty, and it says he got stuck “while the mule that was under him went on.” So, symbolically, Absalom is unseated from the throne he attempted to usurp, not by David or his men, but by the wooden bough of providence. This is poetic justice indeed because Absalom’s sin was not only against David but against the Lord. David was Yahweh’s chosen king. It was not Absalom’s place to seize that throne for himself, and God meant to show him that.
Love & Leadership in Discipline
Absalom faced the consequences of his own sin, certainly. But David, though in the background, is the main character of this story. David is experiencing the fruits of his sin and his failures as a parent to punish the wickedness of his children. His sweeping under the rug of their iniquities, though keeping the peace for a little while, has bloomed into a problem of nuclear proportions.
The greatest consequence for David’s failure fell on the rebellious children. Both Absalom and Amnon have destroyed their own lives in their wickedness. But how can we pin any blame for a rebellious child on the parent? The New Testament talks about childrearing in terms of provoking one’s children. Colossians 3:21 reads, "Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged" (cf. Ephesians 6:4).
There are a lot of ways to provoke our children. We can provoke them by being abusive, overly strict, withholding love, or setting unreasonable expectations. But we can also provoke our children through what we don’t do—absentee parenting, inconsistent rules and punishment, or by allowing them to get away with anything. Standards are communicated less by the rules we make, and more by what we tolerate. This was David’s failure. He was blind to the wickedness of his own kids and therefore was an unjust leader. This not only turned Absalom against him but almost all of Israel.
But David's negligent parenting also led to all of Israel suffering. 20,000 Israelites died in the battle! And those closest to David were left to help pick up the pieces. When leaders fail to discipline their children, everyone suffers the consequences.
You leaders who are parents, be careful to raise your children in the discipline and admonition of the Lord. Do not sweep their transgressions under the rug. That is not an act of love, it is only delaying and increasing their retribution. It may be a painful thing to hold a child to account for a serious sin. It may bring you great pain and embarrassment. But it is necessary. It is part of being a parent. Because unaddressed sin, like an undressed wound, festers.
If you do not have children, you are not exempt from this problem. We have a responsibility in the church to confront one another over blind-spots we see in each other’s lives. If you are too scared to approach a friend about the fact that you see him or her allowing their kids to run amuck because you don’t want to be judged as “one of those nosy people,” don’t lie to yourself that that is an expression of love for that person. That is love for yourself. And we must be especially vigilant in coming alongside leaders for whom the temptation to avoid punishing their children for fear of shame is even greater, and for whom the consequences of such an avoidance are magnified. And let us thank God that we do not have to put our trust in merely human leaders (Psalm 146:3). We have a King who never fails, and a Father who always disciplines every son He loves (Hebrews 12:6). He will never let us down.