Psalm 59: Jealousy & Toxic Leadership

David wrote Psalm 59 when he was only a middle-manager.

He had been hired as King Saul’s go-to-guy for making him feel better when overwhelmed with a “harmful spirit.” [1 Sam. 16:14-23] David was called in to minister to Saul with his great musical talent to calm Saul. Then David showed his trust in the Lord, his courage, and his skill as a warrior by defeating Goliath not long after.

It was meteoric rise to middle-management for David as both Saul’s comforter and Saul’s commander of the army.

But, Saul had his own sin to deal with and it became clear that he did not deal with it well.

Jealousy, rage, anger and all common toxic leadership traits are displayed in the following chapters of 1st Samuel as the transfer of power from man’s choice of leader/king (Saul) and God’s choice of leader/king (David) is played out.

Psalm 59 begins with an explanation of when David wrote the song:

To the choirmaster: according to Do Not Destroy. A Miktam of David, when Saul sent men to watch his house in order to kill him.

Pride and jealousy. It is extraordinary what these sins can do to a leader.

1st Samuel describes in chapter 19 that David went out to war with the Philistines, doing what he was called to do, and “struck them with a great blow.” However, it goes on to say that a “harmful spirit” came on Saul while sitting around. Saul took up a spear when David returned from war and was using his great talent of music-making in Saul’s house to calm him.

Saul tried to kill David with the spear but David escaped.

A man may respond in his wickedness the way Saul did in a normal relationship by trying to bring another man down due to his jealousy. However, the power that the king wielded provides both the ability and seeming motivation for destroying his competition.

Saul, as king, at least believed and actually did have the power to destroy a man in his employ. Just as many leaders in the church or Christian organization think they have the right and power to rid themselves of those they see as competitors.

The Christianity Today podcasts on Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill have made it abundantly clear that Saul is alive and well among ministry leaders today.

Listen Here

The basis of Psalm 59 is David simply doing what he was called to do – go and fight with the Philistines and bring deliverance to Israel from their oppressors to which God had called them. Yet, the very one (Saul) who asks him to do this is overwhelmed with evil desires.

How often does this happen to leaders? It takes great commitment and self-awareness to battle these temptations. 

The temptation comes when a person gains some form of power over another person and allows it to go to his head. The temptation to crush someone of whom you are jealous is always great in this broken world of sin. But when that temptation is combined with the power to actually do some crushing, it often gives birth to further sin and chaos.

Unless we fight the temptation by the power of the Holy Spirit – the only One more powerful than our sinful passions.

But Saul didn’t fight it. Saul tried to kill David with his spear multiple times in his power-drunken state.

1st Samuel 18 then tells us Saul goes after David using subordinates who willingly spy on David’s house. This behavior is typical for abusive leadership of any sort – the gathering of comrades to help with the dirty work. Though we can have some grace for subordinates who are willing to do the bidding of wicked leaders, they are yet responsible before God for their like oppressive behavior.

The writer tells us that Saul’s intentions are to kill David in the morning. Thus, Psalm 59 is written.

Many of us have had this Psalm to write. Being under a leader that fails to curb his appetite for power and then the temptation to wield it against those who perform well in their employ can be dicey.

And deeply traumatizing. The affects of toxic leadership are well documented and experienced by many with whom I have spoken. David, later in the Psalm, describes the words of abusers as “swords in their lips.” [Ps. 59:7] Their words cut and kill. There are real affects to abusive leadership on the psyche and physical health of employees.

It is up to boards and governing authorities to take their oversight responsibly to get rid of toxic leaders. The toxic leader’s gifts and talents will never make up for the hurt and destruction they cause in their jealousy and authoritarian attitudes.

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