Leadership in the Old Testament

October 1, 2012, 0 Comments

The establishment of the class of priests within the Israelite people is documented throughout the Mosaic Law. The priests fulfilled specialized functions that were reserved only for them. One dictionary explains the essential idea of the priesthood in the following manner. “Moses furnishes us with the key to the idea of Old Testament priesthood, in Numbers 16:5, which consists of three elements—the being chosen or set apart for Jehovah as his own, the being holy, and the being allowed to come or bring near. The first expresses the fundamental condition, the second the qualification, the third the function of the priesthood.”[1] The men who were a part of the priesthood were to live in such a way as to represent God’s holiness and to communicate his Law to the people. Conversely, their service in the Temple was to help in the worship and offering of sacrifices by the people to God. From the peculiar dress to the required standard of holiness, these Old Testament leaders were required by God to perform their duties for the sake of his kingdom.

One scene from the history of the priesthood, found in 1 Samuel 2, is helpful for understanding God’s standards for leadership among the priesthood. At this time, Eli was serving as the high priest. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, were reported to be “wicked men” (verse 12), and abused the sacrificial system for their own personal gain. “They treated the LORD’s offering with contempt” (v. 17) by requiring the one making the offering to give the priests a portion of the offering that was reserved for God.

An anonymous “man of God” delivers a prophecy to Eli that the family will suffer because of the sins of his sons. Members of Eli’s family will not reach elderly ages, they will witness distress in the place of worship, bring grief to the place of worship, and die by violent means. The man of God informs Eli that the sign that all of these things will come true is that Hophni and Phineas will both die on the same day (2:27–34).

Since Eli’s house will be cut off from the work of the priesthood, the prophecy included the message that God would provide a replacement. In 2:35, the man of God says on behalf of the Lord, “Then I will raise up a faithful priest for Myself. He will do whatever is in My heart and mind. I will establish a lasting dynasty for him and he will walk before My anointed one for all time.”

In this episode, and specifically 2:35, several insights are given about leadership for God’s people. The first observation is that God establishes leadership when he states, “Then I will raise up. . . .” Only God has the authority truly to establish someone as a leader. Even though those who were fulfilling the role of priest were failing in their duties and fidelity to God, this leadership role would not fall because of their inabilities. Rather, because God desires to have leaders among his people, he would establish a new person to fill the role. No one should assume leadership unless God appoints them.

Another principle centers on the loyalty of the leader. The reason Hophni and Phineas are disqualified from leadership is that they placed their own needs (hunger for food) above the worship of God. To this, God would replace Eli’s house with a “faithful priest for Myself.” The leader God appoints must show loyalty first to God and then fulfill his work among humanity. God does not allow for human selfishness to be tolerated among his leaders. As briefly touched upon earlier, even the reluctant prophet Jonah was pressed into adverse circumstances so that he would fulfill God’s wishes rather than his own. In the case of Eli’s family, they were totally disqualified from leadership, so God could place a faithful person in the role.

Worthy of note is how the new leaders’ service is described in 2:35 as doing whatever is in the heart and mind of God. The work of the leader is not according to their personal whims, but is in line with both the passion and plan of God. The leaders God will call and utilize are ones he makes “privy to the very thoughts of God and obedient to him.”[2] The leaders called by God are solely beholden to God’s message and purposes for his people. The king who would one day lead the Israelites was to carry a physical copy of the Law with him while seated on the royal throne. With Moses, he was to speak only what God had revealed. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets were to fulfill their roles by speaking as God’s oracles to both the Hebrews and the surrounding nations on behalf of God. Leadership, as revealed in the Old Testament examples, was to center not on the human called into the role, but rather on the God who performed the calling.


[1] Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1957), 882.

[2] Ronald F. Youngblood, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, vol. 3 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), 588.

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