In 2 Samuel 15 we find an incredible picture of deceit, craftiness, and subversion. Absalom is preparing to usurp King David’s throne. King David of Israel had several wives and many children. Absalom was the 3rd son of David. Absalom also had a sister named Tamar. Amnon, the half brother of Absalom, raped Tamar–and Absalom eventually got his revenge and had Amnon murdered. Absalom showed great cunning in this act of murder–but it was just the beginning. For three years Absalom was exiled from his father David for his murderous deed. But upon his return it wasn’t long before he was plotting again–and that brings us to 2 Samuel 15. We don’t know Absalom’s motives at this point. We don’t know if he was angry at his father David for not defending Tamar’s honor. We don’t know if Absalom was an opportunist and saw an opening to take the throne. We do know that this episode took place after David’s adultery with Bathsheba in chapter 11. And we know that as a result, God declared that David’s family would implode. But in this scenario we see what underhanded leadership can look like. Webster provides this definition for “underhanded”: marked by secrecy, chicanery and deception.
Absalom’s strategy consisted of three ploys that we need to pay attention to:
1. He played upon the legitimate needs and emotions of people. In verses 1-3 Absalom takes a small garrison of soldiers and horses so as to look official as he stands at one of the gates to the city. He greets strangers that have arrived to bring legitimate complaints and judicial cases before King David. Absalom inquires as to their home town and the nature of their case. Then he says to these sojourners, “See, your claims are good and right, but there is no man designated by the king to hear you.” Absalom lies and in doing so he acts as if he actually cares. He dashes their hopes long enough to set himself up as the compassionate provider. Don’t miss this–his lying statement also diminishes the current king. That is what underhanded leaders do–they subvert the current leader by diminishing their credibility.
2. He boasted and exaggerated about his own ability to resolve the situation. In verse 4 Absalom reveals the next step in his plan by saying, “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.” Absalom sets himself up as the problem solver–if only he were the one in power. After an underhanded leader diminishes the credibility of the current leader, he moves to supersize his own credibility through lying and exaggeration. Notice that Absalom says that he could solve all of these disputes–if only he were in charge. He diminishes the current authority to try and establish the legitimacy of his own.
3. He showed feigned compassion and equality with the people. He ends these galling greetings by taking these people by the hand and giving them a kiss. He tries to show them compassion. He attempts to put himself on common ground. It is the height of hypocrisy. Absalom doesn’t really care about their plight. He cares about the throne. The last statement of the section is telling, “So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.” Success. Absalom is ready to spring his plan. Soon he will call all of Israel to his side and David will have to flee.
Underhanded leaders play upon people’s emotions when they are needy. In so doing they diminish the credibility of the current leader. Underhanded leaders exaggerate their own ability to solve problems and lead. They seek to establish their own authority as they lie about their superior’s. Underhanded leaders will always mask their true intentions behind hypocritical actions that look like empathy.
Beware of underhanded leaders below you. Even more, beware of becoming an underhanded leader who diminishes, exaggerates, and subverts the authority of others.