When I read through 1 Kings and consider the different kings of Judah and Israel, one question comes back to my mind again and again. The question is this: what is the difference between a good king and a bad king?
Traveling through the history of God’s people, we receive a running commentary on their kings. You encounter name after name with lists of accolades and failures, offering us not just a chronology but a theological assessment of these leaders.
The writer of 1 Kings describes each leader in terms of previous kings who either followed or did not follow God’s ways. Some kings are described as walking in the ways of Jeroboam – a negative description – while others are described as walking in the ways of king David – the ultimate affirmation of that leader.
When you look more closely at some of these rulers, however, you find out something interesting. Some of the rulers characterized as evil appear successful by standard political views. Jeroboam the First lives up to the prophetic words that set him in place as ruler of the northern kingdom, including 10 tribes. He strengthens and consolidates the northern kingdom, and develops new approaches to worship that draw people together. Still, he is described as one of the most evil rulers in the history of God’s people.
When you look at David’s life, you realize that he was a failure in many ways: he committed adultery, he killed one of his best mighty warriors, he was a bad parent, he counted the people of Israel out of his own pride, and more. David was not a pillar of moral excellence. And yet, when the writers look back at the kings of Israel, David is the gold standard for excellence in leadership.
So we return to the question: what’s the difference between a good king and a bad king?
The difference as best as I can tell, is the orientation of the king’s heart toward God. Jeroboam, although successful by many standards, failed to direct his heart completely to the Lord God. Instead, he led the people astray through idolatrous worship around golden calves, something that had not been seen since the time of Aaron at the Exodus.
David, on the other hand, whose failures are clearly acknowledged in Scripture, is hailed as the ultimate example of how a good king should rule. Ironically, it is not David’s failure that defines him. Rather, it is the orientation of David’s heart toward God in all things that defines him. Most people will be familiar with David being described as “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22).
So, what is the difference between a good king and a bad king? Primarily, the king’s heart being oriented toward God. The heart is the core of one’s being – the source of all affection and from which all of our activity flows. A good king – or leader – is oriented first and foremost toward God and His ways. A bad king – or leader – allows other things to be first and foremost at the core of their being.