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Does Absolute Power Corrupt Absolutely?

by Cate Russell-Cole  
10/07/2015 / Politics

Sir John Acton is often quoted as saying, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." When people refer to this quote, they frequently take on the first part of that quote and forget the second, "almost always." Whether it be King, President, Prime Minister or Chancellor, the title of any leader conjures within us, mixed feelings about the necessary leadership and the risk of a potential abuse of power. We have learnt not to trust these people: the hard way.

So is there any leader out there who can withstand the pull of power?

In looking at King David's life, I have expressed the belief that no human psyche is built to withstand absolute power. Our sinful natures simply won't allow it. In not being responsible to anyone (other than God, should the leader choose to acknowledge Him), coupled with wealth and an obedient populace, there is too much temptation to run off the rails and drown in egocentricity. The end result is always that the people suffer and the cause is lost.

I do still believe that for a majority of cases. However, if a leader is dominated by integrity, ethics and spirituality, they result can indeed be excellent and there are three people in the Bible who demonstrate that. (Four if you count Jesus, but as He is part of the Godhead, I have left Him out.)

1. King David (Daviyd Melek)
King David was not an absolutely perfect leader. He broke the law with BathSheba and he sinned by holding an improper Census. However, he was a righteous man despite that, and his spirituality helped build the nation of Isra'el. He toiled to bring a spiritually wandering nation back on track, by focussing on God and overthrowing the enemies of Isra'el which had remained since Joshua's time.

"... you were not to make any covenants with the people living in this land; instead you were to destroy their altars. But you disobeyed My Command... So now I declare that I will no longer drive out the people living in your land. They will be thorns in your sides, and their gods will be a constant temptation to you." [Judges 2:2-3]

When David came into power, there were seven areas in Isra'el where the tribes had failed to remove the original Cananite residents, as commanded. That left the people wide open to attack and as the above Scripture says, temptation to turn away from the Lord and serve foreign gods. [Ref. Judges 1:19-36 and Joshua 24] The Judges were raised up to protect the people, but despite the covenant promise the nation had made, Isra'el still wouldn't give up their idols. Something had to be done.

So when Saul lost power, the Lord took advantage of the people's demand to have a king, and installed one after His own Heart who would clear out the Cananites, keep the people safe from other bordering enemy nations such as Philistia and most importantly, would place the focus of worship back on God, the Lord of Heaven's Armies. [Ref: Acts 13:22-24] David's work in that area is why we have so many Psalms. They were shared publicly to build the nation's faith, not as an expression of his creative passion.

Until Isra'el had been set free of the enemies within and beyond her borders, the people weren't able to thrive emotionally, spiritually or economically. David's obedience to God's call on his life, resolved that problem and gave the people a new freedom to enjoy a fuller, richer life.

The very reason why David was successful was because he was acting with God's goals for His people in mind. David wasn't there to make his own dreams come true, he was invested in the Lord's. Plus he did it with so much dedication to the Lord, that the judgement of his son, Solomon, was held at bay for a time "for the sake of My servant David." [1 Kings 11:34] David often appears in books written after his time as the servant of the Lord. This is what makes the difference. The heart of a servant. He didn't ask or strive for wealth, popularity or the blessings of the Davidic Covenant, the Lord gave him those things as a reward for service.

"And David realised that the Lord had confirmed him as king over Isra'el and had blessed his kingdom for the sake of His people Isra'el." [2 Samuel 5:12]

In sociology there are two types of power:
1. Socialised power, where absolute power is used for the benefit of others without reward seeking, guided by strong moral underpinnings; and
2. Personalised power, where reward is sought and expected, and the leader's goals, ego and desires are the central focus.

David experienced both types of power. He was rewarded with wealth and wives and the wives became a problem; but he never lost focus on WHO had put him on the throne and WHY. He knew the history of Isra'el and the laws set down through Moses. "For David had done what was pleasing in the Lord's sight and had obeyed the Lord's commands throughout his life, except in the affair concerning Uriah the Hittite." [1 Kings 15:5]

So if he was that righteous, how did he get into trouble with BathSheba? When people are in leadership, there is a dynamic termed "exception making." The thought processes behind it run something along the lines of, "I do so much for the good of the people and I work so hard. Surely I can bend the rules a little, just this once? It won't hurt anyone." If the rules are continually bent and twisted, it leads to an intoxication with power that moves the holder from socialised power to personalised power.

Thankfully, the Lord send the prophet Nathan to correct David over Uriah's murder, when David hadn't responded to his conscience. David wasn't too self-immersed to listen and he returned to the correct position of socialised power. That saved him from that absolute corruption which is seen in many of his sons and descendants.

2. Moses, the Man of God [Ref. Exodus through to Deuteronomy]
Moses is the perfect example of a leader who was never corrupted by power. Maimonides calls him "the most perfect human being." He wasn't a king, but functioned in pretty much the same role for Isra'el. While leading the fledgling nation of Isra'el out of Egypt and through the wilderness he:
- set laws,
- settled disputes,
- had a great say in financial /asset control,
- was a shepherd over the nation and God's voice to the people and
- when Isra'el rebelled, God offered him and his sons the covenant He'd made with Abraham, instead of giving it to Jacob's seed. (Moses refused.)

Moses did not corrupt or usurp God's authority as he was humble and an obedient servant, like David. He would never have made the mistake of attempting to become a king. His heart was clearly for God and the people, not his own status and gain. Moses had God's vision for Isra'el and like David, Moses succeeded in everything he did and had the favour of the people, except for when their hearts were set on rebellion.

3. King Josiah (Yoshiyyah or Yoshiyyahu Melek)
Josiah, King of Judah and David's great, great (etc.) grandson is the last outstanding example of excellent leadership. These verses explain his success.

"During the eighth year of his reign, while he was still young, Josiah began to seek the God of his ancestor David." [2 Chronicles 34:3]

"He did what was pleasing in the LORD's sight and followed the example of his ancestor David. He did not turn away from doing what was right." [2 Kings 22:2]

"So Josiah removed all detestable idols from the entire land of Israel and required everyone to worship the LORD their God. And throughout the rest of his lifetime, they did not turn away from the LORD, the God of their ancestors." [2 Chronicles 34:33]


"Never before had there been a king like Josiah, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and soul and strength, obeying all the laws of Moses. And there has never been a king like him since." [2 Kings 23:25]

Josiah's full story covers chapters 22 and 23 and 2 Chronicles 34 and 35. Please read it to learn the extent of what he did for the nation. He is an impressive figure who would have made his grandfather very proud and had many of David's attributes.

As I started with a quotation, I'd like to finish with one which I have always felt, fits David. This is from the poem, After the Storm, by Boris Pasternak, the Jewish author of Doctor Zhivago (1890-1960).
It is not revolutions and upheavals
That clear the road to new and better days,
But revelations, lavishness and torments
Of someone's soul, inspired and ablaze.

For more information on the topic of kings, please see Did God Want a King for Israel? here on my Faithwriters page:

For more information on King David, please have a meander through the King David Project Facebook page, our web site and our blog, Masada Rain. The blog houses many useful resources on studying, David plus bits and pieces of information which dont neatly fit into article form. Please ignore dates and use the search feature to find what you want. The web site has resources on Davids family tree, life and the Psalms. All content is creative commons and non-profit. Sharing of the projects work would be deeply appreciated.

Facebook page:
Masada Rain Blog:
The project web site:

This article by Cate Russell-Cole is under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Written in Australian English.

Article Source: WRITERS

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