Leadership in the Old Testament

Moses Forbids the People to Follow Him

I recently completed a study looking for biblical themes of leadership in the Old Testament. I found several but zeroed in on three. The lessons are not just for members of ministry but are for Christians in any leadership position whether it is business or a father leading his family.


The Old Testament (OT) contains numerous examples of godly leaders. Names such as Moses, King David, and King Solomon are a few that may come to mind. What example did these men set and do they still apply to leaders today? This article examines three themes of godly leadership found in the OT and why they are important to Christian leaders in the 21st century. No matter one’s profession or vocation godly leadership can and should be applied as God is the ultimate leader. He is sovereign over His creation and this gives Him the right of leadership over everything. Amazingly, God choses to involve humans in His design for leadership, as “mankind is used to lead God’s people.”[1] His redemptive work involves and requires human leadership.[2] Furthermore, God commanded mankind with “ruling over” and “subduing” the created order (Gen. 1:26-28, NIV).[3] In the New International Version, the word “lead” is used 110 times over 124 verses.[4] This provides a starting point in seeking biblical leadership principles within Scripture. However, one may also look to leadership roles within the OT to glean leadership insight. Leadership offices such as prophet, priest, king, and wise man provide both positive and negative examples for the contemporary leader.[5] A survey of the OT identifies several themes that should be examined and heeded today, such as, leaders point to God, avoid worldly temptation, and seek the Lord to gain wisdom.


Leaders Point to God

The OT provides a record of mankind’s rebellion against God. From the fall, to Babel, Sodom, Gomorrah, through the warnings of Zephaniah the rebellion is clear. As such, individuals who lead people from God will also be led astray. Leaders must point to God. The impact of sinful failed leadership on the individual and nation is a leading concern in the OT.[6] God can and has judged rebellious nations by nullifying their plans and leading them astray often resulting in disaster. The Lord rebukes leaders of His people for their failures to lead righteously.[7] Such as Moses, who was not allowed to enter the Promised Land after leading God’s people from bondage in Egypt (Deut. 32:51). Believers must seek and ask God to lead them in His ways (Ps. 27:11). Prophets such as Isaiah also echo God’s rebuke to the leaders of Israel for leading His people “astray” and not pointing to the Lord (Isa. 3:12).[8]

21st century leaders need to keep in mind that their position as a leader was ultimately chosen by God. There may be room for personal interest or the interests of a group, but ultimately the choice to lead must be built in God’s will.[9] The Lord must be at the center of their motivations, as Israel’s history attests, when kings in the OT departed from God, which they frequent did, their rule fell into disaster.[10] Not only do godly leaders point to God, but they avoid worldly temptation.

Avoid Worldly Temptation

Along with the need for leaders to point to God, the OT provides an underlying theme that leaders need to avoid worldly temptation. This is clear in David’s lust for Bathsheba, resulting in Uriah’s murder (2 Sam. 11:3-12:24). It is also evident in the excesses of David’s son King Solomon who was recorded as having 700 wives and 300 concubines that led his heart from God to the gods of his wives, Ashtoreth and Molek (1 Kings 11:1-6). In both of these example, Israel’s Kings failed to keep God’s people faithful to Him and were “obsessed with political power” and “pleasure” like the rulers of the nation’s surrounding Israel (Deut. 17:14-20).[11] The leader’s wrongdoing not only encompassed their personal sins, but also manifested in the wicked acts of many under their rule.[12]

Yet, a positive example of leadership can be seen in Joseph’s life and his unchanging moral strength. Joseph’s moral strength can be seen in his rejection of Potiphar’s wife and her attempted enticement of illicit sex (Gen. 39). Two important lessons can be learned from Joseph’s example. First, he has a solid understanding of the nature of evil and how evil constitutes a sin against God directly (Gen. 39:9). Secondly, Joseph maintained his convictions over time. Potiphar’s wife attempted to seduce him on multiple occasions, yet Joseph remained firm in his resistance even after being imprisoned.[13]

Leaders in the OT were tempted by worldly pleasures and leaders today are no less vulnerable. Estes notes in his essay “Proverbial Lessons,” that in the modern world, “the combination of position, power, prosperity, and pleasure has often destroyed leaders.”[14] Joseph’s moral strength and David and Solomon’s weakness remain lessons for students of leadership today.

Wisdom is God’s Gift

The source of wisdom resides with God, and He distributes it to those who “fear” Him (Job 12:13; Prov. 2:6).[15] God gave Solomon wisdom because he asked “not for long life” or “wealth,” nor “the death of [his] enemies,” but for “discernment in administering justice” (1 Kings 3:10-12). Christian leaders may seek wisdom in several areas, but they should not rely solely on the resource’s secular leaders “bank on.”[16] As godly leadership requires more than human perceptions. It must be firmly planted in wisdom from God, “it must be informed by a clear sense of knowing God’s will in and for a certain situation.”[17] The beginning of wisdom is “fear of the Lord” (Prov. 9:10). The 21st century leader seeking to follow God will gain wisdom through the careful study of Scripture under the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.[18]

Proverbs also holds several warnings for those who do not seek God’s wisdom. For example, “a rod is for the back of one who has no sense,” “[a] fool finds pleasure in wicked schemes,” and “[w]hen pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (Prov. 10:13; 10:23; 11:2). Godly leaders will seek wisdom from its source—God—who provides it to those who seek Him and ask. There is no substitute for godly wisdom, which leaders will rely on in making decisions impacting human relationships in a morale, just, and righteous manner.


The king, the prophet, the priest, the wise man, the elder, husbands and fathers are all held accountable for how they exercise their leadership under God’s watchful eye.[19] God continues to use people to lead today, and they remain under His watchful eye. The Lord has given them authority and He expects leaders to use this authority in a righteous manner.[20] Godly leaders will use their position to point people under their charge to God. OT figures such as Kings David and Solomon provide positive examples of godly leadership, but also warnings in their failures to manage the success God granted them. Leaders must be careful to avoid worldly temptation that often arrives with this success. As Waltke observes, obsession with women and worldly desire “corrupts the king’s sovereign power, including wasting his money. Gratification of lust distracts his attention from serving the people, blunts his wit, undermines his good judgment, exposes him to palace intrigues, and squanders the national wealth better spent to promote the national good.”[21] Just as Joseph showed in the OT, leaders today must maintain their convictions over time and avoid the worldly temptation that often accompanies success. Finally, godly leaders will seek the Lord for wisdom, as leadership requires more than human perceptions. The wise man keeps instruction but the foolish are “lead astray” (Prov. 10:17). God is willing to give wisdom to those who seek Him and ask. No matter one’s profession or vocation, godly leadership should be the standard to which they aspire.


[*] Featured Image. James Tissot, Moses Forbids the People to Follow Him, n.d., public domain, Logos Media Archive.

[1] David Pettus, “A Concept Study: Leadership in Old Testament Hebrew,” in Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader, ed. Benjamin Forrest and Chet Roden (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017), 29-30.

[2] Ellis Brotzman, “Godless vs. Godly: Leadership in the Pentateuch,” in Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader, ed. Benjamin Forrest and Chet Roden (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017), 41.

[3] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[4] Pettus, “A Concept Study,” 30.

[5] Ibid., 33.

[6] Ibid., 37.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Ibid., 37.

[9] Brotzman, “Godless vs. Godly,” 43.

[10] Daniel Estes, “Proverbial Lessons: Leadership in the Proverbs,” in Biblical Leadership: Theology for the Everyday Leader, ed. Benjamin Forrest and Chet Roden (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2017), 169.

[11] Pettus, “A Concept Study,” 34.

[12] Estes, “Proverbial Lessons,” 169.

[13] Brotzman, “Godless vs. Godly,” 44.

[14] Estes, “Proverbial Lessons,” 169.

[15] Pettus, “A Concept Study,” 35.

[16] Brotzman, “Godless vs. Godly,” 51.

[17] Ibid., 44.

[18] Estes, “Proverbial Lessons,” 165.

[19] Pettus, “A Concept Study,” 39.

[20] Brotzman, “Godless vs. Godly,” 43.

[21] Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 507, quoted in Forrest and Roden, Biblical Leadership, 169.

Published by Tyler Tennies

Finding Life in the Word is my place to share thoughts on life. I write every day and my page is a good outlet to write about topics I’m interested in.

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