The fact that David was elected by God Himself – was insufficient; the consent and support of the people were essential for King David to reign over Israel. David waited for the authority of leadership to come from “the heart of the people” – the ancient concept of sovereignty over the people.
What is the basis of the authority of our leadership according to Judaism? If we are to look for the spirit of Judaism on this subject in the Bible, we may well have a problem: the system of government in Biblical times was monarchy, in other words a totalitarian dictatorship. However, since there is an eternal spiritual foundation in Jewish tradition, we may identify spiritual principles in the unique characteristics of this form of government that are relevant today.
Early Israeli sovereignty during the days of the Judges was described by the expression: “In those days there was no king in Israel, every man did what was right in his own eyes.” At the end of that period, Samuel’s leadership, characterized by his sensitivity to personal liberty and an aversion to government by a single person, was prominent. When the nation asked Samuel to crown a king over them, he warned them – “A king] will take your daughters to be his perfumers, his cooks and his bakers …” Indeed, Samuel’s great sensitivity to personal liberty was conspicuous against the background of recognized regional totalitarian regimes – Egypt, rule by terror or the kings of Canaan.
It is only with the beginning of monarchy in Israel that we can consider its unique character and pinpoint the basis of its authority. In our search for the ideal monarchy in Israel, we focus on the most successful king, as the Bible notes – who was also the prototype of the kings who succeeded him – King David. How did David seize power and establish the basis of the power of royalty?
It is generally understood that the authority of a king over Israel would begin from the moment the Prophet anoints him. But a deeper study reveals that there is no direct relationship between the assumption of authority and the anointing. The prophet Samuel anoints David in the latter’s youth but David did not actually become monarch for many years. Moreover, David never used the argument that he had been anointed king by the Prophet in order to gain the throne but instead undertook a long, complex route to gain the crown. If we were to analyze that route, we would find one important parameter of authority that continually repeats itself: What the Bible calls “the heart of the people.”
David becomes close to King Saul after the defeat of Goliath and wins his favor, but Saul’s feelings towards David are reversed at a very specific moment – when the women of Israel applaud the victorious King Saul and David – but applaud David more. King Saul is well aware that “the heart of the people” is the source of the king’s authority and thus he feels threatened by David from that moment onwards and persecutes him from then. Saul is threatened by David not by his “contacts” or by David’s standing amongst the “high society” and not by any other material power but because “the heart of the people” follows David and it is the “heart of the people” that matters.
This was also the situation after the death of King Saul. David did not immediately rush to replace Saul in reigning over Israel. At first he only ruled over Judah, despite his impressive military prowess and his ability to conquer the remaining territories and impose his authority on the other tribes of Israel. David became king of Israel only after Abner, who had been Saul’s Chief of Staff, had promised David that he would “turn the whole of Israel towards you.” David did not seize the throne by force even though he was strong enough to do so and even though he had been anointed king. He waited for authority to lead the people to come from “the heart of the people.”
The most pronounced, if difficult, example is actually an opposite one. Following the illegal, immoral rebellion of his son, Absalom, King David resigns his throne at once. The reason that David immediately accepts the change of government is given in the Bible. ‘And a messenger came to David saying, “The hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom.’ Later on in the story, when Absalom is pursuing David in order to kill him and it becomes apparent that David has the power to overcome Absalom, he nevertheless resigns his kingdom because he understands that the source of the king’s authority in Israel is the “heart of the people.” Had he lost “the heart of the people” there would be neither meaning nor importance to his leadership.
The nation of Israel, a nation born with the exodus from Egyptian slavery, came into being with a clear ethos of individual and national liberty. It stores the true principles and roots of democracy in its depths. The reign of any sovereign is problematic, since it compromises individual freedom. However, since leadership is a vital and existential need, its power will always stems from “the heart of the people.” This, indeed, is the true meaning of sovereignty over the people.