How Does God Choose His Leaders?


The Bible contains biographies of several great men and women, many of them powerful leaders—kings, pharaohs, judges, priests, prophets, apostles.

What follows then is simply a matter of history: Within His chosen nation, Israel, and chosen people, the New Testament church, what system did God use to place an individual into a position of authority?

And then—just as important—how did those leaders perform in their offices?

Studying this history provides some instructive contrasts to the system currently employed by superpower America.

Looking on the Heart

The example of David, the renowned king of Israel for 40 years, is well known, and found in i Samuel 16.

Israel was languishing under the despotic rule of Saul, whose reign was coming to an end. God sent the Prophet Samuel to a man named Jesse, explaining simply, “I have provided me a king among his sons” (i Sam. 16:1).

There was no election, no conclave of officials—there wasn’t even, at this time, a known family dynasty being perpetuated. Neither was there any campaigning, stumping or intriguing—no debate, no arguing or legal tussling. God Himself just looked down and single-handedly chose and appointed Saul’s replacement to lead the nation.

Not only that, but notice the method by which God made the choice.

When Samuel arrived and explained his intent, the proud Jesse presented before the prophet his eldest, and apparently most impressive, son. Here is what happened: “But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (v. 7). Discerning the heart of this striking young man, God refused him.

In fact, not only him; God likewise refused each of several sons Jesse presented (vv. 8-10). Other scriptures verify God’s omniscience, and His ability to discern a person’s thoughts (i.e. Job 34:21; Heb. 4:13; i John 3:20). God perceived supernaturally that not one of these fine young men would be fit for the rigors and responsibilities of the kingship. Finally, Jesse had to call from the fields the youngest of his sons, David—whom no one had even thought worthy of consideration by Samuel.

Clearly, God chooses His leaders on an entirely different set of criteria than men do.

Other Biblical Examples

Looking elsewhere in the Bible, we can see this same pattern. Moses was 80 years old, tending sheep in the desert, when an angel of God appeared to him in a burning bush to give him the commission of leading the Israelites out of Egypt (Exod. 3). Elisha was plowing in a field behind 12 oxen when the Prophet Elijah walked up and cast his mantle upon him, indicating that the young man would be his successor (i Kings 19:15-21); notice too from this passage that God told Elijah the men He had chosen as kings of both Syria and Israel, giving Elijah instructions to anoint them.

In the New Testament, the apostles selected other ministers by casting lots, putting the matter into God’s hands: “And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, show whether of these two thou hast chosen, That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship…” (Acts 1:24-25).

Another famous New Testament example: that of the religious zealot Saul, who was struck down by God Himself on his way to Damascus (Acts 9). Saul soon realized he had been persecuting the very people of God; he converted to their religion, and later became the Apostle Paul. Understandably, His initial presence in the church caused much chagrin among the people he had persecuted. But God’s explanation was simple: “Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

One may reason that these were all spiritual leaders—priests, ministers—and perhaps God wouldn’t choose a civil head of government in the same way. But in addition to the examples above of God choosing the kings of Israel and Syria, who administered the civil laws in those nations, there is the example of King Saul, who was specifically chosen to replace the reign of the Prophet Samuel with a secular-type king. Here was an instance where the people rose up to demand a change in government; God heard and allowed them to have the leader they wanted. A victory for democracy? No. Even in this special case, it was again God Himself who did the choosing (i Sam. 9:15-17), to teach the people a vital lesson; and though Israel was pleased at first (i Sam. 10:23-24), in the end Saul’s failure reinforced the lesson that the people’s judgment is hopelessly flawed.

Again, in God’s system of government historically, there are no political campaigns, no elections. It is not a democracy, but a theocracy. Rulership isn’t administered or ordered from the bottom up, but decidedly from the top down.

The only “election campaign” waged by God’s leaders is simply to become as righteous as possible—to develop character through obedience to God’s law. There is no need for them to convince anyone else of their plans, their competencies and capabilities. God places them in office and the people are obliged to follow.

How Did They Do?

But now, a vital question: How did these leaders perform?

The simple answer is, exceedingly well—as long as they followed God!

After his death, though he made serious mistakes in his life, David was praised for having been Israel’s greatest king, a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). Moses, despite having tremendous and binding authority, is described as being the meekest man on Earth (Num. 12:3)—a godly trait most unusual, and beneficial, for someone in a powerful position. Elisha and Paul were among the most effective men God ever used.

The fact is, zealous, morally upright leaders who are humble and submissive to God bring great blessings upon those they shepherd. As a leader follows God, he leads his followers to God. That is how a nation can truly have the peace and prosperity that all people seek. “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn” (Prov. 29:2).

Who better to choose those leaders than the one and only Source of all righteousness?