Pros: Short chapters worthy of discussion on their own or together. Cutting questions.
Cons: If you read the story honestly, it will hurt.
"The Sauls of this world can never see a David; they see only Absalom. The Absaloms of this world can never see a David; they see only Sauls." - Gene Edwards, A Tale of Three Kings.
INTRODUCTION: I initially bought A Tale of Three Kings for a study series; however, it has become one of my favorites both to read and to recommend. It is a book which may be read in an afternoon or savored over an extended period of time. Likewise, it is one you and your friends might discuss as a whole, or chapter-by-chapter. The story revolves about the two first kings of Israel, Saul and David, and the man who desired to make himself the third, Absalom. In the process of telling their stories, the author desires that we absorb lessons of pride, humility, and brokenness, among other things. The book is aimed at Christians, particularly to those who find themselves in conflicts in their churches. However, many of the lessons apply to secular leader-follower relationships as well.
STRUCTURE and STYLE: Gene Edwards sets his book as a classic 2-part play, even using darkened pages at the beginning of each part to make the divisions easy to find when opening the book. A short introduction in the first person speaking to the second Edwards invites us to make our way into the playhouse to watch the story unfold.
Each chapter is very short - two or three pages at most, in large type. Dramatizations of Biblical accounts written in an omniscient third person in one chapter are followed by first person conversations with the reader about what that event might say to us.
The style is inviting. The author uses these short, easy-to-read, chapters to address the feast of biblical leadership and followership issues in manageable bites. Open ended questions to the reader within the text are convicting and thought-provoking to the individual, and serve as conversation starters for groups. This is my favorite aspect of the book, as it lends itself to directed conversation without the tediousness of numbered questions at the end of each chapter. This brings the discussion to life rather than confining it to a box.
The accounts are based upon a scholarly analysis of the Old Testament (predominantly in 1st/2nd Samuel and Psalms, of course) with quotes coming from the King James Version. However, the majority of the account is extrabiblical to some extent. For instance, he fabricates a conversation where Joab demands of David why he didn't kill Saul when he had the chance (when they found him asleep - 1 Samuel 26). The conversation between Joab and David does not exist in the Bible, but one must assume that those following David while being pursued relentlessly by the murderous Saul must have asked this question, at least in their hearts.
Prologue: Another extrabiblical conversation occurs between God and the Archangel Gabriel. God instructs Gabriel to bestow two "portions of My being" upon two unborn destinies. We learn later that these are Saul and David.
The first receives the gift of the "very cloth of God," which wraps the person in God's Spirit, and with it gives power from Him, an "immersion in the Spirit." To the recipient, Gabriel warns that "Outer power will always reveal the inner resources or lack therof." A quote to remember.
The other is not a gift but an inheritance, planted deep within the recipient's being, what Gabriel calls "the only element in the universe that can change the human heart." He warns its recipient, "Yet even this element of God cannot accomplish its task nor grow and fill your entire being unless it is compounded well. It must be mixed lavishly with pain, sorrow, and crushing."
ACT I: This section deals with these two recipients, Saul and David. A brief vignette of David's childhood is followed by David sitting in the royal court, singing to soothe a mad king. Edwards says that we know Saul is mad because he is the Lord's annointed king, yet he throws spears at those trying to help him. Perhaps we can see leaders like this in our churches and lives. And perhaps we find ourselves in David's place. The harder question then is what to do with a mad king, and what to do when the mad king throws a spear at you. Edwards shows the struggle that must have been in David, an accomplished warrior himself. Earthly wisdom tells him to throw the spear back. Please forgive me for the lengthy quote, but what follows is one of the most convicting parts of the book for me.
"...in performing this small feat of returning thrown spears, you will prove many things: You are courageous. You stand for the right. You boldly stand against the wrong. You are tough and can't be pushed around. You will not stand for injustice or unfair treatment... All of these attributes then combine to prove that you are also a candidate for kingship. Yes, perhaps you are the Lord's annointed.
After the order of King Saul.
There is also a possibility that some twenty years after your coronation, you will be the most incredibly skilled spear thrower in all the realm. And also by then...
So instead of throwing spears back at Saul, David tried another tactic. He ducked... quickly.
Edwards proposes that David's experience of being broken in the presence of the mad King Saul, and later of being hunted like a dog by the same man, was God at work cutting out the budding "King Saul II" from David's own heart. The manner in which David acted out of respect for Saul and his authority teach us how we are to act out of respect for the "Sauls" in our lives. But there's a twist, he says. We need to understand that the person we may think to be a "Saul" may actually be a "David," and that the only person who knows the answer is God - and He doesn't tell. This leads us to Act II.
ACT II: From David's relationship with Saul, we move to a third man who would be king, David's son Absalom. Those who have read the story know that Absalom tries to usurp his father's reign in a military coup. Edwards describes him as a man who does not plan this coup at first. Instead, with good intentions, he stirs dissent by passionately discussing with his friends the injustices under King David.
Abaslom "is both sincere and ambitious... He probably means some of what he says. But his ambition will continue long after he discovers his inability to do the things he promises. Righting the wrongs always becomes secondary to ascent to power."
Absalom eventually rises in rebellion against his father, and though his friends counsel David to squash the insolent son, David does not. He gives Absalom room and trusts in God to provide a verdict. David seems to understand that, had he rebelled against Saul, he would have been an Absalom himself. And now if he were to lift his spear against Absalom, he would become a Saul. Again, only God knows if those we think to be Absaloms and Sauls in our lives are really Davids.
THE BOTTOM LINE: This understanding to which David arrives is the lesson Edwards wishes us to carry from his book. Even when we are sure - absolutely sure - that the leader above us is a Saul, we must continue to treat that person as a David, for to do otherwise would make us an Absalom. And even when we are convinced beyond a doubt that the rebellious subordinate is playing the role of Absalom, we must treat that person as a David, for to do otherwise would make us a Saul.
This lesson, which I struggle with and against in my own relationships with leaders and followers, is why I recommend this book to friends, and why I re-read it myself.
A Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness
Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, IL
98 Pages plus 8 blank pages for notes