What is this thing called charisma? Why do people follow a charismatic leader? The word charisma is a Greek word often translated in the New Testament as "gift". More precisely, it can refer to a divine endowment or miraculous faculty. King David undoubtedly had some divine endowments relative to leadership. Strong men naturally followed him, even risking their lives and fortunes for him.
One of David’s sons also seemed to have a certain gift for leadership, but the example of this son is of a different nature, serving as a warning to those so inclined to pin messianic hopes on a mere man. His name was Absalom, whose name translated from Hebrew means "Father of Peace", and perhaps there is no one in Scripture more inaptly named. He was responsible for the death by blood vengeance of his half-brother Amnon. Like a petulant child he set afire his neighbor’s field in order to get his attention. He even led a rebellion against his father David. It pays to be the king’s son, for his father overlooked even his most egregious crimes, soiling David’s reputation while giving lie to the "Father of Peace" moniker that he had hung around Absalom’s neck.
Yet here was Absalom, whose history suggested a man of questionable morals and violent nature, gathering about him a following of his countrymen, and he was able to succeed because he knew how to politic. He had a way about him, that way being driven in part by the fact that he looked good. "Now in all Israel there was no one who was praised as much as Absalom for his good looks." (II Samuel 14:25) Susceptible crowds don’t often swoon over ugly people. Even Absalom’s family was photo-album perfect. "To Absalom were born three sons and one daughter whose name was Tamar. She was a woman of beautiful appearance" (verse 27). Trotting them out was a campaign manager’s dream.
Absalom knew how to play the crowd. He would announce his presence in the gate of the city with a retinue of horses and men, and early in the morning, morning after morning, he would glad-hand the people who were coming to the king for judgments and favors. "Where are you from?" he would ask. "Look, your case is good and right, but there is no deputy of the king to hear you. … Oh that I were made judge in the land, and everyone who has a suit or cause would come to me! Then I would give him justice." (15:1-4) Nothing like a subtle whispering campaign to impugn your father’s integrity and gain a following for himself.
Can you hear the echoes of the politics of our own time? If only I were in charge, I would put people first! I will bring a new dawn to America! Hope! Change! The other guys don’t care about you! Scripture says that Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel (verse 6). That is exactly what a politician tries to do in order to be elected, and sadly too many people love to have it so. As the prophet Isaiah quoted his countrymen of his day, "Do not prophesy to us right things. Speak to us smooth things. Prophesy deceits." (Isaiah 30:10)
Things don’t change much over thousands of years. Basic human nature and the machinations of political maneuvering are at heart the same in all times, and the people would rather hear the smooth deceptions of an Absalom over the painful the painful truth of a Jeremiah. Still, it would be nice to have a real statesman or two burst on the scene who would speak to the true nature of things. Many times in our nation’s history such statesman arose, and there were even times when people listened. It would be nice to have such a leader again.