Evangelical churches do not have an official or formally recognized pope. But there are individuals in churches whose counsel is received as if it is from God himself, even if they do not hold top leadership positions.
In King David’s life, this influential individual was Ahithophel, his trusted counselor. When David’s son, Absalom, planned a treacherous rebellion against his father, Ahithophel entered the picture as a minor character with a major role in 2 Samuel 15:12.
Most of us would expect Ahithophel to offer morally righteous guidance to the royal family. Instead, he told Absalom to sleep with his father’s concubines and even volunteers to embark on a covert mission to murder David.
As a pastor in the Philippines, I have encountered several modern-day Ahithophels in ministry. On the one hand, they may offer biblical, ethical advice that helps the church to grow spiritually. On the other hand, they may pursue hidden agendas and perpetuate disorder and dysfunction within a congregation. These damaging effects to the church are exacerbated when people constantly defer to their wishes and desires. Consequently, pastors and church leaders may make decisions not because they are the best course of action to undertake but because they are what a particular person of influence wants.
Some of the Ahithophels in our churches today may be influential because they are major donors. Others may have such a likable and charismatic personality that everyone is drawn to listen to their counsel, even if they may not have the wisest opinion or an accurate diagnosis of the problem.
Through Ahithophel’s life story in Scripture, we get a glimpse of what happens when we place too much trust in such “godly” advisers—especially when their words become less and less in line with God’s will.
Little is known about Ahithophel, whom Scripture describes as King David’s counselor and Jehoiada and Abiathar’s predecessor (1 Chron. 27:33–34). As Jehoiada is a chief priest (1 Chron. 27:5), and Abiathar is a priest (1 Sam. 23:9), it is likely that Ahithophel is also a member of a priestly clan and serves as God’s representative and spokesperson. No wonder David and Absalom sought him as a counselor.
Securing Ahithophel’s support for his rebellion helps Absalom draw many followers to his cause (2 Sam. 15:12). The ambitious prince must have known the extent of Ahithophel’s influence, because he makes sure that Ahithophel will participate in his treasonous plans.
Scripture is silent about why Ahithophel betrays David and supports Absalom’s devious scheme. Maybe he was disgruntled with David’s leadership, or maybe Absalom offered him something he could not turn down. The only thing we know for certain is that Absalom handpicks Ahithophel as a coconspirator (2 Sam. 15:31).
David, however, has a long list of valiant warriors on his side. Why would Absalom choose Ahithophel over them?
The answer lies in a short description of Ahithophel: “Now in those days the advice Ahithophel gave was like that of one who inquires of God. That was how both David and Absalom regarded all of Ahithophel’s advice.” (2 Sam. 16:23)
The royal family’s deep-seated trust in Ahithophel can only have arisen out of a long track record of giving wise and godly advice. Absalom held so much respect for Ahithophel that he wanted the counselor’s support. David looked so highly to Ahithophel that he dreaded the fact that his counselor had sided with Absalom. All David could do was pray in desperation, “Lord, turn Ahithophel’s counsel into foolishness.” (15:31)
Ahithophel’s subsequent advice to Absalom shows how God answers David’s prayer. The counselor goes from being God’s representative to becoming a parodic prophet when he tells Absalom to sleep with his father’s concubines so that “all Israel will hear that you have made yourself obnoxious to your father, and the hands of everyone with you will be more resolute.” Absalom gladly engaged in these immoral acts (16:21–22).
What went wrong here? Was Ahithophel unaware of God’s moral standards?
In my view, Ahithophel’s counsel is simply a means to an end. Absalom’s illicit behavior is not about satisfying his sexual appetite, but about displaying power and showing the people of Israel who truly wields it.
Absalom’s actions make him odious before his father. David cannot do anything but flee for safety and ask God to thwart Ahithophel’s plans. This suggests that, at this stage, David is no longer able to address his son’s betrayal publicly because he no longer possesses the power to hold Absalom accountable for what he has done.
What is most troubling is that Ahithophel seems to have no qualms about advising Absalom to engage in sin, all for the sake of displaying power in hopes of getting Israel’s support. Ahithophel’s willingness to compromise moral standards shows that no one is immune to the temptation to acquire power and influence, regardless of the cost.
Besides acting as a mouthpiece for immorality, Ahithophel exemplifies how damaging hubris can be. When the counselor volunteers to lead an army to pursue and attack David while he is “weary and weak,” Absalom and Israel’s elders consider this a “good” plan (2 Sam. 17:1–3).
Ahithophel now presumes that he can lead an army to fight against Israel’s best warriors and appears to regard King David as prey to be hunted down. Here, he seems to have overestimated his capabilities to lead an army against what is arguably Israel’s best and most experienced soldiers.
While Absalom is conspiring with Ahithophel, David asks his friend, Hushai the Arkite, to stay in the king’s palace to alert him of any impending danger (2 Sam. 15:32–37). Unexpectedly, Absalom reaches out to Hushai to seek his counsel on the best way to defeat his father (2 Sam. 17:5).
Hushai says that Ahithophel’s advice is “not good” because David and his men are experienced warriors, and Ahithophel and his army will not be able to defeat them. Instead, he encourages Absalom to gather all of Israel, lead them into battle, and ambush David.
The errant prince and his cronies experience a change of heart: “The advice of Hushai the Arkite is better than that of Ahithophel” (2 Sam. 17:14).
In convincing Absalom to adopt his plan over Ahithophel’s, Hushai is trying to protect the king. As an added precaution, Hushai sends messengers to warn David of the threat on his life, and the king manages to escape death when he crosses the Jordan River at night instead of remaining in the wilderness (vv. 15–16, 22).
After learning that Absalom chose to support and follow Hushai’s advice, Ahithophel takes his own life (v. 23). Suicide may seem like an excessive response to having his counsel rejected. But Ahithophel may have done so upon realizing that he would not have influence over Absalom if the latter became king. That Absalom chose to follow Hushai’s advice instead may have added to Ahithophel’s humiliation. Also absent in Ahithophel’s response is repenting and seeking forgiveness from King David.
Scripture beseeches us to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (Phil. 2:3), but our actions and decisions sometimes reflect self-aggrandizement, desire for control, and unrepentant hearts. Like Ahithophel, we may place our yearning for power—consciously or otherwise—above morality, ethics, national interest, people’s safety, loyalty, and friendship.
Beyond face value
Ahithophel’s life trajectory shows us that power and influence are like perfume: A little of it can make us smell good, but once we start ingesting it, we are poisoning ourselves. Someone described as a “man of God” is not immune to being tempted by and grasping for power. A trusted adviser’s lust for power may engender disastrous results, not only for himself or herself, but also for the congregations he or she is a part of.
The Ahithophels in our churches may be wise guides who shepherd us in love and lead us toward joyfully obeying God’s plans and purposes. Or they may act as wicked puppeteers who can significantly change a church’s direction in order to fulfill their own agenda. As CT’s editor in chief Russell Moore writes, “When the calling outweighs the thirst for power, the result can be very good. But when the will to power is stronger, the result can be terrible.”
The Word of God is infallible, but those who teach and interpret it are not. I encourage fellow pastors and church leaders who seek wisdom from the Ahithophels in their midst to be grounded in God’s Word and to continually cultivate the gift of spiritual discernment. Those who listen must listen cautiously, like the Bereans who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).
If you serve as an Ahithophel in your church, I exhort you to constantly examine whether your words are consistent with God’s teaching and whether you are free from any selfish agendas. Those who speak into church leaders’ ears, minds, and hearts have the power to influence for good or evil, and this power can easily be abused.
Ahithophel’s story need not be ours. Misguided counsel, moral failure, or betrayal can be addressed in ways that bring life rather than death. This begins with genuine repentance for the hurt caused by our wrongdoing to fellow believers and the church. If you have wandered in the ways of Ahithophel, hold onto what Proverbs 24:16 says: “Though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again.”
Samson Uytanlet has been involved in pastoral and teaching ministry in the Philippines for more than 25 years. Books he has written include Matthew: A Pastoral and Contextual Commentary and Manual for Sojourners: A Study on Peter’s Use of Scripture and Its Relevance Today.