By Kip Kolson, Special for USADT
The Philistines were intent on destroying the Israelites. Every day they sent Goliath to the frontlines to taunt the Israelites. One day a Jewish teenage shepherd boy arrives in camp with lunch for his brothers. “As he was talking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear.”[i]
Everyone knows the story of how David, a young boy with a slingshot and three stones killed Goliath who was armed with a huge sword, shield, helmet and body armor. What most people do not know is what happened to David’s family after he became the king of the Israelites. They may have heard about his illicit affair with Bathsheba, and David arranging for the death of her husband because he had impregnated her, but that is not the end of the story.
David had a giant family with several wives and multiple children, but we will focus on just three of the children, one in particular, to explore the web of deceit, lies, greed, quest for power and control, incest, and death that can easily infect wealthy families. Absalom is the oldest son, Amnon is another son, and Tamar is a beautiful daughter. Amnon is infatuated with his sister, Tamar, to the point of raping her when she refuses his advances. “Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, “Get up and get out!” “No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.” But he refused to listen to her. Her brother Absalom said to her, “Has that Amnon, your brother, been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother. Don’t take this thing to heart.” And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman. When King David heard all this, he was furious. And Absalom never said a word to Amnon, either good or bad; he hated Amnon because he had disgraced his sister Tamar.”[ii] But David took no action against Amnon.
The plot thickens. Two years later Absalom arranges for all of David’s sons to come together to shear the sheep. “Absalom ordered his men, “Listen! When Amnon is in high spirits from drinking wine and I say to you, ‘Strike Amnon down,’ then kill him.” So Absalom’s men did to Amnon what Absalom had ordered. Then all the king’s sons got up, mounted their mules and fled. While they were on their way, the report came to David: “Absalom has struck down all the king’s sons; not one of them is left.” The king stood up, tore his clothes and lay down on the ground; and all his attendants stood by with their clothes torn. But Jonadab, David’s brother, said, “My lord the king should not be concerned about the report that all the king’s sons are dead. Only Amnon is dead.” Meanwhile, Absalom had fled.”[iii]
Like the old Saturday movie cliffhangers, you might think this is the end of the story. It could not get much worse. Think again! King David knows Absalom committed the dastardly deed but, like Amnon, does nothing. He just cannot bring himself to confront Absalom. Fast forward. Absalom, now emboldened, decides he should be the king. He assembles an army to storm the city, forcing his father into hiding because David will not stand up to his son. Absalom not only takes control of the city, but pursues David into the hills, intent on killing him. One of David’s commanders convinces him, for the sake of the nation of Israel, to confront Absalom and a great battle ensues, but David stays in hiding while his generals wage war. “The battle spread out over the whole countryside, and the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword. Now Absalom happened to meet David’s men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom’s hair got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going. When one of the men saw what had happened, he told Joab, “I just saw Absalom hanging in an oak tree.” Joab said to the man who had told him this, “What! You saw him? Why didn’t you strike him to the ground right there? I’m not going to wait like this for you.” So he took three javelins in his hand and plunged them into Absalom’s heart while Absalom was still alive in the oak tree. And ten of Joab’s armor-bearers surrounded Absalom, struck him and killed him.” The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!”[iv]
You may be thinking this an extreme situation that happened about three thousand years ago. It doesn’t happen today. But I know you have heard or read about families, maybe even your family, where dissention, mistrust, and fighting have torn the family apart, especially if wealth in its many forms is at stake. Throughout history kings and kingdoms have been toppled by children battling for the throne. Today in North Korea and the middle east tyrants sit in power because they arranged for the death of parents, siblings, uncles and nephews.
In America, it may not be a kingdom or a country, but it most certainly can be a company or businesses with siblings battling for their share of the kingdom and positions at the head of the directors’ table or the CEO’s office. Within the family there have been small battles and skirmishes that will erupt into all-out war when the time is right, usually around the attorney’s table when it comes time to split the spoils.
We are not privy to all of the nuances within David’s family or if there could have been a more desirable outcome had he been a better father in addition to being a leader, but it seems to me his primary deficiency, as is often the case in families, is an unwillingness to deal with the unpleasantries that go with family relationships and wealth. Wealth and people within any family is, by default, a toxic formula. If you read my articles you know I constantly stress the Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves proverb that 70% of wealth is lost each time it passes to the next generation and completely gone in three generations. It is the second law of thermodynamics, entropy, that everything in the world is in some stage of constant decay. It will happen in every family. Just ask David! Hopefully, it will not include incest, rape, and murder; but it surely will involve greed, deceit, lies, power struggles, favoritism, and control issues.
So, how would we advise David today? There is no one solution fits all, and there is no one right solution, because every family is made up of different and imperfect people. First, there must be a willingness to face hard and difficult family issues head on and deal with them immediately before they become unmanageable and explosive. Every person’s expectations must be uncovered and addressed. Trust is destroyed when there is a lack of communications and expectations unmet. In my experience and study, traditional estate planning, what I call “divide and divide,” almost always causes family rifts. The wills and trusts dictate who gets what based on equal shares given to unequal people with unequal qualifications, responsibilities, and needs. Equal is NOT fair and fair, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
My second piece of advice to David would have been to start the transition of the kingdom early and bring the kids into the transition process, to give them a voice at the table. It certainly doesn’t sound like David had these tough conversations with his kids seated at the royal round table at the same time. Family Wealth Leadership promotes the creation of a family foundation and family office, we call it the family enterprise holding company, for clients. These two entities retain the assets rather than attempting to divide them amongst the children. The children can still access the family wealth for their needs, but distribution is dependent on meeting criteria that substantiates the need and their ability to steward well what they receive.
Finally, David needed to acknowledge he was not the right person to solve his problems. In fact, he was causing some of the problems. He needed outside-the-family counsel, someone willing to speak truth to him face to face. When David had Bathsheba’s husband, a soldier, killed at the frontlines of a battle, his confidante, Nathan, was such a friend. He came to David to share a story of a man who steals another man’s sheep. “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!’”[v] Nathan concocted the sheep story, but he made his point. Having a trusted advisor who knows and cares for the family and is willing to confront the family with truths they are unable to see and accept, or acts they are unwittingly or intentionally committing that are damaging others and the family is an absolute necessity.
Every day business owners and wealthy patriarchs and matriarchs do battle with metaphorical Goliaths only to find conquering those giants resulted in their children being neglected, entitled, enabled, and engaged in destructive behaviors and lifestyles. Utilizing a family office structure is not a panacea and there will still be ongoing disputes and conflicts, but it does provide the “roundtable” where those difficulties can be expressed, discussed, and best solutions pursued. However, there must be agreement and commitment that what is best for the kingdom (the family) is always the priority because all the subjects of the kingdom benefit more when the kingdom is healthy and well managed to fulfill the needs of the people, not the king or the king’s favorites. Having a family wealth coach experienced in helping families navigate the relationship of money and people, having a Nathan at the table, is critical.
David almost lost his kingdom. He killed his many Goliaths, but he also killed his family. What I find amazing about David and his failures as a father that led to the destruction of his family is “After removing Saul, [God] made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’”[vi] If a man like David, appointed by God to be the king, is fallible and susceptible to our human tendencies, then we all must be on guard and persistently intentional to not allowing wealth to destroy our families.
Kip Kolson is the president of Family Wealth Leadership, a multi-family office and family coaching firm, and author of You Can Have It All; Wealth, Wisdom, and Purpose—Strategies for Creating a Lasting Legacy and Strong Family. You can order your copy at Amazon, the FWL website below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] 1 Samuel 17:23-24
[ii] 2 Samuel 13:15-22
[iii] 2 Samuel 13:28-34
[iv] 2 Samuel 18:8-15; 33
[v] 2 Samuel 12:4-7
[vi] Acts 13:22