When Leaders Lead Astray
“The princes of Zoan are mere fools; the advice of Pharaoh’s wisest advisers has become stupid. How can you men say to Pharaoh, “I am a son of the wise, a son of ancient kings”? Well then, where are your wise men? Please let them tell you, and let them understand what the LORD of hosts has purposed against Egypt. The princes of Zoan have acted foolishly, the princes of Memphis are deluded; those who are the cornerstone of her tribes have led Egypt astray. The LORD has mixed within her a spirit of distortion; they have led Egypt astray in all that it does, as a drunken man staggers in his vomit.” (Isaiah 19:11–14 NAS95)
Presumably, Isaiah’s God-granted perspective was news to the princes. I doubt any of them spent much time meditating on the depths of their apparent foolishness. Yet irony abounds in the fact that the advice of those leaders considered experts at advising was the worst advice available. The key detail in this particular criticism, however, is the reason Isaiah gives for why their counsel amounts to no more than the stupid utterances of the foolish. “Please let them tell you,” Isaiah says, “and let them understand what the Lord of hosts has purposed against Egypt.” Thus, Isaiah equates wise counsel with the purpose God has expressed to the nation—but it was this very purpose that the leaders were not communicating.
In defining wise counsel expressly as that which God has expressed, Isaiah reveals how leadership begins to fail. When political and religious leaders alike choose not to communicate what God’s will is in everything, their advice on anything becomes nothing more than nonsense. And yes, you read correctly “political and religious leaders alike,” for I fear that when even God’s people today consider the failings of leaders, they forget that some of the harshest criticisms in Scripture are reserved for the errant figureheads among Israel. And while the context of the passage above concerns Egypt, one need not travel very far in either direction in the book of Isaiah to find God decrying the despicable practices of His own chosen people. Regardless of the nation or era, then, the issue remains: leaders of every kind err when they choose to speak anything other than what God has already spoken.
The ironic thing about Isaiah encouraging the Egyptians to listen to their counselors concerning what God had uttered is that the Egyptian leaders lacked understanding themselves. How can leaders tell what they themselves do not understand? More specifically, how can leaders tell what they themselves will not understand? For in the absence of a desire to understand what God’s purposes are, man consistently substitutes his own ideas. With those ideas firmly set in his mind, there is no room for the communicated thoughts of God to resonate. And in the absence of divine wisdom, man’s mind grows dull, his eyes blurred, his perspective distorted. It is unsurprising, then, to find Isaiah describing the prototypical Egyptian leader “as a drunken man” who “staggers in his vomit.” The leader who concerns himself with only his own ideas is unable to do anything besides lead himself and his followers astray. As Jesus proclaims, “If a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14 NAS95).
The truly terrifying reality in ignoring God’s words, though, is that God will allow and even expedite the process of delusion. It is the disturbing self-deception evident in the likes of a drunken person who swears he is not drunk. Of course, it is at that point that the person most certainly is drunk and likely to drink even more because he has convinced himself otherwise. It is, so to speak, all downhill from there. And the same is true of a leader who will not consider God’s perspective. Having convinced himself that there is nothing wrong, he speeds ahead with “a spirit of distortion” that will bring him to ruin even more rapidly. The Apostle Paul warns, “God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness” (2 Thessalonians 2:11–12 NAS95).
Beyond the destruction of leaders, perhaps the saddest thing is the fact that their leading never affects only themselves. Isaiah proclaims, “Those who are the cornerstone of her tribes have led Egypt astray.” What hope has a building whose cornerstone has strayed? A group will likely follow the lead of whoever holds its foundation together or risk crumbling without structure and stability. Either way, the result is detrimental to the members. They will either follow the leader to his destruction or they will deal with a breakup from which they will have to pick up the pieces.
From Isaiah’s message to Egypt, then, several things become apparent. First, it is stupid to follow the lead of any leader who fails to give God’s perspective on everything. That means members of the Lord’s body must make sure those responsible for leading God’s people in truth are doing just that. And perhaps this is itself a great problem: God’s people put more trust in church leaders than they do in God Himself. While I am in no way advocating that people disregard the admonition to “Obey your leaders and submit to them” (Hebrews 13:17 NAS95), I am suggesting that there is a significant cause for concern when people are willing to stake their salvation on the sayings of Christians instead of the sayings of Christ.
Second, those leaders who have been granted authority by God to speak for Him have no business doing anything else but that. Frankly, you do me no favors when you tell me what I want to hear or leave out something God wants you to emphasize. You who assume the role of a leader have a God-given duty to counsel any who come to you for advice with wisdom that only comes from understanding God’s purposes for every human being.
And finally, this leaves me with a pressing question: do I actually want to understand what God’s will is? I cannot advise wisely without telling others what God’s perspective is, but I cannot tell what I myself do not understand. And of course, I cannot tell others what I myself will not understand. God’s words must then take root in my heart first. I have to be willing to undergo the procedure led by that searing scalpel of Scripture, which carves out the obstructing tumors of my self-will. For if I am concerned chiefly with doing what makes me feel good, I will never truly desire the mind that only comes from being led by the Spirit. As Paul asserts, “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Romans 8:7 NAS95).
Who, then, is really leading you, and how are you leading others?
BJ Young (2019-03-10)