1 Samuel 16:1-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
16 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.”[a] 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
To date the Lenten readings from the Hebrew Bible have taken us from the call of Abram to the ministry of Moses in the desert and now to the anointing of David as king of Israel. In each of these passages God acts to forward the way of blessing. It’s not that things go swimmingly. Abram and Sarai are called, but lack that necessary child to continue the line. Moses has to deal with a crew that is always complaining about something. Then comes the age of the monarchy. We know from the opening chapters of 1 Samuel, that the people demanded a king so they could be just like everybody else, but in doing so they were challenging the kingship of God. The first attempt at answering this demand was the anointing of Saul, but that didn’t work out. So, God told the prophet Samuel to go and find a successor to Saul. He was directed to the home of Jesse of Bethlehem, among whose sons Samuel would find the chosen king.
This story is an intriguing one because it speaks to an incredibly human concern. What does a leader look like? How do you know what makes a good leader? It’s easy to focus on externals. We do that, on a regular basis. It’s one of the reasons why women have struggled to crack the glass ceiling. For too many people a woman doesn’t have the requisite look that a man has. Perhaps it’s age or ethnicity that becomes the defining issue. Whatever it is, too often we look at what is on the outside of a person and judge them on that account, neglecting to pursue what is on the inside. We’re all guilty of this, including me. But is this the way God judges things?
By all accounts Saul who had the requisite physical attributes to be king. According to the author of 1 Samuel, “there was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else” (1 Sam.9:2). He was taller than anyone in the land of Israel, suggesting he was a person of power. It has been noted that generally, in presidential elections, the taller of the two candidates is the one who wins. Height seems to be an important presidential quality. This was also true for kings of Israel, or so it seemed the first time around. Unfortunately, Saul proved to be a disappointment. He was big and strong, but he was also unstable and unreliable. Before long, the people recognized that they “’had added to all our sins the evil of demanding a king for ourselves’” (1 Sam. 12:19). That brings us to the reading for the fourth Sunday of Lent in the Year A. Samuel continued to grieve the fate of Saul, from whom the Spirit of the Lord had left, leaving the king without his anointing. God told Samuel, to stop grieving and get on with the next step in the process. Go and anoint the next king, the one who will succeed Saul.
The question quickly arises, as Samuel heads off to the home of Jesse of Bethlehem. On what basis will God choose? Will it be the same criteria as before, or a new set? As Samuel ponders this question, he also must deal with the political ramifications of his actions. If he goes off and anoints a successor to Saul, the king won’t be happy. Think of Herod when he hears the magi’s story of a new king in Israel. He makes plans to eradicate the threat. Interestingly, the threat comes from the same town—Bethlehem of Judea (Matt. 2:1-12, 16-18).
In this case, the plan isn’t revealed to the king. There will be no massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem. However, Samuel is directed to take precautions. God tells the prophet to go to Bethlehem under the pretense of offering a sacrifice. This will be the cover needed so that Samuel can safely discern the one whom God would choose to succeed Saul as King. That gets us back to the question of the qualities one looks for in a leader. Who among Jesse’s seven sons would be the chosen one?
Samuel goes to Bethlehem, invites Jesse and his sons to join him in a sacrifice, and in the midst of all of this tells Jesse the plan. So Jesse lines up six of his sons, from the oldest to the youngest, for Samuel to examine. It shouldn’t take long to make this decision. Of course, it will the oldest of Jesse’s sons. From what the author tells us, Eliab had all the natural born qualities to be that leader. Samuel declared, “surely the LORD’s anointed is now before the LORD.” But God said no, and continued to say no to each of the six sons of Jesse. That is because, while humans look to appearance and height, God looks at the heart. God sees things that humans seem blind to.
Samuel is confused. God sent him to Jesse to find a king to anoint, even if he would do this in secret. Jesse had introduced seven sons, but not of them fit God’s purpose. It’s not that these seven were bad people or unfit for leadership, they just didn’t have the “right stuff.” So, Samuel, with perhaps a bit of perplexity, asks Jesse whether he had any other sons whom God might have him anoint. Surely God didn’t send him on this politically dangerous journey for nothing. Jesse answers Samuel’s question by noting that there was one more son. This son wasn’t with the others, because Jesse didn’t think it worth calling him in from the fields where he was tending the family’s sheep. It’s not that Jesse didn’t love his youngest, he just couldn’t imagine him being the one whom God would choose. It made no sense. Why would God pass over his oldest son, who seemed to have every quality needed to be king? If not Eliab, then surely Abinadab would make for a good king. But, since none of these sons met with God’s approval, Jesse called for his youngest son to join them. While he’s young, he is also described as being “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” Now, you might be wondering why the author adds this description of David. Didn’t God judge on the basis of the heart, but David seems to be rather attractive. Yes, he was young, but he still seemed to have the requisite outward appearance. Is it possible that in David both human and divine expectations intersect? Whatever the case, it was the youngest child who was chosen to shepherd his people, an image that Jesus would pick up in the distant future.
God looks on the heart rather than on the exterior, thus David is the one chosen to be anointed. It is David upon whom the Spirit that once resided in Saul would fall. As for his ascension to the throne and actual rule—that wouldn’t take place until Saul’s death. However, the dye had been cast. He was the anointed one, the one whom God had chosen. Of course, as the story progresses David might be close to God, but he will fall short of God’s expectations. He might not worship foreign gods, but he had plenty of moral lapses. Why was that? Did God make a mistake? Or is this parabolic? That is, could the story of David serve as a reminder that even the best of rulers could not replace God? Could it be a word of caution to those who take up leadership (and as a pastor I have leadership role)? Whether David fulfilled the promise of being one whose heart was with God (1 Sam. 13:13-14), the premise of the story is that God looks on the heart and looks for persons with the right heart to serve as leaders of the people. Saul failed to stay close to God and he lost his anointing, which was given to another. As for the matter of the heart, theologian David Jensen writes:
The disposition of the heart is what is paramount: whether a leader relies on God (not as a mere preparation for battle, not as a way of bolstering political support), but whether in the face of threats, internal and external, the leader knows that trust in God is already enough. [1 & 2 Samuel (Belief), p. 83].
So, if David, whom Scripture deems to be such a person whose heart is with God (and thus God knows his heart), can fall short, then who am I to think I could be immune? Indeed, if we follow this story through 1 and 2 Kings to the Exile, perhaps that is the message we’re intended to hear. In the end, the monarchy collapses under the weight of the failure of the monarchs to remain close to the heart of God (1 Samuel 13:14).